Will dying give Kashmir a new life?

Separatist leaders grapple with pressure to keep fighting and assess if they are achieving their goals

Will dying give Kashmir a new life?
Benjamin Disraeli once said: I must follow the people. Am I not their leader? His words are emblematic of the paradox Kashmiri separatist leaders face today—how can they take their separate movements forward as one while factoring in political realities, the demands of opposing supporters and their own wisdom. They find themselves in the middle of a raging debate now over what they should do and what could have done soon after July 8 when popular fighter Burhan Wani was killed by Indian security forces, setting off protests in the valley and a curfew.

The last four months since Wani’s death have put Kashmir through an unprecedented crisis in which people were killed, blinded, maimed and arrested in the thousands. A shutdown has brought the economy and education to its knees. This turn of events has made the leadership realize that it needs to revisit its strategy but so far it has failed to summon the courage to make even small changes. Much more needs to happen than for it to just issue timelines for protests to achieve the “Right to Self Determination”. It is spearheading the movement after all.

Since the leadership has been ‘released’ from house arrest and jail, detentions that started in August, its members have been hearing from many individuals and organisations. This input has strengthened their intention to change. But at the same time they are conscious of the ‘more powerful’ voices who have insisted there be no rollback on the protest shutdown.
Today the Separatist leadership is facing a dilemma. They are torn between the voices who want a continuous shutdown so that the sacrifices of the past four months do not go in vain. But they also want to deal with the factors that are making agitation irrelevant

In a bid to tackle this, the separatist leaders decided to call a stakeholders meeting to discuss what should be the way forward. It was described as a consultative session but it turned out to be a public meeting in which representatives from trade, industry, education gave their suggestions. In the background, some people gathered to shout “sodabazi nahi chalegi” (bargaining won’t work) outside the residence of Syed Ali Geelani, the chairman of Hurriyat Conference (G)

(a faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which split up in 2003), to send the message that the shutdown should not be called off. This not only sent a message to those representatives who had come to share the people’s concerns but was also a way to humiliate the leadership. Nevertheless, in the end, most of the people at the meeting asked the Separatist leadership to go ahead with its programme.

It is said that one pro-freedom participant at the meeting (whose livelihood is purely based on using the Indian Constitution from morning to night) set a tone of not looking back until “we get freedom”. A few voices who tried to provide a picture based on people’s concerns on the ground were almost shouted down. Ironically, a “trade leader” who has been seen as close to the government was vociferous about carrying forward the programme and even offered money for the “Azadi struggle”. This person happens to be the one who was the first to present a cake to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to congratulate her when her party, the PDP, emerged as the single largest party in the December 2014 elections and ensured that the ‘news’ was published in newspapers.

Many of those who did not press the leaders to change the timeline of protests, later confided behind closed doors that they wondered why they should “bail” them out now. “When they issued calendars did they ask us?” asked one person. “Now why should we tell them to roll back?” But the fact is that all the trade bodies gave their full support to the joint Hurriyat leadership from July 8 onwards and even offered to render any sacrifice till the goal were achieved.

Today the Separatist leadership is facing a dilemma. They are torn between the voices who want a continuous shutdown so that the sacrifices of the past four months do not go in vain. But they also want to deal with the factors that are making agitation irrelevant. This is not about what the joint leadership should do but about the bigger picture: how to proceed in a movement aimed at realizing a political goal. The first pertinent question to ask then is: Is it important for a Kashmiri to die at the hands of the police so that new life is given to the struggle?

For the first few weeks when the bodies of Kashmiris piled up, the agitation was fueled by anger but this started declining as the traumatised people tried to gain some semblance of ‘normalcy’ to survive. This created some space for concerns to emerge about the education system and economy in newspapers and on social media.

The challenge for the leadership is to devise a long-term strategy to carry forward the struggle that is deep-rooted and genuine. It needs to consider that perhaps unending spells of hartals will not force India to declare “Azadi” for Kashmir. New Delhi’s stubbornness to even engage has shown how contemptuous it is towards political reality. If the separatist leadership had kept in mind the lessons of the 2010 agitation, it would not be facing the emergency it is now.

It is now repeatedly said that leaders should lead and not be led by the people. In a candid interview with me on November 26, 2015, separatist Syed Ali Geelani had admitted that the people had failed the leadership by calling for a boycott of the elections. So the leaders know that the people should not guide them lest they fail again. Whether wrong or right, they should make decisions that tackle the current impasse. They must also know that the calendar is not followed in letter and spirit. For example, students chose to sit their exams even though the leaders called for them to defer. Shops have started opening early on days of relaxation. Transporters have also started testing the waters. That is what the reality on the ground is.

One of the founders of the Hurriyat Conference, Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, who owes his allegiance to the faction led by separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has also expressed his criticism of the leadership. At the launch of his autobiography “Beyond Me” in Srinagar on November 11 he said: “Our leaders are like a blind rider on a lame horse. Horse cannot run and they also don’t know where to take it”.

If the leadership makes decisions in the interest of the people whom they claim to lead, it won’t be surrendering. Kashmiris have made a big political statement by not submitting to any pressure and oppression and that cannot be undermined by any change in strategy.

Shujaat Bukhari is the editor-in-chief of the Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir