Interview With Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Chief Muslim Cleric Of Kashmir and chairman of Hurriyat Conference

Dec 15th, 2014 | Category: Articles

By Yusuf Jameel

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, 40, is the Chief Muslim cleric (Mirwaiz) of Indian-administered Kashmir and chairman of a faction of the Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of Kashmiri political parties and groups seeking right to self-determination for the people of the scenic Himalayan region in dispute between India and Pakistan and over which the two South Asian neighbours have fought two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

Farooq spoke to Yusuf Jameel while under house arrest at his Srinagar residence, a day before a fourth phase of general elections in restive Jammu and Kashmir as the official name of the part of the state under New Delhi’s control goes. The Hurriyat Conference and other separatist parties had asked people to boycott these elections on the premise the exercise held under the framework of Indian Constitution can’t be substitute to United Nations promised plebiscite. But a large number of residents, undeterred by stepped-up violent acts by militants and in defiance of the boycott diktat, have turned up to vote.

Excerpts of that interview follow:

Q: Majority of voters has rejected the poll boycott call from separatist leadership. Don’t you think you are pursuing a misplaced strategy or have failed to convince the people on the logic behind your diktat?

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: There is no denying of the fact that in the current elections people have voted in huge numbers. I think there are a couple of very specific reasons for it. One is; you are having these elections after a major flood tragedy struck the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It was a catastrophic situation for the people where not only the government but every other institution of the state collapsed. There was absolutely no set up on the ground where people could reach out to seek help in terms of relief or rehabilitation. People as well as the resistance leadership have realized that you need some sort of governance and an administration on the ground which can address the basic needs of the population.

As far as the Hurriyat Conference, we are not against the elections as we don’t oppose any democratic process. We oppose elections because the Government of India (GoI) has projected these elections as a substitute and an alternative to political settlement of Kashmir which it absolutely is not. It is an election and vote for better governance, to address people’s grievances, the issues they face in their day to day life-sadak, bijli, pani (roads, electricity and drinking water). In that context, the Hurriyat doesn’t oppose it but, as you might have seen, every time elections are conducted the GoI, at the national as well International levels, gives this impression that it is vote for India.

Recently when Mr. Arun Jaitley (India’s Finance Minister) was in Kashmir he also spoke on the same lines. After the 2008 elections, when Indian Foreign Minister, SM Krishna, went to the UN he also said that there is no need for holding a referendum in Kashmir because India does it after every five years. So there has to be a distinction between the two. Elections held for electing a local government have to be segregated from the bigger issue of Kashmir.

Q: Don’t you think yours was a half-hearted effort? You issued an appeal for poll boycott, but did not campaign for it as such.

MUF: No, we did. Hundreds of our workers have been jailed for that reason only. I’ve been placed under house arrest and even prevented from discharging my duties as the religious head of Kashmir. Why?

Q: Syed Salahuddin, the chief of militant outfits alliance United Jihad Council, recently suggested the resistance leadership should revisit its decision and deliberate on whether elections held to elect J&K Assembly or representatives for Indian Parliament is an issue. Do you think this could be the face saving?

MUF: Honestly speaking in the contest of Hurriyat and other resistance leadership, I don’t think there is any face-saving scenario there. We don’t have to keep denying the leadership or the resistance is losing its relevance and people are happy with the status quo.

I will quote just two examples. The highest number of voter turnout in the history of Jammu and Kashmir was recorded during the 1987 elections. Just after those elections you saw the militancy and the start of armed struggle. In 2008 elections overall percentage as claimed by GoI was around 67 percent but only after a year you saw the civil unrest. So I don’t think there is any bar with which you can gauge whether the resistance or separatist leadership has lost its relevance or become weak on the ground. These are two separate issues and we have to treat them as two separate issues.

I do agree with Salahuddin but then elections, for us in the Hurriyat, are non-issue. Yes, for some of our other friends, it is something related to the Kashmir issue which, I think, it is not because Kashmiri resistance movement is based on certain historical facts and one of these is the relevant United Nations resolutions and those resolutions categorically state that no election whether for Assembly or Indian Parliament is going to have any impact on the disputed nature of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet I think time has probably come when the resistance leadership should sit and devise a proper mechanism in terms of how to deal with this situation.

Q: How soon are you going to do it?

MUF: It is to be done and I believe in the current scenario two or three important factors are there. First it is to be seen how the GoI projects these elections. All the parties in election fray and other stakeholders have categorically stated that these elections are only for forming a government which will provide the people basic amenities and address other administrative issues. That is something which Hurriyat obviously is not going to be part of.

Q: Elections to elect local governments are also held in Pakistani-administered-Kashmir and you never objected to it?

