On Tuesday, a team from the National Investigation Agency questioned separatist leaders from the Hurriyat in Srinagar. About a week ago, the television channel, India Today, had run footage from a “sting operation” on the leaders, where they seemed to admit taking money from state and non-state actors in Pakistan to foment unrest in Kashmir.

Three leaders were caught on camera: Naeem Khan and Ghazi Javed Baba, part of Hurriyat Conference, the separatist cnglomerate led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and Farooq Ahmad Dar, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front faction headed by the London-based Abdul Majid Tramboo.

While Khan was suspended from the Hurriyat Conference, no action was taken against Baba, who is part of Geelani’s own party, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Khan has called the tapes doctored. Geelani has said the “Indian media is biased and untrustworthy. They are working for Indian agencies and as a mouthpiece for fanatical forces.”

But what will this moment do to a Hurriyat already weakened in the Valley?

Not news

In Kashmir, the stings have caused little surprise. Srinagar based journalist Hilal Mir said it brought no new revelations: “It’s common knowledge that money comes in from Pakistan”.

Bashir Manzar, editor of Daily Kashmir Images, said that, to run a separatist movement, the Hurriyat “needs money, and not just for stone pelting. Every Kashmiri knows money is coming from Pakistan.”

Besides, the national television media is held in no great regard in the Valley. “The Hurriyat feels accountable to the people of Kashmir, not India nor its media,” said columnist and political commentator Gowhar Geelani. “The problem is it is the Indian media’s sting. And the Indian media has zero credibility in Kashmir, especially electronic media.”

Mir, for his part, suspected the motives behind the sting. “The Indian state has lost everything here,” he said. “The only link between India and Kashmir is the soldier. So the sting is just to divert attention. Its an ostrich approach, they do not want to see the reality.”

A reaction

Still, Geelani chose to act on the contents of the so-called sting operation. Political observers in the Valley see it as a move by the separatist wing to preserve its credibility.

Manzar asked why Geelani took action against Manzar after the sting, if the national media had no currency in the Valley. “It’s because Geelani thinks there is some credibility to the story. If someone like Geelani thinks so, a common man (in Kashmir) also does,” he mused.

According to Manzar, it was not the act of seeking funds that could harm the Hurriyat’s reputation, but the way the money was allegedly used. “It is one thing to get money for the movement, another if the money is used for creating confusion and chaos, burning schools etc, like what happened in 2016. And the people believe it, it is damaging,” he reflected.

According to Gowhar Geelani, Khan was suspended because he violated protocol followed by the separatist group. “He violated the Hurriyat constitution by going alone, without consulting the Hurriyat,” he said. “Even if he met some people who came as potential funders, he did not inform his parent organisation, the conglomerate. It’s a disciplinary problem.”

All agreed that discrediting the Hurriyat, the political face of separatism in Kashmir, was dangerous. Militancy and stone pelting were “faceless”, explained Manzar, without the Hurriyat, there would be no one left to engage in political dialogue.

“You need a buffer between violence and the Hurriyat is that buffer,” Manzar said. “If you demolish Hurriyat, you will demolish all roads to some sort of reconciliation.”

Down, but not out

Voices from the Hurriyat assert their relevance to the separatist movement in Kashmir. “The people who represent the elements, of Kashmir’s collective political consciousness and collective painful soul, in letter and spirit will never be marginalised and cannot be in the future also. They have a role and will continue to have a role in seeking a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem,” said Abdul Ghani Bhat, a vetaran leader who heads the Muslim Conference, part of the Hurriyat faction led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

In any dialogue process, Bhat said, all of “Kashmir will not be involved, but the leadership.”

But, after the protests of 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, there was a growing impression that the Hurriyat was no longer central to the movement. After the initial groundswell of protest, the Hurriyat had stepped in, trying to enforce a calendar of strikes and shutdowns.

