London Kashmir Conference: Controversy To Crises
21 January 2008
Srinagar: The ‘international’ Kashmir conferences have become regular phenomena after the armed resistance started in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989. Buoyed by the mass uprisings against the Indian rule, the political activists abroad started conducting conferences in order to portray their point of view and focus on the massive human rights abuses perpetrated by the Indian state. Scores of such conferences have been conducted all around the globe, mainly in the Western capitals. Though, there is no empirical evidence that these conferences help the Kashmiri ‘cause’ globally or attract international attention, it has certainly served the narrow political purposes of its organisers, the sponsors - India or Pakistan and Kashmiri ‘leaders’ who attend these conferences. These ‘international’ conferences have never made any headlines in the international press or captured the imagination of the Western policy makers. Despite this, these events have led to wild claims ranging from ‘exposing human rights abuses’ to gaining support at the world stage. After General Musharraf took over in Pakistan in 1999, his regime launched three Kashmir Centres in 2003; in Brussels, London and Washington. The claimed purpose of these centres was to ‘highlight the Kashmir issue and garner international support’ for the people of Kashmir. Since their inception, each of these centres conduct at least two conferences each year attracting various Kashmiri ‘leaders’ and activists, a huge number of officials from Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Pakistan, some Western parliamentarians and academics. After the Musharraf regime abandoned its support for the UN Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir, these Kashmir Centres have come under heavy pressure from the Pakistani government to support the General’s ‘formulas’ and ‘solutions’ that he has come up with from time to time. This has compromised the position of these centres giving rise to suspicion about their role and conduct leading to controversies. Last year a big such controversy erupted with the Washington Kashmir Conference (20-21 July 2006) hosted by the Kashmir Centre, Washington. The organiser of the Conference Ghulam Nabi Fai was accused of dropping references to the ‘Right to self-determination’ which created a furore amid accusations that the Musharraf regime was bent on compromising Kashmiris’ rights. The current controversy that started around the ‘International Kashmir Peace Conference’ (28-29 November 2007) was by the far the worst. It metamorphosed into crises that engulfed the Kashmiri community in the UK and beyond, turning disagreements into diametric divisions. This precipitated into anger and public demonstrations resulting in a parallel awami (peoples’) conference to nullify the intended impact of the sarkari (government) conference and condemn its purported purpose of promoting pro-India Kashmiri leaders like Omar Abdullah. Omar Abdullah - The Crisis Trigger One of the reasons for the controversy around the ‘Kashmir Peace Conference’ was the participation of Omar Abdullah, the National Conference leader. The majority of the Kashmiri Diaspora and political activists opposed his participation in the conference accusing him, his father and grandfather of being involved in the killings of Kashmiris over the last six decades. Prior to the conference, many Kashmiri leaders based in Srinagar had accused the National Conference of trying to exploit Kashmiri sentiments in view of the coming local elections in 2008. Hard line Hurriyat Conference headed by Syed Ali Geelani also accused the National Conference of being involved in the murders of the Kashmiri people. At a personal level, the opponents of the Conference accepted that inviting people from various political persuasions should not be an issue, but claimed that the way Omar Abdullah’s participation was kept ‘secret’ created doubts about the intentions of the conference. The All Parties Kashmir Coordination Committee (APKCC) that led the campaign against the conference claimed that the organiser Nazir Ahmad Shawl misled them about the list of participants. The APKCC is a conglomerate of 12 Kashmiri political groups and social organisations based in the UK akin to the All Party Hurriyat Conference based in Srinagar and Muzzaffarabad. Mohammad Ghalib, President of Tehreek-e-Kashmir, which is part of the APKCC, blamed Nazir Ahmad Shawl of withholding information about the participation of Omar Abdullah. Ghalib claimed that about a week before the conference, when he enquired about the participants, Shawl gave the names of pro-resistance politicians like Syed Ali Geelani, Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, but did not mention Omar Abdullah. Many other Kashmiri activists also blamed the organiser for withholding or