The battle within

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Sajjad Gani Lone, People's Conference leader, at a press conference in Srinagar on July 8. - TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Sajjad Gani Lone, People's Conference leader, at a press conference in Srinagar on July 8. - TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

The conflicts within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference stem from the attempts of the centrists and right-wing elements to reposition themselves in the context of India-Pakistan dialogue efforts.

"MIRROR, mirror on the wall," the top leadership of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) asked one morning, "who is the traitor amongst us all?" The mirror's answers have sparked off a bitter war of words that now threatens to rip the organisation apart.

On July 12, the APHC replaced its chairman Abdul Gani Bhat with Abbas Ansari, another centrist politician. The decision was a sharp rebuke to the Islamist right, which had been seeking to reinvent the APHC as an aggressive pro-Pakistan and pro-Jihad force. The one person who boycotted the meeting where Ansari was installed was Jamaat-e-Islami representative Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani had sparked off the war in the APHC by seeking the removal of the moderate People's Conference and threatening to launch a new party if this was not done. "Those who did not launch a campaign against the polls," Geelani had asserted, were "the biggest traitors", an obvious reference to the People's Conference, which put up proxy candidates in the State Assembly elections in 2002. People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone soon hit back, describing Geelani as "a nightmare for the Kashmiri people and a dream gift for India". And, as Geelani threatened to launch a new secessionist party, Bhat had asserted that "anyone leaving the Hurriyat will be a traitor to the freedom struggle".

With the installation of Ansari as APHC chief, Geelani seems to have lost at least the first battle in his war to take charge of the organisation. Geelani's demand that the People's Conference be expelled from the APHC was part of his larger assault on centrists perceived as being willing to engage in a dialogue with India, and to scale back their maximal demands. The People's Conference insists its members who participated in the 2002 elections, including Jammu and Kashmir's current Forests Minister Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi, acted of their own and were removed form the party for their actions. Geelani responded to the APHC's refusal to expel the People's Conference by refusing to attend meetings of the APHC's executive council, in which he represents the Jamaat-e-Islami. In May, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the Jamaat-e-Islami's Amir, or supreme leader, threw his weight behind the centrists, and announced that Geelani would no longer represent the organisation.

However, terrorist groups of the Islamist Rightreacted with fury, and forced the Jamaat-e-Islami's Amir to reinstate Geelani. Making use of this opportunity Geelani threatened to set up a new party made up of elements from within the Jamaat-e-Islami and his supporters amongst smaller right-wing pro-Pakistan organisations.

Geelani began his latest assault at a meeting in Srinagar on June 28. He called upon the APHC either to mend its ways or be prepared for the emergence of a rival. "The ball is now in the court of the Hurriyat," Geelani said, "and if it expels the People's Conference at this moment, we are ready to extend our support to it afresh." The meeting was attended by some 100 second-rung APHC leaders , including Ghulam Ahmad Gulzar of the Ghulam Nabi Hubi-led faction of the People's Conference, Ghulam Nabi Sumji, the vice-president of the Muslim Conference, Pir Hissam-ud-Din of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Saiyidullah Tantrey of the Jammu-based Kashmir Freedom Movement, Ghulam Mohammad Khan of People's League (Farooq Rehmani faction), Mansoor Ghazi of the People's League (Sheikh Abdul Aziz faction), and Mohammad Amin of the Kashmir Bar Association, a professional body which is a constituent of the APHC.

Pakistan's intelligence establishment, which has traditionally supported Geelani, was more than a little disturbed by the new development. A new organisation would undermine Pakistan's long-standing claim that the 25-party APHC is the sole legitimate representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. As a consequence of the pressure, Geelani deferred his plans to launch a new party at a July 4 rally in Sopore, but asserted that he would indeed form one in the future. Accusing the APHC of being "inert and dumb", he said that the new organisation "would take those people who have proximity to Jamaat-e-Islami cadre and constitution, have Islamic leanings and share the Jamaat's view on the Kashmir dispute". He also claimed that these plans had the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami's Majlis-e-Shoora, its highest decision-making body, implying thereby that the centrist Bhat's control of the organisation was coming to an end. The crowd cheered: Jis Hurriyat mein Geelani nahin, woh Hurriyat manzoor nahin (a Hurriyat without Geelani is unacceptable); Jis Jamat mein Geelani nahin, woh Jamat manzoor nahin (a Jamaat-e-Islami without Geelani is unacceptable).

Sajjad Lone, a suave businessman more often seen in the television studios in New Delhi than on the streets of Srinagar, held his fire through these events. Then, he awoke from hibernation to maul savagely his tormentor. On June 8, he went public with the contents of a seven-page letter written to Abdul Ghani Bhat, demanding an investigation to find out whether Geelani had incited the assassination of his father in 2002. The letter demanded that an investigative committee decide "whether the statements of my father's colleagues, especially comments by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, were provocative enough to have led to his assassination". Lone also rhetorically asked whether Geelani's recent attacks on the People's Conference were creating conditions for another assassination. Geelani's "design to split the Hurriyat Conference", Lone went on, "is what India wants."

Lone's second set of charges were of considerably greater political significance. He pointed out that Geelani's relationship with the Indian state and his view of the 2002 elections were less politically pure than he claimed. Geelani's one-time secretary and long-standing aide, Abdul Khaliq Hanif, had contested the elections without inviting either censure or a polemical assault from the Jamaat-e-Islami leader. More important, Lone continued, Jamaat-e-Islami cadre, including those affiliated to Geelani, had voted tactically in support of the People's Democratic Party. This grassroots support, backed by Hizbul Mujahideen guns, had been extensively reported in Frontline during the 2002 elections. It cost the National Conference several seats in southern Kashmir, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) one. "While we are being accused of fielding proxy candidates in the last elections, Geelani himself contested elections in the past and is still receiving a pension as a former Member of the Legislative Assembly," Lone added.

