The strike called by top Hurriyat Conference leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik for Tuesday, July 25, protesting the recent arrests by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) evoked a poor response in the Valley. Seven second-rung Hurriyat leaders, including Geelani’s son-in-law Altaf Ahmad Shah and Mirwaiz’s close aide Shahid-ul-Islam, had been arrested by the NIA on July 24 and brought to Delhi as part of its terror-funding probe. The very next day, the ED also arrested senior separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah. Analysts in Kashmir warn against taking this as the Hurriyat’s obituary and predict that the ongoing crackdown can only push the separatists to harden their positions.
There are apprehensions that next in line would be the top rung, Geelani, Mirwaiz and Yasin, who came together after Burhan’s killing last year and have been issuing protest calendars, asking people to observe shutdowns and take out marches. DGP S.P. Vaid says only time would tell whether they will be arrested or not, but the people of Kashmir have a right to know who is responsible for bloodshed in the Valley.
Once Shabir was arrested, there are apprehensions that the top rung (Geelani, Mirwaiz and Yasin) is next.
Geelani has been under house arrest since 2010, barring a few small breaks. Mirwaiz too has been under house arrest repeatedly, while Yasin has often been detained in Srinagar’s Central Jail. Now the NIA claims it has evidence of the seven Hurriyat leaders using money routed from Pakistan through hawala channels to pay people for pelting stones at government forces during the protests that have rocked the Valley since Burhan’s killing on July 8 last year. With Altaf in their custody, the investigators could try to link his father-in-law Geelani with the funding of terrorist activities in case the government wants to slap terror-related charges on the top Hurriyat leaders.
Altaf, who married Geelani’s daughter in 1986, is also called Altaf ‘Fantoosh’ after the name of the hosiery shop he runs in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. A postgraduate from the University of Kashmir and former activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, he has been running the shop from long before the armed insurgency began in 1990, say police sources. He had campaigned for the Muslim United Front (MUF) in the infamous 1987 assembly election. The polls were alleged to be massively rigged to keep the number of MUF winners as low as possible. When the Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1993 as an amalgam of a wide range of political and civil society groups active in the Valley, Altaf became one of its key members. The police see him as an important leader with a say in policy decisions made by the Geelani-led section of the Hurriyat.
Shabir Shah, who heads the Democratic Freedom Party (DFP), a constituent of the Geelani-led Hurriyat, had earlier in July announced a posthumous title, “Tamgha-e-Jurrat” (Star of Courage), to slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani for his “courage, steadfastness and immense contribution to the freedom movement of Jammu-Kashmir”. He also asked the people to remember Burhan’s birthplace Tral as Burhan Valley. Shabir Shah’s arrest on July 25 was in connection with a money-laundering case dating back to 2005. In August that year, the Delhi Police had arrested one Mohammed Aslam Wani and allegedly recovered Rs 63 lakh, of which Rs 50 lakh, it clai-med, was for Shabir Shah and Rs 10 lakh for the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Srinagar area commander. The ED had earlier summoned him for questioning several times.
The PDP-led state government is yet to comment on the arrests as leaders of the ruling party seem to be in a wait-and-watch mode. “The Centre has started handling the Hurriyat directly. Let us see how they do it,” says a senior leader, who didn’t want to be identified.
According to a senior separatist leader, the arrests could be meant to pressurise separatists into accepting talks with the Centre under the Indian Constitution, which the BJP could then project as a major achievement when India goes to polls in 2019. “In the Valley, there is a growing impression that the Hurriyat has been soft on various issues. The arrests will demolish this assumption and restore its credibility,” he says.
The Hurriyat has been facing criticism after it took a moderate stance on the extension of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to Jammu and Kashmir. Geelani had asked traders and others to “concentrate on the core issue of Kashmir” and avoid anything that may alter the discourse. The state government had then gone ahead and implemented GST.
The opposition National Conference (NC) had described Geelani’s statement as “disingenuous and misleading” and said, “The deceptive posturing of Geelani on GST is a design to subvert the cause of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and to bail out the present rulers of the state who are hell-bent upon trampling the aspirations of the people of J&K at the behest of the powers that be in New Delhi.”
Yasin Malik stopped from marching to the UN office in Srinagar
In 1999, 25 top separatist leaders were imprisoned in Jodhpur. The Centre made a talks offer the next year.