providing misleading information about the conference. Double Umar Ittihad - Echoes from the Past The conference generated more suspicion over the rumours that it was an attempt to carry a public relations exercise for an electoral alliance which the Pakistani government was cobbling together between Mirwaiz led pro-freedom Hurriyat Conference and Omar Abdullah’s pro-India National Conference. Ever since the ‘peace process’ between India and Pakistan started three years ago, there have been speculations and rumours that the 2008 elections on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir will be inclusive and that the separatists (pro- resistance politicians belonging to the Mirwaiz led Hurriyat) will participate in them and possibly be part of the future government. Such speculations have gained credence after General Musharraf floated his ‘Four Point Formula’ which the National Conference claims is similar to its ‘Autonomy Solution’ that envisages Jammu and Kashmir being part of India but with wider autonomy. Mirwaiz led Hurriyat has shown its support for General Musharraf and his various ‘formulas’ drawing it close to the pro-India National Conference and its ideas for a possible solution. General Musharraf has also shown a keen interest in the National Conference and invited Omar Abdullah to Pakistan in 2006 for a meeting heaping praise on his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah. Musharraf reportedly assured Omar Abdullah of his government’s support. Moreover, Mirwaiz’s late father Moulvi Mohammad Farooq was closely associated with the National Conference and had entered into an electoral alliance with Farooq Abdullah that was named as ‘Double Farooq Ittihad’ in 1986. Weeks before the London conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani publicly accused Mirwaiz for being an ‘Indian agent’ and working against Kashmir’s ‘freedom struggle’ confirming doubts in various minds about Mirwaiz’s possible alliances with pro-India groups in the 2008 local elections. ‘Betrayal’, Boycott and Beyond The APKCC was the first group to issue a public statement about the ‘conspiracy’ of an electoral alliance between Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Omar Abdullah, accusing the Kashmir Centre of engineering a public relations campaign for it and using the ‘Kashmir Peace Conference’ for projecting 2008 elections. These accusations gave rise to widespread anger among the Kashmiri communities both in the UK and back in Jammu and Kashmir on the both sides of the divide. While some of the APKCC leaders accused Nazir Ahmad Shawl of ‘betrayal’, they called for the boycott of the conference in order to ‘expose the designs of those who are conspiring against Kashmir’s freedom struggle’. The Kashmir Centre organisers had hoped that the damage caused by the boycott would be restricted and perhaps believed that the Pakistani government would be able to persuade the belligerent groups to drop their opposition. However, senior Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Geelani fired a salvo supporting the appeal for boycott that tilted the balance in favour of the boycott. With Geelani in Srinagar and Lord Nazir Ahmad in London joining the chorus of condemnation, the conference lost its credibility even before it had started. Although the Kashmir Centre head Nazir Shawl reiterated his position that the conference was aimed at involving wider political voices to aid the debate for a peaceful resolution of the problem, this had little effect on the protestors signifying growing public mistrust of the Kashmiri politicians or activists supported by Pakistan. ‘Sarkari’ versus ‘Awami’ Conference The failure of the Kashmir Centre to convince its opponents resulted into a massive demonstration against the conference outside the British Parliament, the venue of the conference. Around 100 protestors who had come from all around the UK shouted slogans against Omar Abdullah blaming him and his family for the murders of Kashmiris through their collaboration with the Indian state. They also blamed the Kashmir Centre and Pakistan government for conspiracies against the Kashmiri people and their ‘freedom struggle’ and slogans like Gaddar ka jo yar hai... gaddar hai gaddar hai (friends of traitors are traitors) exhibited anger and growing frustration among the Kashmiris. The protestors dubbed the Kashmir Centre organised conference as a sarkari (or official) conference claiming that the Musharraf regime was working to project Omar Abdullah as the next leader of Kashmiris. The protestors conducted a separate awami (or ‘peoples’) conference inside the British Parliament that was sponsored by the APKCC and Lord Nazir Ahmad, one of the leading Kashmiri public figures in Britain and member of House of Lords. As compared to the sarkari conference, the awami conference was a low key affair where the APKCC leaders and Diaspora