Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who leads one faction of the Hurriyat Conference, talked to Kashmir Reader Special Correspondent Moazum Mohammad about various issues ranging from the new breed of militants to Indo-Pak dialogue and street protests to back channel diplomacy. Excerpts:
Your faction of Hurriyat is quite optimistic about resumption of Indo-Pak dialogue and has urged both the countries to resume talks. But India remains adamant…
As far as the Indian state is concerned, their approach has never been to resolve the issue. Rather it wants to prolong the problem. Sadly, at the international level there is not as much pressure on India as it was a decade ago. The world is engrossed in many other issues such as ISIS, Muslim world or happenings around the Arabian Peninsula. But Kashmiris don’t have to lose focus. Our problem is a long drawn issue in the sense that people have been associated with this movement for long. We believe we are on the right track. Our struggle is based on principles of truth and justice. But at the same time, we have to understand how global politics works.
When we focus on the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, it doesn’t mean that somehow we are begging for it. There is a huge constituency in India that is slowly and gradually coming to understand the dynamics of the Kashmir problem. What happened recently in JNU and how we saw different reactions coming up has in a way forced many people to rethink where the Indian state and society is heading. Many people are saying we have to accept the fact that Kashmir is an issue. Most people look at India from a nationalist point of view but there are many Indians who have a humanistic approach towards the problem.
I think it’s important they get a feeling that there are people in Kashmir as well who want to reach out to those people and be part of that initiative, where we feel that things have to be resolved through dialogue and negotiations. It important to send a message to the international community that Kashmiris want resolution primarily through peaceful means. Yes, we have to keep on pushing, though the Indian approach is shaky. India seems to be comfortable dealing with the problem militarily rather than politically. That’s what we should change. There has to be enough pressure generated internally and externally. If a political approach is adopted, Kashmiris would support that, but sadly India is definitely looking at it through a security and law and order dimension, which primarily is not the problem.
When you say the international community doesn’t pressurise India, who is to be blamed?
The sacrifices of our boys and young men in early 1990’s took Kashmir issue out of cold storage and turned it into the limelight of international politics. I believe that they have done their job and now it is time for politics and political way through which we have to find a solution. When you talk of resistance, it doesn’t only mean we have the option of the gun. We saw how resistance was carried out in 2008 and 2010. It was the most non-violent and peaceful phase of the struggle and it had its impact. Dialogue and negotiations don’t mean that it is not resistance. Sadly, it has always been misunderstood.
Certain friends among the pro-freedom camp have always tried to demean the institution of dialogue. Dialogue does not necessarily mean that you will get what you are hoping to achieve. But you can’t completely shun the path of engagement and negotiation because we believe we have a strong case. But sadly, the international situation has been such that many factors came into play and this is why Kashmir issue has not been highlighted. Things like India’s influence, economy and also that Pakistan’s influence has gone down because of its internal problems come into play. Internally, I also acknowledge the leadership has to have a clear-cut policy as how to approach the problem. For example, many among us believe that a gradual process has to be adopted in striking a balance. We have to approach the problem in a step-by-step manner.
We have pro-people initiatives such as cross LoC bus service, trade, people to people contact and for that we have to take credit instead of mainstream organisations. It is because of the sacrifices of people that the Muzaffarabad bus service was started, people are moving without passports and it is our victory.
You said the gun has played its role. So how do you see the new wave of militancy?
The new militancy is again an indication that the Government of India is trying to ignore the ground realities. It is India’s arrogance, which is pushing the young and educated generation to militancy. India is denying the realities. Militancy has been a part of the struggle but it has not been the whole of it. It is the people, the processions, people who come on Friday prayers, and whenever youth get an opportunity, they are out on the streets with their emotions. When New Delhi hears bombs, violence, then only they think of dealing with the situation. India’s double standards are forcing a new generation to join militancy. New Delhi must understand that if you want to engage in a realistic way, there are people who are willing to do that. If you are going to push people to the wall, you are going to face hurdles.
Right now, the focus is on addressing the problem politically through methods of non-violence. But the bigger question is who is pushing the youth towards violence? I believe it is the Government of India because it doesn’t give space to dissent; every small initiative is scuttled through force. That is the reason you see a reaction among youth. There is no scope for peaceful discourse. Militancy is a reaction to how things are. I believe this is the time where the Kashmir struggle has to be pursued and pushed as a political struggle. That’s how we can try to pressurize India, because it (India) has been successful in a way in warding off international pressure by linking our struggle with terrorism, extremism, Al-Qaeda, Taliban etc. The fact is ours is an indigenous struggle.
At times, we believe there are people who come from the other side, Pakistan or Azad Kashmir. In that sense we cannot call it global because they are also part of the Kashmir dispute. From time to time, we have re-evaluated our position. We are in a position where we feel the gun has more or less done its job. It is now the political leadership, civil society and educated youth who have to take the struggle forward. I believe there is no reason to feel disillusioned.
Yes, as a head of Hurriyat and as a religious leader, I think it is very important to put things in the right context. This is a political issue and has to be dealt with politically. The Kashmir problem is not Hinduism versus Islam. I tend to differ with some of my colleagues who say it is an Islamic struggle. It is a political struggle. Yes, Islam definitely is an inseparable part of my entity and identity but when it comes to the Kashmir struggle, it is a political problem. Let us try to address and project this problem as a political problem.
Not as an Islamic struggle as claimed by Syed Ali Geelani?
