With the separatist triumvirate taking an anti-talk stand, Prof Abdu Gani Bhat emerged out of margins to defend his meeting with Delhi’s point man Dineshwar Sharma. Is the “challenge” to the Joint Resistance Leadership the beginning of new fragmentation of the anti-India camp, asks Khursheed Wani
For around five months in 2016 after the killing of BurhanWani in July, the separatists ruled the roost in Kashmir. Despite unprecedented curbs imposed by the government on their physical movement and contact with the people through virtual media, they spearheaded a massive anti-India public uprising. Their weekly ‘calendars kept the Valley on a boil and disallowed the state government led by Mehbooba Mufti to focus on anything but law and order.
A year later, the separatists are not in a commanding position. Except for one-odd shutdown call on a handy issue, which evokes a mixed response, they have by and large, lost grip on the situation and fissures in their camp are prominently visible. The state’s long arm has invested a great deal to shatter them. Their objective to render the camp ineffective, fragmented and submissive does not appear to be unfulfilling.
By the end November, the State Police Chief announced they have killed 200 militants in 11 months of a sustained campaign against the insurgency. This figure is the highest in seven years. Scores of the slain militants are those who picked arms after Wani’s death.
During the same week, Delhi’s special representative on Jammu and Kashmir, Dineshwar Sharma arrived on his second visit and met a battery of separatist leaders, albeit clandestinely. The meetings took place despite a clear-cut refusal of the most influential separatist leaders on engaging with Sharma, the man who as Intelligence Bureau (IB)had handled the crucial 2016 Kashmir unrest.
The chinks in the separatist camp were visible at every stage since it was created in the early 1990s to give a political voice to the tehreek. Initially, it was Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Later in 1993, when the separatist leaders were set free from jails All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a conglomerate of 23 political groups and religious organisations, came into being on the ruins of Tehreek-e-Hurriayt. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq became its first chairman followed by Prof Abdul Gani Bhat and Syed Ali Geelani until the conglomerate fragmented in 2003.
In more than a decade that followed, there was a series of attempts at unifying the centrifugal forces of this camp. They partly succeeded during the 2008 and 2010 crisis.
In 2016, however, they presented a joint face and controlled the uprising till the people withstood pellets and bullets. In post-Burhan era, Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik, joined together on the “common basic” and created Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL).
With the triumvirate in front of everything, it clearly marginalised many others including Shabir Ahmad Shah, Ashraf Sehrai, Prof Gani, Abbas Ansari, Bilal Lone, Agha Syed Hassan and others. These leaders generally maintained silence until 2016 tension ebbed.
The purported meeting of Prof Gani with Dineshwar Sharma is the first major affront to the JRL’s stance. Gani has not confirmed that the meeting took place but he has not denied it either. The meeting is reported to have taken place in the presence of another senior Hurriyat leader at his residence late in the night.
Seemingly, has taken National Conference leader and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s advice seriously who, during his maiden visit to Srinagar, asked him to venture out of the confines of Hari Niwas palace to meet people. He went to Pulwama and Islamabad to meet select youngsters, including a few victims of violence, besides throwing a surprise of meeting some separatist leaders.
Prof Bhat obliquely defended his meeting with Sharma, out of courtesy and in the larger interest of the institution of dialogue. “My doors are open. The dialogue is the only effective and civilised way of addressing issues be devilling relations between nations or peoples,” he said. He is ready to divulge the details of his engagement at an appropriate time. Bhat is now emphasizing on his identity as Muslim Conference chief and insists that his party has been pro-dialogue and that he is not a “saleable commodity”.
The former college teacher in his 80’s, Prof Bhat has been prominent on Kashmir’s separatist politics since 1987 when he was instrumental in forming Muslim United Front (MUF) that contested the rigged assembly elections. He had been dismissed from service for his separatist leanings before actively plunging into politics though he never contested elections. He has been projecting himself as pro-Pakistan and spent several months in the country after the faction of Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, of which he is still a part, was involved in a triangular dialogue process.
