On a Saturday morning, Abdul Gani Bhat is sitting in the Muslim Conference’s office at Jawahar Nagar in Srinagar wearing a pheran, with many of his admirers and workers listening to him intently. Bhat likes to speak in a philosophical manner, often quoting Rumi in between conversations. But in his conversation with Outlook, he is more straightforward. Keeping aside a book on Shams-i-Tabrizi, Rumi’s spiritual instructor, he says, “We (separatists) have our sincerity, while the pro-India politicians have brains. The clash is between sincerity and brains. And, obviously, those who have brains will win here.”
The 81-year-old leader adds, rather regretfully: “If we cannot turn situations into opportunities, then we betray our sense of relevance to the situation. We went wrong in 2008 and 2010, and I am afraid we may be repeating the mistake in 2016.”
He has mooted a proposal that all parties, including the BJP, PDP, NC and the separatists, should pass a joint resolution calling for a dialogue on Kashmir.
On November 12, former chief minister and National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah, accompanied by only four security guards, was seen shopping at the busy Lal Chowk in Srinagar. And a day later, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) held a rally attended by about 3,000 people there. Addressing the rally, PDP’s senior leader and party MP Muzaffar Baig, in an apparent attempt to hijack the discourse from the separatists, said that all those killed by the bullets and pellets of the security forces in Kashmir were innocent and had been martyred. Baig described the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani on July 8 this year a conspiracy and called it a “murder.”
Two months ago, such a rally of the PDP, or for that matter, a stroll by a leader of Abdullah’s stature at Lal Chowk would have been unimaginable, as mainstream politicians were not daring to step out of their fortified residences. Some of the leaders had even migrated to Jammu.
After a four-month-long unrest in which over 90 people, mostly teenagers, were killed and over 12,000 wounded, with around 900 people visually impaired, as the security forces fired pellets and bullets on civilian protesters, Bhat accuses separatists of “refusing to apply their brains.”
Bhat is aware that his remarks will not go down well with fellow separatists, but he doesn’t care. “If you speak the truth late, speak it. If you are hanged for it, it doesn’t matter. You have done your duty,” he says. “If the leadership in Kashmir refuses to apply brains, we probably will suffer. We are the weakest. We will suffer the most.”
Bhat is the first separatist leader, who is not happy with the Hurriyat Conference’s plan of a prolonged strike, which has crippled normal life in Kashmir with schools shut, vehicles off the roads and all business establishments closed for the past four months. The strike call was given by the separatists following large-scale killings of protesters by the security forces across the valley in the wake of Wani’s killing.
However, Bhat, who has previously served as chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an amalgam of different separatist groups, is most angry over the refusal of three top separatist leaders, Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik, to talk to the delegation of parliamentarians that visited the state in September. “Why didn’t we talk to the parliamentarians? We talked to them in 2010,” Bhat says.
On September 4, four MPs—CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader D. Raja, JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav and RJD’s Jaiprakash Narain Yadav—from the delegation had gone to meet Hurriyat Conference hardline-faction chairman Syed Ali Geelani at his residence at Hyderpora. Geelani, however, kept the gate closed for the MPs who were greeted with slogans outside. Two other separatist leaders, Mohammad Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who were lodged in two different jails, exchanged pleasantries with the delegation members but refused to hold any talks.
Sloganeering, Bhat says, has become part of the separatist strategy in Kashmir. “In 2008, at the height of mass protests against economic blockade of the valley, we met at the headquarters of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and what did we do? We held that meeting in the face of slogans,” he says.
On November 11, Bhat released his biography—Beyond Me. Though there are no sensational disclosures in the first volume of his book, which covers his life up to February 1986, when he was dismissed from government service on charges of being a threat to the State, he promises that the second volume will be about current political events. He says he will dedicate the second volume to Insha Mushtaq Lone, the 14-year-old girl who was blinded due to pellet injuries on July 11. He calls her “the Malala of Kashmir”.
While releasing the book, Bhat took on separatist leaders and called them “blind riders of a lame horse”. On July 8, the day Wani was killed and the people in Kashmir rose to protest, Bhat had told Outlook: “There is widespread anger against India in Kashmir. Burhan had inspired the youth of Kashmir and when he was martyred, boys got angry. It was a movement of teenagers.” He refused to give the separatists any role in the unrest. He has only sarcasm for them. “There are only leaders around them and no people,” he said, as Geelani, Malik and Mirwaiz, on November 8, held a meeting with trade bodies, transporters, lawyers and students unions at Geelani’s residence to discuss whether to continue with the shut-down or not. The leaders later issued a weekly protest calendar giving a detailed programme of a seven-day shutdown and marches, providing relaxation only in the evening.
“The point is that if you don’t apply your brains, the situation will overtake you dangerously, and to your detriment,” Bhat said, calling for a grand strategy and the initiation of a dialogue process.
He has mooted a proposal that all parties, including the BJP, PDP, NC and the separatists, should pass a joint resolution calling for a dialogue on Kashmir. The move is seen in the separatist circles as giving credence to the mainstream parties over the Kashmir issue. So far separatist outfits have been saying mainstream political parties like the PDP and NC have no role in resolving Kashmir, dismissing them off as “puppets of New Delhi in J&K”.
The former Hurriyat chairman realises that his call for new thinking will not be liked by most of the separatist hardliners. That is why he talks about the dangers of such a talk. “If someone asks you to do a little thinking, he should not be guillotined, he should not be hanged,” he says. After a short pause, he adds, “Socrates died for truth gleefully. But he lives. So what if I die!”
Unlike the separatists, Bhat believes the people have a strategy. “The leadership (separatists) is not the owner of the present struggle. Boys were at the forefront this year, boys with pulsating hearts and probably with raw thoughts facing pellets and bullets unto their eyes and unto their chests,” he says. “They created a stir in the collective mindset of India i.e. the Indian Parliament.” He considers the speeches of Dr Karan Singh, Sitaram Yechury, and P. Chidambaram in Parliament as indications of the protesters’ success.
Talking about raising of Chinese flags in north Kashmir last month, the separatist leader said that the waving of Chinese flags by teenagers was a typical Kashmiri strategy, and a symbolic display of anger against India. “Kashmiri teenagers raised a flag of a country which is not friendly with India to exhibit their anger.”
Stressing the urgency for addressing this anger, he says continuous tension between India and Pakistan can lead to a war. “I understand that no war may happen between India and Pakistan now, but what needs to be understood is that both countries are in a state of war, and to be caught up in a state of war is more dangerous than being in an actual one.”
He laments that there is no separatist leader to understand the complexity and simplicity of the Kashmir issue today. “Kashmir is as simple as it is complex. You have to have leadership with scintillating brains and throbbing hearts as well to deal with such a problem. I wish we could have a few such people.”
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar