Masarat Alam Nawaz Gul Qanungo

Masarat Alam, one of the most influential separatist leaders in Kashmir, was in prison on July 8th, when the current wave of deadly clashes broke out between Indian security forces and mostly unarmed protesters. The spark, this time, was the killing of Burhan Wani, the charismatic 21-year-old commander of the Hizb ul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s only surviving indigenous armed rebel group, along with two of his associates in a raid by Indian forces.  

Tens of thousands of Kashmiris came out onto the streets protesting against the killing. Many began hurling rocks at Indian forces, while some stormed security installations, including an air base on Srinagar’s outskirts. Though unprecedented in their ferocity, the protests are nothing new in the long disputed Himalayan region, along with the deadly force used by the government to quell them. So far, at least 50 civilians have been killed and 3,500 injured, many critically. Hospitals have been forced to declare an unprecedented medical emergency and the government has responded with a severe clampdown on movement and communication.

But Alam, 44, has special insight into the clashes and the heavy-handed Indian tactics that sparked them. He spearheaded key anti-India agitations in 2008 and 2010, and has spent 22 years in jail in full, remaining in prison today under the draconian Public Safety Act, a law that allows imprisonment of up to six months without charges and can be applied repeatedly. 

My interview with Alam was conducted in Srinagar in March last year, when he was briefly released on bail, something that precipitated a major political crisis in the Indian capital New Delhi and resulted in his re-arrest. The conversation throws much light on the Kashmir imbroglio overall, and on what prevents a political resolution in the most militarized place on earth. 

Alam reveals that after an earlier arrest, during the powerful agitations of 2010, he was questioned by the chief of the police in the region and many others from the Indian security establishment, all of whom wanted to know the operational details of the spectacular political mobilization he had achieved. Notably, nobody from the political establishment was part of any of these sessions, highlighting the overwhelming influence of the Indian security establishment in the region and the lack of space for peaceful conflict resolution.  

Alam’s challenge to Kashmir’s pro-India political groups is uncomplicated: Get the Indian state to accept that, above and beyond the dispute between India and Pakistan, Kashmiris are a principal party to the Kashmir issue. While successive governments in Kashmir have succeeded in getting New Delhi to commit on paper to dialogue with various political stakeholders in Kashmir, Delhi has invariably openly trashed such commitments later. 

Above all, Alam rues the absolute lack of political freedom afforded to those who question the legitimacy of Indian control in Kashmir. As noted above, Alam, at age 44, has spent more than half of his life in jail. Meanwhile, his political allies on the outside are often banned from even such basic activities as briefing the press. It is no wonder, then, as the Indian state increasingly tightens the fist of its security apparatus around myriad aspects of life in Kashmir, that the street, in moments of crisis, can be found each time more unrelenting than last. -Nawaz Gul Qanungo 

Nawaz Gul Qanungo: In 2010, you gave the government and the security establishment a very difficult time while they were out looking for you. How were you spending those days? 

Masarat Alam: Normally. I would meet people, go to mosques. Only I wouldn’t come home, and avoided the police. 

NGQ: What kind of political activity were you doing during those days? 

MA: We’d make the protest “calendars” and chalk out plans for demonstrations. 

NGQ:  And how were you mobilizing people? 

MA: The general public didn’t need any mobilization. They’d come out on their own. The situation was such. I remember we had once planned a protest of a shut-down at 12 noon. And exactly at 12 noon, everything just shut down. So people were following the protest programs because they saw merit in doing so. They were angry at the killings by the government. 

NGQ: What happened on the day of the arrest? 

MA: I was in my uncles house. It was Maghrib prayer time [just after sunset]. They raided the house. I tried to flee, but they caught me. 

NGQ: What happened after the arrest? Were you interrogated?  

MA: A lot of questioning followed. About everything - strikes, protests, demonstrations, social media activity, my whereabouts, everything…and they got a strong response to whatever they asked. 

NGQ: Who came to talk to you? 

MA: SM Sahai [then state police chief, now director general of police (CID)] and a lot of security officials. 

NGQ: From the political establishment? 

MA: No one. 

NGQ: So there were no political discussions of any kind? 

MA: They did talk about our politics, our goals, about talking to the Indian state, about wanting us to soften our stance. 

NGQ: What did they ask you? 

