Nerves of Steel

By: Amir Zia
Published: August 1, 2017
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For Mirwaiz Mohammad Umar Farooq – one of the most prominent leaders of Indian-occupied Kashmir’s All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) – politics is not the traditional game of power, but a high-risk mission in which all the dice are loaded against him.

Farooq, along with his fellow political leaders and followers want to free their people and their homeland – the Himalayan region of Kashmir – from the vicious tentacles of Indian rule through a peaceful, political and democratic struggle. What they face in return is brutal Indian state terrorism and repression, a non-stop backlash of threats and abuses from the fanatical followers of Hindutva, a blatantly biased and hostile Indian press and the stony indifference of the world towards the gross human rights violations in the occupied region.

Being an opposition leader or even an ordinary political worker – labelled as separatists – in Indian-occupied Kashmir is not conventional politics as conducted around the world. One has to have a mighty heart and nerves of steel to stand up against the might of more than 700,000 hostile Indian forces in one of the world’s most highly militarised regions.

Farooq took on the responsibility of this ‘do or die’ mission of freeing Kashmir from India after the assassination of his father, Maulvi Farooq, the Mirwaiz or the top cleric of Kashmir in 1990. He was barely 17 years old at that time. And since then, he has never looked back. He has been in and out of Indian jails, confinements and house arrest scores of times for demanding the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people in line with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. He faces death threats from the Indian state and its stooges for his pro-independence stance on Kashmir and often an innocuous tweet or statement issued by him on the social media results in a barrage of abusive words and insults from Hindu extremists.

In a Skype and telephone interview, conducted by this scribe in two parts for a Bol News’ television programme and Narratives magazine, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq highlights the Indian brutalities in the occupied Kashmir and explains how relentless state terrorism is forcing young Kashmiris to opt for armed resistance.

Can you describe the state of affairs in occupied Kashmir currently? How is the Hurriyat leadership assessing the situation?

Mirwaiz: Firstly, I would like to congratulate the Bol Network for highlighting the Kashmir issue so effectively. Although Pakistani channels are blocked here, people watch your channel with keen interest through other mediums such as the social media. And we are grateful for the way Bol is focusing on Kashmir and showing the Pakistani public a true picture of the valley.

The problem of Jammu and Kashmir is linked to its people’s emotions, sensitivities and aspirations, which are being denied and crushed by the Indian state. We tell everyone coming from India or anywhere else to admit this reality.

It’s very hard for you (India) to digest that today Kashmiris are demanding their freedom and you are responding through the brutal use of force and violence. Have you (Indians) forgotten your own independence movement? People like Nehru, Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose and others happen to be your independence leaders, but ironically you equate our young leaders, who are rendering sacrifices, with terrorists.

The reality is stark; India wants to crush the movement of the people of Jammu and Kashmir through the use of force and coercion and by deploying 0.7 million troops there. Kashmiris have been fighting this war for the last 70 years; I was 17-years-old when I took over as Mirwaiz after the martyrdom of my father.

The barbarism is not just restricted to one area; all of Kashmir has been transformed into a massive torture cell

It’s been 27 years since I have been associated with this liberation movement. During this time, I’ve realised that with each passing year, the passion and fervour of Kashmiris, for independence, has intensified and increased.

When (former Indian External Affairs Minister and senior BJP leader) Yashwant Sinha and his delegation came here to talk to us in 2016, I told him that in the 1990s you saw emotions and a euphoria among Kashmiris, but in 2016 you are witnessing anger and hatred of Kashmiris towards India for which you (Indians) yourself are responsible.

As you said, following the assassination of your father by gunmen in 1990, you were pushed into politics at the nascent age of 17. What gives you the strength to stand up to a country, which uses extreme brutal tactics in occupied Kashmir and has a history of violating human rights and possesses such a powerful, callous army? 

Mirwaiz: We firmly believe in Allah. We have an unshakeable belief that we are fighting for a just cause. And this is our biggest strength. Those living in cities are relatively better off in a sense that at least they have some access to the media. But the people living in the rural belt are being subjected to the worst kind of violence and cruelty.

Can an independence movement of this scale be sponsored? Would people want to lose their limbs, their eyes, their lives, just for a few hundred (rupees)?

One of our leaders, who recently came from south Kashmir, said that the condition of the people there is deplorable; they face the most terrible kind of violence virtually every day. In June, the forces stormed into their homes, damaged vehicles, beat up innocent, unarmed people. Even the youth, who celebrated Pakistan’s victory in the Champions Trophy, were roughed up, mauled, and pellet guns were fired at them. It’s the passion for freedom that has kept us together and provides us the impetus to keep moving forward.

