Srinagar: Deep in central Kashmir, in the village of Aripanthan, a shopkeeper opens his store at 8am in the central chowk. He pulls the shutter up only half way, but soon, men and women arrive to buy vegetables, milk, and the day’s newspaper. “We have only an hour, and then shops will shut again,” says Fiza Ahmed who gets some garlic and oil. After that, they will have to go indoors. “But then shops open at 6pm.” When asked if curfew is on even after the government announced its withdrawal, Mushtaq-ul-Islam, a school teacher says, “Not curfew, we follow the shutdown. Which means we don’t follow the government, but our leaders.”
The ‘leaders’ are members of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik.
From villages like Aripanthan in Budgam district to Srinagar city, it’s common to see homes with photographs or posters of the white-bearded, bespectacled Geelani in his trademark brown karakul hat. “Only he really hears the message we have been shouting,” says Mushtaq of the hardline pro-freedom leader, as his neighbours nod in agreement. A middle-aged Mehbooba Sheik, who joined protests in the valley when her son was killed by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) says, “Anyone who wants to talk to the real people’s representative, should talk to the Hurriyat leaders.”
An all-party parliamentary delegation has arrived in Srinagar, led by Union home minister Rajnath Singh, to engage with stakeholders to end the two-month long spell of violence and find a more permanent solution to the Kashmir dispute. But most Kashmiris predict that the visit will be futile, because of the most gaping hole in its programme: it is unclear if the delegation will have a meeting with the Hurriyat leaders.
The only calendar that counts
The Hurriyat Conference is a pro-freedom group that demands a referendum for self-determination in Kashmir. Although a democratically elected coalition of the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party heads the Jammu and Kashmir state government, the immense, pulsing sway of the Hurriyat, which does not contest elections or hold offices of power, is unavoidable in Kashmir. Through the 58 days of curfew, the longest in recent memory, about 8,000 Kashmiri civilians have been injured, 450 blinded with pellets, and 73 killed. Emotions are high, and popular anger towards the security forces and a seemingly unsympathetic chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is spilling on to the streets. In this context, the legitimacy of the Hurriyat has only grown.
In Lal Chowk in Srinagar, the central shopping area has been deserted for 58 days, but every evening, stores open in magical synchrony for a few hours. Activity in the curfewed days of Kashmir has always risen and subsided in a remarkable dance between state diktat and Hurriyat decree. The Hurriyat releases a “calendar” – a programme of 7 to 12 days – laying out the brief periods for shops to open. Called “dheel” in Kashmiri, or relaxation, it is followed with amazing precision and defiance both by store owners and residents. Cars and bikes are out on the road, children are taken for a stroll, and friends and neighbours meet to stretch their legs. A few men venture outside their homes, and meet for a cup of tea. The security forces allow this mass defiance (even when curfew is officially in force) for a while, before cracking down by 8pm.
This is not only evidence of the Hurriyat’s influence, but also of its ability to turn state-imposed restrictions into a self-imposed strike – of running a protest on people’s terms.
The calendar also suggests times and locations for peaceful rallies or graffiti protests. While the current spate of unrest began with spontaneous protests after the killing of popular militant Burhan Wani, as the uprising spread across Kashmir, the Hurriyat got on board. “In some ways, the Hurriyat was catching up,” says Ghulam Rashid, a resident of Chattabal in Srinagar. “But now that they issued a calendar for six weeks, they are back in control. Look, look,” he says, as some policemen near him tell fruit vendors to come back out after 6pm. “The security forces also follow the calendar so they know what to expect.”
The state government is aware of the Hurriyat’s informal authority. On the 50th day of unrest, the PDP wrote to Geelani, requesting him to consider chief minister Mehbooba Mufti “like his daughter”, cooperate and “give her a chance”. “In case she does not bring about a change, she will be the first to own up and make way.” In response, a Hurriyat statement said that this daughter who “confines” a father to a house for years – a reference to the perpetual house arrest Geelani has been under – has not hesitated to call for his help when her position is threatened.
“It’s a battle for who really runs Kashmir,” says Yasin Khan, president of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturer’s Association. Since the curfew, Khan estimates an economic loss of over Rs. 120 crores in Kashmir, but they are ready to keep the shutdown for longer. “Our children are dying, our future is lost, they are going blind. We don’t think our business is more important,” says Khan. “We are first human, and then traders. We want serious dialogue to fix the Kashmir issue for the long term, not this picnic they’re coming on.”
Thirteen traders’ associations, civil society groups, lawyers, and several community leaders have refused to meet the all-party delegation until it meets the “resistance leaders”. “When they say they’re coming to find out what Kashmiris want, are they going to talk to 7.5 lakh people?” asks Hameeda Nayeem, chairman of the Kashmir Civil Society. “They are trivialising and delegitimising the genuine leadership.”