MA: They wanted us to soften our stand. And they wanted us to not repeat what they believe we did in 2008 and 2010. They wanted us to play the role of some sort of an opposition. But, and as I told them strongly and clearly, our cause is based on the truth and we will continue, insha'allah, faithfully in this struggle, whatever the cost we may have to pay. On this, there can be no compromise. Is baat pe hum kaarband hain:To this, we are committed. 

NGQ: How do you see the situation now? 

MA: I’m satisfied by the fact that people continue to have unshakable faith in the movement, but we still need to work hard and focus and work on our weaknesses…We need to reach out to people, talk to them, listen to them, know their expectations of us. Above all, we need to know what resistance demands of us. We also need to know where we might have gone wrong, all that needs to be corrected, so that we maintain a strong resistance to the occupation. 

NGQ: What do you mean by resistance, in practical terms? 

MA: These are evolving things…that are continually debated. One has to look at the present circumstances and chalk out a roadmap accordingly. The government has kept the pro-independence political establishment under siege. So the first requirement is to break out of that siege and get in touch with people. I told you that Geelani saab [86-year-old separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani] has been kept under [house] arrest since years now. In such conditions, there is hardly anything that we have been able to do. 

NGQ: So, by whatever means, the Indian state has succeeded in making you ineffective, perhaps even irrelevant... 

MA: No, I don’t agree with that. You don’t go after irrelevant things [like the government is going after the separatists]. The state is basically trying to isolate us from the people. But it is not that we are sitting idle.

MGQ: Let me talk about the agitations of 2010, and even 2008. In a rare interview in 2010 published in The Times of India, you described the agitations as a “decisive phase” in the history of Kashmir’s resistance, and you said that the people had “succeeded in giving a clear message to the world community as well as to the Indians - that the people of Jammu & Kashmir want total liberation from India.” The government responded by killing more than 60 young people in 2008, and more than 120 in 2010. Tell me, what have 2008 and 2010 achieved on the ground? 

MA: One achievement is the revival of the resistance movement. There were voices saying that the Kashmir movement was over. They stand corrected. The truth is, people don’t just desire independence. They desire it as strongly as ever. Second, both during 2008 and 2010, the system that the Indian state had put in place in Kashmir was completely crippled, devastated. Third, our newer generation of Kashmiris saw clearly for themselves what the Indian state stands for, and what we stand for. Above all, the people sent a strong and clear message both to India and the world that they do not want to be a part of India. 

NGQ: Let me ask this in a different perpsective. The 2008 agitations were against the Amarnath land transfer, and generally the manner in which the yatra is conducted [the Amarnath yatra is an annual Hindu pilgrimage, attracting half a million Hindus annually from India; in 2008, the Indian government transferred 99 acres of land for the use of Hindu pilgrims, sparking some of the largest protests in Kashmir’s history]. What were you able to stop the Indian state from doing vis-a-vis the land transfer or the way the yatra is conducted? 

MA: They did revoke the land transfer order. 

NGQ: But they might as well be using the land anyway, as has been alleged by many. The point is, people say that you have not been able to stop the Indian state from doing what it wants to do… 

MA: To begin with, they did revoke the land transfer order. Later, I remember Geelani saab said that certain constructions were going on, and Omar Abdullah [then chief minister] invited him for a chopper ride over the region. However, I’m not sure about the final details, since I was in jail. Beyond that, of course the Indian state will do what it has to do. The state will always try to gain more and more ground. But I’m telling you what [the protests of] 2008 and 2010 achieved, and I stand by that. 

NGQ: The Indian government has been reiterating its traditional stand: that Kashmir is a “bilateral issue” [with Pakistan] with no “scope” for any third party... 

MA: Bilateral issue to what end? For a resolution? Who is seeking a resolution here? Occupations are not resolved. Occupations are ended. India is here as an occupier, by its sheer military might, running an unjustified, illegal occupation. It has to retreat, that’s it. We are not seeking a resolution here. I don’t even accept that Kashmir is a dispute. It is an occupation, which has to end. 

NGQ: But how much is the Indian state impressed by all this? How does it reflect upon your movement when the Indian state is not even willing to change its language?

MA: They will change their language, and a lot of other things.

NGQ: They don’t even acknowledge your struggle. True, they were forced to bring in the interlocutors [a group of three individuals sent by the Indian government to start discussions with various sections of Kashmiri society] in 2010. But eventually, even they were dumped. My point is, India is just not interested in changing the status quo. 

