Separatists in J&K Complex Crossroads
Kashmir separatist are faced with a predicament whether to build the dividing lines or go independent, irrespective of consequences. Independent and free exhibition of expression has, however, led to serious ramifications—two moderate rebel leaders have been axed, one from his life and the other from the political conglomerate, he founded.
The prominent religious leader Moulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah, a liberal voice, known for his outspoken views which were often at variance with other separatist groups and had caused a stir by terming last year’s stone-pelting as unIslamic and was engaged with New Delhi’s interlocutors, was assassinated while he was entering a mosque for Friday sermon. He had earlier survived two assassination attempts.
Shah was the head of the Kashmir’s puritanical religious group Jamiat Ahle Hadees (JAH) but was moderate in his views and openly supported talks with Kashmir interlocutors. After months of unrest and anti-India protests in last summer, three interlocutors were appointed by the New Delhi in October last to find out ways and means for negotiated settlements with the Kashmir leaders for peace in the turmoil-hit Jammu and Kashmir. The team comprising journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, academician Radha Kumar and former Central Information Commissioner MM Ansari, has been visiting the state frequently to prepare a roadmap for the resolution of the issue.
Analysts say that Shah by no means was a small political entity—JAH owns around 500 mosques and claims a membership of 1.5 million. A Kashmir police intelligence officer told this correspondent that it was an attempt by the radical elements to take control of JAH. When they failed to dislodge him through elections, a conspiracy was hatched to eliminate him in 2010. (He had won three straight three-year terms as the JAH head since 2004.) He was perceived as one against sectarianism and helping defuse sectarian clashes. His work in the education field, especially trying to get a university from the government, was perceived by them as a compromise with the government.
The killing took the Hurriyat moderate leadership off guard. Insiders reveal that after India-Pakistan cricket diplomacy began, the Hurriyat after months of reluctance to meet three-member Kashmir interlocutors was ready to board the bus. “We will respond if New Delhi is serious about resolving the Kashmir issue,” a Hurriyat leader told this correspondent on the condition of anonymity after India Pakistan semifinal cricket match at Mohali. But after Shah’s killing, the same person shared with this correspondent, “It’s a message for us. Don’t you dare deviate from the script, we will get you, no matter where you are, politician or preacher, you will be silenced.”
It is well known that anyone who takes an independent stand ignoring the dictates of their masters will have to pay a price. Such murders will continue as the sanction comes from the highest point in the hierarchy. This incidence has given an opportunity to all those who have a stake in the welfare of Kashmir to put their act together. A senior journalist stated, “Hurriyat will not dare come open about talks with India.”
Followed by this, a major development shocked the Kashmir’s separatist political circle, when a senior Hurriyat leader was expelled from the conglomerate after he initiated talks with the group of Kashmir interlocutors.
The rebel political group Ittihadul Muslimeen patron and Shia cleric Maulvi Abbas Ansari, also the former chairperson and founder of Hurriyat moderate, was axed. As Hurriyat Conference chairman in 2004, he led a delegation to meet the then Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani even though senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani opposed it strongly.
Though Ansari, who is known among the most modest and least controversial and corrupt rebel leader, has kept a brave face over his suspension, the political experts lament that once again it has been confirmed that any peace initiative, at the present juncture, lacks direction and possibilities of success.
But Ansari hailed his expulsion from the Hurriyat as an unshackling experience for him and called his expulsion ‘freedom’. Ansari says the Hurriyat was a long imprisonment for him where he couldn’t speak his mind and he had to trim his words always to toe the Hurriyat line. “Now I will say what I like. And, I will say the truth,” says Ansari. “It is a blessing in disguise.”
Showing no signs of regret over meeting interlocutors, Ansari said he was ready to interact with the panel again but demanded that Prime Minister should be part of the talks. Ansari also rapped the Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umer Farooq by referring to the meeting between him and a delegation of parliamentarians from New Delhi a few months ago. “When Mirwaiz met the parliamentary delegation, he did not consult the Hurriyat. He did it on his own and so did hardliner Syed Ali Geelani at the peak of the agitation,” says Ansari.
“I will not beg before Hurriyat and do not bother whether they take me back or not. I stand for the meaningful dialogue and I believe that it is the only way forward,” Ansari told this correspondent apparently unfazed by the action taken against him.
For rural house-thatching professionals
With the advent of concrete houses after the 1999 super cyclone, one section of the people, who earned their livelihood by specialising in lying the bamboo and straw roofs in kutcha houses, have lost their jobs in Jagatsinghpur district.
Most of the kutcha houses with hay-thatched roofs are giving way to concrete houses in many parts of the Jagatsinghpur district. Due to the depletion of kutcha houses and increased use of concrete roofs and asbestos, many rural labourers have lost their jobs. They are now in search of different professions and are looking forward to switching over to alternative jobs.
According to a rough estimate, at least 10,000 people, living in this district, used to earn their livelihood by staking and neatly binding the straw and bamboo roof on kutcha houses in rural areas (mainly in coastal pockets).
Their works start from March and goes on to the end of May every year. Earlier, they used to be overworked prior to the monsoon, as it was the time when every household re-laid the roof with fresh stock of hay and straw and did the yearly renovation of their kutcha houses. During the summer months, these people used to earn almost three times the daily labour charge. They used to save much of it to sustain their family for the next three to four months.
