Srinagar: Two months ago, Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, 34, agreed to work with Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s pro-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Hurriyat grouping. The soft-spoken Mirwaiz, whose father was assassinated in 1990, has been a Kashmiri moderate voice, even holding two rounds of talks with the Prime Minister. Edited excerpts from an interview at his home in Srinagar:
The pro-independence protests have taken on a life of their own…
What is happening here is not something which has come from nowhere. People in India, they know what the situation here is, unfortunately they want to give the impression that everything is fine, people are happy, the economy is picking up, tulip gardens and mobile phones and companies coming in.
Making a point: A file photo of Mirwaiz Umer Farooq. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP
That is fine, but the real question has always been over political stability. Delhi has always tried to ignore the reality.
For example, yes, we believe in elections as an institution, but you can have elections only after you’ve settled the problem, not in a conflict.
You want to present a picture that Kashmir is an issue of bad governance or economic deprivation or militancy or terrorism. Those questions have been answered by the people in the last two weeks: (through a) peaceful agitation. Not like Jammu where people have been looting cars and burning ATMs.
How is it different from the struggle in 1990?
For the first time the Kashmir movement has been able to come out of the Pakistani frame. In India everything is viewed from the spectacle of Pakistan, that everything in Kashmir is pro-Pakistan.
That is the real problem. Nobody knows what the people of Kashmir are saying. You have to respect the fact that Kashmiris have their own identity too. Not that everything (is) linked to Pakistan, or its propaganda.
The other day, minister of state for external affairs (Anand Sharma) said we have reports that Pakistan is supporting the movement in Kashmir. I think that is unfortunate. Delhi must realize that it all leads to the bigger issue. Today it is the Amarnath land row, last time it was the issue of unmarked graves. But there is no policy vis-a-vis Kashmir.
Delhi believes Pakistan is busy with its own internal issues, that Kashmiris are tired after 20 years of struggle, and we have been unable to contain them. They think, let us wear them down, buy time and move on. This has backfired, there is no Pakistan in Kashmir today, the Pakistani Urdu press hardly gives a mention about Kashmir.
So what is this movement for?
It is definitely for azadi (freedom). Question is how do you interpret azadi. Azadi is not only a slogan, it is a concept, that people want to be masters of their own destiny. They don’t want to be guided by Delhi or Islamabad, by the instruments of the state, or by the army. The people want the Army to leave, it is the strongest instrument of the Indian state which is practically holding the fort here. It is very clear that India’s control over Kashmir is because of this force.
Whatever link there was with India, the economic blockade in Jammu by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or whoever, has created a very strong feeling in Kashmiris that we have to look for alternatives. The sense of separation is very strong. Cadres of pro-India parties such as the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party want to join us. Today we might have 1,000 trucks coming in, but you won’t be able to sustain it. Anytime, India can choke Kashmir.
You’ve met the Prime Minister a couple of times...what were those about?
Those were only a photo op. We tried to tell Delhi, repeal the black laws, demilitarize, there is a need to tell the people that peace process means something.
What did he say?
He said we give you a commitment that there will be zero tolerance on human rights (violations). On review of prisoners, they said they would review cases, but unfortunately nothing happened. That is the problem. We see that they really don’t want to address the situation.
Is it short-sightedness or disinterest?
It’s not disinterest. In 1990, there was the element of militancy and gun, but today there’s a peaceful agitation. I don’t think there can be a clearer message from Kashmir towards New Delhi. You can’t ignore these voices.
On Monday, we are going to have a silent sit-in at Lal Chowk. We are going to use banners of the Indian independence struggle. The Kashmir struggle has to be delinked from the web of terrorism and militancy. It is a people’s struggle. Yes, militancy was there, but it was never the whole struggle.
Are you opening yourself to attacks from militants who have supported you for 20 years?
I am sure they also understand what is happening in Kashmir. Right now, this movement should not get derailed. But there is no other option.
Even those with guns in their hands should not interfere with this issue, they should let it be. What they wanted to convey through the gun is already being conveyed peacefully. In the past we’ve had rallies and there has been violence and the whole focus shifts to the violence and extremism and terrorism.
If the Prime Minister calls and says let us start a dialogue, will you go?
Not for the sake of dialogue, that is what has happened in the past. Start a serious dialogue with Kashmiris, with Pakistan. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi says no question of discussing anything outside the ambit of the Constitution. If this is the attitude, I don’t think there is anything we can talk about. I reminded him that (former prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee had said that we should talk under the ambit of insaaniyat, or humanity. I don’t think in the Congress leadership there is maturity on how to deal with the situation. Now the elections are coming and I hope this will not be taken as an election issue.
So you are willing to explore talks between Delhi and Kashmir?
Well, triangular talks were happening, with Pakistan, India and Kashmir. But even that opportunity was lost by India. We tried our level best to convince the Indian leadership that (former Pakistan president Pervez) Musharraf is the best bet, and he was very keen to move forward.
Nobody can deny that Pakistan has a constituency in Kashmir, Musharraf was the first leader who said that we are ready to accept Kashmiri interests over Pakistani interests, even if it isn’t in the interest of Pakistan. Unfortunately, Musharraf lost the elections.
You don’t think Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh can do the same?
I don’t think so. Manmohan Singh is definitely a well-meaning person, a very nice guy, but I don’t think he has the authority and the wherewithal to take strong decisions. Sonia Gandhi, I think, she would like to keep her hands off Kashmir, probably because she is already seen to some extent as an outsider, so she doesn’t want to comment on this serious issue of national security. It speaks of the lack of political will in Delhi. That is why there is mostly a military approach on Kashmir.