I would differ on that. I believe we are then limiting our entire struggle to that context. Islam is my guidance in all aspects of life but why should I limit my struggle to one section of society only. We believe in rights of Hindus, Christians, Dogras as well. Kashmir problem is an offshoot of Partition and that was a political problem. Yes, it had religious undertones but we will be doing a disservice if we say the Kashmir struggle is only an Islamic struggle.
There is a conscious effort to push the Islamic world towards the corner. The entire Muslim population is being labeled as extremist. Importantly, we have to show we are fighting a cause where we feel Kashmiri Pandits are an inseparable part of our society. We have to be aware that if our struggle gets linked with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Taliban and others, we are helping the Indian case. We will lose whatever support we are getting from the international community. Nobody is proud of what ISIS is doing, but sadly our own institutions such as OIC and the Islamic bloc have failed us. But definitely, we need to keep our struggle political.
Before Modi’s coming to power, your faction was quite optimistic about him…
There has been a general perception in Kashmir that there needs to be a nationalist party which can take a big step in resolving the resolve the (Kashmir) issue. We were hopeful of the BJP because of its past vis-a-vis Vajpayee. Few would differ that Vajpayee definitely took steps in reaching out to people in Kashmir as well as Pakistan. We were hopeful that if a BJP government revisits that policy and approach, some movement forward could be made. But unfortunately, they have not. This time, BJP’s policies have been completely different from Vajpayee’s. Modi came to Kashmir twice or thrice but never mentioned Kashmir. Now, Nawaz Sharif and Modi have started talking. There seems little hope that India and Pakistan will revisit that era.
Do you want Modi to invite you for a dialogue?
Yes, inviting the pro-freedom camp is important. Nobody would deny that. But the bigger question is that BJP has to understand what Vajpayee understood. This problem cannot be resolved by economic incentives, electoral alliances or administrative reshuffles. Nobody is against the government that you need to have for day-to-day affairs. But to say that having a government means the Kashmir problem is resolved is a wrong approach. I believe that unless and until the BJP government revisits that policy, not much could be achieved.
Many within the pro-freedom camp are not interested in dialogue and they even criticised your faction for it?
Let us not criticise the dialogue. Dialogue is part of resistance, if we engage in it at the right time. But at the same time, we have to keep on trying. You are in the business of possibilities and we believe we have to keep on pushing. Yes, we might not have achieved much, but it sent a message that Kashmir is not against engagement. We are in a position to tell the world that none of the proposals have been accepted by the Government of India. So the ball is in their court.
Let the first step be taken by the Government of India. For example, the government has decided the Indian army is going to vacate some areas under its control. We welcome it. Let the army walk the talk. Let us see Tatoo ground or tourist sites out of army control. Let us see bunkers and camps being shifted. Then we move a second step, like revocation of AFSPA and black laws. These are some issues which Hurriyat gave in writing to the Government of India. We have no problem in conveying to them again if we meet today or tomorrow. Let us not confuse people on institution of dialogue.
Is back channel diplomacy on with India?
No back channel communication is going on since Modi came to power. There are some members of civil society who come to Kashmir and we talk to them, some old bureaucrats, professionals etc.
How do you see the participation of people in militant funerals?
It speaks of the sentiment. Although the fact is Kashmiris have not opted for the gun in large numbers, but they feel slain militants were representing their aspirations. At the peak of militancy, there was anger, but now there is hatred towards India. My advice would be: India has to understand; it should address this and not ignore it.
Who has failed the movement, people or leadership?
I think we cannot blame people. People have stood by us. Somewhere, it has been our policies. We have to have proactive programs. We accept our movement is restricted, but we have to find a way to connect and reach out to people. Let’s not feel disheartened. It is a phase where it looks we are at the receiving end. Let us not start blaming each other.
You want to come up with an alternative to hartals?
We have sought people’s suggestions, and alternatives that can have maximum impact. I am not saying hartal is not important. When a major tragedy strikes, it is vital to show resentment.
What prevents unity within pro-freedom groups?
Unity is important but to say it is the mother of all ills is unjust. Let us assume we unite, it does not change the realities. As far as our goal of Azadi is concerned, everybody is united.
There can be difference of opinions. We believe former Pakistan President General Musharraf’s four-point formula is the best starting point. As far as the ultimate aim of self-determination is concerned, we are united.
What is your idea of street protest, choking of dissent and political space?
If the Government of India feels they can suppress our voices, they are wrong. There is not anger but hatred for India. If they choke political space, there is violence. When you choke people, you are pushing the society towards violence.
How do you fight it?
At times we go to court, but you know how things get delayed here. At times, we talk about it. But sometimes people ask Hurriyat people are keeping themselves under house arrest. It is also a campaign of the state.
With or without Modi, rightwing and leftwing have same nationalist idea on Kashmir…
With Modi, things have changed. Earlier, leftists used to talk about human rights but now with RSS pressure, they are toeing the government line on certain issues.
Are you in touch with Pakistan?
Yes, we are. We meet the Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi. I have not been able to travel to Pakistan because my passport has been impounded. But I am hopeful that their approach is balanced and they are keen to talk with India. At times, we do have our differences with Pakistan as well. How do they propose to engage Kashmiris during an Indo-Pak engagement? Let India and Pakistan talk and evolve a mechanism and then they will talk to us.
How do you see the PDP-BJP alliance?
It is a clear indication that you cannot barter on Kashmiri interests. Nobody is against good governance. But don’t barter on the sacrifices of Kashmiris. The existence of mainstream parties is hurting the Kashmir cause because they talk about petty issues which dilute the bigger issue.