'Kashmir Is An Issue. You Cannot Close Your Eyes To It': Hurriyat

22 August 2015
Supriya Sharma

Srinagar: Around 8am on Thursday, as street vendors arranged apples on carts, and school buses wound their way through Srinagar's traffic snarls, in the neighbourhood of Malora on the outskirts of the city, four policemen took position outside the metal gates of Ayaz Akbar's house. Forty nine-year-old Akbar is the spokesperson of the Hurriyat Conference's Geelani faction. Led by 85-year-old Syed Ali Geelani, the most hardline and popular leader among the Kashmir separatists, the group refuses to talk to Indian government unless it recognises that Kashmir is a disputed territory and its people have the right to self-determination. While policemen are permanently posted outside the house of Geelani, on Thursday morning, Akbar and a dozen others were also placed under house arrest - nazarband, as he called it. Four hours later, the policemen went away as mysteriously as they had appeared. For the next hour, Akbar's phone rang incessantly. As he answered the calls in Kashmiri, an English phrase rang through: 'Out of frustration'. According to Akbar, the house arrest was a sign of Indian government's frustration over Pakistan's invitation to the Hurriyat leaders to meet its National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz scheduled to visit New Delhi for talks with his Indian counterpart on August 23 and 24. In July last year, the Indian government had cancelled foreign secretary level talks over Pakistan's invitation to the Hurriyat. News reports indicate that the NSA-level talks could be similarly derailed. Until Thursday afternoon, however, it appeared the talks would be held. Speaking with Scroll, soon after the policemen left, Akbar said he was preparing to travel with Geelani to New Delhi. He began the conversation by ridiculing the ritual of house arrest, which he said took place 4-5 times every month, every time he organised a meeting. Why do you think the government places you under house arrest? They do not want to give political space to azaadi pasand log, freedom loving people, particularly after the protests of 2010. That year, there was a big movement and thousands came out on the street to protest peacefully against India. Since then, the Indian government has decided not to give any political space to us, to avoid a repeat of 2010. What does the government achieve by doing so? In today's day and age, if you have a mobile phone, you are connected to the whole world. You can send messages using the internet and Facebook. Those who are taking these decisions (to place Kashmiri leaders under house arrest), I wonder which world they live in. Would you be travelling to New Delhi? Yes, Geelani Sahab is travelling and a couple of us will accompany him for assistance. What would you like to tell Sartaj Aziz? What we say to him is not important. What is important is the fact that after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, it was pursuing an agenda of India-Pakistan talks minus Kashmir. Last year at the time of the foreign secretary level talks, when the (Pakistani) High Commissioner invited Hurriyat, they (the Indian government) cancelled the talks. Despite that, Pakistan has again taken the stand that Kashmir cannot be excluded (from the talks). This is an encouraging sign for us. But in the joint statement made by the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in Russia, there was no mention of Kashmir. Yes, that was a disappointment for us, and as a mark of protest, we had skipped the Eid Milan (at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi). We have always lamented that Pakistan's Kashmir policy lacks consistency. Palestine has been recognised the world over as a dispute but Kashmir has not, and part of the blame lies with Pakistan. We have protested in the past against their inconsistent stand, but today they are taking a good stand, which we welcome. I also heard on television that the Indian government plans to go ahead with the NSA-level talks, which is good. What do you think has prompted the change in stance? It appears the BJP government has realised that the fanatic approach it adopted as the opposition party cannot continue while it is in power. When you are in power, such a rigid approach does not work. They seem to be gradually realising that they cannot bypass Kashmir. Kashmir is an issue. You cannot close your eyes to it. Last year, during the parliamentary elections, there were hopes expressed on the streets of Srinagar that Narendra Modi would be able to break the impasse over Kashmir. People hold different views but as far as the leadership is concerned, as far as those who have political understanding are concerned, there were no such hopes. He is from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Its rigidness on Kashmir is well known. But it was the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that initiated dialogue on Kashmir. Nothing worthwhile happened under Vajpayee. He did not take any firm steps on Kashmir. Yes, there was dialogue, but it was of no use, and it won't be, until you admit that a community is asking for its most basic right, that it must be allowed to chose its own future. After all, you (India) made promises in international forums. Your first prime minister Nehru came to Srinagar and made a speech at Lal Chowk saying India does not believe in forced marriage. He said, 'you would be given a chance to chose'. But nothing has happened. This is simply the arrogance of power. Scotland wasn't even a dispute. But people asked