Top Kashmir Separatist Feels Bond With Bhutto Son
31 December 2007
Srinagar: Senior Muslim cleric Umar Farooq, who was just 16 when he had to assume his slain father's role in revolt-hit Indian Kashmir, says he feels a unique bond with the young son of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. Farooq, now 34, was a computer- crazy student when he was catapulted by his father's death into the position of chief Muslim cleric and leading separatist politician in Kashmir, where an insurgency has raged against New Delhi's rule since 1989. 'I feel a special sympathy' for 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Farooq - the main separatist player trying to bring peace to the flashpoint state - said late Tuesday. Bilawal Bhutto was chosen Sunday to take over as chairman of his mother's Pakistan People's Party after the assassination of the two-time former premier last week, but will complete his education before assuming full control. 'I was faced with the same position as Bilawal is today,' Farooq said. 'My life was changed completely in one day. 'I had to bow to the wishes (of my followers),' said Farooq, a Sunni Muslim who wields huge moral and political influence as the mirwaiz, or head priest, at the region's main mosque. Bilawal has become the third generation of Bhutto to assume the leadership of Pakistan's largest party after his mother and his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who founded it and was executed under martial law in 1979. He will return to Oxford and be groomed for the job as his father Asif Ali Zardari serves as PPP co-chairman and - in the words of Pakistani commentator Najam Sethi - runs 'the show to keep the place warm' for his son. Farooq, however, got no such break. Having just graduated from school, he was forced to follow in his father's footsteps right away. 'I was a normal schoolboy,' he remembered. 'My only religious training was I'd read the Koran... and though I'm from a political family, I'd no interest in politics. 'I wanted to be a computer engineer,' added Farooq, who now has degrees in religion. Mourners implored him to assume the hereditary post of chief priest after his father's assassination, blamed variously on separatist hardliners opposed to peace talks with New Delhi and Indian security forces. Less than a week later, Farooq was addressing thousands from the pulpit of Kashmir's biggest mosque. 'I had to find the words... I don't know how or where I got the strength.' Farooq said Bhutto's death had revived 'chilling memories' of his father's killing, as well as attempts against his own life by militants opposed to his talks with New Delhi to end the insurgency. He is now being protected by security forces of the Indian government whose rule separatists in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, want to end. The government has given him its highest 'Z' class security rating. Benazir Bhutto, in contrast, had complained that she was not getting enough security from the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Farooq said he was confident Bilawal 'will carry forward the quest of his mother to find an amicable solution' to the future of Kashmir, trigger of two of three wars between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan. 'Time is a big healer. Allah will help Bilawal,' Farooq added.