‘All Kashmiris are prisoners of conscience’

Once named ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by the Amnesty International for his unflinching stand on Kashmir, Shabir Ahmad Shah has spent more than 27 years of his life in Indian jails. As a leader of Jammu Kashmir Peoples League, Shah campaigned for the right to self-determination of Kashmiris from late 1960s. He floated his own Jammu Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party in 1998 but has also been putting stringent efforts to unify the different factions of the separatist conglomerate All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Now part of Hurriyat led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shah is raising pitch for the group’s restructuring. Excerpts from an interview with Faisul Yaseen:

Q. Once you were looked upon as the Nelson Mandela of Kashmir. What happened to that popularity?
Shabir Shah: After my last detention of two years following the popular uprising of 2010, I have been placed under house arrest for 7 months and 19 days. Since my release, I have been able to offer Friday afternoon prayers just eight times that too only when I was out of Kashmir. I, or for that matter, no other pro-resistance leader’s popularity graph is showing a downward trend. The truth is that since 1965, pro-resistance leadership of Kashmir has not been allowed to propagate their ideas. On the other hand pro-India leadership is allowed to organize rallies and the State extends all possible support to make those rallies successful.

Q. Amnesty International named you ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ during your detention in 1992. How do you react when you see Kashmiri youth and children being held as prisoners?
Shabir Shah: We have people who have spent 16 years, 18 years and 20 years in jails. Men have lost their youth in jails. Our leaders and hundreds of youth are held in detention. Today all Kashmiris are ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ and entire Kashmir is a big prison.

Q. Has some sort of calm returned to Kashmir lately?
Shabir Shah: India claims to be the largest democracy in the world. However, people can see how much religious interference India is doing in Kashmir. Pro-resistance leaders are not allowed to offer Friday congregational prayers. We are not even allowed to offer funeral prayers of our near one and dear ones. Don’t misconstrue lull for calm.

Q. You are complaining that separatists are not getting a level playing field?
Shabir Shah: Yes, the pro-India politicians are allowed to propagate their ideas freely and the voice of the pro-resistance leadership is stifled. We are either placed under house arrest or even arrested. We are under surveillance all the time.

Q. How do you rate the incumbent State government led by Omar Abdullah?
Shabir Shah: It is the same as the previous State governments. All of them are basically the employees of the Government of India. They get orders from New Delhi and the State governments implement those orders to keep their masters in New Delhi happy. Congress, National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party are all birds of a feather. Fake encounters and enforced disappearance happened during the government led by Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. They happened during the government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad and they did not cease to happen during the government led by Omar Abdullah. Until Kashmir is resolved, the change of heads of the State will not make any difference. At last Darbar Move, Omar Abdullah said the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act will be withdrawn before the next Darbar Move. He could not keep his promise. They cannot even release political detainees and protesting youth without the consent of New Delhi. Indian Army, Police and intelligence agencies run the show in Kashmir not the chief minister. The chief minister here is meant for cutting ribbons and inaugurating bridges.

Q. And what is APHC meant for? What role is it playing?
Shabir Shah: Since 1947,  half a million Kashmiris have sacrificed their lives for the resolution of the issue. Hurriyat leadership wants to pay back people for the trust they have placed on us. We want to see the result of sacrifices given by our martyrs. Pro-resistance leaders have a role to play. In this regard, APHC is trying to connect with people, organize seminars and conferences and restructure the amalgam.

Q. You talked of Hurriyat restructuring.  Hasn’t the APHC leadership resisted the move so far?
Shabir Shah: In 2008, we opened the offices at district level. The idea was to institutionalize APHC. We wanted that there should be a division of work. Some work should be done by the chairman, some by the vice chairman and some by the general secretary and so on.  However, all offices were closed after my arrest. I feel sad to say that the resistance leadership is not united. We already have two factions of the Hurriyat. We wanted to reform and restructure the Hurriyat of which I am a part. There should be a proper executive council and a proper general council or a Majlis-e-Shoora. If the Hurriyat had been strong, the conglomerate would have acted as a hurdle for the State government and its agencies to carry fake encounters, custodial disappearances and other types of human rights violations. Unfortunately, we content ourselves with press statements.

