April 2018 News

Kashmir Separatists Released, But Still Unconvinced On Dialogue With Government

5 April 2018
The Wire
Mudasir Ahmad

Srinagar: On a sunny Friday afternoon, a familiar face in Kashmir politics emerged on the busy Humhama airport road, escorted by supporters. Within minutes, the crowd swelled. The area erupted in 'azadi' sloganeering. 'Yei chu Geelani soab (He is Geelani sahab),' a young man in his 30s said out loud. The 88-year-old separatist, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has been kept under house arrest for the past five years. The last time he was allowed to attend Friday prayers was in 2010, the year more than 100 civilians were killed in summer unrest. But on March 30, the frail and ailing separatist walked free to offer congregational prayers a day after, in an unexpected move, director general of police S.P. Vaid told a local newspaper that the separatist trio of Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik were free to carry out their political and social activities. This freedom, however, came with a rider: none of them should create law and order problems or make 'anti-national' speeches. For many in Kashmir, this sudden change of heart from the Mehbooba Mufti-led government came as a big surprise. Ever since the People's Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance took over the reins of the state in 2015, it has stuck to the policy of previous Omar Abdullah-led regime - to tighten curbs on separatists' movement. Under pressure from New Delhi and his alliance partner BJP, the Mufti Muhammad Sayeed-headed government had even sent separatist Masarat Alam back to jail barely a month after his release in March 2015. The Centre has, in the past, repeatedly invoked the Atal Bihari Vajpayee doctrine of 'insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat and jamhooriyat'. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked about the need to 'find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the constitution', while emphasising that the Kashmir issue can't be resolved by 'bullets or abuses, but by embracing all Kashmiris'. On the ground, however, the iron fist policy has been the first line of response, be it when crushing the five-month-long protests in 2016 with brute force or when launching a massive crackdown on separatists, militants' families and sympathisers during the latter part of last year. Since 2016, Malik, who played a major role in the unification of the separatists, has frequently been in jail, while Mirwaiz too has been confined to his Nigeen house in the summer capital Srinagar. Given all of this, the sudden U-turn by the government is creating a large amount of skepticism. 'They (the Centre) thought they will kill 200 militants and everything will be over, but today there are more militants and the resistance is much stronger. The government doesn't seem to know how to deal with this situation and, in a sinister way, they have thrown the ball into the separatists' court,' argued political analyst and professor Siddiq Wahid. Post the 2016 unrest, the joint forces of the army, Jammu and Kashmir police and CRPF launched 'Operation All Out' in south Kashmir, gunning down 218 militants in 2017 alone, the highest number since 2010. But the Valley continues to be embroiled in militancy and civil unrest. Today, the number of local militants is more or less the same as it was at the start of 2017, and support for them hasn't thinned out. In the past ten days, at least eight youth, including three cousins from Tahab village in Pulwama, have gone missing and are believed to have joined the militants. 'New Delhi doesn't have much credibility in Kashmir todayfor them, perhaps, the only way out now is to release separatists and see if they can quell what they are anticipating - further deterioration of the situation,' continued Wahid. The primary political outreach that has come from the Centre thus far was the appointment of former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma as Jammu and Kashmir interlocutor, with the mandate of carrying out a sustained dialogue with 'all stakeholders'. But this has failed to leave much of an impression with the public, given that such initiatives have been received a silent burial in the past. Also, in absence of a clear-cut mandate, Sharma has failed to break the ice with the separatist camp. This inconsistency in the government's approach could perhaps explain why the separatist camp hasn't responded to the concession offered to them yet. 'We won't act prematurely,' Geelani said in his uncharacteristically brief speech to the gathering at Hyderpora mosque. 'I will consult them (Mirwaiz and Malik) and our response will come before the public. We will not be impatient on this thing.' He had a few words for the people as well - stay united and follow the Hurriyat programme. The trinity of Geelani, MIrwaiz and Malik has formed a conglomerate, 'Joint Resistance Leadership', which has been issuing separatist programmes for the past two years. Renuka Choudhary, who teaches political science at Jammu University, sees the concession by the Centre as a 'shift' in its Kashmir policy, but believes it is more driven by the interlocutor, whom she described as a 'linkage' that New Delhi has with the situation on the ground. Since his appointment, Sharma has made seven visits to Kashmir - last week he flew in a chopper to Tral, the native town of Burhan Wani and a hotbed of militancy in Kashmir. 'He (Sharma) is consistently visiting Kashmir despite the fact that he hasn't been taken seriously by Kashmiris, the hard people (separatists) and even by some in the government. He has met BJP people in the Valley, traders and others, and must have got the feedback from them,' Choudhary told The Wire. Another argument that is being thrown up is that there are radical trends emerging in Kashmir in the form of support for global jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. In such a scenario, restrictions on the separatists, who have a impact on people, particularly the youth, and have been against linking Kashmir to these ideologies, has proven counterproductive. Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz said there was a complete understating in New Delhi about dealing with the situation in Kashmir 'militarily'. 'That is the path they have been pursuing. In this atmosphere, the youth are feeling suffocated and that is why we are seeing very disturbing trends emerging on the militancy front today,' argued Mirwaiz. 'Had they not choked our political space and pushed the youth to the wall, things could have been different.' Political scientist Noor M. Baba corroborated Mirwaiz's remarks. 'The youth getting radicalised is a more dangerous situation for both the state government and New Delhi. Hurriyat has always stood against it, but they are being denied the space,' he commented. According to him, the decision to release separatists was an admission by the Centre that its 'iron fist policy' has proven counterproductive in the restive region, which hasn't seen any thaw in protests or pro-militant rallies in recent years. Also, the ruling PDP has been consistently calling for dialogue on both internal and external fronts. It was the first party to welcome the release of separatists and made an fervent appeal to Geelani to join the dialogue process. 'Democracy is battle of ideas, and the government decision to free separatists is a welcome measure. I appeal to him (Geelani) to play a vital role and become a part of the dialogue process' said the party's general secretary, Peerzada Mansoor. But the separatists aren't in a hurry to weigh their options. 'Today, the situation in Kashmir is the outcome of New Delhi's muscular policy, particularly since 2016. We will meet at the right time to decide how to take our programmes forward,' Mirwiaz told The Wire. Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.