To ban or not to ban. That is the question the Home Ministry is mulling, its sights trained on both factions of Kashmir’s Hurriyat Conference. Media reports of the ban possibility have set tongues wagging in Srinagar’s press corps since Monday.
Of course, leading lights of the Hurriyat, too, are concerned, but the issue is no big deal for the man on the street. For, the Hurriyat is already a has-been in Kashmir’s power games. As I pointed out in The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, the youth of Kashmir turned away from the Hurriyat after 2008.
Those of its leaders who are still at home have mainly been in a shell ever since a number of their colleagues were arrested by the NIA in July 2017.
Then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had addressed a conference on Kashmir in the week after those arrests, stating that nobody would even carry the bier of the Indian flag in Kashmir if the special constitutional provisions for the state were ended. For the moment, the flag continues to fly, but Mehbooba has emerged in recent weeks as more or less the lone voice for rights.
She has asked the government to talk to Pakistan and announced that she would not contest Assembly elections until statehood is restored for Jammu and Kashmir. However, these stances do not amount to a rejection of the status quo, as those of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of one of the Hurriyat factions, once did.
Ripple In a Teacup
The ban issue is, in any case, no more than a ripple in a teacup. For, one is told some officers in the government are only mulling the possibility. Even if a decision to ban is taken in principle, it would go through many procedural steps, including in a court, before being formally imposed, an officer said.
At least one prominent agency has apparently taken the view internally that a ban would unnecessarily put the focus back on already defunct organisations. Restrictions on Hurriyat leaders, and others in Kashmir, have already almost completely suspended resistance against the government.
The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), whose members are the major part of the “hardline” faction, has been banned. Though it has never been JeI’s declared policy, the majority of its members have formed the backbone of separatism and militancy for the past four decades.
Many JeI leaders have been jailed. In fact, Ashraf Sehrai, who was the head of the “hardline” faction of Hurriyat, died in custody at the peak of the second wave of COVID-19 in early May. Further, over the past nine or so months, the government has sacked or transferred several employees with links to the JeI.
The 'Moderate' Faction
Geelani, the once-firebrand leader who headed that faction after it split from the “moderate” Hurriyat in 2003, has been silent for a few years now. Many believe his faculties are failing, and that he is incoherent.
As for the “moderate” faction, it, too, now says little. In the wake of the ban speculation, however, a statement on behalf of Mirwaiz Umar, the chairman of that faction, said, “The sentiments of the people of J&K, with regard to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute in a peaceful and fair manner, cannot be altered despite repression, legal tactics or propaganda.”
The faction’s long-time spokesperson and well-liked leader, Shahid-ul-Islam, was jailed along with several figures from the “hardline” faction in 2017. Shahid’s incarceration was seen as a warning signal to Mirwaiz Umar. The two have worked closely since Shahid was released from jail in 1999 after a stint of militancy.
Lessons From the Northeast
In contrast to the view of one intelligence agency regarding bans, some officers in the National Security Council Secretariat believe that such organisations should be banned even if they are already largely defunct.
An officer said security planners have learnt lessons from the Northeast. A view was taken at various times to let the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) or the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) be, when they seemed weak and quiescent. But those organisations later bounced back with vigour.
In that light, he argued, it would be advisable to finish off these organisations in Kashmir totally rather than let them be because they happen to be on the back foot at this time. A ban could open the way for more arrests, and financial blocks.
The question, of course, is: would a ban actually finish off an outfit? Some might argue that a ban has the potential to inspire members to reactivate themselves underground.
It is widely recognised that when Governor Jagmohan closed JeI-run schools in Kashmir, their Jamaat-oriented teachers joined government schools, taking their fundamentalist ideology to a much wider cross-section of the general population.
Twists and Turns In the Hurriyat
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1993, apparently with support from major western powers. Pakistan adopted it, and it was largely run by the ISI through intimidation by the Geelani-controlled Hizb-ul Mujahideen.
It was meant to represent two dozen outfits but was run by the top men of seven of those outfits — the all-powerful Executive.
A prominent executive member, Abdul Ghani Bhat, was incensed when his brother was killed, as a warning to him. Geelani installed him as chairman, as a compromise to oust the very moderate Mirwaiz Umar, and prevent the ‘secular’ Yasin Malik from replacing him. But that didn’t work out too well for Geelani. Bhat and Umar worked closely and responded to government overtures.
The only leader with a mass base in the Hurriyat was Abdul Ghani Lone. His People’s Conference has a strong following in north Kashmir, most of all in the Kupwara district.
When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached out to make peace, Lone’s powerful voice joined that of Bhat and Umar.
The ISI got Lone assassinated — near the grave of Umar’s father, Mirwaiz Farooq, on the latter’s 11th assassination anniversary. The outfit then split over Geelani’s refusal to let Lone’s son, Bilal, take his father’s place in the Executive. Bilal’s brother, Sajad, had publicly accused Geelani of having his father killed.
The moderate faction met Vajpayee and the Home Minister L.K. Advani, though nothing came of those parleys — or the overall south Asian peace process — after the Vajpayee government lost power.
Channels of Funding
The government’s desire to shut down the Hurriyat outfits stems largely from their roles in channelling funds for unrest in Kashmir. A sting operation by a major TV channel had exposed the fact that separatist leaders, including Naeem Khan of the ‘hardline’ faction, took and spent multiple crores to organise unrest.
There has been some talk — apparently without any formal charge — of PDP leader Wahid-ur-Rehman Para paying Hurriyat men to organise unrest after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in 2016. One fails to understand why a functionary of a BJP-supported state government would channel funds to the Hurriyat, instead of their getting funds from Pakistan or other foreign powers.
The nation needs to know more about the sordid goings-on in Kashmir over the past few years. Perhaps impartial and transparent judicial processes to prove the what, who, and how of unrest would be at least as good for the long-term national interest as bans — and perhaps much more effective.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)