Will the ‘real’ Hurriyat please stand up?

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Irrelevant? News of the faction led by Shabir Ahmad Shah forming a new Hurriyat has caused barely a ripple in Kashmir politics
Irrelevant? News of the faction led by Shabir Ahmad Shah forming a new Hurriyat has caused barely a ripple in Kashmir politics. Photo: AFP

While Jammu & Kashmir is bracing to face a possible resurgence of militancy following the exit of US forces from Afghanistan slated for later this year, the Valley’s separatist political groups are ironically in deep disarray. The Hurriyat Conference — an amalgam of separatist outfits in the state — has split for the third time since its formation in 1993, leaving the separatists more divided and their influence more diminished than ever before.

Three senior leaders of the moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference — Shabir Ahmad Shah, Nayeem Khan and Azam Inquilabi — have broken away to form what they call the “Real Hurriyat”. Their move follows simmering differences over “organisational and ideological issues” with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the moderate Hurriyat. Matters came to a head when the Mirwaiz wrote a letter to Yousuf Naseem, convener of the Hurriyat in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, referring to the three estranged leaders as “indisciplined” and asking him not to accommodate them.

With the latest split, the number of separatist formations in the state has gone up to four. Besides the two Hurriyat factions led by hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the moderate Mirwaiz, respectively, and the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) led by Yasin Malik, now there is a third Hurriyat faction led by Shabir Ahmad Shah. Apart from these four groups, there are a few inconspicuous outfits that loosely fall under the rubric of separatist groups. These include the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Liberation Party, led by former militant Hashim Qureshi, and a breakaway faction of the JKLF.

The emergence of yet another separatist group on the scene, however, has created little sensation in Valley. Shah’s righteous protestations that the group led by him broke away to rejuvenate the separatist struggle has found few takers. That is because the separatists are no longer seen to have much bearing on the political discourse in the Valley. A perception has gained ground that they do little besides issuing routine statements to the press.

The advent of the new Hurriyat faction has put the spotlight on the disarray and decline of separatist politics in the Valley. Their growing remoteness from public life has turned most of the separatist figures into little more than abstractions hovering over Kashmir’s political landscape.

There are three main pointers that reflect the growing irrelevance of the Hurriyat. Firstly, the politics of poll boycott associated with the Hurriyat no longer appeals to a predominant majority of people in the Valley. Secondly, the strikes called by them are largely observed in the breach. And third, there has been no fresh recruitment to the Hurriyat ranks ever since it was formed in 1993.

On the other hand, there are many examples of well-known separatists, both from the Geelani as well as the Mirwaiz factions, having moved towards mainstream politics. Recently, Mohammad Yaqub Vakil, a close aide of the Mirwaiz, joined the Congress. Earlier, Mohammad Khaliq Parray, a leader of the Geelani faction, had contested the 2008 Assembly polls as an independent candidate and lost. There is also the example of Ashiq Hussain Dar, a former activist from the Geelani faction, who went on to become the vice-president of the BJP’s youth wing in the state. Similarly, though the People’s Conference is part of the moderate Hurriyat, a faction led by Sajad Gani Lone comprises a mainstream political party.

With their ideological, political and ego clashes, the four separatist entities have only alienated themselves further from the people of the Valley. The cynicism generated by their mutual bickering runs so deep that there are few who trace the latest split to ideological reasons. “This split is the result of one coterie within the amalgam feeling jealous of the power of another,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, a former militant. “These clashes are not about ideologies or policies but petty egos.”

Jammu-based political analyst Rekha Chaudhary points out that the Hurriyat leadership has failed to adapt to the emerging realities, leading to the marginalisation of separatist politics in the Valley. “The Hurriyat factions seem to have exhausted their politics,” says Chaudhary. “While politics in Kashmir is now fluid and confronted with new realities, Hurriyat’s politics and methods continue to be rooted in the 1990s. They have been unable to generate fresh ideas to mobilise the masses.”

Another reason for the declining influence of the Hurriyat is attributed to new geopolitical factors that have emerged after 9/11. Pakistan’s preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan has contributed to the gradual decline of militancy in the Valley. This has relegated the dispute over Kashmir to the background, reducing the urgency for India and Pakistan to address the conflict. India’s growing influence on the global stage, too, has altered the complexion of the Kashmir issue, enabling New Delhi to put across its own stand on the dispute more forcefully.

On the other hand, the separatists have failed to recalibrate their approaches and methods in response to this profound transformation in the circumstances. They have been unable to break free from the framework that has defined separatist politics in the Valley since the outbreak of armed resistance in 1989. They have rejected electoral politics, but lack ideas for alternative modes of public mobilisation. Over the years, this has caused an inevitable drift towards the margins of political discourse in the state.

On its part, the government, too, has left no stone unturned to reinforce this marginalisation. It has taken steps to ensure that separatist leaders get as little public exposure as possible. Malik, Geelani and the Mirwaiz have long been barred from addressing public meetings, unless it suits the security agencies to indulge them once in a while. Geelani was recently stopped from attending Friday prayers for the 41st time in a row. Similarly, in 2010, the Mirwaiz was not allowed to deliver sermons at Srinagar’s grand mosque for 14 consecutive Fridays. This has limited separatist politics to issuing press statements, holding press conferences and organising an occasional seminar. Besides, confining Hurriyat leaders to their homes has also helped regulate the influence of separatist discourse in public life.

All this has alienated the Hurriyat from the earthly concerns of everyday politics in the state. Barring Geelani, few separatist leaders choose to undertake the painstaking work of mobilising the masses. Most of them have been content merely with staking claim to being the representative voice of pro-Azadi sentiment in the Valley. They seem to believe that this sentiment automatically vests legitimacy and political clout on anybody who supports the demand for Azadi, with or without reference to the people.

“The ideological stagnation and policy limbo has taken its toll,” says Gull Wani, director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir. “Shorn of its role in resolving the conflict, the Hurriyat now registers its presence through personality clashes and not through debate or reimagination of its role. The separatist leaders are struggling to retain credibility in the fast-changing political scenario.”

The disillusionment with the separatists, however, is not reflected in any significant decline in the anti-New Delhi sentiment on the ground. In fact, with the separatists becoming increasingly irrelevant, there is a danger that this sentiment might seek other outlets of expression.

“This cynicism could throw up a more hardline strain of separatism,” says Wani. “A rise in militancy could emerge as one of the possible outcomes.”

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