Interview: 'Pakistan’s stability is of utmost importance to Kashmiris'

Published June 24, 2013
Syed Ali Shah Geelani. — Photo by author.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani. — Photo by author.

Born on September 29, 1929 in the Zoori Manz hamlet in Bandipora — some 40 miles from Srinagar — Syed Ali Shah Geelani is an important political figure and religious personality in Indian-administered Kashmir. This hugely popular octogenarian leader is often compared to Libyan revolutionary, Omar Mukhtar, by his admirers for his dogged determination in relation to the Kashmir dispute. Detractors, however, criticise Geelani for lack of flexibility, pro-Pakistan ideology and rigidness. Today this 84-year-old seems as unwavering in his stand as he was two decades ago when the anti-India armed movement erupted in Kashmir.

In an exclusive interview for Dawn.com, Geelani candidly talks about his expectations from the newly-elected government in Pakistan, the political future of Kashmir, the Kashmir elections, and the perceived threat that Kashmiri youth might opt for extreme steps in the absence of a democratic political space. Here are the excerpts:

After a relatively smooth and successful transition from one democratic government to another, there is a newly-elected government in Pakistan led by Nawaz Sharif. Your reaction.

I congratulated Pakistani people soon after the election results were declared there. They (people) courageously came out to cast their vote. It is a good sign. I also wrote an open letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif in which I reminded him that Jammu & Kashmir is a core issue for Pakistan, not only for the people of Kashmir who are fighting against the occupation.

The Pakistan Army has, by and large it seems, stayed away from recent political affairs and not meddled too much into the electoral process. How healthy is this sign?

It is indeed a good sign. People should be allowed to select sincere people to run a democratic government. Only sincere politicians can strengthen the roots of democracy. They should safeguard Pakistan’s interest, its sovereignty, and boundaries. They have to adopt Islam, as it is the complete way of life. The idea of Pakistan was achieved for the purpose that Muslims in the sub-continent should have a separate nation and a particular system. People and politicians of Pakistan should fulfill their responsibilities in this regard.

How critical is Pakistan’s stability for Kashmir and Kashmiris? And if you were given a chance to suggest some concrete steps and workable measures vis-à-vis Kashmir to Nawaz Sharif, what would these be?

Pakistan’s stability is of utmost importance to us. My suggestions, if any, would be to impress upon Nawaz Sharif to show respect towards the deep-rooted sentiment of Kashmiris for freedom from the occupation and Indian rule. Pakistan’s leadership must feel duty bound to support our genuine cause morally, diplomatically and politically. It should not leave this issue for the future generations to decide.

Kashmir seems to be out of both Indian and Pakistani governments’ favour and also the media’s spotlight. What do you think are the reasons?

As I understand it, the biggest reason I can think of is the weakness of Pakistan leadership. As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, they are very much interested in Kashmir and support our collective struggle. They are wholeheartedly with our freedom struggle. People do not endorse the policy of some of the Pakistan politicians who argue that Kashmir issue should be sidelined and that coming generations will decide its future. The government officials in Pakistan have their own interests and compulsions. We are not against Indo-Pak relations, but Kashmir is a core issue and should be resolved as a priority.

As a politician you believe in Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan but have remained open to the idea of an independent Kashmir in case the majority demands so. What makes you favour a merger with Pakistan?

According to the partition plan of Lord Mountbatten — the last Viceroy of British India and the first Governor-General of the independent Union of India — the future of about 562 princely states, which were not directly ruled by the British, was to be decided by the people, as the British had given up their suzerainty (the power) in 1947. Each of them (562 princely states) were given freedom to choose to join either of the two new dominions, India or Pakistan. This partition plan was guided by three basic guidelines: political aspirations of the majority population, boundaries, and geographical and cultural affiliations. Considering all these laid down norms, Kashmir was a natural part of Pakistan. And it is a natural part of Pakistan. At the time of the partition in 1947, we had 85 per cent Muslim population in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Not only do we share boundaries with Pakistan but we also relate to Pakistan so far as our geographical, cultural and religious affiliations are concerned. Now, why am I also open to the idea of independent Kashmir? As a leader, I can’t reject the voice of the people.

Considering the geo-political and geo-strategic realities, some critics of the independent Kashmir and Kashmiri’s movement against the status quo argue that total independence is not a realistic option. They say that Kashmir is surrounded by three big nuclear powers; China, India and Pakistan. All these three countries will not allow Kashmir to remain independent, they maintain. How strong is this argument?

