Does Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rivalry with former president Pervez Musharraf have a bearing on the separatist politics in Kashmir? Theoretically, it does. And the odds are that it is already playing out across the Valley, with “rumours” that Islamabad might recognise hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani as the Hurriyat chairman. And these rumours are validated by no less than Geelani’s aide Ayaz Akber.
Whether this scenario actually comes to pass or not, it hardly detracts from the reasons for this expectation. And these reasons have to do with the ties the moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Geelani have enjoyed with Islamabad.
While the Mirwaiz has been on the best of terms with Pakistan, particularly with Musharraf, Geelani has generally been out in the cold. But it is the relationship of the two Hurriyat leaders with Musharraf that is of particular interest. Because it was Musharraf who turned his back on Geelani in 2005 when the latter opposed his “out-of-the-box” approach to resolving the Kashmir issue.
It was an extraordinary step for any Pakistan government to take. All his life, Geelani has been a staunch pro-Pakistan leader, seeking Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan as an ideal settlement for the dispute. This is why when the Hurriyat split in 2003 on the issue of one of its constituents, the People’s Conference, allegedly fielding proxy candidates in the 2002 Assembly polls, Islamabad was quick to recognise Geelani’s hardline faction as the real Hurriyat. This hurtled the veteran to the centre of the Valley’s separatist politics. It was a time when militancy was at its peak.
However, two years later, Islamabad decided to review its support to Geelani when he criticised Musharraf, who was on a visit to India, for diluting Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Geelani had complained to the General that his advocacy of a flexible approach had relegated the UN resolution on Kashmir, the bulwark of the dispute, to the background. The resolution calls for a free and fair plebiscite under UN auspices to enable the people of Jammu & Kashmir to determine whether they wish to join Pakistan or India.
Subsequently, Geelani led a sustained campaign against Musharraf’s four-point proposal, which sought a settlement of the Kashmir dispute without redrawing the borders. When Musharraf finally resigned in 2008 under pressure from the lawyers’ agitation, Geelani termed his exit as good riddance.
On the other hand, the moderate Hurriyat group led by the Mirwaiz not only supported Musharraf in his peace endeavours with India, but also worked to mobilise public opinion in favour of his four-point proposal.
However, while Islamabad’s policy towards Geelani continued unchanged through the PPP-led government, Sharif’s return as prime minister has set the separatist quarters in the Valley abuzz. Would Sharif be more inclined towards Geelani because he had always stood up to his bête noire Musharraf and welcomed his exit?
However, the Mirwaiz brushed aside these rumours. “Pakistan supports our just struggle. We are not privy to anything that suggests a policy change towards Hurriyat,” he says. “Besides, government policies are not individual specific but are shaped by national interests and geopolitical factors.”
Meanwhile, separatist leaders dismiss the prospect of such a drastic shift. “Geelani saheb stands for a maximalist solution for Kashmir. If Pakistan decides to privilege him over other leaders, would he go with Islamabad’s new accommodationist approach towards the Kashmir issue?” asks a moderate Hurriyat leader. “The answer is he won’t. Under the circumstances, this would hardly be conducive to the efforts for a pragmatic, consensus-based solution.”
In their recent meetings in New Delhi with Sharif’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz, the separatists were once again urged “to close ranks” in the larger interests of the ‘Azadi’ movement. Beyond that, there was nothing new in the conversations.
“These are routine, symbolic meetings, a sort of courtesy call where nothing new is discussed,” says a Hurriyat leader. “The meetings are geared to make a statement. It is their form that is important, not the content.”