Separatist sentiment alive in J&K, but just : The Tribune India

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Separatist sentiment alive in J&K, but just

Jamaat-e-Islami’s pro-election stance marks a momentous new turning point

Separatist sentiment alive in J&K, but just

Decline: The Hizbul Mujahideen, led by Syed Salahuddin, seems to have become more or less toothless. AP/PTI

Nirupama Subramanian

Senior journalist

IN 1983, the story goes, Saaduddin Tarabali, the then Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir (JeI), travelled to Islamabad for a meeting with Pakistan’s then military ruler, Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Puffed up with the importance of a man who was fighting America’s war against the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan, Zia’s balloon was punctured by Saaduddin’s cold reception to his proposal — that Pakistan would divert funds and men from Afghanistan if the JeI launched an armed uprising in Kashmir.

The Jamaat-e-Islami’s existential crisis is more severe today than it was in 1989-90.

“Inko zafraani kahwa pilao,” Zia said to the amusement of the others present in the room. Saffron kahwa is a warming brew. But Saaduddin was hardly persuaded by the joke. He replied that Kashmiris were not afraid to launch an insurrection, but Pakistan did not have the capacity to take it to its logical conclusion. The pro-Pakistan JeI aimed to bring Islamic rule into Jammu & Kashmir but believed it could do this only by participating in elections and getting into positions of power, while retaining its character of being a socio-religious organisation. Saaduddin warned Zia that an armed resistance against India would only result in mayhem. Kashmiri would kill Kashmiri, he predicted.

Until 1987, the JeI would continue to contest elections, including panchayat polls, as it had done since 1963. But anger at the ‘stolen’ 1987 Assembly election changed the political dynamics of the state. By 1989-90, hundreds of JeI cadres had already joined the Yasin Malik-led Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and were crossing the Line of Control for training in armed militancy by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. But the JeI also feared for its own existence, that it would be swallowed up by a ‘secular’ Kashmiri nationalist militant group.

Soon after the 1987 election, the JeI’s influential leader Syed Muhammed Yusuf Shah (he had lost to his National Conference opponent) decided to join the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). Shah took the name Syed Salahuddin. He has since been based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as the head of the umbrella grouping of militants called the United Jihad Council. Soon after, the JeI was running the HM.

Four decades later, the wheel has turned full circle. On May 14, the JeI’s acting Amir, Ghulam Qadir Wani, made the surprise announcement that the organisation would return to mainstream politics if the government lifted the ban on it. The ban had been imposed in February 2019, in the days after the Pulwama suicide bombing. The JeI is believed to have had no direct role in the attack, but it was proscribed on the grounds that it was in close touch with militant outfits, and supported extremism, militancy and secessionism in J&K. This February, the ban — which has crippled the once-formidable JeI network of schools, madrasas and mosques and put its leaders and hundreds of cadres in jail — was extended for another five years.

As J&K went to the polls, logging unusually high voter turnouts in all its constituencies, the JeI did not issue its customary boycott call. Wani himself was spotted queuing up to cast his vote in the Srinagar Lok Sabha election — which recorded a high 38 per cent turnout. Wani told journalists later that JeI had not asked the people to boycott the polls because the organisation had always believed in the democratic process. The JeI majlis-e-shoora, Wani added, had decided that the organisation would contest the Assembly election if the ban was lifted.

This is a momentous new turning point, not just for the JeI, but for separatist politics and militancy in J&K. After its takeover of HM put the JKLF in the shade, the JeI had turned into a vehicle for cross-border militancy in Kashmir, its network providing the backup and support Gen Zia had once suggested. When the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) was formed in 1993, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an influential Jamaat member, became one of its founding members. It was also in this period that a state-backed counter-insurgency force rose up. Called the Ikhwan, its members were feared by Kashmiris. And they were targeting the JeI systematically

As the fratricidal war spiralled, the JeI Amir at the time, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, announced that his organisation was not affiliated to any militant organsiation. From then on, relations between the JeI and the pro-armed struggle Geelani were never the same. He formed his own party called the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, and was the man behind the strikes, agitations and other protests that plunged Kashmir into violence repeatedly from 2007 to 2018. The JeI stayed away from elections. Behind the scenes, though, it became a supporter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP, formed in 1999, to break the dominance of the National Conference.

Meanwhile, the separatist Hurriyat suffered an internal split in 2005, with Mirwaiz Omar Farooq heading the APHC and Geelani heading his own active and assertive faction. The two, along with Yasin Malik, came together to lead the agitation that erupted after the 2016 killing of militant Burhan Wani. But the Hurriyat’s failure to challenge the Modi government’s unilateral decision to scrap Article 370 in August 2019, and Geelani’s decision to step down as chairman in July 2020, a year before he passed away in September 2021, were serious setbacks for Kashmir’s separatist politics. In early May, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq spoke of “serious alterations on the ground” and “changed circumstances” as the reason why the APHC had decided not to issue a call to boycott the 2024 elections.

The JeI stands to lose far more than Mirwaiz from the changed circumstances. For one, most of its leaders and hundreds of its cadres are in jail. The ban has snuffed out its funding. The party’s existential crisis is more severe today than it was in 1989-90. Those in charge blame the organisation’s pro-Geelani group for its problems. Pakistan, meanwhile, consumed with its own flailing economy and dysfunctional politics, seems unable to take advantage. A Pakistani observer described the Azad Jammu and Kashmir wing of the JeI as a ‘spent bullet’ mired in corruption.

As for the HM, it seems to have become more or less toothless. When Abdul Majeed Dar revolted against the Hizb in 2000, he was eliminated. An official Hizb statement from Muzaffarabad, denouncing Wani for his pro-poll comments, seemed for a moment like a Dar rerun. But Wani, instead of backing off, has openly doubled down, saying that the JeI is in touch with New Delhi for lifting the ban.

The question is: what does the Centre gain from lifting the ban on the JeI? A new participant in J&K politics which can better challenge the mainstream political parties than what the J&K Apni Party has been able to do? Maybe.

For now, the National Conference, a sworn enemy of the JeI since its inception, has welcomed the new development. The PDP, which benefited from the JeI’s silent support in 2014 but also faced its wrath during the 2016-18 agitation, is yet to react.

Of course, the risks are great, especially if a hardline faction regains control of the organisation. On the whole, though, and for now, it may be safe to say that while the separatist sentiment may still be alive in J&K, it no longer has political patrons.

#Afghanistan #Jammu #Kashmir #Pakistan #United States of America USA

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