What’s the price ordinary Kashmiris – men and women, young and old – have to pay when they talk about their rights and independence of Kashmir, given the fact that Indian forces have intensified and increased the level of violence in an alarming manner? 

Mirwaiz: Indeed, what can be more horrific than the scenario which unfolded in 2016, when for the first time, the army and the administration used pellet guns on unarmed civilians; more than 300 Kashmiri youngsters were struck in the eyes with pellets.

Out of these victims, almost 30 percent lost their sight. Pellet scars still exist on their bodies and faces. In that spell of savagery, as many as 97 innocent Kashmiris were martyred by the Indian forces. The barbarism is not just restricted to one area; all of Kashmir has been transformed into a massive torture cell.

The propaganda that the Indian media is conducting against the struggle, calling it a ‘sponsored movement,’ defies logic. It’s shameful that they are misleading the people by constantly lying to them. Can an independence movement of this scale be sponsored? Would people want to lose their limbs, their eyes, their lives, just for a few hundred (rupees)?

What do you think the Indian government aims to achieve by escalating violence and brutalities in Kashmir? Can the use of force suppress the voice of Kashmiris?

Mirwaiz: There’s talk of the Doval Doctrine, which suggests that Kashmiris be crushed so much that they are unable to rise. But the theory has boomeranged.

The Kashmiri youth has stood up against Indian occupation and oppression with much more vigour and passion in 2016 following the escalation of violence in Kashmir. Unfortunately, many educated Kashmiri youngsters have been forced to take up guns because of the brutalities of the Indian forces against our mothers, sisters, children and the elderly. They have no other choice.

There was a time when Hurriyat leaders faced no restriction in talking to the Pakistani leadership. But since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, his government has slapped restrictions on such contact. What does the Indian government hope to achieve? 

Mirwaiz: India has a false superiority complex. The country thinks that it’s a rising economy because international powers, including the United Kingdom and the United States, are interested in its markets. But I think India’s economy is in trouble; its Gross Domestic Product growth has lost momentum, its investments have declined and the country faces a host of issues due to demonetisation.

When India is not ready to come to the negotiating table, then what other options do you have to push forward the Kashmir cause?

Mirwaiz: The options are very limited. It’s a fact that India wants to settle the issue militarily, not politically. And one can see this in the way Indian forces have been granted powers to wreak havoc on Kashmiris; you can also see this in the Indian army chief’s statements.

There’s talk of the Doval Doctrine, which suggests that Kashmiris be crushed so much that they are unable to rise. But the theory has boomeranged

It is clear that the Modi government is not seeking political engagement and, instead, wants to suppress the voice of Kashmiris through force. Therefore, Pakistan and the international community have a role to play. I believe that we must intensify our diplomatic efforts to highlight the plight of Kashmiris at every international forum and important capitals the world over.

Kashmir is one of the oldest disputes recognised by the United Nations. Why has the international community shied away from playing a pro-active role for its resolution? 

Mirwaiz: There are many reasons. Firstly, the world community’s focus right now is on other pressing issues such as Syria and Iraq. So, the entire attention is either on these issues or it is on Islamophobia.

Since Kashmir is a Muslim-dominated area, we see the international community’s double standards here. It intervenes in South Sudan and in other parts of the world, but there’s silence on the Kashmir dispute.

Secondly, given its size, population and economy, India now has clout in the international community. The United States and the United Kingdom eye its markets. The economic stakes of the world powers in India is the major reason why the international community has turned a blind eye to Kashmir.

How can the international community be engaged on this issue? Is there a need to organise the Kashmiri diaspora, especially in the western countries, to fight the case of Kashmir on the diplomatic and political fronts?

Mirwaiz: Absolutely. In my opinion, we can garner a lot of support by presenting facts about the gross human rights violations in Kashmir by the Indian forces. We must take advantage of the social media to highlight the cause.

Whenever something happens in Kashmir, the first target of the Indian government is the social media, which is immediately blocked.

However, despite these measures, reality cannot be hidden and the world, through various social media platforms, gets to know the situation on the ground. I believe a sustained effort is needed; for example, Pakistan’s embassies ought to be reactivated. An incessant campaign needs to be run on the human rights issue.

The indigenous Kashmiri freedom struggle is being presented to the world by India as a terrorist movement. How can a counter-narrative be developed to change this perception?

