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He literally kept Jama’at-e-Islami alive after its entire leadership was jailed post-1987 state assembly results. Mohammad Raafi talks to Mohammad Ashraf Khan to know his side of Jama’at story

 Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai

(Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai)

In November 1986 Mohammad Ashraf Khan, alias Sehrai, was released from Central Jail Jammu after serving one year detention under Public Safety Act (PSA) for “talking about freedom of Kashmir”.

By then, the ground situation in the valley had changed completely as Muslim United Front (MUF) was formed. When 1987 elections were announced, Sehrai was at his home in Kupwara. Sehrai and (Syed Ali) Geelani’s release was part of “goodwill gesture” after Rajiv-Farooq accord paved way for elections. “I was kept in Jammu jail on G M Shah’s (then CM of Kashmir) insistence, as he knew keeping me and Geelani in the same jail meant trouble,” recalls Sehrai, now secretary general of Geelani led Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (The duo formed TeH after an agreement with Jama’at-e-Islami in 2004). “He (Shah) feared that Geelani and I discuss politics and plan things when together,” recalls Sehrai. Geelani was lodged in Srinagar jail because he was a heart patient.

A day before Sehrai and Geelani’s release, Abdul Gani Lone (People’s Conference) was also set free.

“When MUF decided to fight elections. I along with Geelani sahab objected. But, G M Bhat, the then Ameer-e-Jama’at compelled us to fight on disciplinary grounds,” claims Sehrai.

Syed Ali Geelani
Syed Ali Geelani

Meanwhile, Lone approached MUF and he was granted entry. “Lone sought Kupwara, Bandipora, Baramulla and Rafiabad seats,” says Sehrai, who was to contest from Kupwara assembly seat. “The leadership approached me and told me about Lone’s demand, and I readily agreed to withdraw my candidature,” he says, “It was not an issue for me.”

However, Sehrai claims, Ameer-e-Jama’at (GM) Bhat’s close friend, a fruit merchant named Abdul Majid Bhat was fighting from Rafiabad on MUF ticket. “Thus Bhat didn’t agree to Lone’s demand,” claims Sehrai. Bhat’s refusal to accept Lone’s demand resulted in rift between PC and MUF. “That is why Bhat expelled Lone from MUF,” says Sehrai. Later Lone’s PC fought elections independent of MUF.

Analysts believe Lone’s expulsion from MUF became major reason for its failure in North Kashmir. “Had PC been the part of MUF we could have defeated NC comfortably in north,” believes Sehrai.

While it is debatable how many seats MUF would have won if elections would have been free and fair, Sehrai believes they had potential to emerge as a “strong opposition”. “We could have bagged around 20 seats comfortably,” claims Sehrai. “Widespread rigging and state’s highhandedness decimated MUF.”

Sehrai alleges that when results were declared Muhammad Yousuf Shah, now Salahuddin, got what was actually bagged by Mohiuddin Shah (NC). “Yousuf Shah was declared runner up instead of being winner,” claims Sehrai.

During campaigning, Sehrai, who was known for his oratory skills, enjoyed huge public support. He quotes a Kashmir Times (KT) poll dairy about his constituency to make his point. “KT had praised my oratory skills and mentioned how people used to come in thousands to listen to my speeches,” says Sehrai.

Newly elected Amir-I-Jama'at J&K, Gh Muhammad Bhat (fifth from right) addressing press in Srinagar on Thursday. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)
Gh Muhammad Bhat (fifth from right) addressing press in Srinagar after returning as Ameer-e-Jama’at-e-Islami in 2015. (KL file Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Sehrai recalls how once a Jama’at member told him that an IB officer in-charge of elections in Kupwara told him: “Badi takreerain karta hai (He is a good orator). But one thing is clear, Qoam dushman ko hum kabi apne aiwaan mai aane nahi denge (we will never let an anti-national enter our assembly).”

Sehrai style of campaigning was different from other MUF contestants.  “I would first discuss Islam and politics, and then Kashmir issue. Then I would respond to the mud-slinging of the opposition leaders,” recalls Sehrai. “Hum Islami nukt-e-nazar pesh karte thay (we would present Islamic point of view). We never made fake promises.”

Sehrai would tell people, if he won, he will ensure a corruption free system, and work for development of people irrespective of their political ideology. “The largest gathering I addressed was in Kupwara main Chowk, attended by almost 30 thousand people,” claims Sehrai.

During the course of campaigning, Lone resorted to baseless propaganda, says Sehrai. “Earlier Lone approached me with an offer to fight elections on PC ticket. He offered me Rs 50 thousand and a house, and everything I needed to fight election,” claims Sehrai, “I rejected.” “Even NC had approached me with the same offer.”

Immediately after the results were declared, MUF leaders, including Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, Maulana Abbas Ansari, G M Bhat and others were arrested.  “This led to leadership crisis in Jama’at,” recalls Sehrai who was in Kupwara that time. The next day after the results were declared, Geelani, who was declared winner from Sopore, along with Hissamuddin Banday, paid Sehrai a visit. “They asked me come to Srinagar.” Sehrai had lost from Kupwara seat.

In a few days, when Sehrai reached Jama’at’s office in Batmaloo, he found it locked down. “It was occupied by BSF men. Nobody was allowed to enter the building.”

Disturbed by the changed situation, Sehrai, along with Geelani met other Jama’at men at Ghulam Nabi Nowshehri’s house in Zoonimar. Nowshehri, a Jama’at member, too was arrested. “There, Geelani was unanimously elected as acting Ameer-e-Jama’at and I was elected Secretary General.”