See, this (independent Jammu & Kashmir) is not a realistic option. But it is my moral and political responsibility to respect the voice of the people. If the majority opts for an independent Kashmir, I am with it. I can’t reject their voice. I have to respect it. I am fully aware that independent Kashmir is neither a viable option nor a practicable alternative. There is China, India and Pakistan. Even Russia will not favour Jammu and Kashmir as an independent entity. Independent state status is damaging for our cause and survival. Clearly, in many of the books I have written, I have mentioned that our merger or accession with Pakistan will be based on certain principles and conditions. Even Pakistan’s constitution mentions that in case J&K joins Pakistan, its conditions and interests will be duly considered. I am of the opinion that Kashmir was a part of Pakistan and it should become part of Pakistan. That’s why we, the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat and Hurriyat Conference (G), stress upon the implementation of United Nations resolutions on Kashmir for the final settlement.

Let us come to Kashmir elections. All along, you have been adopting the election boycott strategy. You also did so in 2002 and 2008, but people did come to vote in large numbers in the assembly and Panchayat elections. There is a debate in Kashmir whether election boycott politics has failed. Do you sometimes consider the option of de-linking elections from the larger political issue of Kashmir?

Please try to understand that India is exploiting election results and selling the voter turnout not only in India but also at international forums. The majority in Kashmir is suppressed. We are the sufferers. Our stand is that we should not provide India a chance to exploit us.

Do you sometimes feel disappointed after seeing a line of voters outside the polling stations despite your calls for election boycott?

As far as the leadership is concerned it remains our moral obligation and responsibility to guide the people and show them the right path. We should tell them what is right and what is wrong. After that if people do not follow, it is up to them. People are themselves responsible for their actions. Aren’t they?

In 2002, there were proxies in the assembly elections. This time around too, there is unverified information that some pro-freedom leaders might field proxy candidates in the upcoming assembly elections in 2014. Any thoughts on this?

Yes, we are waiting to see what happens and what will they do. If they field proxies, we will react accordingly at that time. Martyrs have not sacrificed their lives for elections. Faithfulness to the cause demands that we lend support to the struggle for the right to self-determination and that we should detach ourselves from the processes, which directly or indirectly help the occupying forces and authorities in Kashmir.

In recent times we saw some some highly qualified Kashmiri youth getting killed in encounters with the Indian troops. We also have US-led Nato forces withdrawal from Afghanistan round the corner and there are reports that Lashkar-e-Taiba might exploit the Kashmir turf. Is that a concern?

India is making the situation in Kashmir extreme. We are facing the worst kind of state terrorism. This is a natural consequence that some youth are choosing this way. But as far as the practical situation is concerned, Pakistan is not in a position to support any armed struggle in Kashmir. It is very difficult for interested youth to get weapons. Weighing all pros and cons, we are trying our best that youth should fight against the occupation through a political and democratic path. They should seriously think and consider the political conduit. But it is also very much clear that today’s youth in Kashmir is in a hopeless state of mind. India is blindly using its military might and through arrogance of power trying to crush the self-determination movement in Kashmir.

Some are expressing concern in Kashmir and that is, what next, what after Geelani? Will there be a leadership crisis?

Personality does not matter. Ideology does. Personalities can’t live forever. Death is a natural consequence of life. Personalities and leaders are not important. Objective and goal is. After me, the people of Kashmir should follow the guidelines given by us. We have given a three point formula: one, Islam is a complete way of life. Two, freedom from the Indian occupation. Three, on the basis of Islam the unity of the Muslim Ummah. So, after Geelani if these basic points and guidelines are followed in spirit and letter, a new leadership will emerge as a natural process.

Last question on the holy Amarnath pilgrimage in Pahalgam valley. Environmentalists are expressing serious concern that the large numbers of yatris (pilgrims) pose a serious threat to the fragile ecological zone of Pahalgam. Also, the Indian home minister Mr. SK Shinde has expressed fear that this time the militants might target the yatra. Your views?

As far as the yatra is concerned, we are never against it. It has been there for the past 150 years or more. Kashmiris have been good hosts. At any given point in time, the majority in Kashmir hasn’t even touched a single yatri or caused any harm to yatris. Soon after the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was constituted, India started using this religious pilgrimage as its political achievement. This SASB is an independent institution which is acting on the directions from the Supreme Court of India and the Indian government. The puppet state government [in Indian-administered Kashmir] has no authority or say in this. All we are saying is that this Amarnath pilgrimage should be regularised on the lines of Gangotri yatra. Both the number of pilgrims as well as the time period for this yatra needs to be regularised. Earlier this pilgrimage used to be a 15-day affair and now it is there for two long months. Yatris come in lakhs and thousands of them are allowed to visit Pahalgam on a daily basis, which is seriously damaging the environment in the area and posing a threat to our ecology.

Gowhar Geelani is a writer/journalist, who has served as Editor at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has contributed features for the BBC.

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