What had hitherto been a taboo, not meant to be touched even by the end of a barge-pole by the powers that be of the Indian nation-state, has suddenly been recognised by them as the totem of a people in revolt. After being in the cold for almost two years, the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) seems to have bounced back in favour. Today, even as the popular elected government of Jammu and Kashmir finds itself reduced to being a mere bystander-passively watching the troubled state gradually slide down into a deep, dark abyss of despair and hopelessness-the Centre has decided to touch base with the Hurriyat. Says a top-ranking official involved in track-II diplomacy: "Obviously, New Delhi knows that peace cant be brought to Kashmir without roping in the Hurriyat. Besides, international pressure has also come to bear on it."
It was in late 1993 that the Hurriyat, an umbrella group of militant leaders of diverse political persuasions, was formed to act as the political voice of the independence movement in the Kashmir Valley. It was also around that time that a militant siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar ended peacefully; an event which catapulted the organisation into reckoning.
In the early years, conflict and rivalries among the insurgent groups sparked off frequent clashes and often prevented the militants from coordinating their operations. The Hurriyat filled that gap. Its ability to organise hartals, protest-marches and demonstrations in the Valley at a moments notice indicated its increasing prominence. And as the antagonism between the Kashmiris and security forces intensified in those years, the Hurriyats role of being the representative voice grew.
But then, when a two-month-long standoff between militants and the army at the Chrar-e-Sharif shrine in May 1995 ended in a disaster, it was the beginning of the Hurriyats slide. Somehow, the umbrella group found itself unable to match the oppressive state machinery which was thwarting and impeding its operations.
Says a human rights activist: "Intra-Hurriyat rivalries also stymied its effectiveness. Corruption charges added to its tainted image." It was, however, the internecine bickerings that eroded its mass base.
There were significant differences on what role Islam should play in their struggle for independence. There were inconsistencies too in their opinion on how the jehad should be taken ahead. But more importantly, the root of the Hurriyats problems lay in a divergence of views among its seven frontline executive members on whether to accede to Pakistan or fight for an independent Kashmir.
An election foisted by the Centre on an unwilling electorate in 1996 alienated the Kashmiris further, but the Hurriyat did precious little to grab that political space. It called for a boycott of the polls which were held in an atmosphere of fear and violence. People were herded in like cattle to polling booths and even though some polling stations in militant strongholds recorded a zero turnout, the official figure showed a 40 per cent polling. Exclaims former chairperson of the Hurriyat Mirwaiz Umer Farooq: "How could we protest? Our activities were forcibly stopped by the government." Umer, who is a newcomer to the hurly-burly of Valley politics, is according to Kashmir watchers, yet to be tested. He is very young and his widowed mother is fiercely protective about him. It was quite by accident that the Mirwaizs responsibility fell on his shoulders after his father, who held the position, was assassinated in 1991.
Then there are some who believe that the reputation of the Hurriyat had already nosedived, after it had been unable to mobilise people as intensively as before. Says a CPI(m) leader: "Somehow, they stood discredited and their collective reputation dipped."
Charges of hawala transactions seemed to have dented their image further. For example, the authorities discovered that a vegetable vendor outside Abdul Ghani Lones house was operating a bank account where huge amounts of money were being pumped in. Lones justification before the court, when a case was filed, was that the public was raising money (Alamdar funds) for the reconstruction of the gutted Chrar-e-Sharif shrine. Right through the troubled phase of militancy, the families of the Hurriyat leaders seemed unaffected. On the contrary, some, which included the hardliners, even flourished. The only person whose image remained untainted is Yasin Malik of the JKLF.
The blow to their credibility notwithstanding, the Hurriyat has managed to endear itself to some influential lobbies in the US. It started off with former assistant secretary of state Robin Raphaels statements favouring the Hurriyat-though some even attribute it to the delicious gushtaba she was served at Lones house.
Over the years the Hurriyat has managed to get several backers such as Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmir American Council and Farooq Kathwari of the Kashmir Study Group for its cause. They are the ones who have urged successive governments in New Delhi to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Hurriyat. Says a New Delhi-based senior bureaucrat: "Its through some of these lobbyists that the Hurriyats shrill voice is heard in the international arena, whenever a peace process is initiated."
Therefore, the freeing of the 25 Hurriyat leaders from the Jodhpur central jail in April this year, after nearly eight months of incarceration, need not necessarily be interpreted as a magnanimous gesture on the Union governments part. They had been put behind bars for having urged a boycott of the 1999 general elections.
But just how much will the Hurriyat retreat on its rigid position? And how much will it allow itself to be accommodated as the Centre hopes to seek a political alternative to Farooq Abdullah? "We have no answers to these questions. First of all, a congenial atmosphere has to be created and secondly let the offer come," says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Hurriyat chairman and a hardliner. But home minister L K. Advani, after spelling out that he was willing to talk to the Hurriyat within the framework of the Constitution, has not gone beyond. However, he has added that the idea of releasing the Hurriyat leaders was to "draw a line between policy towards Pakistan and dissident groups within the country".
On the other hand, the Hurriyat, at least, in its public posturing, still remains firm on unconditional tripartite talks involving India, itself and Pakistan. Says Lone: "As long as the talks do not address the basic problem of Azad Kashmir, they will be futile."
That might be a tough call for the BJP-led government, considering the immense pressures that it will be under from its coalition partners and more significantly, from the RSS. "Considering that its unwilling to even concede autonomy, how much will it yield to the Hurriyat," exclaims an National Conference minister.
But even if the talks do take place and parameters spelt out, there is every possibility that opportunistic deals might be cut within constituents of the Hurriyat. "There is a possibility that one political interest can be promoted," said an official. Especially since there is no internal consensus among the Hurriyat components as to what should be the approach towards resolving the Kashmir problem. In such a situation, one can only await confusion.