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Is the release of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq a turning point in Kashmiri politics?

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq after his release from house arrest on Friday. Photo Courtesy Pervez Ahmad Qadri on Twitter

Cleric-politician and chairman of the separatist amalgam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s release from over four-year-long ‘house arrest’ on Friday, 22 September, is an unexpected decision by the BJP Government at the Centre. It has come, rather dramatically, in the midst of a sustained drive against the valley’s separatists and militants and their vast support structure.

The crackdown on the separatists was in fact triggered by an unprecedented car bomb blast that left 40 CRPF men dead and dozens injured in February 2019. While the formidable separatist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) were banned, security cover and ‘VVIP status’ was withdrawn from almost all the separatist leaders. This happened for the first time since 1990.

Many of the separatist leaders, including JKLF chief Yasin Malik, Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan and the Dukhtaran-e-Millat chairperson Asiya Andrabi, were arrested and lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Almost all the prominent leaders and commanders of different militant groups were either killed in hundreds of encounters or arrested. Properties of the banned organisations and detained separatist leaders and militants were attached.

Many separatist activists and their mainstream political supporters, like former MLA Engineer Rashid, were arrested and booked in hawala and terror funding cases.

However, the crackdown on the cream of the political leadership started with the abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A, revocation of Statehood and creation of two separate Union Territories out of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.

Those allegedly put ‘under house arrest’ included Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and his colleagues in the so-called moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference. They included Professor Abdul Gani Bhat, Bilal Gani Lone and several others. Their ‘house arrest’ continued parallel to the detention of almost all the prominent mainstream leaders in the BJP’s opposition including the former Chief Ministers Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

Even as all the mainstream political detainees, with exceptions like Engineer Rashid, were released in the next one year, the separatists continued to be under ‘house arrest’. Some of them, including hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai and Geelani’s son-in-law Altaf Fantoosh, died one after another.

The separatists’ intellectual support structure was effectively dismantled. Many key characters were dismissed from government services. A number of journalists were either booked in stringent laws like UAPA or arrested and detained in jails. While this all was persisting unabated, the Apni Party founder-president and former cabinet Minister Syed Altaf Bukhari started an outreach to the traditional pro-Pakistan camp.

A day after Bukhari announced publicly that Mirwaiz Umar would be released and allowed to resume the delivery of his conventional Friday sermons at Jamia Masjid Srinagar, the 53-year-old cleric-politician was declared free to drive to the grand mosque and address his followers.

Mirwaiz Umar’s release triggered speculations of his “deal” with the government and the Centre. Political observers, as well as the common Kashmiris, began speculating about the line Mirwaiz would take after his release. Contrary to many speculations, Mirwaiz restricted his 15-minute speech to only the valley’s religious and cultural fabric and ethos. He emphasised the need for “unity among the Muslims”.

Putting up a caveat that speaking his heart was “not possible” for him in an atmosphere where the separatists had been left with “no space,” Mirwaiz referred to the Quranic verse which promises “an ease after every hardship”. Observing extreme care and caution in the selection of his phraseology, Mirwaiz lamented that “sections” had been removed—clearly avoiding a direct mention of Article 370. Many of his detractors insisted that his speech had been “scripted” by the people who ordered his release “over an undertaking”.

Reference to Azadi (freedom), Pakistan’s involvement with the dialogue process on the resolution of the Kashmir problem and a Plebiscite as per the UN resolutions of the 1948 and 1949, which has been the mantra of Mirwaiz and all other separatist leaders since 1990, was conspicuously missing from the cleric’s speech. Significantly, there were no traditional slogans of Azadi by Mirwaiz or his followers, barring an insignificant demonstration by a dozen-odd youngsters and teenagers who were all rounded up the next day.

Mirwaiz, in fact, made a volte face when he asserted that he was neither a separatist, nor anti-national but only seeking “resolution to issues through peaceful means”. This was starkly different from his slogans and speeches in the last 30 years in which he fiercely advocated Jammu and Kashmir’s separation from India. Azadi was the most emphatic slogan of Mirwaiz and his Hurriyat colleagues.

Mirwaiz emphasised reunification of Jammu and Kashmir territories currently under Indian, Pakistani and Chinese control but he did not demand either an independent State or referendum as per the UN resolutions which, for anybody, means accession to Pakistan, given the erstwhile State’s composition of 68 percent Muslims and 32 percent non-Muslims.

His latest assertion is no different from that of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah who invariably have been speaking of the unification of the territories under Pakistan’s and China’s control with the Jammu and Kashmir territory under the Indian control.

Significantly again, Mirwaiz demanded return of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits, calling them an integral part of the Kashmir society.

Notwithstanding remarkable shifts in the Hurriyat chairman’s stand, some political analysts and observers insist that his “dilution” was nothing but an attempt to seek the release of all detained militants and separatists, stop the government’s continued crackdown and keep the separatist sentiment alive with moderation and détente.

The real test for Mirwaiz Umar’s leadership and statesmanship will start when the government takes some big action to pursue its national agenda in Kashmir. His role will be keenly watched during the forthcoming Urban Local Bodies, Panchayati Raj, Parliamentary and Assembly elections.

Also Read: Mirwaiz Umar must dump Hurriyat and join national mainstream to move ahead