Kashmir's politics of irrelevance

Sushant SinghA delegation of the Mirwaiz faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference from Jammu and Kashmir was on a week-long visit to Pakistan last week. Hurriyat (M) is often referred to the moderate faction of the separatists while the hardline faction is headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Except for personal differences, this division is superficial. Both the factions are puppets of Pakistan, rabidly anti-India and loudly proclaim to “speak for the Kashmiris”.

On what grounds does the Hurriyat claim to speak for the Kashmiris? What is the basis of its legitimacy?

The Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of more than two-dozen separatist parties, was formed in 1993 when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. Robin Raphael, who was a Counselor for Political Affairs in the US Embassy in Delhi from 1991 to 1993 and subsequently became the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs in the Clinton Administration, had extensive meetings with separatist leaders heading individual outfits. She motivated them to get together under one banner, to provide a political facade to Pakistan-backed militancy in the state. The Hurriyat split in 2003, ostensibly over the issue of dummy candidates put up by some Hurriyat constituents in 2002 state assembly elections, but the real reasons were ego problems and personal differences between its leaders.

The basis of Hurriyat’s legitimacy is not its popular support in the state. Since its formation, it has never contested any elections and its calls for boycott of elections have been consistently rebuffed by the people. With the decline in militancy, even its calls for protests, shutdowns and demonstrations have stopped evoking a response. Clearly, people were not responding to their calls earlier, but were coerced by the fear of the gun.

Hurriyat is not Kashmir’s voice. It is Pakistan’s voice in Kashmir. And that is precisely the source of its legitimacy. With Pakistan’s backing, Hurriyat leaders have been provided a platform by organisations like the OIC. Kashmir Centre run by ISI agent Ghulam Nabi Fai in Washington DC, and other such fronts in Europe have also done their bit to internationally build the Hurriyat as a political voice from Kashmir.

No less guilty are the Indian journalists and commentators who have been taken in by this Pakistani propaganda. This resulted in India’s then home minister, LK Advani holding two rounds of talks with the Mirwaiz faction of the Hurriyat in 2004. The UPA government also held back-channel talks with the Hurriyat, especially in the wake of Musharraf’s four-point plan on Kashmir, but the events in Pakistan overtook such plans.

Leaders like Geelani and Mirwaiz do have their pockets of influence but they are restricted to very small areas in Sopore and Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley. Even Kashmir Valley by itself forms just one part of the erstwhile princely state of J&K, which also includes Jammu, Ladakh, and Gilgit-Baltistan and other areas illegally occupied by Pakistan. Pakistan has gifted a large portion of territory to China and has settled Pakistanis in the part of Kashmir under its occupation but the Hurriyat leaders have been conspicuously silent about it.

Meanwhile, Mirwaiz’s visit to Pakistan has raised a storm in the teacup in Kashmir. A lot of ink has been spilled in explaining and contesting his reasons for going to Pakistan. His reasons for the visit include an assessment of the impact of US pullout in 2014 from Afghanistan, and to be included in the bilateral talks between India and Pakistan as a third party on Kashmir. But the real reason, as many contend, is to stay in the limelight.

Geelani claims that he was also invited by Pakistan but he declined that invitation. His reason: “it is going to be a traditional kind of a visit”. Most observers believe the reason to be a more selfish one: Pakistan’s refusal to accept Geelani as the sole leader of the separatists. In a touch of brazen hypocrisy, Geelani’s anger has been directed at the Mirwaiz faction for travelling to Pakistan while avoiding criticising Pakistan for extending that invitation. But that is typical of the man who is at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi every time a Pakistani minister or diplomat comes visiting.

A decline in terrorist violence and record increase in tourism has marked the slow return of normalcy to J&K. Democratic politics is taking deeper roots in the state. This has left the separatists unnerved. They are fighting an uphill battle for their relevance. India must do all it can to help them lose that battle.

Sushant K Singh is a Fellow for National Security at the Takhashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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