MA: Well, after all, their language and stance was all the same even before 2010, right? It has always been this way. That [the situation is] a “proxy war instigated by Pakistan,” and that it is “not an indigenous movement,” and so on. Then they saw 2010 and said that this was a “unique problem, which needed a unique solution” [quoting P Chidambaram, then home minister, speaking in the Indian parliament in 2010]. And then they sent the interlocutors. Similarly, today they feel they have conquered us. But let me assure you they are not winning. The situation will turn again, and they will change their language again. 

NGQ: So you think the status quo will change? 

MA: Absolutely. 

NGQ: And what will bring about that change? 

MA: People’s resistance. 

NGQ: You think the people of Kashmir have the capacity to offer such a resistance considering how their economic interests, for example, remain so entrenched in the system? 

MA: Yes. And that’s my faith. People are unshaken in their belief in resistance. Our job is to consolidate it, sustain it as a movement, show the way ahead. 

NGQ: What do you think is required in order to change the status quo? What are the difficulties? What are the failures? 

MA: Well the biggest problem is that we are being imprisoned. We are not being allowed to move freely or to do our work as political leaders. This is like a game of cricket where only one team exists. It scores and announces its victory. Let them [create] a free, level-playing field, allow everybody to play. And then we’ll see what happens. 

NGQ: The Indian Hindu right wing forces have a fierce agenda of Hinduisation, even as India’s minorities are under assault. How do you see these forces playing out in J&K, especially with the BJP [Bhartiya Janata Party, the right wing Hindu nationalist party currently in power in India] at the helm now? What do you think they will try to do in Kashmir? 

MA: They are trying to change the demography of the state as a whole. In Kashmir, they are claiming they will add thousands of members to their party. They will try to make a show of themselves here, which is basically to impart a sense of defeat to Kashmiri Muslims, that they have conquered them. In India, they have been trying to marginalize Muslims and other minorities, and that’s nothing new. I don’t think they are trying any kind of Ghar Wapsi [Home Coming] in Jammu and Kashmir, but changing the demography is very much on their agenda. In the Jammu division they are also pushing for delimitation, in order to weaken the influence and representative power of the Muslim population, so [Muslims] are left with no political say. This is their immediate agenda. 

So far as the BJP being in state government is concerned, I don’t think that makes a difference [Jammu and Kashmir is currently ruled by a coalition government between the BJP and the pro-India People Democratic Party]. How different can they be from the Congress Party, for example? But, yes, they will help the Hindu right wing, especially in Jammu, to get their ideas floated. 

NGQ: But the Hindu right wing does have a project of Hinduisation in Kashmir, too, doesn’t it?

MA: No, I don’t think so. So far as Kashmir is concerned, Hinduisation is a project of the Indian state. So you had unheard-of yatras being started even during the Congress-NC government. It is all done by the Indian state, not the Hindu right wing. And we continue our resistance against it, and watch it minutely. 

NGQ: According to their common program, the coalition government intends to talk to “all the political stakeholders” of Kashmir. If there is an offer of dialogue, will you talk? 

MA: Let them get over this contradiction first - of New Delhi saying that Kashmir is a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. Then we will see.

NGQ: But if there’s an offer? 

MA: It will be discussed in the Hurriyat. Geelani saab has already given the five pre-conditions [accept Kashmir as disputed territory, revoke draconian laws, release political prisoners, demilitarize and hold a referendum]. I don’t think there’s any change in that position. At any rate, there will, as usual, be discussions for an appropriate response if there is any such offer. 

NGQ: The world is not unaware of Kashmir’s political aspirations, or the state of political repression here. But the world community hasn’t really cared much. Does it concern you? 

MA: Yes, one does think about such things. One also wonders why this is so. Of course, the world should be committed to a just intervention. That they don’t intervene is a pity. But that doesn’t dishearten us. We believe in the existence of Allah. Things will eventually turn in our favor and we will come out of this oppression. 

NGQ: Have you met your party members since your release? 

MA: Yes, I did. 

NGQ: What did you tell them? 

MA: I told them we’ll win this war, insha'allah

Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based journalist. Additional work on Masarat Alam can be found in Caravan Magazine. He is on Twitter @nawazqanungo 

Masarat Alam is a Kashmiri separatist leader, currently a member of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He is also the Chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Muslim League.