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A fight for survival

Print edition : May 23, 1998 T+T-

The elevation of the Jamaat-e-Islami political chief, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as the chairman of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference marks a dramatic transfiguration in the grouping's ideological agenda.

FOR over a year, the secessionist All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) has resembled nothing more than a sports team whose members have no idea of the game they are to play. Although terrorist groups have worked to rebuild their offensive capabilities for a renewed assault on the state, the APHC's lack of purpose meant that the armed violence served no political cause.

The April 24 appointment of the ultra-conservative Jamaat-e-Islami's political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani as the APHC chairman marks a dramatic transfiguration in the grouping's ideological agenda. Geelani supports Jammu and Kashmir joining Pakistan and has made public his conviction that the secessionist movement in Kashmir is not nationalist in character but part of a pan-Islamic struggle. He is certain to give the APHC's politics a harder edge than at any point in the past. The consequences could be momentous, both for the secessionist movement and for the APHC, many of whose constituents are less than comfortable with the Jamaat-e-Islami's ideological positions.

Geelani's elevation has come under the most peculiar of circumstances. The APHC meeting was not called with the express purpose of electing a new chairman, even though the term of the incumbent, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, had long expired. The Mirwaiz, a hereditary religious leader with considerable support in the old city areas of Srinagar, had been appointed as the APHC's head to bridge the gulf between groups like Yasin Malik's Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a formation that claimed to represent the demand for a secular and independent state, and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami.

Although Umar Farooq's father was assassinated by the Hizbul Mujahideen, the armed wing of the Jamaat, the son has avoided confrontation with the religious right wing and maintained some cohesion within the APHC. As such, his unceremonious deposition was a surprise to observers. But more startling was the fact that Geelani's name was formally proposed by Malik, a decision that provoked hostile responses from JKLF support groups in the United Kingdom and Pakistan.

What sense should be made of Mirwaiz Farooq's removal? He has so far maintained a studious silence on the issue, saying only that he intended to pursue his religious studies, possibly in Saudi Arabia. Yet, his departure does not appear imminent, a possibility underlined by instructions to his moribund political organisation, the Awami Action Committee (AAC), to resume independent political activity. A more plausible reason is that Umar Farooq's political positions were becoming increasingly unacceptable to the terrorist groups, which in essence give the APHC its authority. In September last year, Umar Farooq had offered to open unconditional dialogue with the Indian Government, an offer he was forced by Geelani and others in the APHC to retract.

Formally, the APHC is only willing to engage in talks that would lead to tripartite negotiations between India, Pakistan and representatives of the Kashmir people. The APHC's inability to launch an effective agitational response to the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections of 1996 and 1998 were also attributed to the outgoing chairman's ineffective leadership.

As important as the overall decline in the APHC's legitimacy have been developments within the Jamaat-e-Islami. In November last year, the Jamaat-e-Islami's Amir (supreme leader), Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, stunned observers by calling for an end to "gun culture". In an interview to a Srinagar-based Urdu magazine shortly after his release from jail and his election as the Amir-e-Jamaat, Bhat said that the sole prospect of finding a solution to the Kashmir problem was through "political dialogue". Bhat made it clear that although he believed that the armed struggle was itself legitimate, it was a response to a specific phase in the secessionist movement and had now "served its purpose".

One plausible interpretation of Bhat's motivations is that pressure from the Jamaat-e-Islami cadre had impelled the move, since they were at the receiving end of a sustained assault by the security forces and pro-India militias. In October 1997, Jamaat-e-Islami activists participated in an Army-sponsored civic function in Kulgam, a sign of the willingness of its cadre to abandon their militant position.

Whatever Bhat's motivation, the signal to Geelani was clear. Since the Jamaat-e-Islami political chief had steered the organisation towards its affiliation with the Hizbul Mujahideen, the new Amir-e-Jamaat's statements were in effect a call for his marginalisation. Matters were not helped by the Hizbul Mujahideen's supreme commander, Syed Salahuddin, who issued a statement from his Muzaffarabad headquarters distancing the armed organisation from the Jamaat-e-Islami. "Among its thousands of freedom fighters," Salahuddin's statement read, "there is a good number of young liberators who were born to parents owing affiliation to the National Conference and other political organisations...It is unfortunate that our scope of affiliation is restricted to the Jamaat-e-Islami."

One of Salahuddin's objectives may have been to widen the Hizbul Mujahideen's constituency, for its chauvinistic politics have little appeal in Kashmir but its impact was to deepen the confusion in the Jamaat-e-Islami. Geelani, believed by Indian intelligence to be the Amir-e-Jihad who gives the Hizbul Mujahideen its strategic directions, was now under severe threat.

