Online Extra: "The Human Aspect of Kashmir Is Ignored"

Kashmiri Muslim leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq talks about the struggle to reunify his country and gain independence from India

In a heavily guarded enclave near Nagin Lake in Srinagar, lives Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the most prominent religious leader of the Kashmiri Muslims. Visitors expecting a wizened, bearded old scholar will be surprised to find a young man of 26, articulate with disarming charm and fashionable black-framed glasses. Yes, the Mirwaiz (a title for the religious head) does wear a beard, but it's dark and neatly trimmed, a departure from the clergy's typical uncut beard.

He inherited his title at 16 -- Umar Farooq is the 40th Mirwaiz in an unbroken line since 1650 -- when his father was assassinated and he was just a schoolboy. The Mirwaiz is courteous and hospitable, like most Kashmiris: Guests are treated to juice, tea, and locally made plum cake. He doesn't lead the prayer at the grand Jama Masjid mosque in Srinagar, but he delivers the sermon every Friday.

His sermons are important, especially because Umar Farooq is also a member of the Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of 23 militant and political groups, which have been the main opposition to Kashmir's ruling National Conference for the last decade -- and of the Indian government's grip over Kashmir.

SOFTER POSITION.

  The Hurriyat is beholden to Pakistan, say analysts, for both moral and strategic support. It wants reunification with the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir, and it has advocated militancy to get independence from India. The Indian government refuses to negotiate with the group, regarding it as renegade and responsible, along with Pakistan, for the violence in the state.

These days, the Hurriyat has become less militant: Some of its members, now expelled, are standing as independent candidates for the elections starting on Sept. 16. The group has said it will boycott the elections, which it claims won't resolve the problem of Kashmir. However, its position has softened considerably in the past months, the effect of years of bloodshed and hopelessness. And the efforts of former Indian Law Minister Ram Jetmalani, who has recently led a citizen's initiative called the Kashmir Committee, has made a dent in the Hurriyat's hardline stand.

Despite his stridence, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a spokesman for the Hurriyat, now says the group condemns all forms of violence -- including state violence -- and will abandon all extremist stands, will be flexible, and wants an "honorable and durable" solution to the issue of Kashmir.

In his well manicured garden under the golden setting sun, the Mirwaiz spoke to BusinessWeek India Bureau Chief Manjeet Kripalani about what the Indian government should be doing, what his group wants and what he wants. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: What is your opinion of the current elections?

A:

In the West, elections are a credible process, but here, elections are held not for a people's mandate but to legitimize a rule that's not accepted. These elections are more for the international community than for the Kashmiris or Indians. The government of India is under pressure, the Indian claim on Kashmir has lost ground, it has tried to portray Kashmir as the misdoing of Pakistan, to disrupt peace in this part of the world.

Q: What does the Hurriyat want?

A:

The Hurriyat wants that the issue of Kashmir should be resolved, but in accordance with the wishes of the people. It's not an armed struggle, but a struggle for the minds and hearts of people. We want peace, an end to violence -- but peace with honor and dignity, not the peace of the graveyard. These elections are to legitimize India's illegal occupation. We want international involvement. The majority of the Hurriyat won seats in the 1989 elections, but they were rigged, and the seats were snatched from them.

Q: How is India reacting?

A:

The Indian Prime Minister said on Aug. 15 that India will talk to Kashmir's elected representatives. So we say, let there be free and fair elections. But we still don't trust India.

Q: What do you think of the Kashmir Committee's efforts? Will they be fruitful?

A:

It is good that prominent citizens like Ram Jetmalani have come forward. But things are decided in Delhi and implemented in Kashmir.

Q: What should the Indian government do?

A:

[Prime Minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee should have talked to Kashmiris in May when he came and promised $1.2 billion in aid, but he didn't make a single remark about the suffering of the people of Kashmir. Shabbir Shah, one of the Hurriyat leaders, camped out in Delhi for a week, but still Mr. Vajpayee would not talk to them.

We are willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue, an unconditional dialogue with the Indian government. What about the violence, killings? Elections are a beginning only, not an end to this. We'll just have another National Conference government, and after the elections, Kashmir will be forgotten.

Q: What do you think of [National Conference party leader] Omar Abdullah? You are both young, from a new generation...

A:

He is seen as very active in the Vajpayee government, but he does not know Kashmir, has not lived here a lot. Let's hope he can work. He has to speak for the people, not the government. I have had no interaction with Omar Abdullah so far. My lot would look upon it as a betrayal if I became too friendly with him! Maybe he can bring change.

Q: If you had not inherited this religious mantle, what would you rather have done?

A:

My father died when I was 16 and studying computer science. But I had to go back to studying arts and humanities. I would have liked to be a computer entrepreneur.

Q: How do you see your role?

A:

I belong to a family which belongs socially and religiously to Kashmir. Been involved for the last 350 years. I'm the 40th Mirwaiz. It's sort of like an archbishop. My role is social, religious, and political. We have started schools and colleges. I don't lead the prayers, but I give the sermon. My grandfather introduced Omar Abudullah's grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, to the people of Kashmir.

When I took over, those were the most difficult times -- 1990, when my father was assassinated. So much of chaos and confusion then. It was my effort as Mirwaiz to call on all parties and talk. I am a founder-chairman of the Hurriyat. There used to be clashes, the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front fighting with the Hizb-ul-Mujahadeen.

I guide the people through the religious calendar. My planks are to focus on the religious aspect of the sermon, talk about the importance of Islamic values, and how to have a perfect society.

Q: What kind of influence do you have?

A:

Politically, I think we need determination, courage, and unity. I advocate peace. And I tell people to restrain from violence. Sometimes youth would come out of the mosque on Fridays and pelt the Indian army with stones. We tell them to be restrained.

We organize peace rallies, but we can't have more than 5 or 10 people meet...while the National Conference can have thousands of people. We are now allowed to have a peace march. We have to take permission from the district commissioner, who usually refuses -- and we are gassed and beaten if we do. We can only talk in mosques and only on Fridays.

Q: The Indian Election Commission promises free and fair elections...

A:

The last census and voter list was done in the 1980s. So long ago! I don't think the Election Commission is up to it. We have yet to exercise our choice, though a referendum under the U.N., just like East Timor and Quebec.

Q: What keeps you going?

A:

I see so much suffering, from dawn to dusk, so many people, widows and orphans. When you listen to their stories, your determination gets stronger. The human aspect of Kashmir is ignored. We don't have too many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to help and not in a systematic way.

Q: Do you have an economic blueprint for an independent Kashmir?

A:

Kashmir has the potential to be a tourist resort. I was in France a couple of weeks ago, and Kashmir is more beautiful than anywhere in the world. We have so much. Ours is the oldest written history. We are more linked to Central Asia. I went to Samarkand and Bukhara [two cities in Uzbekistan] last year. How culturally close we are! Topographically we are subcontinental, but geographically we are central Asian.

Q: What do you think of the plan to trifurcate Kashmir?

A:

If trifurcation is linked to Hindutva [the Hindu extremism of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party], I don't want it. But if it's a political idea, with a plan for resolving the issue, then the RSS [the BJP's ideological wing] will have to explain itself. We aspire for reunification with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

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