One problem, however, is that unlike in 2010, when some of the MPs who descended on Srinagar met with Geelani, the Mirwaiz and others, the Hurriyat leadership has declared it is not interested in meeting the all-party group.
A day before the all-party delegation arrived from Delhi, Geelani said he could not “demonise the sanctity” of the grave issue by participating in “a photo session”. The delegation, he said, should have “a special session in parliament and accept the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir to pave the way for holding [a] referendum.” Instead, it comes to Kashmir “after passing a resolution that J&K is an integral part of India. We suggest to all stakeholders to refrain from engaging in this meaningless exercise.”
Political analyst Zahir-ud-Din says that the Hurriyat called for this boycott of talks not only because earlier talks in 2008 and 2010 led to naught, but also because this delegation seems to have no mandate. “You must create a conducive environment for talks,” he says. “As a goodwill gesture, they could have stopped pellets, stopped killings, lifted curfew fully, and withdrawn cases against protestors. Talks can’t happen when guns are blazing.”
Perhaps sensing the groundswell around the Hurriyat, and to protect her constituency, Mehbooba Mufti invited the Hurriyat to engage the night before the talks begin. The letter, which was issued by Mufti as PDP president and not as chief minister, is addressed to leaders of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Hurriyat Conference, Hurriyat Conference J&K, JKLF, National Front and Jamaat-e-Islami – all pro-azadi fronts.
Ironically, the ‘Agenda for Alliance’ – the joint document that the PDP and BJP adopted last year when they formed their government noted how the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had “initiated a dialogue process with all political groups, including the Hurriyat Conference” and declared that “following the same principles”, the coalition government in the state “will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders.”
Along with the PDP, many parties – including the Congress, the CPI(M) and CPI – have also pitched for holding dialogue with “all stakeholders”, including the Hurriyat.
Hurriyat has the pulse
However, all three chief Hurriyat leaders today are under detention. Geelani has been in house arrest for years, moderate separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has been detained in the Chashm-e-Shahi sub-jail, and Yasin Malik is in custody in an unknown location. “The government seems desperate, detaining leaders for talks,” says Zahir-ud-Din. Shahid-ul-Islam, spokesperson of the Hurriyat Conference (M) – the faction headed by Mirwaiz Farooq – condemned the jailing as “illegal and arbitrary”. “The leaders they have detained are the real custodians of the idea of self-determination. Talk to them with dignity,” he says. “They are people who have influence over the angered masses today.”
Unlike earlier, when the Hurriyat was riven with factions based on differing views of engagement with the Indian government, for the first time, Zahir-ud-Din says, there is consensus in this agitation. This, he believes is because the Kashmiri public is against any compromise today. “If the leaders go against popular sentiment this time, they will not be spared,” he says, recalling how protestors recently smashed the car of Geelani’s son when he violated the protest calendar. “If even he is not spared, you can imagine the mood. Kashmir has changed now, and people have conveyed to the leaders that the mistakes of 2008 and 2010 cannot be repeated.”
On September 1, the state government banned five local television channels for broadcasting videos of funeral processions and protests. Ahead of the talks, then, most Kashmiris have been watching Indian news channels. “Why do these anchors call separatists ‘terrorists’?” asks Yaqoub (surname withheld on request), a doctor at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, which has treated thousands of victims of pellet injuries. “Deliberately or out of ignorance, the media mixes up a political leader with someone who picks up guns. We in Kashmir know the difference, but I’m understanding that the Indian government may have to deal with this perception if they talk to Hurriyat. We don’t care if it’s BJP or Congress, all I see is that again, they are putting the insecurities of Indian citizens over the day to day violence Kashmiris face.”
Ahead of the all-party parliamentary delegation’s arrival in Srinagar, the Hurriyat issued a calendar – published in local newspapers – asking people to fill the road to Srinagar airport, and demonstrate peacefully. “We have said the same thing over and over for decades, and now we’ve shouted it from the rooftops, screamed it into their face, chucked stones at their deaf ears, and are now lying in thousands in the hospital, ” says 18-year-old Kausar Akhtar from Aripanthan, who lost his brother in a firing on August 16. “Does the Indian government still not know what we want, and who our leadership is?”
Mindful of what is needed to defuse the situation, the security forces have also given hints about the urgency for serious political dialogue with all stakeholders. Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda last month urged “everybody involved, whether it is security forces, whether it is separatists, governments, student leaders… to find some way forward”. Atul Karwal, IG CRPF told The Wire that he personally believed “this is a problem that is 70 years old. The security forces will not have a solution, only the communities involved can solve this.”