After the meeting was over, Sehrai and Geelani along with Hissamuddin Banday decided to meet P S Gill, then SSP Srinagar. “We wanted to bring into his notice the closure of Jama’at office.”

P S Gill
P S Gill

Gill told them that Jama’at office was sealed because of reports that “there are weapons stored inside”. The confusion was because of Aijaz Dar, Muhammad Yousuf Shah’s bodyguard, who carried a licensed gun during campaigning.

Finally,  after 15 days Jama’at office was reopened and it started working under Geelani and Sehrai.

Then, one Friday Geelani addressed a congregation in Sopore and demanded inquiry into the alleged bungling in the functioning of Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam-a trust managed by locals of Sopore. This led to a fight between NC and Jama’at workers. Geelani and other Jama’at workers were arrested and lodged in Baramulla jail.

Meanwhile, in Srinagar, Janta Party (JP) had sent a delegation to meet MUF leaders, mainly Qazi Nisar. “They told Nisar and other MUF leaders that they are aware about mass rigging in elections.  They had assured MUF to help dissolve the government and form an alliance.”

Already, there had been a series of meetings between MUF leaders and Janta Party representatives, he said.

Janta Party wanted all MUF constituents parties’ presidents and general secretaries to be present in the meeting. “Since Geelani was under arrest, I preferred not to go. Besides, I had inputs that something fishy is happening behind the scenes.”

Sehrai’s fears came true when MUF announced in a joint press conference in Srinagar. “I was informed over phone about the press conference by Movli Abbas Ansari.”

People's Conference founder, Ab Gani Lone
People’s Conference founder, Ab Gani Lone

In the press conference, “MUF leaders declared Accession of Kashmir with the union of India as final. MUF leaders stressed on need for development etc.,” recalls Sehrai, who didn’t attend the conference. “I was angry. I reacted by issuing a press-note stating Jama’at’s position. It was carried by all newspapers the next day.”

Sehrai’s response to MUF’s press conference was welcomed by Jama’at’s jailed leaders and sympathizers. “I was hailed by one and all for saving MUF’s face.”

Irked by Sehrai’s response, the next meet was scheduled at Islamabad. Sehrai didn’t go, instead directed Ameer-e-Zila Sheikh Ghulam Hassan to attend on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Farooq Abdullah ordered release of “moderate” political prisoners including G M Bhat of Jama’at. Around same time MUF expelled Jama’at from the party. “I was in Karnah when I came to know about  expulsion of Jama’at from MUF by Abbas Ansari.” Next day MUF was completely disintegrated.

After his release G M Bhat, the elected Ameer-e-Jama’at, headed straight to Jama’at office at Batamaloo where Sehrai was working alone during his absence. “He (Bhat) told me that I will leave for Sopore tomorrow to spend some time with his family.”

Bhat told Sehrai that he will be back in a few days to rejoin his duties as Ameer-e-Jama’at. But, to Sehrai’s surprise, next morning Bhat was back in Jama’at office. “He started shouting at me, as if I had taken his chair.” Sehrai, instead of saying anything directed Bhat to his office and left. “I went back to Kupwara.”

After one month, Bhat paid Sehrai a visit at his Kupwara home, asking him to rejoin the office. “It was childish on his part. I refused.”

After some months, Sehrai was elected as Ameer-e-Zila Kupwara.

After a few days, a meeting was called at Ghulam Nabi Sumji’s residence in Bijbehara. “Given the mass rigging and subsequent arrests, the discussion was whether MUF’s MLAs should attend assembly session or not.”

While some of the members were in favour of attending the assembly session, others opposed it without reservation. “But the majority was in favour of MUF attending the assembly. ”

MUF’s elected MLAs finally resigned in July 1989 except Abdul Razaq Mir (Bachru), after militancy started in Kashmir.

Dr Ghulam Qadir Wani
Dr Ghulam Qadir Wani

During Jama’at’s state wide convention of Arakeen (basic members) in Baramulla, G M Bhat, then Ameer-e-Jama’at, was openly criticized for “failing” both Tehreek (movement) and Tanzeem (party). Dr Ghulam Qadir Wani, the brain behind MUF, termed Bhat’s time “as depressing and discouraging for Jama’at”, remembers Sehrai.

In July 1988, Hakeem Ghulam Nabi, from Shopian, replaced Bhat as Ameer-e-Jama’at. Both Sehrai and Geelani became Shura (Advisory council) members. On August 15, 1988, Hakeem called Markazi Shura Ijlaas to elect new office bearers. “I wrote a letter to Hakeem Sahab telling him to take serious note of what had happened at Baramulla. I also told him that I don’t need any position in new setup.”

However, Sehrai was elected Secretary General of Jama’at by a majority vote. “I worked for 6 months as on this position.”

Moulana Abbas Anasari
Maulana Abbas Ansari

Meanwhile, Rajiv Gandhi visited Pakistan to meet Benazir Bhutto, who in order to please her Indian counterpart got Kashmir related banners removed from Islamabad. “Rajiv told a dinner meet hosted by Benazir that Kashmir issue is solved as people came out in large numbers to vote recently (1987 J&K state elections). Benazir didn’t mention 1987 election rigging even once, infuriating people in Kashmir.”

Sehrai, as Secretary General of Jama’at, issued a presser criticising both Rajiv and Benazir. “This presser was widely carried by both local and international media.”

Sehrai had criticised Shimla Agreement terming it as a way to promote status quo, turning Line of Control into permanent border. “Infuriated, government ordered my arrest.”

Angered, Hakeem wrote a letter to Sehrai and asked him to back-off from his statement. And, in spring of 1989, Sehrai was jailed, again.

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