Bhat says that difference of opinion on holding a dialogue with Delhi was not unusual. He describes it as a sign of good health and refers to the Geelani and Mirwaiz who were at loggerheads for many years but have joined hands in the emerging circumstances.
“Mirwaiz(Umar Farooq) said a few years back, who the hell is Geelani. He is on record. But now he recognizes him as his head in JRL. We break to make ourselves. It does not matter,” Bhat told a Delhi newspaper.
He says that dialogue was necessary for reconciliation between two nuclear powers in the South Asian region. He said the dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan holds the key for forwarding movement on Kashmir. “The time has come when all sides to the Kashmir dispute prepare their outline for a fruitful and result-oriented engagement over Kashmir,” he says.
Bhat is not the lone leader who has gone on board to talk to Delhi’s men. In fact, the process of engaging separatist leaders was seriously pursued for several months and several top leaders and their sidekicks were approached. The meetings have taken place at the leaders’ residences, the houses of their acquaintances and some local hotels. Some meetings were arranged at the residence of the owner of a nursing home. If there were not some last minute glitches, Home Minister Rajnath Singh would have announced the dialogue offer during his 5-day visit to Kashmir in September. A lot of groundwork had been done before his offer. Sources said that announcement of ‘special representative’ was the result of the groundwork with the arrival of the US assistant secretary of state in Delhi hastened it.
Observers say that National Investigation Agency (NIA) crackdown has also compelled several leaders to comply with the dialogue offer. It has visibly shaken the separatist camp after right-hand men of Geelani and Mirwaiz taken into custody and lodged in Tihar jail. Apart from NIA campaign around Mirwaiz, the DySP lynching case also put him on the defensive while Geelani’s resolve has been out to test by excommunicating him from the outer world, summoning his sons to NIA headquarters and making his son-in-law one of the prime ‘culprits of terror funding’.
Interestingly, Mirwaiz and Geelani have not tersely reacted to Bhat’s reported engagement. Geelani did not react to the development while Mirwaiz wished he was informed in the backdrop of separatists’ stance on engaging in a dialogue process. “I don’t know about the meeting. Professor sahib did not inform me. If the report is correct, he should have abided by the forum’s decision on it (meeting the interlocutor)”, Mirwaiz said.
But, Yasin Malik, the most active and visible JRL leader did not spare him. “We’re asking our friends who prompted our youths to take a different path in the 1980s to have a sense of belonging toward them. Show some accountability. The killings of Kashmiri youths and a picture with the interlocutor will not go hand-in-hand,” Malik said at a gathering. He said he was not against dialogue but at a time when the killings were continuing, the NIA sword was hanging on the neck and bodies of youth were on shoulders, it was no time to enter into a dialogue process.
“I wonder where in such conditions some people see a hope,” Malik said. While his observations on the ground situation are undisputed, Malik’s diatribe against Bhat also reflects his old bitterness against Bhat. Malik had a chance to become APHC chairman when a decisive vote in Bhat’s favour turned the tables. In the later years when APHC formally broke into two factions, Malik chose to remain equidistant and focused on building his own image as a separatist leader who has the distinction of being an erstwhile militant commander and now a politician.
Observers say that recent political developments are bound to trigger further fragmentation in the separatist camp. New permutations and combinations are not ruled out. The faction of JKLF led by Javed Mir, one of the founders of insurgency like Yasin Malik, called it quits from the Mirwaiz led Hurriyat for “ideological differences”. Mir has informed the base camp (in Pakistan) rather than Mirwaiz about the decision. He is seen with Zafar Akbar Bhat, a former HizbulMujahideen commander who was part of dialogue process when Hizb announced a temporary ceasefire in 2000 and held rounds of talks with the Indian home ministry officials.
The new equations in the separatist camp would be visible in the subsequent trips of the ‘special representative’ who is now opening helplines in Delhi to sustain dialogue process.