took part, but as regards to the audience the awami conference was fully attended in comparison to the sparse audience at the sarkari one. The speakers at the awami conference made passionate speeches about the ‘freedom’ of Kashmir and defended their boycott of the other conference and asked Kashmiris to be ‘vigilant against the conspiracies’. One of the speakers, Maulana Bostan Qadri criticised the AJK Prime Minister Sardar Attique Khan and likened him to Omar Abdullah saying that his role is no different to that of Omar Abdullah and adding that they are both grandsons of Abdullah (Sardar Attique’s grandfather’s name was also Abdullah, but he was not famous like Sheikh Abdullah). A day before the conference, former AJK Prime Minister Barrister Sultan Mehmood claimed in a press conference in London that Sardar Attique was installed by General Musharraf precisely for the reason of finalising the division of Jammu and Kashmir along the current de facto lines. He also claimed that the Attique government was embezzling massive funds in the name of Kashmir. In contrast, the sarkari conference was a subdued affair as the organisers were under tremendous pressure following the open boycott and press statements denouncing the conference. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was so concerned by the public anger, that according to the reports, he arrived under the protection of two ‘body guards’. Mirwaiz Umar and Omar Abdullah came at separate times and did not meet or interact in public. Omar Abdullah used the platform to his maximum, as he spoke about his party’s vision of the future of Kashmir. He not only criticised the opponents of his participation in the conference, but also those Kashmiris who live abroad and claim to be the ‘leaders’, having an indirect dig at the Kashmir Centre. The conference organiser Nazir Ahmad Shawl had to openly apologise when Omar Abdullah pointed out to him that he selectively read from the paper sent by Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of leading daily Kashmir Times; Shawl had read out the passages where Bhasin had criticised the Indian Army for their human rights violations, but left out what was critical of the human rights record of the Kashmiri resistance militants. Beginning of an End? The London Conference might signify a new development as it brought the frustration of the Kashmiri masses and Diaspora into the public domain, raising the levels of suspicion about such events and their intended utility. It was for the first time that the Kashmiris known to be supporting pro-freedom resistance or pro-Pakistan position held demonstrations against the Pakistan funded Kashmir Centre claiming that the conference was a ‘conspiracy’ against the Kashmiri people and the ‘freedom struggle’. The conference fed popular resentment leading to open discontent against the Musharraf regime and its policies on Kashmir. In the aftermath, many Kashmiri leaders are blaming the Pakistani regime of supporting the pro- India National Conference and trying to portray and plant Omar Abdullah as the new leader of Kashmir. The General Secretary of Jama’at-e-Islami Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), Raja Jehangir Khan, blamed the Pakistani government of promoting pro-India Kashmiri leaders to “harm the Kashmiri peoples’ struggle for right of self-determination” (Kashmir Watch, December 7, 2007). The strong public reaction seems to have created fissures in the Mirwaiz led Hurriyat Conference as well. One ‘senior Pakistan-based Hurriyat leader’ who participated in the London conference claimed in Pakistani Urdu daily Ausaf (December 6, 2007) as having said that the sarkari conference failed in its mission while confirming that the Mirwaiz led Hurriyat Conference might take part in the 2008 elections, though indirectly. This conference will go down as a historic event in influencing the Kashmiri public opinion against the perceived role played by the Pakistani government. This conference earned wide public condemnation from those who are traditionally pro-Pakistan in their leanings. They openly accused the Musharraf regime and the Kashmir Centre of ‘conspiring’ against the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. The conference broke the long-held tradition of silence and forced Kashmiri groups to conduct a rival conference, depicting the loss of confidence in sarkari events. The reaction to the London Kashmir Conference has also demonstrated that Pakistan has lost its traditional influence over Kashmiris and the Kashmir Centres, and the people deemed associated with the Musharraf regime are now suspect in the eyes of the majority of Kashmiris. In future, such ‘international’ conferences will be viewed with more suspicion and anger from the Kashmiris who blame military- turned-civilian dictator President Pervez Musharraf of compromising Kashmir for his greed to continue in power.