Valley's New Voice: Hurriyat Doesn't Represent Kashmiri Aspirations
7 December 2004
The Times of India
Anand K Sahay
New Delhi: Kashmir is a land of mythologies. However, no past legend would have attracted as much political attention as the carefully constructed modern myth which depicts the Hurriyat as the centre of the Valley's universe. In General Musharraf's scheme, the organisation occupies a pivotal place as against any other set of Kashmiris, a point the military president was at pains to underline at a recent South Asian media function in Lahore. This is not fortuitous, given that the Hurriyat was fabricated on the worktables of the ISI 15 years ago when the tide of secessionism ran high and the stock of Indian democracy, for good reason, hit rock-bottom in Kashmir. Nevertheless, life was really breathed into the Hurriyat by Clintonite Washington, and a myth emerged down the assembly line. With no other body enjoying representative status in people's eyes, sustained, international media attention in the period accorded currency to the idea that the Hurriyat was the sole legitimate voice of Kashmir. The notion was self-servingly adopted and spread by Pakistan and the Hurriyat itself. Unlike the typical myth, this one was not homegrown. The people of Kashmir used it when it suited them through the years of high-velocity drama in the 90s, but began to abandon it by the time Pakistan's Kargil misadventure collapsed. The tide was turning. The continued hijacking of popular sentiment became less and less feasible. The wholly synthetic and imported character of Hurriyat's legitimacy came into public view by end-2002 when people rejected its stance and braved terrorist guns and bullets to stand in voting queues for the state assembly election. The sight shook the Hurriyat and Islamabad, belied pundits' calculations, and jolted the world into reappraisal. With only slightly less enthusiasm, Kashmiris were back in voting queues, the second time in just about 18 months, for the Parliament poll of 2004. They were clearly trying to say something the Centre didn't have the ears to hear. It was too keen to subordinate its outlook on Kashmir to its Pakistan gambit, which would necessitate ritualistic ceasefires and empty propagandistic dialogues with Islamabad's proxies, partly to assuage external powers. The voters' message was unambiguous: Save us from the politics of violence, help us with love to rebuild our broken lives, give us political space, help to reconfigure civil society. Heeding this would have meant, in effect, reciprocating the truce signals of the ordinary folk (who had voted twice over, taking their lives in their hands) after years of trauma and turmoil. But the government did not keep its tryst with the people and let the hard-won, post-assembly election, situation drift. It overlooked those who had overlooked the Hurriyat, little realising that aimless drift would help the terrorists and their sympathisers bounce back into the reckoning. All the same, no impartial traveller to the Valley in recent years - even during the drift - could have missed the sheer disregard in which the Hurriyat and its leaders are held by the people, angry and disgusted though they are with the high-handed and often unacceptable behaviour of our security forces. Even in its high noon in the turmoil years, the Hurriyat did not represent, in terms of popular support, a relation to the gun-toting outfits akin to, say, the Sinn Fein and the IRA. The British government's talks with the Sinn Fein do not, therefore, come as a surprise. The Hurriyat had no grassroots life, and it did not care to develop one. In any case, this would have been near- impossible, given the mutually antagonistic and disparate orientation of Hurriyat constituents. Its constituents were removed from the culture of traditional mass politics which presumes linkages to the people. The exception among today's 'big boys' is Ali Shah Geelani, a na-turally gifted, strongly pro-Pakistan leader who is influential among orthodox Jamaat-e-Islami sections dispersed across the Valley. Though the Hurriyat does not have many takers within the Valley, its usefulness to Islamabad can not be overemphasised. Its strawmen, the handsomely rewarded naysayers, provide Pakistan the proverbial fig-leaf that no foreign meddler can do without. Without Hurriyat's mediating presence, the infiltrating terrorist, on whose shoulders is run Pakistan's 'freedom movement' in Kashmir, would be face-to-face with not only the security forces but also the Kashmiri people, whom he has tormented in diverse ways. Fringe secessionism - now represented by Hurriyat - has always existed in Kashmir, even when Sheikh Abdullah was at the height of his powers. It ebbed and flowed according to circumstance. But there was no question ever of the Centre or the state government engaging its spokesmen or despatching interlocutors to importune them for meetings. This is a recent phenomenon whose utility, frankly, is inexplicable. In his first visit to Kashmir, the prime minister indicated a course correction. He would do well to note that the Hurriyat's usefulness to Pakistan cannot but dissipate if the Centre does not resuscitate the secessionist lobby with little gifts. The Manmohan Singh government cannot lose time in helping civil society redefine itself in Kashmir, and establish firm links with it under a coherent plan. From the beginning, the Centre dealt with Kashmir through suitably rewarded political contractors instead of communicating directly with the emerging classes thrown up by the 'Naya Kashmir' programme and their institutions. The result is the mess we see.