Is this man the heir to Geelani’s mantle? How Masarat Alam makes young Kashmiris dance


By Zahid Rafiq

Photo: Javed Dar

BETWEEN THE young stone-pelters and the sentiment for freedom, there is Masarat Alam in the middle — mobilising people, coining catchy slogans and planning protest calendars from the underground. Until 2008, little was known about this separatist leader, but Alam has been in the thick of action for the past two years. Sporadically, people claim to have spotted him at rallies. But if he is not there in person, he is certainly there in spirit. From pro-freedom graffiti to Facebook, Masarat Alam has a canny eye for any form of protest that will send a current of excitement through the stone-pelters.

Alam, 39, has emerged as one of the prime successors to Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s political mantle. He is the chairman of the Muslim League in Kashmir and also the general secretary of Geelani’s Hurriyat faction. Alam has been jailed for more than 10 years on charges ranging from “breaking the Hurriyat Conference”, when they were engaged in back-channel talks with the Centre in 2004, to “uniting the Hurriyat” during the 2008 uprising when the Hurriyat was fighting within. Both times the dossier accused him of “acting against national interest”. Police sources say that a Rs 5 lakh bounty has been placed on Alam’s head though officially the police deny it. With each passing week of his freedom, the rumours double the bounty — it has reached Rs 20 lakh now.

All of this has only built Alam’s mystique. “As soon as Alam is released, he starts from where he had left off. I haven’t seen a separatist leader so completely obsessed as he is,” says an officer of the Counter Insurgency Cell of Kashmir Police, not wanting to be named.

Once a Pakistan supporter, Alam was disillusioned by Islamabad’s policies towards Kashmir. He is now fighting for an independent Kashmir. Police sources say he got into Pakistan’s bad books when he rudely shot down Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula when the two once met. Alam is credited with widening Geelani’s constituency. He introduced Geelani to the Hurriyat moderate leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s stronghold in 2006 so that he could address thousands at the Eidgah ground in downtown Srinagar. When Geelani had gone on his own earlier, he had to beat a hasty retreat after being booed by Mirwaiz’s supporters.

A student of Kashmir’s prestigious missionary school, Tyndale Biscoe, Alam came from a secure middle-class background. After he lost his father at 10, he, his mother and sister lived with his grandparents. The family owned several garment shops in the old city and his childhood friends say he stood out for his new clothes, new shoes and generous pocket money.

A science graduate from SP College, Alam had joined the political movement in 1987 as a 16-year-old, participating in rallies of the Muslim United Front, a conglomerate of separatist parties that contested the 1987 elections. “I remember when we did not have money to buy banners, he sold his new school shoes,” recalls an old friend, who is now an engineer. These are the infamously rigged elections that triggered the mass armed uprising.

ALAM JOINED militancy in the early 1990s and became a commander of the Hezbollah outfit, but never became a household name. He was one of the few who refused to take a stylish nom de guerre, as was the fashion with militant commanders. A senior pro-freedom leader, who has known Alam since 1997, says his rise gives hope for the future of separatist leadership in Kashmir. “He is a new-generation separatist leader who became popular among the masses. Hopefully, he will continue down this path,” says the veteran, not wanting to be named. Alam’s reputation continues to be of a man who is not cut off from the people. Unlike other young, prominent separatist leaders, he is seen shouting slogans, carrying banners and supporting stone-throwing. Young Kashmiris don’t need to be told that he was/is a stone-pelter.

A characteristic Alam moment came during 2008’s massive pro-freedom demonstrations, sparked by the Amarnath land transfer deal. He devised the ‘Ragda’: a dance in which people formed circles, stood shoulder-toshoulder, and stomped their feet shouting anti-India slogans. It came to be known as the resistance dance and the entire summer movement as Ragda 2008. This year, Alam coined the slogan “Go India, Go Back”, appeared in a CD urging the armed forces to leave and has asked youth to use alternate forms of resistance like graffiti.

In Alam’s old home in Zainadar Mohalla, his mother, sister, and wife live a life of poverty under the shadow of constant police raids. The garment shops have closed. What is working in Alam’s favour is that he has combined his political deftness with a reputation for simplicity. Even the intelligence officer sounds almost fond when he describes Alam as a polite, mad revolutionary.

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