‘We need to reform those who play the role of Collaborators’
Face to face: Masarat Alam Bhat, Chairman of the Muslim League
Nawaz Gul Qanungo Srinagar
When newly elected Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed ordered the release of jailed separatist leader Masarat Alam Bhat, an uproar was inevitable. Bhat, who is Chairman of the Muslim League (part of the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Geelani), is yet to be convicted of any crime but has spent most of the years since 1990 behind bars, jailed repeatedly under the draconian Public Safety Act. He refuses to accept Kashmir as a “dispute” that needs a “resolution”, describing India’s presence in the Valley as an occupation which has to end. Many consider him the natural successor to Geelani in Kashmir’s resistance leadership. So observers saw the decision to release him as a slap in the face for Sayeed’s new coalition partner, the BJP. Bhat spoke to Nawaz Gul Qanungo about the significance of his release. Excerpts:
It seems the entire political establishment in New Delhi wants to see just you behind bars, while those in authority in Jammu and Kashmir have singled you out to be freed. Why are they focused on you?
The media sets the discourse in India. Of course, the political parties have their compulsions too. The Indian Parliament was in session. The media created an outcry and the rest followed.
You have been saying that it was a normal legal process. But isn’t it unusual for the government to follow legal processes in such cases, particularly those involving the Public Safety Act?
Yes. The release was basically a result of a directive in 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court. I was being kept in prison without charge, something I challenged in the High Court. They still charged me in more cases but the courts didn’t entertain them. The charges were fabricated. But how long could they keep doing that?
So the move wasn’t really driven by the Mufti government?
The Mufti government took over when I was finally set to be released. So they tried to take credit. But after all the controversy in New Delhi, they were forced to come out with the real details.
Would you say the government released you in a bid to minimise the political damage from its decision to ally with the BJP?
See, the government tried to project my release as part of its agenda where it claims it will release political prisoners. But that’s not true. They are not releasing political prisoners. Am I the only political prisoner? Why don’t they release others, then?
Do you think the controversy after your release will make further releases of prisoners more difficult, if they’re sincere about those plans?
If that’s what they claim in their Common Minimum Programme and if they are serious about it, why don’t they go ahead? Who is stopping them? Above all, the political prisoners deserve to be freed. Take Qasim [Faktoo] saab’s case. His release was recommended by the advisory board which included a judge, a DG of Prisons, and even the home department. They have arrested small children, let alone adults, under the PSA. Why don’t they release them?
You spent nearly five years in jail this time. How did you spend your time, and what are your impressions of those years?
Alhamdulillah (all praise be to Allah). I spent the time with itminaan (contentment). I used to pray, read, play volleyball, etc. There’s one thing I observed: Whoever the government has incarcerated for political reasons, they are all content with the life they have chosen.
What made you come to that conclusion?
I remember a very rich prisoner who is in jail for a murder charge. By chance, his wife came to visit him on the same day that my wife had come to see me. They (the other couple) were crying. And we were happily talking about things. Later, he told me he’d give all his wealth if only there was a way to get out of the jail. The guards would often tell (the political prisoners) how we’d always sleep peacefully. I told him we suffer for a just cause; for us this is worship. And there are people who have spent far longer in jails than I have. People whose families are in deep crisis. But each one of them, let me tell you, is living a life of dignity, and itminaan.
So political prisoners in the jails are content? Are those on the outside content as well?
(Laughs) What can I say about that? My leader is (Syed Ali) Geelani saab, and he’s been under house arrest all through. What can I say about others? If I do, you will put yourself into a needless controversy... By the grace of Allah, whenever I speak I’ll speak the truth. So it is better to maintain silence on this.
What do you make of the state Finance Minister’s claims that the government hopes to change you from a separatist to someone they can engage with?
(Laughs) Well, let’s see. Let them try. And we will test ourselves too. How will they reform us, anyway? If you see the charges against me, they have described me as “incorrigible” and that I have “inherited this sentiment”. Yes, this is our inheritance—varaasat. Who gives away an inheritance? We stand for rightful aspirations, which exist in the heart of every person here. We need to reform those who play the role of collaborators.
So you think they’re not sincere?
See the contradiction. They claim they are committed to freedom of political expression. They say they want a Kashmir solution and so do we. Now there’s a difference between what we believe is the solution and what they believe it is. If the freedom of political expression is real, where is the question of reform? If the battle of ideas is the thesis of Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), then reform what and reform whom?
The media often describes you as the architect of the 2010 Kashmir uprising that followed the Machil fake encounter case, while some in the government call you a creation of that movement. How do you respond to these claims?
This is something for the people to decide. Not for me. What happened in 2010 was people displaying on the
streets their spirit, their aspirations, and their sentiments towards the movement. Yes, we gave it the form of
organised political protest. Beyond that, what we did and what became of us is something that time will decide. History will decide.
How much do you believe you were actually in control of the public mobilisation?
Well, as long as Geelani saab was under arrest, I was organising things. When he was released, he took over.
Is that why the demonstrations stopped after your arrest?
No. I don’t think my arrest was the reason the agitations stopped. Also, agitations had slowed down even before my arrest. Geelani saab and others must have consulted each other and decided on how to go about the whole programme.
What were the factors they considered?
That’s better known to him. I am yet to meet Geelani saab since. Ek bhayaanak suratehaal bhi thi. There was a huge security crackdown by government forces. Thousands were arrested, tortured, and humiliated by the police. Boys were stripped, beaten up, you must have seen the video clips. Over 120 were killed. It is not easy to come out in protest and face bullets. It was the youth, after all, who were protesting on the ground, and they were crushed by the government. That was a big factor.
What do you think of the Common Minimum Programme of the BJP-PDP alliance?
I don’t think there’s anything new in it. In the hue and cry around Article 370 and AFSPA, though, the Mufti government might do something about giving state subject status to West Pakistan refugees, using humanitarian grounds as an excuse. It’s a very serious issue and we are minutely observing that issue, and the Hurriyat has already announced that it will oppose any such move.
It also says the “coalition government will facilitate and initiate sustained dialogue with all internal stakeholders”. Will you talk to them?
Narendra Modi has declared just recently that Kashmir is an issue between India and Pakistan with no scope for any third party. (Yet) they describe the Hurriyat as one of the “stakeholders” in their Common Minimum Programme. Let them take care of this contradiction first.
But if there is an offer of dialogue?
It will be discussed in the Hurriyat. Geelani saab had given the five pre-conditions. I don’t think there’s any change in that position. At any rate, there will as usual be discussions for an appropriate response if there is any such offer.
What did you tell your political workers after your release?
I told them we will win this war, inshallah.