for a chance for self-determination and they were given that. Isn't this what democracy means? You claim to be the largest democracy in the world. We are making a democratic demand. And we have stated that if people decide in favour of India then we would have no objection to it. But at least give us a chance. Instead all you have been displaying is the arrogance of power. It is this arrogance which is causing disquiet here, particularly among the youth. They cannot stand your arrogance. They are leaving colleges and universities. Since there are no weapons coming from Pakistan, they are snatching guns from policemen and running into the jungles. If you do not allow people to express their views peacefully, this is what would happen. Is militancy again on the rise in Kashmir? Yes, some reports indicate this. This would strengthen the army's case for the continuation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, in Kashmir. The army claims it has reports that show militancy is on the rise. We have not done any surveys of our own. But you must remember that militancy needs a supply line of weapons. If you have snatched a gun and it has only 30 bullets, it cannot last you several months. At the same time, let me add, our leadership does not view militancy favourably. Bloodshed cannot lead to solutions. It is true that Kashmiris picked up guns in the 1990s to highlight their issue. But you can highlight an issue through the gun, you cannot resolve it. For resolution, you need to sit across the table. We are willing to (do so), but there isn't a positive response (from India). If the Narendra Modi government were to invite you for talks, would you accept the offer? We are willing to talk provided they stop insisting that Kashmir is an integral part of India and accept that it is a disputed territory. Since that is unlikely to happen soon, does it mean Kashmir would have another generation of rebels? History stands with this reality. The British occupied India for 200 years. The freedom struggle continued. Here too, my generation could get tired and say India is not accepting our demands, let's forget it. But the new generation, the young blood, the teenagers, they refuse to sit back. Are you saying your generation has grown tired? I said 'suppose they are tired'. The sentiment is not dead even among them. I am sure even Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah, and people like them, share the sentiment. What is the sentiment? Is it for azadi or for Pakistan? The sentiment is against India's arrogance. What happens next hasn't been given much thought. Some people want to stay independent, some people want to go with Pakistan. But the focus at the moment is on the struggle against India. If people are asked to choose, where will the majority go? That stage has not come yet. Still, what is your assessment? Before 1990, people had no idea that they could be independent (of both India and Pakistan). They thought the option is between India and Pakistan. After all, under the two nation theory, as a Muslim majority area, Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan. But after 1990, people began to feel disappointed with Pakistan. They felt: It does not care for us, why should we keep harping on Pakistan? But even then, at the time of cricket matches, people still cheer for Pakistan. Why were they disappointed with Pakistan? Because of the lack of consistency in its Kashmir policy. Could the shift in sentiment also be because of Pakistan's internal turmoil? Yes, the internal turmoil in Pakistan is a factor. What do you think of the BJP-People's Democratic Party coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir? How is it different from the previous National Conference government? In our view, both are stooges (of New Delhi). We do not see much difference, except for the fact that BJP is fanatic in its approach and that's creating fresh problems. Muslims are facing discrimination in Jammu. In Kishtwar, their land is being taken away. In Rajouri, a flag inscribed with the kalimah (holy inscription) was burnt. You talk of discrimination against Muslims but the Pandits were forced to leave Kashmir. You may call us what you want, but we are not communal. What happened in 1990, to be very frank with you, was an abnormal situation where because of the guns, everyone faced harassment. Not just Pandits, even Muslims fled to Jammu and Delhi. Many were killed on the suspicion of being police informers. As for Pandits, Jagmohan, who was the governor then, evicted them by plan. You might believe so, but many among the Pandits feel what happened was organised communal violence. People may hold different views. A section of the Pandit community is being sponsored. They are with the BJP and Shiv Sena. But a majority does not think so In Azad Kashmir, in the absence of a secular constitution, under Sharia law, what would be the fate of religious minorities? The minorities would not face any problem. I assure you Hindus will be more safe here than anywhere else. But religious minorities have faced persecution in Pakistan. There is lawlessness in Pakistan. Everyone is facing the same problems. Muslims are killing Muslims. No one is safe there. And yet you seek refuge in Pakistan? We appreciate the fact that Pakistan supports our cause. They openly speak in favour of our struggle. They raise the issue in international forums. A part of Kashmir is under Pakistan. But they have never denied our right to self determination. This interview has been translated from the Urdu-Hindi, and has been edited for length and clarity.