Do Kashmir Separatists Face Poll Blow?

4 April 2009

New Delhi: The waning popularity of the Hurriyat Conference - the political umbrella of separatist groups in Indian-administered Kashmir - will be tested during the Indian general elections in April and May. The faction led by hard-line leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has already called for a boycott of the polls. But Hurriyat's moderate faction led by the English-speaking cleric of Srinagar's central mosque, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, remains cautious. 'We are undecided about giving a united poll boycott call this time. We will decide in a couple of weeks,' Mr Farooq told the BBC. Many Kashmir observers feel the Hurriyat leadership is still very unsure about people's support. Mr Geelani has been all powerful as separatist leader but even his recent spell for medical reasons in Delhi brought the odd quibble that treatment for the leaders did not match treatment for the people. Mr Geelani, 79, however, denied that there was large-scale resentment against the separatist leadership or that the Hurriyat was 'becoming insignificant in the Valley of Kashmir'. 'We are like India's servants, and masters are obliged to look after their servants,' he said. However, Mr Geelani admitted there were 'ups and downs' in the history of any movement. 'This could be a lean period, albeit a temporary one,' he said. Different opinion Since its formation in 1993, the Hurriyat Conference has had massive popular support, most visible during last year's protests against a government decision to hand over a plot of land to a Hindu shrine. Things, however, may have changed irreparably for the Hurriyat. Defying the organisation's poll boycott call, more than 60% of the Kashmiri population turned out to vote in the state assembly election in December - an excellent turnout for elections anywhere in India. Though Mr Geelani insists that poll figures were fabricated, Kashmiris have a different opinion. Khurram Parvez, a member of a prominent civil society group in Kashmir told the BBC that people voted for development. 'It was not a vote against the freedom movement, but to meet their day-to-day needs,' he said. As early as in January this year, questions were being raised in Kashmir about the Hurriyat's fading support. A vocal critic of the group is activist Prof Hameeda Nayeem. At a seminar organised by a section of the Hurriyat, Prof Nayeem told the separatist leaders they had 'played with the sentiments' of people. She argued that the Hurriyat was the popular front under which people came together during last year's agitation. 'The Hurriyat was expected to negotiate with India to extend certain benefits like constitutional guarantees which were eroded over the years. 'But, the unexpected calling off of the agitation by the separatists saying that it was Ramadan was a crippling blow to the movement,' an angry Prof Nayeem said. Failed The leadership's role during last year's protests is not the only reason why the Hurriyat is under the scanner. Many Kashmiris feel that the separatists have failed to address their day-to-day problems. The dean of social sciences at Kashmir University, Prof Noor Ahmed Baba, feels that while Kashmir's right to decide its fate has been perennially postponed, the Hurriyat has failed to address health, education or jobs. Housewife Saira Noor (whose name has been changed), 35, is an example of this alienation. Fifteen years ago and pregnant she was dragged out of her house and kicked by Indian soldiers. 'I had a miscarriage and since then, I began supporting the Hurriyat,' she said. Last year, she was denied a job in an Indian software company after the company decided to withdraw its operations from Kashmir following large-scale violence. 'Now I hear that Mirwaiz Omar Farooq is going to the US to study, even as I participated in the movement and lost my job!' she says. When questioned, Mr Farooq confirmed that he planned to go to Harvard to study international relations and conflict management. 'I can bring back whatever I learn in Harvard and contribute to the movement,' he told the BBC. His chances of going, however, are slim as the Indian government has impounded his passport. 'Propaganda' The anger against the Hurriyat leadership, however, is not bringing Kashmiris any closer to India. A student of political science who participated in the pro-freedom movement last year, Suvaid Yaseen, told the BBC that the separatist leadership may have failed but 'Kashmir's freedom movement survives'. 'Separatist leaders disappointed us, but that does not mean we have stopped opposing the policies of Indian state,' he said. Kashmir observer and human rights activist, Gautam Navlakha, feels the separatist leadership has failed to create a 'second rung leadership'. 'The Kashmiri separatist movement has always been personality driven. The absence or disappearance of one leader always halts the movement and the people's aspirations,' Mr Navlakha said. However, Mr Geelani does not accept that the Hurriyat leadership has failed in Kashmir. 'A lot of that is propaganda against the separatist leadership,' he said. He denied people were becoming alienated. 'I have seen a lot in life. Inshallah (God willing), this is a passing phase. In two months, things will change,' he said.