MUF: That part of our state called Azad Kashmir also is part of the dispute as it is an inseparable part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed in August 1947. The people living there are also part of bigger struggle and part of the bigger picture. The relationship between that side of Kashmir and Pakistan is still legally temporary and so is the relationship between this side of Kashmir and New Delhi. So I think a bigger picture has to be drawn by the resistance leadership not only on this side of Kashmir but also on the other side. We need to involve all the regions and all the people of Jammu and Kashmir. A new strategy is to be adopted pretty soon.

Q: It is being said that the then Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, had also advised the Hurriyat Conference leadership to join the election fray way back in 2002. If true, why didn’t you agree to it then?

MUF: It is not true. I think what Pakistan was looking for at that time was Mr. Musharraf’s 4-Point formula wherein he talked about open borders, demilitarization, trade, people to people contact, self-governance and joint mechanism. That definitely could have been a good beginning and where we could have built up to move further but unfortunately it did not get the kind of response it should have from GoI. Eventually Mr. Musharraf had had his own set of problems. We still believe his is a good proposal to start with.

As for the Hurriyat, I repeat, the bigger issue is not elections. Our focus and our area of interest is resolution of Kashmir issue.

Obviously the Hurriyat is not in a position to make roads or provide education or health care. You need a local system, a local government for that. Hurriyat will solely focus on the resolution of the Kashmir issue and help India and Pakistan in arriving at an amicable solution after involving the people of Kashmir. If there are some proposals and some suggestions like the Musharraf proposal we are ready to consider them. These can serve as starting point and we can then think of moving forward. But that is related to the bigger question. As far elections, it is a very small issue for us. Hurriyat can’t be part of that.

Q: If you are able to delink elections from what say you is freedom struggle will the Hurriyat also participate, may be indirectly, or, at least, doesn’t stop people from voting as per their own choice?

MUF: It is to be seen. We haven’t deliberated on this issue as yet. You need a broader consensus on this issue. But one thing is very clear. The Hurriyat is not going to be a part of any governance mechanism neither now nor in future. The mandate it has from the people is only about the resolution of the issue of Kashmir. We will continue to strive for that. We don’t see ourselves involved in local day to day problems or issues. Yes, if there is a better mechanism where in people can have an accountable government which may address their day to day problems we may discuss it and decide at an appropriate time. In the current situation, all the resistance leaders and groups including the Hurriyat will not be a part of an election process which is used to create the impression that it is a vote for India. Unless that context changes, that reality changes, Hurriyat is not going to be part of this mechanism.

Q: If BJP is voted to power in J&K on its own or as part of an alliance with a regional party, be it PDP or Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference, would you then regret your decision of staying away from contesting?

MUF: No doubt the induction of BJP in politics of elections in Kashmir has also given a very new dimension to the whole exercise. That is the reason why at many places large number of people came out to vote. They also felt there is need to keep the BJP away. There are two takes on that; one is the BJP and RSS have hidden agenda on Kashmir. The RSS has very openly talked about Indian-isation of Kashmir which obviously means making it part of its Hindutva agenda and total integration of Kashmir in mainland India.

Secondly, there is also this thought there that let the enemy be in open. Yet the fact remains whether it is the Congress, National Conference or, for that matter, even the Peoples’ Democratic Party, all have always looked towards New Delhi. Their decisions have been influenced by people sitting in the corridors of power in Delhi whether it is AFSPA or Afzal Guru (hanging). Some of them back home talk about autonomy and some talk about self-rule but the fact remains that these are all delusions to come to power as never ever have they pursued these seriously and sincerely. It doesn’t really bother us too much because in any case it is New Delhi’s policy which is always endorsed and accepted by whosoever is proxy ruler of Kashmir. So it doesn’t make any big difference.

If the BJP comes into power in J&K what worse can they let the people of Kashmir to see as they have been through so much of pain, agony and sufferings over the past 25 years? At end of the day, it is still the Indian Army which calls the shots. Ours is still a police state though with a democratic tag. It will be a challenge to the people if the BJP comes into power as the lines will very clearly be drawn and they will have to think about their national integrity, culture, ethos and religious identity. The challenge will be very open. Let it be so.

Q: You have been repeatedly saying the Hurriyat Conference is ready to talk to the GoI towards seeking an amicable solution to Kashmir issue but the new dispensation in New Delhi doesn’t seem to be interested. Where do we go from here?

MUF: True, the BJP is out with a very hard-line policy not only vis-à-vis Kashmir but also Pakistan. Talks have been stalled and the Hurriyat has been made a scapegoat in that. We know they are trying to push the Hurriyat to the wall. They are trying to wreck its leadership. They are trying to isolate Pakistan. It seems to be their policy right now. Unfortunately at the world level also there is not much push to the India-Pakistan dialogue. India is seen as a huge economic opportunity by every country. They don’t talk about human rights. They don’t talk about people’s problems on the ground. I think these issues are there. But at the end of the day what matters is the aspirations of the people of any region but since we are talking in the context of Kashmir let me say India may have the resources, the capability, the numbers and a huge army with which it may continue with the status quo for a long time but the bigger question is to what end.