Q. Your faction of Hurriyat seems to be a divided house. Shabir Ahmad Shah says something. Abdul Gani Bhat says something else.
Shabir Shah: After Prof. Bhat Sahab’s statements came in the press, he has maintained that he was misquoted. So I can’t say much about it. However, we need to keep in mind that since 1947, 5 lakh Kashmiris have sacrificed their lives for the resolution of Kashmir issue. The blood of martyrs cannot go down t v   he drain. Separatist leadership has a role to play and we cannot shy away saying UN resolutions are no longer relevant or that the separatist leadership needs to join hands with the pro-India political parties. People who are tired of fighting the Indian state should say so and not come up with excuses. Yes, Hurriyat is a divided house but we need to set it in order. However, everyone needs to keep in mind that we cannot change the Hurriyat’s preamble. Right to self-determination is our basic demand and we should stick to it.

Q. So you mean Hurriyat should adopt a hardline stance on the UN resolutions?
Shabir Shah: People should not have any objections on sticking to their basic demand. UN resolutions do not suddenly become forbidden. If the United Nations can allow a referendum in East Timor and South Sudan, why not in Kashmir. History is witness to the fact that smaller nations have won freedom from massive nations. Vietnam drew out US troops, Afghanistan drove Russians out.

Q. Do you feel that the chairman of your faction of Hurriyat is siding with Abdul Gani Bhat and distancing himself from you?
Shabir Shah: Mirwaiz is young. He had a great future. In 2008 we opened offices at district level. However, all offices were closed after my arrest. Individuals do not matter. The cause, for which every one of us is fighting, does matter. When I rejoined APHC at Martyrs Graveyard in Eidgah, we had a joint press conference and vowed to carry on the programmes of the APHC. However, those programmes were not implemented. Today we are not united. APHC is now split. Apart from having the two factions, the one led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani sahab and the one led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq sahab, the Hurriyat which I am part of, is also disunited. There is a need to see who should be in the executive council and who should be in the general council. There is also a need to see if Hurriyat should have a Majlis-e-Shoora? We want division of work. The chairman should not be burdened with all the responsibilities. This is the reason why I am stressing for institutionalizing the Hurriyat.

Q. Why did the separatists fail to institutionalize the Hurriyat during the past 24 years? If Hamas can have educational institutions and hospitals of its own, have its own radio and TV stations, why couldn’t Hurriyat?
Shabir Shah:  Our resistance struggle is young. Hurriyat is working in absence of a system. This is the reason why we are laying emphasis on the system. Hurriyat should have a roadmap for the Kashmir resolution, and chalk out long term and short term plans. We have had deficiencies in the past and we should take lessons from the past. We have to restructure the Hurriyat and connect with the people at the grass root level, organize seminars and conferences on Kashmir and know the aspirations of the people and highlight them at proper platforms. Had the Hurriyat been strong, fake encounters and enforced disappearances would not have been a norm in Kashmir.

Q. While the faction of Hurriyat led by Syed Ali Geelani has turned down offers for participating in a dialogue with New Delhi on Kashmir, your faction has appeared to be desperate.Why?
Shabir Shah: We have never been desperate. We showed flexibility. We have laid emphasis on tripartite talks. See, entering into dialogue with India should not be stigmatized. Wars end with ceasefires. Ceasefires are followed by talks. It is a continuing process. However, the irony is that Kashmiris have not been involved in any talks on Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, on his visit to India, made it clear to the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh that Kashmir resolution is must for regional peace. We should stop begging for talks. Without us talks cannot be meaningful. We are the ones who have offered the sacrifices. It was the sacrifices of our Mujahideen that brought international attention to Kashmir issue. For any dialogue to be meaningful, India and Pakistan need to talk with the Hurriyat leadership and the Mujahideen including the Mujahideen living across the ceasefire line. UJC’s inclusion in talks is also necessary.

