ALTHOUGH YOUNG Kashmiri men are ignoring the recruitment calls from Islamist militants and choosing more peaceful methods of protest, a hard-line separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a tall, frail man with a short white beard who speaks with deliberation, is now seen as a crucial player in the region. Geelani, a former member of the Kashmir legislative assembly, comes from the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islaami, which has chapters in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. After the Kashmiri uprising of 1990, he resigned from the assembly and began a new chapter as a separatist ideologue and mentor to pro-Pakistan militants affiliated with the Jamaat. In 1994, after several Kashmiri groups came together in a separatist coalition—the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference—to champion the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict through tripartite negotiations between Kashmiris, Indians and Pakistanis, Geelani became one of its several leaders. While moderates like Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a religious leader and the chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, engaged with the Indian and Pakistani governments in a series of failed peace talks, Geelani consistently stayed away from negotiations, insisting that the old UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir be implemented. In and out of Indian prisons, Geelani remained the harshest critic of the Indian troops’ mistreatment of the Kashmiri population which, along with the failure of moderates to deliver anything concrete, increased his stock. Although he personally remains pro-Pakistan and an Islamist, the eighty-one-year-old has been forced by pro-independence popular sentiment to drop his demand for Pakistan’s control of the region, announcing that he stands for whatever the people of Kashmir want. He is so influential that the only lull in the recent protests occurred when he appealed to the young protesters to stay home.
If the Indian government cannot satisfy the hard-liners now gaining influence, the situation will rapidly devolve—these are the new power brokers. New Delhi’s slow response to the crisis does not bode well. It took three months for the Indian prime minister to call a few high-profile meetings of politicians from all major political parties in India as well as his Cabinet Committee on Security. Singh’s government went on to reject even moderate demands—such as revoking or repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Scaling back troops from residential areas wasn’t even discussed. Singh’s government, however, sent a delegation of parliamentarians to Kashmir to “assess the situation on the ground.”
On the morning of September 20, when the MPs were about to fly to Kashmir, while the army and police guarded the road from Srinagar airport to the city, government workers painted over the separatist graffiti on the walls and houses along the way. The visit was turning out to be of little consequence, as Kashmir remained under lockdown, and they met a carefully chosen few at a heavily guarded conference center on the outskirts of Srinagar. Later in the afternoon, five Indian parliamentarians led by senior Communist leader Sitaram Yechury showed up at Geelani’s Srinagar home. Two other groups met with two other moderate separatist leaders.
Geelani had set five preconditions for peace talks with India: New Delhi should accept Kashmir as a disputed territory; set political prisoners free; demilitarize the region; punish the troops guilty of civilian killings; and, withdraw controversial laws like the AFSPA. “If the Centre responds positively to these demands, we will review the ongoing agitation in the state and renew the engagement. And if there is no response, then we will have no option but to continue our struggle,” Geelani told the delegation in front of TV cameras that he had insisted must be present.
After considering the recommendations of the parliamentarians, the Indian government announced some confidence-building measures. It advised the Kashmir government to release all student protesters who had been arrested for fighting the Indian forces with stones; counseled the formation of a “group of interlocutors” to begin the process of sustained dialogue in Kashmir “with political parties, groups, students, civil society and other stakeholders”; and began a review of the deployment of troops, especially in Srinagar. A good first step to address the current troubles, these recommendations will fall short unless followed up by a results-oriented, meaningful dialogue. Separatists like Geelani have already dismissed them and called for renewed protests. Various analysts and political figures have suggested unconditional talks with the Kashmiris and a revival of the dialogue with Pakistan, which were so close to producing results three years ago. That alone might put an end to Kashmir’s unceasing suffering.
Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night (Scribner, 2010), an account of the Kashmir conflict.Image: Essay Types: Essay