Last November, during the run-up to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly polls, the separatist groups issued their customary boycott call. But, as the campaign picked up and the BJP juggernaut started rolling, making the saffron party a credible contender for power, some separatist factions changed their priorities — egged on, some of their leaders admit, by Pakistan. It seems the neighbouring country had a stake in somehow stopping the party led by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo from coming to power in the state. Sources claim that this played a role in turning the Hurriyat Conference — the leading conglomerate of separatist groups — from campaigning for boycott to conniving with greater voter participation.
“There was a tacit understanding that even if voter participation in the Valley goes up by a few percentage points, we should not be worried,” says a top leader of the moderate Hurriyat faction. “That is, as long as the votes keep the BJP away.”
While the Valley did not elect a single BJP candidate, the saffron party managed to wangle its way into the state’s power structure on the strength of its 25 seats in Jammu province. It formed a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which won 28 seats, to rule the state. The saffron party also found an important ally in People’s Conference, led by separatist-turned- mainstream politician Sajad Gani Lone, which has two seats.
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was sworn in as the chief minister after furtive attempts to pre-empt the coalition hit a wall. One of these involved veteran Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Bhat’s meeting with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the middle of the negotiations, which took everyone by surprise. This was first time since the separatist movement began in 1989 that a Hurriyat leader visited a mainstream leader to ostensibly congratulate him on his poll success.
Indeed, unprecedented voter participation in the Assembly election and the consequent ascendance of mainstream politics, now in tow with the BJP, has pushed the separatists further into the background. After years of being on the fringes of the state’s political discourse, the separatists are now worried over being reduced to mere spectators in the unfolding scene. No wonder they have become aware of the urgent need to introspect and rethink their tactics not just to survive the deepening crisis but also to plot their way back to the centre stage.
So, what’s the way forward for the separatists in their fight against the creeping irrelevance? So far the answers have been elusive. But, unlike in the past, there is now an urgency to find them. In recent weeks, the leaders of various factions have gone into a huddle to mull over the new strategy and some have invited civil society representatives for secret consultations, sometimes over dinner or lunch.
And the central idea that is being toyed with is whether the Hurriyat should now take the plunge into electoral politics, which has so far been the biggest no-no for the separatists. Ever since the outbreak of the separatist movement, all sections of the Hurriyat have boycotted the electoral process, seeing participation as tantamount to reposing faith in the government of India.
While this tactics worked as long as the separatists derived their political influence from the armed campaign that was being carried out by the militants, the decline in militancy in recent times has taken the wind out of their sails. This has forced many separatist leaders to come round to the idea that they must rebuild their relevance based on their own political- ideological strength rather than derive it from the enthusiasm generated by the armed struggle, which keeps waxing and waning. And this pursuit of relevance is not possible unless the Hurriyat finds a way to reach out to the Kashmiri people by taking up their everyday issues.
On the question of electoral participation, one major point of debate is over whether the separatist factions should field their own candidates in elections or participate in the process through proxy candidates. In the run-up to the Assembly polls last year, a suggestion by one of the senior separatist leaders to field proxy candidates against the chief ministerial candidates of both the PDP and the National Conference didn’t find many takers among the extended Hurriyat ranks.
“If the proposal had been accepted, I am sure both Mufti Sayeed and Omar Abdullah would have lost their deposits,” a moderate Hurriyat leader tells Tehelka. “And that would have been our political statement to India and the world.”
So, why was this proposal not approved? The reason lies in the fact that over the past decades electoral participation has become too tangled an issue to solve — almost as complex as the Kashmir dispute itself. For instance, the Hurriyat is wary of taking up the tough task of convincing the Kashmiri people — brought up for too long on the notion that elections are just another means to legitimise the “military occupation” of the Valley — of their bona fides as separatists despite taking the plunge. Moreover, any step forward on this sensitive issue runs the risk of accentuating the differences between the hardliners and the moderates. Lastly, there is always the question of the opinion of the “significant other” — that is, whether Pakistan would come on board.
So far the issue has figured only in backroom discussions and a small group in the moderate Hurriyat, which is in favour of some form of electoral intervention, is hopeful that Islamabad may play ball. Recently, on the eve of the official function to mark Pakistan Day (23 March), High Commissioner Abdul Basit held a twohour one-on-one meeting with moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. And later he met a delegation led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and another by veteran moderate leader Bhat.
Bhat, a staunch moderate and proponent of an “out-of-the-box” solution for Kashmir, is among those who oppose electoral participation. He believes it is a not viable way out for the Hurriyat, which, he insists, continues to stay relevant in the state even without an electoral standing. “We represent the sentiment of the people,” says Bhat. “Let Mufti do his own work, we will do our own.”
Many separatists had pinned their hope on Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed’s “battle of ideas”, which promised to allow them to carry out their activities in the Valley. The policy started with a bang with the release of popular separatist leader Masarat Alam just a few days after the new government took over. But Alam’s re-arrest following the waving of Pakistani flags at his rally has brought the curbs back on the movement. Geelani remains largely confined to his house and the activities of the other leaders, too, are strictly regulated.
One important point in the Common Minimum Programme drawn up as a precondition to the PDP-BJP coalition is that the Narendra Modi-led central government would reach out to the Hurriyat to discuss the Kashmir issue. But every action by the Centre since then has confirmed the separatists’ suspicions that it was just another promise meant to be broken. “The Centre will not engage with the separatists. The chief minister has to weigh the options and move forward at the state level, if he wants to,” a senior BJP leader told a national daily.
Moreover, as talks with Pakistan are also in a limbo, which has stopped any progress on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the separatist factions see no political role in the process in the near future. This has created a serious existential crisis for the Hurriyat groups. They don’t know what to do, finding themselves unable to create a robust local politics to survive and flourish in the rapidly changing geopolitical and national-political scenario. One consequence of this dilemma was the crossing over of eight constituents of the moderate Hurriyat faction to the one led by hardliner Geelani.
“There is indeed a need to revise our strategies,” says Bhat. “And we will do it in ways that best serve the interests of our movement.”