The post-1999 super cyclone restoration works had witnessed a transformation by way of massive construction activity in all rural areas of this district because most of the kutcha houses had been razed by the cyclone. Thereafter, kutcha houses were converted into concrete houses, as lakhs of Indira Awas Yojana [IAY] houses were distributed by government. HUDCO provided easy housing loans for the people, and NGOs too gave free concrete houses to cyclone victims. At present about 5 per cent of kutcha houses exist in different villages of this district.
Reports say that most of the people now prefer to build their cowsheds and kitchens in concrete houses and have already abandoned their kutcha residential houses. One Markanda Bhoi, a thatching labourer from Rambhadeipur village, says that earlier his income was around Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per month from seasonal roof-thatching profession. But now he gets very few calls because most of the villagers have covered their houses either with asbestos or concrete roof, which led to reducing his income since the cyclone in 1999.
The shift from straw houses to pucca houses has also affected thousands of other people—those who were getting indirect employment by cutting bamboo, collecting straw and palm strips. The rope-making sector was also dependent on the kutcha houses. The present decreasing numbers of mud-thatched houses have brought down their business, informs Bhaskar Behera, a palm strip and rope maker from Birabarpatna village.
On the other hand, most of the concrete house owners, who abandoned the kutcha houses, said that after the super cyclone occurrence all the mud-thatched houses were razed to surface. People felt that the mud straw roof houses lack cyclonic resistance, so they preferred to build their houses with concrete roofs, says Nisakar Sahoo, a concrete house owner.
Moreover, the cost of yearly thatching and other materials used for thatching has gone up drastically and also scarcity of thatching professionals in rural areas is the main reason for people’s dislike to construct kutcha house. Furthermore, shortage of the thatching professionals in villages too compel people to resort to thatched houses. The present generation also does not like to learn this art citing diminishing earnings in the profession, informs Kalandi Behera an octogenarian thatching professional from Birabarpatana village.
While sources confirm the shortage of thatching professionals in villages has caused a roadblock for people inclined towards constructing a kutcha house, the cost of a thatching professional, which was about Rs 40 to Rs 50 a decade ago, has now increased four to five times discouraging people even more.
By Kahnu Nanda from Jagatsinghpur
Ansari has been working for resolution of the Kashmir issue since 1960 and he has worked with many leaders, who espoused this cause. “I worked with (National Conference founder) Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah when he was part of the Plebiscite Front. After he parted ways with the Front, I also chose my own path. I have worked with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and his father also,” he said.
Hurriyat Conference chairperson Mirwaiz Umer Farooq expelled Ansari for “violating” the Hurriyat stand of not talking to the interlocutors. Hurriyat is of the view that since the interlocutors have the mandate of only making certain recommendation to the Government of India and can’t take decisions on their own, any engagement with them is tantamount to wasting of time. The Hurriyat executive council had a sharp word for the interlocutors whom they advised to restrict their activities to framing recommendations on Kashmir, and rejected disclosures made by the panel to the media. “The Hurriyat is not interested in who does, or does not, benefit from the recommendations,” they said.
Analysts, who have been keeping a close watch on separatists’ politics, comment that Mirwaiz and his advisors had no option but to take action against Ansari. Insiders in Hurriyat told this correspondent on the condition of anonymity that though Mirwaiz and some other senior Hurriyat members were personally against the said expulsion, they wanted the face saver since the assassination of Shah had shaken them.
Shah was killed just when some voices in Kashmir including his own had begun to speak openly against the political killings in Kashmir. In fact, Shah was the first religious leader who early this year had sought a fresh inquiry into the killings of top separatist leaders such as Maulvi Farooq, Abdul Gani Lone and Qazi Nisar. Soon thereafter, senior Hurriyat leader Prof Abdul Gani Bhat blamed “own men” for these killings.
Political assassinations are not new to Kashmir. Out of 13,215 civilians killed since 1990 till February 25, 2011, 698 were politicians. The highest number, 101 political leaders and workers, were killed in 2002. Significantly, each of these leaders was killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’, and a conspiracy of silence surrounded the assassinations, while extremists sought to pin the blame on “Indian forces”.
While, the official group of Kashmir interlocutors has not met with much success with rebel groups, a new set of interlocutors, the “Kashmir Committee” constituted way back in 2002 to reach out to the separatists is being revived. The BJP leader and former head of the erstwhile Kashmir Committee, Ram Jethmalani, former Editor, The Asian Age, MJ Akbar, women rights activist, Madhu Kishwar, retired Indian Foreign Service officer VK Grover and a local journalist Waheed-ur-Rehman form the committee.
The committee is expected to travel to Kashmir in coming days to meet different political and apolitical groups and try to reach out to separatists who have so far refused to meet Government of India-appointed interlocutors. Though the committee was active in Kashmir till 2004, it failed to break the ice with the separatist groups except for Democratic Freedom Party president, Shabir Ahmad Shah. Shah was working outside the fold of Hurriyat Conference during that time. However, the committee died a silent death particularly after the Government of India appointed present Jammu and Kashmir Governor, NN Vohra, the official interlocutor.
Whether the committee is official or unofficial, the major questions are: How many more such facts and truths are there in the political closet of the separatists in Kashmir? Who calls shots and what factors are considered to decide the political postures? The need of the hour is an honest unravelling of the hidden instruments, which guide the politics of Kashmir. Transparency is desired from all the actors.
By Prakriiti Gupta from Srinagar