For a man at the centre of a raucous fracas, Masarat Alam Bhat is remarkably composed. A day after his release from prison last week, as a stream of visitors met him at a house in downtown Srinagar, the 42-year-old Hurriyat Conference leader displayed deep equanimity. Alam was aware he could be arrested again, yet he said, “I’m not bothered. Last time I was home only for 45 minutes and then arrested.”

Alam, a prominent resistance leader in Kashmir, had risen further in prominence in the Valley in 2010 when he spearheaded the mass protests against the Indian government. The methods he employed then effected a shift in the resistance movement, attracting a younger generation to the cause. Soon after the 2010 protests, Alam was detained under the Public Safety Act and put in prison. He was finally released by the Jammu and Kashmir government last Saturday.

The release stirred up a storm and generated fissures in the days-old ruling alliance between the Peoples Democratic Party and Bharatiya Janata Party. A furious BJP called the decision “unacceptable” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Parliament that he shared “the opposition’s aakrosh (anger)”. As it turned out, the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government had no direct role in the release. That decision had mostly preceded the start of its tenure.

A senior leader of the Hurriyat Conference with a flair for galvanising the young, Alam has been in and out of state prisons for years. “I have spent 17 years in jail and released many times, so [there is] no question of taking any mileage from it.”

'Struggle is alive'

When Alam became the “most wanted” separatist in 2010, the coalition of the National Conference and Congress was in power. His freedom has come during the PDP-BJP government’s tenure. For Alam, there is no difference in the two alliances’ agenda. “They want to defeat the nation of Kashmir,” he said. “They want to silence Kashmir’s resistance movement. There is a single objective, which is shared by the National Conference too. You speak a different way and I speak a different way, but the cause is the same.”

Alam said he was unaware of the political developments in Kashmir during his time in prison, most of which was spent in Kathua jail. “I was allowed just one or two newspapers carrying only the Indian point of view.” No concessions were offered to him despite him being a political prisoner. The two times he said he was distressed in jail was during the 2014 Kashmir floods and the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013.

Still, he said, his struggle is alive, as are the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. “We are fighting this occupation. India has killed us, maimed us. She has spent much to oppress us, but she has not been successful.” He said the Valley’s youth follow him because they too want freedom.

Asked about the leadership of Hurriyat Conference, Alam responded, “God forbid, may [Hurriyat chief] Syed Ali Shah Geelani live long. But to die is the natural process and everybody has to go. We will discuss this situation. We have [Muhammad Ashraf] Sehrai sahib with us. We will choose our leader.” Alam is seen as a successor to Geelani, though he denied being in contention.