Hurriyat's Window Of Opportunity
27 May 2005
The Times of India
New Delhi: As the dust from the convoys heralding the new openness on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway settles and the ride acquires the character of a commute, a new catchphrase emerges in the chinar- lined landscape. Reality check. It's something President Pervez Musharraf asked the Hurriyat Conference and other separatist leaders to get when he met them in New Delhi. And as the Hurriyat honchos board the bus, as promised, on June 2, it will be a ride in that direction. Of course, the Hurriyat has to take the ride and connect to somewhere. The thinking among political circles in Kashmir is Hurriyat may have already missed the bus by joining with the obdurate naysayers of the Valley, who have cut themselves off from the people they claim to speak for. This is the new struggle which has emerged as a byproduct of the rapprochement between India and Pakistan - the struggle for survival of the Hurriyat, now forced to board a bus it was ambivalent about or hostile to. Even hardliners who back Syed Ali Shah Geelani, trapped in political oblivion by saying no to elections, no to visits, no to thaw and no to the bus are confronted and confused by the ticket to ride across the Line of Control handed out by the governments of India and Pakistan. Separatists have realised the collateral damage done to weapon- wielding freedom movements by Osama bin Laden's 9-11 carnage. And now with New Delhi and Islamabad trotting along the peace track, cheered by Kashmiris, they are faced with the prospect of being trashed to the dustbin of history. The doves among the Hurriyat, led by somewhat practical people like Mirwaiz Maulvi Umar Farooq and Abdul Ghani Bhatt, are acutely aware of this and are scrambling for a foothold on the running board of the speeding detente. They have tried time and again to bring Geelani on board, literally, but the head that wears a karakul hat has refused to nod. Now, embarrassed by the rush to the bus station even by some he counted as hardline and pro-Pakistan supporters, Geelani says he's too ill to travel. The Mirwaiz and Bhatt are of course doing the right thing. And they should bring back the lessons of the ride to the Kashmiri reality. It's time they realised that people of Kashmir are willing to count as their representatives only the men and women who braved bullets and batons to fight assembly elections in 2002 and the landmark local election, the first in a quarter of a century, earlier this year. The Kashmiri separatist movement, besides, is in a shambles. Take Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, the original azadi standard bearer. Its most vocal leader, Yasin Malik, has a sphere of influence over a few sq km in Maisuma neighbourhood near Lal Chowk. There are at least four other groups, one of them headed by the PoK- based son of Maqbool Butt. Then there is the Hurriyat, which is no longer embarrassed by its internal divisiveness. Its leaders too have little public role and those like the Mirwaiz are left to use the mosque as the only platform and are rarely seen or heard beyond downtown Srinagar. Shabir Shah stands for something and heads a tiny group which now wants to be counted as a player. These are leaders who want Kashmiris to be the final arbiters of their destiny. Having shunned the electoral process which their people embraced, they are now desperate to get a seat on the negotiating table to prove, if only to themselves, that the path they had chosen was not leading anywhere. At the same time, those with fingers looped around the grenade ring have grown desperate. The much-vaunted, fleet-footed mujahideen is now reduced to attacking undefended middle-aged women and children. The grenade attack on Srinagar's oldest high school, named after CE Tyndale Biscoe, a British missionary who made a huge contribution to creating the foundation of an education system in Kashmir, was probably the best demonstration of its disconnect and wantonness. Biscoe, few of them would know, was one of the first British chroniclers of the suffering and 'virtual enslavement' of Kashmiri peasants in the early 20th century. What better way to get alienated? It is positive that the Hurriyat leaders want to meet Manmohan Singh before they go to Pakistan. That shows the right respect for a democratic leader, whatever the ideological and tactical differences. But a note that still rings ironically is that the very reality check that Musharraf advocated for Kashmiri separatists could well help Islamabad. Perhaps the time has come for the Pakistani ambassador to travel to Srinagar. He could also meet with those who voted and convey to Musharraf that if there were Kashmiris who they needed to speak to, it was the elected legislator, the municipal chief and ward chairman, not the one on the margin.