Q. Does the present situation in Pakistan make you pessimistic about the resolution of Kashmir issue?
Shabir Shah: Pakistan is the prime party to Kashmir dispute. It is the only Muslim nation, which has consistently given us political and moral support. Besides, the core issue of Kashmir, Pakistan has a number of issues to settle with India including Sir Creek, Siachen and water dispute. However, Islamabad has to realize that the Confidence Building Measures with New Delhi alone cannot help resolve Kashmir. Yes, off late Pakistan has been battling terror but I am sure the country will come over the crisis. Recently, I met Pakistan Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani. He assured me of Pakistan’s commitment toward Kashmir issue. The problem is that the pro-resistance leadership in Kashmir is not united. All of us, the pro-resistance leaders in both factions of the Hurriyat and also those outside, need to unite.

Q. Do you see India being flexible on Kashmir in the immediate future?
Shabir Shah: It has to. Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar recently said Kashmir is a white elephant for India. New Delhi also has to realize that Kashmir was never a part of India. Of the 565 princely states, Kashmir is the only one that India did not do justice to.

Q. Do you feel Hurriyat let down Kashmiris in 2010 when entire Kashmir was on streets? If streets protests could bring a revolution in Egypt, why couldn’t they bring a similar change in Kashmir?
Shabir Shah: Yes, the leadership in a way let people down. People have grievances with the Hurriyat leadership but the main thing is that the sentiment is still alive. A million people came out to attend the Eidgah rally, tens of thousands marched to attend the TRC rally, Kashmiris stayed on a six-month strike. We tried everything. However, the State behaves differently. India is not only trying to crush the Kashmir resistance through military means but also using all tools to penetrate into our culture and education and tearing apart our social fabric. There is a deliberate ploy to make our children drug addicts and to spread moral degradation. India is trying to create fissures between pro-resistance leadership and weaken the movement. The pro-resistance leadership has always been kept in jails. These tactics will never work for India. We will definitely win freedom from it. It may take time but we will ultimately succeed.

Q. These days you are organizing separate programmes of the Hurriyat and skipping programmes organized by the conglomerate’s chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. What is the reason?
Shabir Shah: We are all working for the Hurriyat. There are some programmes, which the APHC chairman organizes and there are some programmes, which other Hurriyat leaders organize.

Q. You mean you have the consent of the Hurriyat chairman to organize those programmes?
Shabir Shah: We don’t need anybody’s consent.

Q. So you are organizing those programmes without the Hurriyat chairman’s consent.
Shabir Shah: There is no need for chairman’s consent on organizing such programmes. We are the Hurriyat. Hurriyat is not anybody’s personal property. Hurriyat is of all Hurriyat activists and all Hurriyat leaders. We have offered sacrifices for the Hurriyat. I have given 40 years of my life to the Kashmir’s resistance politics. I will give my entire life to it. Whatever I have is of the nation. My fight is the fight of principles.

Q. What if the Hurriyat chairman does not pay heed to your demand of restructuring the conglomerate?  Will you float your own Hurriyat?
Shabir Shah: No, a third front won’t be good for the movement. There is already a mushroom growth of political parties. Even if our voice is not heard today, it will be heard tomorrow. We will stay within the Hurriyat to clean the Hurriyat and set the house in order.

Q. If NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, will it have an impact on Kashmir?
Shabir Shah: If the United States leaves Afghanistan, Kashmir and Palestine will come into focus. Right now Pakistan is engaged in Afghanistan and battling crisis in Baluchistan. I hope things will improve by 2014.

Q. What is Hurriyat trying to do to bring Kashmir issue into focus?
Shabir Shah:
We have asked Pakistan to allow Hurriyat to open a cell in every embassy of Pakistan and work on Kashmir.

Q. At the time of parliamentary elections, several separatist leaders participated in the polls. Does Hurriyat have any plans to participate in the future assembly elections or parliamentary elections?
Shabir Shah:
We won’t call such leaders separatists. They were opportunists just like the youth who joined the Mujahideen ranks for fashion and later brought bad name to the Mujahideen. Such leaders are political renegades. They do it for material gains like owning residential flats and cars, having security and portfolios. Hurriyat does not have any plans to participate in elections.

Q. Even if it will be a decision taken with consensus like 1987?
Shabir Shah:
Hurriyat won’t participate in any elections under the Indian constitution. If we do, how will we answer our sisters, mothers and fathers we sacrificed their better halves, their sons, their daughters for the Kashmir cause.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say?
Shabir Shah:
I want Kashmiri youth to come forward for the peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue. We should also try to bring back people who went off the track.