Srinagar: When the enormous rally at the Idgah grounds, on the edge of the Martyrs graveyard in Srinagar, ended abruptly this afternoon without any direction on how to take forward the separatist movement that is gaining ground in Kashmir, some people gathered around and vented their anger on a Kashmiri icon: Sheikh Abdullah.
Whose land? People at a rally organised by the Hurriyat Conference-led separatists in Srinagar on Friday. Photograph: S. Irfan / PTI
“Sheikh Abdullah deceived us,” said Ghulam Qadir, an elderly school teacher from Srinagar, “When he agreed to go with Indira Gandhi, he gave up the cause of Kashmir. What did we get in return? Look at (Sheikh Abdullah’s son and grandson) Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah. They are not our leaders, they are puppets of the government in Delhi.”
Qadir was referring to the 1974 accord between then prime minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah, known as the Lion of Kashmir. Under the accord, Sheikh Abdullah gave up the demand for a plebiscite to decide the fate of Kashmir in return for the people being given the right to self rule by an elected government.
Friday’s rally, called to mark the death of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz in firing last week, was supposed to have been a statement of strength by the united Hurriyat leadership, in which the pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani seems to have reasserted himself. Some said the rally was even larger than the gathering that commemorated Sheikh Abdullah’s death in 1982. The police said about 250,000 people attended Friday’s rally.
Groups of young men flying green Hurriyat flags, Pakistan flags and even some Lashkar-e-Taiba flags with black bands around their heads, converged upon the grounds.
Soon, the massive crowd completed their Friday prayers and waited for Geelani to start speaking. As Kashmir’s newly rediscovered chief separatist leader, he was the cynosure of the crowd that had collected.
Unnamed speaker after speaker kept the adrenaline going. The slogans in Urdu were like a litany, and the entire gathering recited them by heart.
“Nara-e-taqdeer/allah ho akbar (let the voices be raised to say that god is great).”
“Hum kya chahte hain--azaadi (what do we want? Freedom).”
“Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha—yeh Kashmir hamaara hai (the Kashmir that we have watered with our blood, this is our land).”
“Aawaaz do/hum ek hain (speak out, we are one).”
Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had barely started his speech, talking about how the people had gathered under “one flag and one community today, to deliver one message” when a white Ambassador car sped out of the ground. It was carrying Geelani, to a single command from whom, it was being said, the entire gathering was willing to submit. With Geelani’s departure, the fizz in the crowd seemed to evaporate. Hurriyat leader Yasin Malik was carried on their shoulders by some of his supporters, but it just wasn’t the same any more.
That’s when Qadir spoke the unspeakable about Sheikh Abdullah, and it seemed as if a dam had burst.
Kashmiris have, in recent years, freely criticized the state as well as all those Kashmiri leaders who have done deals with Delhi. But, the Sheikh has largely been held in esteem, towering above the Kashmiri political landscape, also because he is a figure of the past.
“Any leader who is not with the Hurriyat Conference is India’s puppet,” Mohammed Hanif, who works with the Jammu and Kashmir forest department, was now saying. He reeled off names: former chief ministers Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad and the Mufti’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti. “The people want independence from India. If any leader doesn’t fall in line with the people’s demands, then they will also be removed,” Hanif added.