The final contours of the crisis were shaped by the Lok Sabha elections in March. After former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's triumph from Anantnag, the Congress(I) has emerged as a platform for oppositional voices in the State. More than merely articulating discontent with the National Conference Government, Sayeed succeeded in winning over large sections of the APHC's middle and lower-middle class urban constituency with calls for dialogue with terrorist groups, and by attacking pro-Indian militias and the state security apparatus. Sayeed's victory, founded in part in an appropriation of the APHC platform, clearly undermined its position.

Even more alarming were signs that some within the APHC had tacitly backed not only Sayeed, but also Muzaffar Baig, an independent candidate from Baramulla whose improvised campaign nearly succeeded in defeating former Union Environment Minister Saifuddin Soz. Baig, a one-time associate of People's Conference leader and APHC member Abdul Ghani Lone, attracted sections of the APHC's rank and file to his campaign. Persistent rumours also broke out that key APHC figures, including Shabbir Shah, were considering breaking ranks with the organisation.

In this context, Geelani's sudden elevation to the leadership of the APHC can be read to be a response to the irritation of the Hizbul Mujahideen and other fundamentalist-backed groups, like the Harkat-ul-Ansar and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The Pakistan-backed groups were clearly distressed with the lack of integrity in the APHC's agenda, and the growing signs of its political marginalisation. Since the APHC remained a key funding channel for insurgent activity, the fact that leaders who had little to do with the armed struggle in Kashmir played a key role in its management may have aggravated the tensions.

The JKLF, for example, had long been rendered a notional force, while other armed groups affiliated to APHC leaders, such as the Mirwaiz-sponsored Al-Umar, had all but vanished from Kashmir's landscape. The Hizbul Mujahideen, by engineering Geelani's elevation, ensured not only that it obtained a political presence commensurate with its status as the largest terrorist group in Jammu and Kashmir, but also ensured that centrists within the Jamaat-e-Islami, such as Bhat, were weakened. Sources told Frontline that further developments, including the replacement of Syed Salahuddin with a leader more acceptable to Geelani, could also take place in the not-too-distant future.

WHAT shape is Geelani likely to give the APHC? One of his priorities will be to rebuild a channel of communication with the Central Government. This should vest the APHC with credibility as an arbiter of Kashmir's future. The organisation had been hit hard by the coming to power of the National Conference Government, which ensured that the dialogue between the APHC and the United Front Government did not take place. How the Bharatiya Janata Party, less enthusiastic about the National Conference, will respond to future APHC overtures remains to be seen. The first effort at contacts, unsurprisingly, was made by Defence Minister George Fernandes. In characteristic fashion, his personal staff issued a letter to the Jammu and Kashmir Government demanding that his security cover be withdrawn to allow him to meet freely with members of terrorist groups and the secessionist political leadership. This taste for theatrics was, however, firmly put down. Fernandes' letter was passed on to the Union Home Ministry, which issued instructions to the Jammu and Kashmir Police that security was under no circumstances to be withdrawn.

In the event, the Defence Minister fixed an afternoon meeting with Geelani on April 28. From there on, the progress of the meeting assumed increasingly farcical proportions. Geelani, invited to meet Fernandes at Srinagar's State Guest House, refused to do so. Pressures from other APHC constituents, who argued that Geelani's gesture would be seen as a sign of an excessive desire to build bridges with the BJP, were responsible for this decision. Fernandes then offered to drive to Geelani's residence and travel from there to meet others involved in the armed struggle. The State Government's well-advised refusal to lift the security cover, however, put an end to that plan too. Sources told Frontline that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was distressed at what he saw as an effort to bypass the democratically elected representatives of the State's people, and to undermine the State Government's authority. While Fernandes, on past form, may not have paused long enough to consider the implications of his meeting-that-wasn't, future initiatives of a similar nature could well cause serious rifts between the State and Central Governments.

A three-member APHC delegation left for New Delhi shortly after Fernandes' visit, this time to engage in the ritual activity of meeting Ambassadors to recruit support for their cause. Interestingly, Fernandes' recent pronouncements on China led the delegation to announce that it would seek that country's support, and Umar Farooq let it be known that he was optimistic of securing the first-ever contact between the APHC and the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. The meeting had not materialised at the time of writing, but should it do so, it would be an understandable expression of Chinese outrage at Fernandes' more preposterous allegations. The delegation's most important meeting in New Delhi was with Pakistan's Ambassador Qazi Ashraf Jahangir, which is of considerable significance given the elevation of the pro-Pakistan Geelani to the APHC's leadership.

If the APHC team's rounds of embassies in New Delhi are themselves of little interest, they mark the first major foray of the organisation after its leadership change. What political activity begins after its return to Srinagar will reveal just what game Geelani has lined up for his fractious collection of players to participate in.