The fact remains that in the peak of militancy there was not so much of isolation and so much of anger against India in our new generation here. Kashmir movement has graduated to a level where it is not necessary we should be seen every day having a hartal (shutdown) or out on the streets throwing stones.

I think the Kashmir struggle has now been so much internalized. It is now at a stage where educated lot is out in open supporting the cause be it on the Internet, bloggers, writers, social media. People are talking openly about their aspirations and their identity. I don’t think that is going to go away. I think the more GoI tries to push the youth and the leadership towards the wall probably the higher response is going to be there. During the past decade especially since 2008, Hurriyat and the rest of the resistance leadership have tried to keep the movement peaceful and non-violent. But we now see the trend again in Kashmiri boys turning to militancy. We have had a number of instances wherein Kashmiris, the educated and skilled youth and those from well-off families, turning to the gun and joining militancy. The GoI has to realise that they cannot suppress the people of Kashmir for a long time to come. Yes they might continue with it for next four to five years or maybe ten years but at the end of the day people are very much committed to the struggle and the problem is not going to go away. Pakistan may have internal issues but it continues to be a party to the dispute.

Q: We were talking about breaking the ice…

MUF: There are many factors that we have not seen any movement forward but as far as Hurriyat is concerned we are committed to the fact that we will take this peaceful movement forward and in that context if there are opportunities to engage with both India and Pakistan we will do so. But if India comes forth with the policy of pushing the people with their policies we will resist it very openly and very sharply.

Q: What went wrong? Why couldn’t the talks that were being held between the Hurriyat Conference and New Delhi be taken to logical conclusion?

MUF: Just after we saw the (then Prime Minister Atal Behari) Vajpayee initiative launched, the BJP lost the elections and then Congress came into power. Unfortunately, the Congress could not take that process forward. They had had many opportunities to engage and to talk. The last meeting we had with Prime Minister was way back in 2007 at which we gave some suggestions and proposals to the GoI. But seven to eight years have lapsed and nothing has moved. Not a single suggestion or the proposal the Hurriyat gave has been accepted or taken forward. (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh had, at least, six years of power where he could have consolidated that process, he could have engaged with the Kashmiris and Pakistan to take the process forward.

One must say that the credit has to be given where it is due. When Mr. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister he talked about shedding the beating track. He talked about the ambit of humanity. Those were the words which gave a large meaning to India’s policy regarding Kashmir. Even when the elections were being held in India recently we were also of the view that if the BJP comes in power we may hope they will revisit the Vajpayee initiative and focus on that. Although Mr. Narendra Modi as Prime Minister spoke about that when he was in Kashmir recently but we could see that the essence of that message was missing. Let the (J&K Assembly) election be over. Let us wait and see what kind of the policy the BJP government is going to pursue.

Q: But Hurriyat has also failed on many fronts?

MUF: There were missed opportunities from both the sides and I think when we talk about the Vajpayee initiative nobody talks about the 2008 and 2009 agitations which had thrown up opportunities also for the resistance leadership. Unfortunately, it could not find a proper policy in terms of taking that movement forward. We need to have a very focused and a very gradual approach towards the dispute. There have been mis-chances from both the sides.

Q: What were suggestions and proposals that you gave to the government and did you give them in writing?

MUF: They were not exactly in writing. It was through back channels and through proper channels, what you call non-papers for exchange. Suggestions were made on same lines. For example the issues like AFSPA, demilitarization from the cities and towns and gradual removal of bunkers, watch towers and barricades. The issues like accountability on human rights violations and people to people contact across the LoC were also raised. But whether there has been Congress or for that matter any other party, they do talk about engagement on political level but when it comes to taking some hard decisions on ground they back off. They continue to approach the problem militarily rather than politically.

Q: Pakistan Prime Minister, Mian Nawaz Sharief, has reiterated that before the talks between Islamabad and New Delhi his country would continue with its practice of consulting the Kashmiri resistance leadership. But India has put its foot down and refused to be part of any dialogue process that sticks to such precedent. How can the impasse be ended?

MUF: It is very unfortunate that the GoI has taken a totally unreasonable and undiplomatic position. You have to understand that India and Pakistan have been talking on Kashmir issue and on how to find an amicable solution to it. How can that solution evade the people of Kashmir?