Mirwaiz: Indeed, India has launched a sustained campaign to mislead the world about the liberation movement and paint it as a ‘sponsored movement’ aided and abetted by Pakistan.

But statistics tell a different story. In the last one year alone, 140 Kashmiri youngsters have been martyred. We have a list of approximately 22,000 others who were incarcerated during the same period. We have all the data available. It is a question of presenting it to the world despite all the restrictions, bans and disinformation and misinformation drives unleashed by India.

The Indian agenda is to associate the Kashmiri freedom struggle with fundamentalism and terrorism. It is trying to create an impression that there is no peoples’ movement here, but for the last couple of years, especially after the martyrdom of Burhan Wani in 2016, the world has witnessed an unprecedented surge in our struggle and more and more youngsters are resisting Indian occupation by whatever means they can.

Our position is that the Jammu and Kashmir freedom struggle is a peoples’ movement. The causes of militancy lie in state terrorism, repression and human rights violations. Indians forces arrest youngsters and when they walk out of jail or they suffer abuse and ill-treatment, they take up weapons. We have to tell the world that it is a legitimate, indigenous struggle against India’s illegal occupation of Kashmir.

Has the armed struggle helped advance the Kashmiri cause?

Mirwaiz: Absolutely. But the fact is that the Kashmiri youth had to pick up the gun when all avenues were blocked, leaving them with no other choice except to respond to Indian aggression with force. Even today, the Kashmiris are picking up guns because they have been pushed to the wall.

How do you see the recent US move of declaring Hizbul Mujahideen’s Supreme Commander Syed Salahuddin a terrorist? Why, after all these years, has Washington suddenly declared him a terrorist?

Mirwaiz: Firstly, the Americans know that Kashmiri armed groups, including Hizbul Mujahideen, operate only in Kashmir and in no other part of the world, including India. They know that these militant groups are meant only for Kashmir. The United States’ position on Kashmir has always been that Kashmir is a dispute and it needs to be solved. However, recently a US tilt towards India is evident.

It’s a fact that India wants to settle the issue militarily, not politically. And one can see this in the way Indian forces have been granted powers to wreak havoc on Kashmiris

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference sees the armed struggle in Kashmir as one aspect of the overall movement, but not as its dominant factor. The dominant factor of the Kashmir Independence Movement is its political struggle. The Indian forces are killing unarmed children and those who are resisting the occupation, by forming poorly-armed militant groups, are doing it because they see all peaceful and democratic avenues to end this conflict are closed and to halt the Indian atrocities.

The drift of youngsters towards militancy is also a challenge for us but the Indians are pushing them to the wall. We want to keep our independence movement peaceful and political. The United States should rethink its policy (on Kashmir) and take immediate action to resolve the issue in a just and equitable manner rather than siding with the Indian occupation forces.

Will the move of declaring Syed Salahuddin a global terrorist by the US have any impact on the political and armed struggle in occupied Kashmir?

Mirwaiz: I don’t think it would have an impact. To keep the record straight, I would like to mention that when there was an attack on Pathankot (January 2016), we condemned it. We don’t encourage militancy even in Kashmir. It is India which is resorting to aggression in Kashmir, it is India which is committing human rights violations and atrocities and it is India which has transformed Kashmir into the highest militarised zone in the world.

Is Syed Salahuddin relevant in today’s Kashmiri struggle which has been taken over by young, new faces?

Mirwaiz: The United Jihad Council is a platform where Kashmiri militant groups coordinate. It is necessary to have a chain of command. The Jihad Council says that if the Kashmir dispute can be solved politically and India takes initiative and shows willingness to settle the issue through talks, only then can it consider a ceasefire.

The world must see that if there is militancy in Kashmir, there is a context to it. Now there is a new phenomenon; youngsters, teenagers and even children – both boys and girls – are spearheading protests and shouting for freedom in rallies and protests.

Many of them realise that the Indian forces and government are bent upon denying them political space and the means to a peaceful, democratic struggle. This is leading towards a new situation. Many of these youngsters are acting on their own, as freelancers. It is a challenge for all of us. We don’t want these kids to ruin their future, but the belligerent Indian attitude and atrocities are leaving them with no choice but to take up arms without any chain of command.

Any message for the Pakistanis?

Mirwaiz: Pakistanis have always supported Kashmiris on the diplomatic, political, and moral fronts. We expect that they will continue this support. I also urge the Pakistani media to highlight the Kashmir cause much more effectively and vociferously to the world. I request the Pakistani media to redouble its efforts to present our case to the world and inform the world community about the barbarities which India is committing against the innocent Kashmiris.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry