All-Party Hurriyat Conference Chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq has always been the moderate face of Kashmir. As head of the most powerful separatist movement in the state, he is one of the most important players in the ongoing efforts to find peace and stability in Kashmir.
In conversation with Aasha Khosa in New Delhi he speaks of his hopes and aspirations.
You came to Delhi to meet Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. Why must people like you demonstrate your affinity to Pakistan again and again?
The time has come when even the perception of people in India about what we call the Kashmir problem should change. Indians must stop viewing this problem as a fallout of Partition or a relationship between Kashmiris and Pakistan. It is time we all accepted that bilateralism on Kashmir has failed. Let there be a new beginning: Kashmiris must be allowed to talk to Pakistan, to Kashmiris in Azad Kashmir and those living in the Northern areas, to New Delhi. To anyone, for that matter.
What is your focus in efforts for a resolution of the Kashmir issue?
The world is changing fast -- the concept of a global village is too real to be ignored and this situation has thrown up new challenges for us too. After the intense negotiations that we started during our recent Pakistan visit, New Delhi, Islamabad, Muzaffarabad and Srinagar are four points from where simultaneous efforts to resolve the problem have to start.
We are working on a concept of give-and-take, where every stakeholder in Kashmir -- Indians, Kashmiris, Pakistanis -- should be ready to change their stated positions (on Kashmir). We all must talk to each other. I said this to all parties in Pakistan during my visit there. In fact, Kasuri told me that there has been unbelievable progress on India-Pakistan relations in the last couple of months -- more than what has been achieved in the last 20 years.
Surprisingly, you are not talking about the Northern areas, where Pakistan has throttled the people's voice, and about which Kashmiri leaders have always kept mum
During my visit to Pakistan, I did meet leaders from the Northern areas who want to be included in the negotiated settlement on Kashmir. I realise that their condition is not too good. But the fact is that we have never had a chance to get in touch with them earlier.
Hurriyat leaders have always refrained from criticising Pakistan and New Delhi seems to be their favourite whipping boy.
I admit that Pakistan has made many mistakes (on Kashmir). But the trouble is here, not there. We have higher expectations from the government of India as India is a great democracy. As the dialogue moves forward, we expect New Delhi to look into human rights violation, reduce troops from Kashmir. The reality is that when we started meeting Indian leaders, Pakistan was quite unhappy about it. My uncle was killed and a school run by our trust burnt down in retaliation.
The next six months are crucial for Kashmir, you said. How?
On the ground, there is a yearning for peace in Kashmir, Azad Kashmir and everywhere. However, New Delhi has to take an important lead in this. We expect the government of India to declare a ceasefire with militants in Kashmir and give it a try for at least the next six-eight months. They have done it before. Also, India needs to withdraw troops from public places. After this happens, Hurriyat will try hard for reciprocity. Things will change dramatically.
But the Army and security forces fear that the moment troops are pulled out, the militants will stage a comeback in villages and towns
Every general (chief) saheb says this. But, the day after he retires, the same general is the first to say that a military solution will not yield results in Kashmir. It is time we forgot the past and made fresh beginnings.
What are the broader ideas you are looking at while embarking on a peace process on Kashmir?
We are trying to define old relationships in this tangle and work on fresh resolutions. Kashmir is a multi-dimensional problem -- there is a tussle between India and Pakistan, a tussle among the three regions of the state: Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir. Then there are the two regions of the Northern areas and Azad Kashmir (PoK).
One formula we are working on is to create regional councils in all five regions and create a mechanism for them to coordinate among themselves. Simultaneously, there is need to open borders and lift restrictions on the movement of the people all around.
This is not different from what mainstream political parties like PDP and National Conference are saying. A small region of Ladakh got its autonomous hill council without shedding a drop of blood a long time ago.
Yes, I agree that PDP's idea of self-rule and even the autonomy idea of National Conference is very much like our blueprint. The difference is that while they talk in terms of a Srinagar-Delhi relationship, we look at a larger canvas -- the five regions of Kashmir, three in India and two in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf's idea of joint control of Kashmir by India and Pakistan is also worth paying attention to. In fact, we went to Pakistan to endorse Musharraf's plan.
Does this bring you any closer to Kashmiri political leaders who have contested elections? Or do they remain untouchables?
Within the Hurriyat, we are also thinking about this. We could invite other political leaders for talks in the future. We want to support every positive step towards peace in Kashmir.
But this is going to annoy the extremists in Kashmir. They would not like you to sit with Mehbooba Mufti or Omer Abdullah at the same table to talk about resolution of the Kashmir issue.
Extremists in Kashmir are thriving on political confusion. The extremists may be vocal but they are in a minority. Look at what happened to Syed Ali Shah Geelani (hardliner Hurriyat leader). He's virtually isolated, not even the Jamaat-e-Islami is with him. But New Delhi must stop projecting us as mediators since that perpetuates confusion and makes our task difficult.
There are fears that the Hurriyat Conference may not be able to influence militants to bring about any change in the ground situation in Kashmir.
We can surely influence the course of events provided the government of India supports our initiatives by declaring a ceasefire and by withdrawing troops. After all, the common man in Kashmir should see a change in the ground situation. Why do you need thousands of troops when only some 600 militants are left there? Pakistan too has the responsibility of ensuring no violent situation is created in Kashmir during this period.
There is an example of the two-year ceasefire on the Line of Control. It has worked. Because of this, there is a realisation in Pakistan among all political parties that peace must be pursued at all costs. This happened only because of the bold initiatives by India and Pakistan.
Has Hurriyat applied its mind to contesting elections -- may be not for power but to get a mandate that could give weightage to your ideas?
Hurriyat would contest elections if only all sides are ready to make a new beginning: like they agree on regional councils, etc.
You had to don the mantle of religious preacher and politician at the age of 17. The people who killed your father are still around.
Life was difficult after my father was killed. I know those people are still around. They have tried to attack me. But these are risks we have to take. I am doing a PhD in Sufism from the University of Kashmir. People say Sufism is dead in Kashmir. But I feel Sufism is the identity of Kashmiri Muslims.
Given your optimism on Kashmir, what do you see for the state in the next 10 years?
By 2020 AD, I see the entire region becoming a hotspot of global tourism, a melting pot of cultures, economically vibrant, with Kashmir reviving its links with central Asia through open borders. I dream of Kashmiri merchandise going to the entire region. Something like Europe.