These allegations are centred around the fact that Geelani had received personal benefit from the Indian government. The expenses incurred in his recent treatment for cancer at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai were underwritten by the Jammu and Kashmir government, which even flew his private physician on a state plane from Srinagar to attend on the Jamaat-e-Islami leader. While at the hospital, Geelani was put up in a top-floor executive suite, the most expensive rooms available. This conduct, Lone said, was of a piece with his past conduct. While he had repeatedly exhorted Kashmiri families to send their sons to join the jehad against Indian rule, his own children had government jobs. Although Lone did not say so, the same is true of Geelani's most powerful terrorist sponsor, the Hizbul Mujahideen's Mohammad Yusuf Shah. Last year, one of Shah's sons was even transferred from an unrecognised medical college to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in violation of rules.

This broadside now threatens to open several cans of worms. The ruling PDP, for one, is embarrassed by the renewed questions about its relationship with the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizb in southern Kashmir. The government's decision to release Qazi Ahadullah, a top aide of Geelani from jail in May was, correctly or otherwise, linked to a string of attacks on PDP cadre since December. The prisoner release programme, part of the PDP's `healing touch' agenda, was briefly suspended under intense pressure from New Delhi, only to be reactivated after the Hizb eliminated over half-a-dozen party activists, and made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Finance Minister Muzaffar Beigh. Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who is believed to have given his tacit nod to Jamaat-e-Islami cadre's deal with the PDP, is also unlikely to be happy with Lone's decision to raise the issue.

But the real issues raised by the war within the APHC transcend muckraking. At his Sopore rally, Geelani candidly addressed the direction of the anti-India movement in Kashmir. ``The freedom struggle," he said, "has reached a juncture where we will have to fight without guns and stones. We will have to continue the struggle in a peaceful manner.'' Mohammad Yusuf Shah had raised the same issue in April, issuing a demand through newspapers published from Srinagar that he be represented in any future negotiations on the State's future. The problem for the Islamists grouped around Geelani is that the centrists in the APHC - the triad of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, Sajjad Lone and Srinagar religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq - have dominated the quasi-covert dialogue that has been under way since 2001, a dialogue that would gather momentum should any kind of India-Pakistan dtente materialise.

Geelani's marginalisation began in 1997, when his Amir, recently released from jail, gave an interview that distanced the Jamaat-e-Islami from the Hizbul Mujahideen and called for an end to the "gun culture". Then, in the spring of 1999, APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat called for a dialogue between mainstream political parties and secessionists. Finally, in mid-April 2002 and in the face of loud protests by the Islamists, the elder Lone and Mirwaiz Farooq were granted permission by the Indian government to travel to Sharjah for a closed-door meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, the head of the Kashmir Committee set up by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan's intelligence chief Ehtaz-ul-Haq is also believed to have been present on the sidelines of that meeting. What really transpired at the meeting is not known, but Lone emerged demanding that jehadi groups "leave us alone." Meanwhile, Geelani again came under fire from within his own party, which passed a resolution supporting the "conciliatory stance adopted by Umar Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone".

With India and Pakistan seeming poised to talk earlier this year, the stakes rose to new levels. Geelani's move, sources close to the Jamaat-e-Islami leader told Frontline, was predicated on the assumption that the current efforts for a dialogue would go nowhere. In his calculation, pressure by the United States on Pakistan to de-escalate the levels of terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir would prove short-lived. "After this happens", the source said, "Geelani will be able to project himself as a genuine representative of anti-India sentiment, who is above the petty compromises other Hurriyat leaders are willing to make. Most important, he would also have the total support of the jehadi groups, whom he has supported all these years."

It is far from clear, however, if this particular gamble will pay off. For one, the Hizb remains bitterly divided between supporters of its official leadership, and followers of assassinated dissident Abdul Majid Dar, who was working for a dialogue with the Indian government. There are also signs of implosion within other jehadi groups, perhaps a consequence of U.S. pressure on Pakistan. In early July, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) split vertically, after Mohammad Masood Azhar, one of three terrorists released in the Indian Airlines hostages-for-prisoners swap in Kandahar, expelled his entire command leadership. The dissidents, grouped around Karachi commander Abdullah Shah Mazhar, claimed they had removed Azhar. Mazhar had led a 2001 rebellion against Azhar, and formed the breakaway Tehreeq-ul-Furqan. The new organisation was shut down under official pressure, but the tables now seem to have turned. According to a report in The Friday Times, the dissidents have taken control of key assets of the JeM such as the Masjid-e-Bataha in Karachi.

The questions that will decide the winner of the war in the APHC, then, are several. Will U.S. pressure compel Pakistan to rein in the jehadi groups? Is Pervez Musharraf compelled to scale back violence, and does he even wish to? Will terrorist groups allow dialogue to proceed towards an end they might not find acceptable? And, perhaps most important, can Pakistan accept a final-status arrangement that India can live with?

Although Geelani has been marginalised by Ansari's appointment, he is likely to keep up his assault on the centrists, backed by both the jehadi groups and the Pakistan intelligence establishment. Abbas Ansari will now have to gaze long and hard into the mirror to find a way to navigate this perilous maze - but he might well find that even the looking glass has no answers.

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