In several places, the Hurriyat’s writ wore thin. Geelani called shopkeepers who did not obey the Hurriyat shutdown “traitors” who would be “wiped away like straw”. On the other hand, the Hurriyat also struggled to enforce the “relaxation hours” - periods when shops were allowed to open - as bands of boys stopped shops from opening their counters. The Mirwaiz faction of the Hurriyat called them “anti-movement”.

But political observers agree that the Hurriyat is still an important part of the movement. Aijaz Ashraf Wani, assistant professor of political science at the University of Kashmir, said it was a fact that the Hurriyat was not in control. “But to say Hurriyat has lost relevance will be too harsh and politically immature,” he added.

In a conflict like Kashmir, he continued, there were multiple methods catering to diverse constituencies. It was not the sole representative of Kashmiris, because no party, pro-India or separatist, could be the sole representative in the Valley, he said.

“There are phases when one approach or stakeholder may seem to have gone on the backfoot,” he explained. “But that never means it has completely lost out. Remember, from 2000 to 2008 militancy was almost a non-entity, then the agitations started and everything changed.”

Gowhar Geelani points to the diversity of the Hurriyat, which includes political, social, religious and trade organisations: “It is a conglomerate of 23 parties. Hurriyat is very big in that way in Kashmiri politics.” But the organisation had never been wellspring of the movement for azadi, he said: “The Hurriyat is not important as far as Kashmiri movement is concerned because it is a by-product of the struggle, not the other way around”.

For Mir, the organisation’s centrality to separatist politics was self-evident; it was the Hurriyat that Delhi approached when it wanted to talk. “Even in the agenda of alliance (the agreement between the alliance partners ruling the current state government) the word Hurriyat has been specifically mentioned. If there is a dialogue, the Hurriyat is included,” he said.

Besides, they still managed to get a substantial public response. “Each time they give a strike call, people respond,” said Mir. “On the other side, you have a government which has been elected by 60-67% of voters and they can’t show their face to the people.”

Manzar believes that the Hurriyat may have merely latched itself on to the protests of 2016 to look relevant. But a large section of the public still takes them seriously. “Because we have a very important party (to the dispute) - Pakistan - and it has relevance there,” he said.

Dialogue again?

“The real problem with Hurriyat,” Wani said, “is the lack of a concrete action plan and goals to be achieved. We all know there is discord within Hurriyat ranks regarding their goals. Also, it is only during crisis period that Hurriyat resurfaces, otherwise, they are dormant. That puts a question mark on its future.”

The lack of tangible results after all these years had also contributed to the shrinking of the Hurriyat, he mused. “The important question is will Hurriyat take the risk to go for a dialogue process, given it current position and its past record,” Wani continued. “Given the current situation and the mood on the ground they may lose whatever credibility they have by going for meaningless dialogue.”

Manzar, however, believes it is wrong to say that Delhi engaged the Hurriyat in meaningless dialogue; it was the Hurriyat that lacked clarity. For years, it had maintained that the Kashmir issue should be resolved after through a referendum, as mentioned in the United Nations Security Council resolutions, or through dialogue between three parties: India, Pakistan and Kashmir, represented by the Hurriyat.

“The Security Council resolution only has two options: India or Pakistan,” Manzar pointed out. “They (the Hurriyat) are already fighting India, so that leaves them with only one option. They are still not spelling it out.”

Before any dialogue between Hurriyat and India, Manzar felt, the latter had to break the ice with Pakistan. “The second stage is to engage with the Hurriyat,” he continued. “History speaks that whenever India and Pakistan have talked to each other, there has been peace here.”

Bhat admits that the Hurriyat lacked a roadmap. It is so rooted in the past, he said, that “it does not pay attention to the possibilities in future”. “There is no change in the collective political consciousness of the people, no two Kashmiris can differ on it. But then there is the ijtimai sha’ur (the collective political stand of the Hurriyat),” he said. That had not evolved over the years with changing circumstances.

As for lapses on the part of Hurriyat leaders, they did not matter, he felt. The confrontation between the Hurriyat and the Indian government was a “battle between a mosquito and an elephant”. “We have a tough fight,” he said.