'The people are with us'
Booked under the draconian Public Safety Act seven times since 2008, 39 year-old Kashmiri separatist leader Masarat Alam Bhat was released from jail in June. He is now leading the Quit Kashmir campaign against India and is also the head of a separatist party called the Muslim League, and the deputy of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of separatist groups in Kashmir. The campaign began with the issuing of weekly Protest Calendars, calling for an overall strike in the Valley. Protests erupted in June in Kashmir; since January the Indian police and paramilitary have killed over 100 civilians. Stone-throwing protests, videos of human rights violations on YouTube and graffiti campaigns are just a few of the tactics used by this leader – who is currently underground.
Dilnaz Boga: Tell me about the current phase in Kashmir’s struggle and how it is different from the past.
Masarat Alam Bhat: It is not that different. The only difference is that this time the people of Kashmir have succeeded in giving a clear message to the world community, as well as to the Indians, that the people of Jammu & Kashmir want total liberation from India. This nation has been striving for a just cause for the last 63 years but this is a decisive phase.
People are fed up with this long chapter of tyranny, deception and occupation. This time around they have seen with their own eyes that children as young as eight have been beaten to death, and young boys needlessly shot in the street. So the feeling is that we should do it once and for all. Let them kill every Kashmiri if they have to. The Indian armed forces have to leave.
DB: People have revolted against India before. How are you going to make it work this time? I mean, this has been successful as far the strikes go. How are you going to see this to its logical end?
MAB: We are discussing how to strategize this movement. The desire for freedom is alive in every corner of this state and everybody is involved. This movement has gone outside our offices, outside the organizational set-up. Everybody is involved, you just have to put out a call that you want people to write ‘Go India, go back’ on the walls and the roads, or get on Facebook and campaign for the same, and the next day, you see graffiti on every road. We will pressurize the state and force them to give due attention to this issue and fulfil the promises they made about giving the people of Kashmir that chance for a plebiscite. Then the people will decide their future – whether they want to remain with India or accede to Pakistan or be independent.
Everyone who has achieved freedom has had to suffer. If people think they will get freedom without being affected, then they are living in a fool’s paradise
DB: But independence is not a choice in the plebiscite promised by India under the auspice of the United Nations.
MAB: India is an oppressor and has occupied this land since 1947. So first India should go from here, and then the people of Jammu & Kashmir can decide their future as a nation.
DB: What have you learned from the past? And what do you see in the future?
MAB: We have learned many things. We need to involve people in the movement not just Geelani or Masarat. You have to put your case in clear terms to the world. It is up to us whether we make this a long-term programme or a short-term one, but we will make it a short programme. People have already suffered a lot for their freedom.
This year is very important for us. We should resist the state in a continuous way. From the first day, we have said that people should be ready for a long resistance. Our social network is also strong. For the first time, we are spending time with the people and not remaining confined to our offices. We’ve never interacted with the people this much before. We will chalk out our future strategy taking their views into account.
The views of the leaders – including me – don’t matter at this point, it is a people’s movement. Facebook has played a role, non-resident Kashmiris have played a role, along with people in India – and as a result the world community has listened to us.
DB: What about the role stone-throwers have played in this phase?
MAB: Stone-throwing is not new in Kashmir. I have been a stone-thrower since childhood. At that time the only source of resistance was stones. In 1989-90, the gun came, followed by torture and subjugation by the state. The government is stopping unarmed demonstrations; that’s why there have been so many deaths. Old men and women have been throwing stones because it’s all they have.
DB: But why are the stone-throwers targeting civilians?
MAB: We have told the stone-throwers not to indulge in this. Some are miscreants and we will check them within few days. We have set a principle that no oppressed person will bother another. We regret is if it has happened, and we apologize. We have information that Ikhwanis (ex-militants or renegades) are now being used to harass people and break the strike.
I can truthfully say, I have met thousands of people yet I have never seen a crestfallen or a tired Kashmiri. The people are with us
DB: How did you come up with the idea for the Quit Kashmir Campaign?
MAB: Our movement was being mismanaged and we were not able to give a clear message to the world community. Some were talking about self-determination, others wanted tripartite or bilateral talks, others wanted autonomy. So we came up with the slogan that India should quit Jammu & Kashmir. Now, for the first time in 63 years, the home affairs minister of the Indian parliament recognizes our voice for freedom. For the first time, the largest opposition party (the BJP) had its senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi clearly state in parliament that the people of Jammu & Kashmir want azaadi (freedom). This was our achievement. We have been able to mobilize everyone in the state, whether they are students or shopkeepers, employees, doctors, lawyers. As for the next phase of our strategy, Hurriyat chair Syed Ali Shah Geelani has laid down five demands to India. India should comply with demilitarization and release all political prisoners. Then we will talk and halt this phase of agitation. But if India fails to fulfil these demands, we will intensify the movement. Strikes and curfews won’t last forever. We will make it more intense. If India is sincere about peace, here’s the chance to do it. They should start demilitarization now.
DB: There are some people who don’t support your strike calls. Your party workers are often hard on them and try and stifle this voice of dissent. Why?
B: We respect the dissent amongst us. But if you are going to stage something else then there’s a problem. We are addressing the genuine troubles that people have. We are taking people’s suggestions into account. We are trying our best to minimize the suffering. Everyone who has achieved freedom has had to suffer. If people think they will get freedom without being affected, then they are living in a fool’s paradise.
D: Do you have a message for the people of the state?
B: We are also facing bad times. I haven’t been home in three months. Our families have suffered a lot. But we have sacrificed for our community. So the community should also be ready to sacrifice too. This is not public posturing. I can truthfully say, I have met thousands of people yet I have never seen a crestfallen or a tired Kashmiri. The people are with us.