The Hurriyat has always welcomed the idea of Pakistan and India engaging others as well be it militant leadership or, for that matter, the pro Indian leadership. Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah also went to Pakistan to meet the leadership there. So it is not that the Hurriyat is of the view that the Pakistanis and the Indians should talk to only us. We believe they have to involve the leaderships on the both sides of the ceasefire line. But it is very unfortunate that the GoI made Pakistanis meeting with us an issue at that juncture. The Hurriyat has always tried to contribute towards this process. We don’t want to be seen as spoilers. We want to be there as contributors. It should have been a very non-issue for the GoI that Hurriyat was meeting the Pakistanis. We have been meeting the Pakistanis and they have been talking to us for a long time and, in fact, it is very ironical that the same BJP government which before eight years facilitated our travel to Pakistan and gave us passports should object. We talked to the government here; we talked to the government there. At that time, there was the view that we should talk to both Pakistan and India.

I think somehow this policy being perused by the new government in Delhi has to be changed. As far as Hurriyat is concerned, this is not a point of prestige for us that we have to meet every time the Pakistanis before they talk to India. The whole concept it; let everybody talk to everyone. If the Pakistanis talk to us after they meet the Indians it does not make a difference. India should know this redline is not going to work. It is actually about the people of Kashmir. They are not drum-driven cattle that they would be taken for granted. India and Pakistan both have to take the people of Kashmir onboard, engage with the leadership of Kashmir and have to take everybody into confidence. The impasse should be broken and India should adopt a realistic approach on Kashmir. They should not only to talk with Kashmiris but also facilitate their leadership’s engagement with Pakistan.

Q: And you are ready to do your bit as you said you would not insist on meeting the visiting Pakistani leaders before they meet their Indian counterparts but can also meet them later?

MUF: As long as we also are there as part of the process and consulted on relevant issues it doesn’t matter who talks with whom first.

Q: BJP is trying hard to improve its image among the Indian Muslims and, on the other hand, selective voices are being raised from within the community that Narendra Modi and Sangh Parivar should now be forgiven for issues like the Gujarat riots and a new beginning made. Do you subscribe to this view?

MUF: I think there is no denying of the fact that what happened in Gujarat was horrendous. It was a crime against humanity. Unfortunately the fact remains justice has not been done in that case. I mean that remains a big question mark before overall integrity and the issue of tolerance in India. It is for the BJP what course they want to take. It is for them to decide do they want to be seen as accommodative vis-à-vis the minorities or not.

The fact, however, remains the RSS and the BJP, the nexus of the two, is still being seen by many minorities as the policy of victimisation. What happened at Agra a few days ago? The BJP is the state of India. It is the government. When the government is encouraging these divisive forces, the forces which are spreading hatred, there obviously will be reaction from the other side. I don’t think those wounds and those scars could be healed if this is the policy of the state. I think it is for the BJP government to decide, and for the leadership to decide what course they want to take and how the minorities can be accommodated and if at all they want to accommodate the minorities or not.

Q: What happened to renewed effort at uniting the pro-azadi leadership? Pakistan had also insisted that you should go to the outside world as one united voice?

MUF: Definitely it would be in the interest of the Kashmiris if the Hurriyat and all other resistance leadership be on the same platform. I have tried for it in the past and I can continue to try for it. But there are some issues on which people have adopted different approaches and I don’t see really that that should be a point of confrontation. I believe that it can be a strategy as well. Let us keep it that way.

As far as the basic goal is concerned, every party is of the same opinion that yes ultimately it is the people of Kashmir who should be in a position to assert their view whether some support Pakistan, some are for independent Kashmir or favour a gradual or step by step approach to achieve the ultimate. Yes the Kashmiris ought to be involved, must be asked what they want. I don’t think the issue of disunity is something because of which Kashmir issue is not being resolved or it is an impediment towards moving forward. There are differences of opinion mainly on issues related to how we should move forward, about engagement, about issues like Musharraf’s proposals, out of the box solutions, etc. Some say these are workable, others say we should go by the traditional approaches. I don’t think why that should be cause of concern. Let us have our own strategies. On the bigger issue we are one and on the same page.

Q: Some of the Hurriyat Conference leaders seem to be sailing in two boats. They are with the freedom cause but, at the same time, covertly supporting individuals in the elections. Don’t you think such behaviour sends wrong message out and affects your credibility?

MUF: It does, definitely. We have to have a very clear position and stand on every issue. As far as the Hurriyat is concerned, the elections continue to be a non-issue. We can’t be a part of this process. Every constituent of the amalgam has to abide by that. Yes, we know there are differences in the families. In some, we have seen that a brother is pitched against another. That has been the case in many resistance parties as well. Our policy continues to be one I explained and unless and until that policy changes no one should try to be part of election process even remotely or covertly.

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