Geelani’s “soft” stance on GST, surely, did nothing to stop the Centre’s crackdown on the Hurriyat. Analysts who call the arrests ill-advised point out that south Kashmir, where thousands participate in the funerals of militants, has been on the boil regardless of whether the Hurriyat calls for a protest or not. In fact, with top Hurriyat leaders under house arrest most of the time, it is the militants who have filled the leadership vacuum on the ground, with some of them appearing at the funerals as well. New hardliners such as Zakir Musa have also come up, who are driven by a pan-Islamist ideology and reject the idea of the Kashmir conflict being a political rather than religious issue.
Police sources reveal a growing worry that efforts to push the Hurriyat out of circulation would bring them a tougher challenge—the new hardliners, whom the police don’t know well enough and whose plans they have little clue about. As the crux of separatist politics has been to push for talks over Kashmir as a political dispute and resolve it peacefully, the targeting of Hurriyat leaders could be read in the Valley as the Centre rejecting the very possibility of a peaceful resolution. There are fears this could help the new hardliners find popular support even as they run amok with their dream of establishing an Islamic State, a theme on which, of course, there can be no talks.
This is not the first time the Centre has attempted handling separatist leaders this way. In Sep-tember 1999, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the PM, 25 separatist leaders, including Geelani, Yasin, Abdul Gani Bhat, Mohammed Ashraf Sehari, Moulana Abbas Ansari and Javed Ahmad Mir were arrested and immediately shifted to Jodhpur jail in Rajasthan. “I am sending them to a place where they will see no hope,” the then J&K CM Farooq Abdullah had said, adding—for good measure—he would “let them rot” where “nobody would be able to meet them”.
Most of the leaders had been arrested during an election boycott campaign in Handwara, north Kashmir. That was the first time since the formation of the Hurriyat that its leaders were jailed outside the state. In April 2000, they were shifted to Tihar Jail in Delhi and some were kept in a guest house in the capital awaiting their release. That’s when the government made its offer to talk with the Hurriyat, while insisting that it won’t talk with the militants until they “eschew violence”.
Now, 17 years later, with another BJP-led government in power, a similar statement was made on Wednesday, July 26. MoS (Home) Hansraj Ahir said the Centre is open to dialogue with those who “eschew violence” and are willing to work “within the framework of the Constitution”. In April 2002, the government had sent former civil servant Wajahat Habibullah to convince Geelani for a dialogue. Geelani didn’t relent and insisted on tripartite talks. This week, Habibullah was in Srinagar to attend a conference, but refused to comment on the arrests. “Ask those who arrested them why they have been arrested,” he said. In 2003, when a section of separatist leaders led by Mirwaiz agreed to talks, Hurriyat was bifurcated into two factions, with Geelani leading the “hardliners”.
In January 2004, the Mirwaiz-led moderates met the then deputy PM L.K. Advani in New Delhi. After the Congress returned to power, there were two rounds of talks with the then PM Manmohan Singh—on September 6, 2005, and May 3, 2006. There was no third round as the Hurriyat alleged that “promises” such as withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and release of political prisoners were not fulfilled.
Manmohan Singh, though, kept the channels of dialogue open. Yasin claims he met Manmohan in New Delhi in February 2006 in the presence of then home minister Shivraj Patil, national security advisor M.K. Narayanan, principal secretary to the PM T.K.A. Nair, media advisor Sanjaya Baru and diplomat S.K. Lambah. According to Malik, Manmohan Singh told him that the government was “trying hard” to resolve the Kashmir issue and having a “fruitful dialogue” with Pakistan too. Malik was allowed to visit the US, where he met political lobbyist Ghulam Nabi Fai and then Pakistan PM Showkat Aziz. “The then ISI chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who later became the Pak army chief, was also present in the meeting. Everything was running smoothly as I arrived back in Delhi,” Yasin recalls.
Widening the Kashmir dialogue beyond the Hurriyat, Manmohan Singh met People’s Conference leader and now lapsed dissident Sajjad Lone on January 15, 2006. Lone said after the one-hour meeting that the process should be institutionalised as it was a more civilised way to resolve the conflict than violence. Lone unsuccessfully contested the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and is now a minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government in J&K, from the BJP quota. Since that 2006 meeting with Lone, there has been no engagement with separatists at the highest level. The common response among locals to the recent arrests is that the Centre may be barking up the wrong tree. For all the allegations against them, the role of Hurriyat leaders in political mobilisation has declined in recent years, making way for young people and the militant leaders.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar