While Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti continues to press for dialogue with separatist leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, the Union government does not seem inclined towards talks. With the arrest of eight separatist leaders since July 24, New Delhi has sent out a strong message – that engaging them in any sort of dialogue is not a priority.

The National Investigating Agency arrested seven separatist leaders – including the son-in-law of Syed Ali Geelani, the chairman of the hardline faction of the Hurriyat Conference – in connection with alleged terror funding on July 24, while the Enforcement Directorate arrested senior separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah for alleged money laundering the following day. All of them were brought to Delhi and presented before court on July 25. While the court gave the National Investigating Agency custody of the seven leaders for 10 days, Shah has been sent to Enforcement Directorate custody for seven days.

A tough line

The scrutiny of Kashmir’s separatist leaders, which culminated in this week’s arrests, started after a sting operation conducted by a private television channel in May caught two separatist leaders – Nayeem Khan and Farooq Ahmed Dar, also known as Bitta Karatey – allegedly admitting on camera that they had been funded by entities in Pakistan to sponsor violence in Kashmir in order to create chaos. Both the leaders dismissed the footage as having been “doctored”. Geelani subsequently suspended Nayeem Khan’s National Front from the Hurriyat.

Following the sting operation, the National Investigation Agency stepped in, conducting raids across several locations in Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi and Haryana in June. It reportedly found some leads into the alleged funding from across the border. It is also looking at firms engaged in trade across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, and it is likely that some more members of the separatist camp may also be arrested.

The arrests have upset the joint separatist leadership comprising Geelani of the hardline Hurriyat, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the moderate Hurriyat, and Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. They condemned the government action, describing it as a conspiracy to “malign the pro-freedom leadership” by linking them with subversive activities and “implicate them into fabricated criminal cases”.

Notwithstanding the debate surrounding the merit of these arrests, they are a clear indication that the Centre has decided to take a tough line against Kashmir’s separatist leaders.

New Delhi’s attempts to discredit separatist groups has not elicited a strong reaction from the people of the Valley. The joint separatist leadership’s call for a Kashmir-wide strike on July 25 to protest against the arrests evoked a poor response, unlike previous such calls. One of the reasons for this is that it is no secret in the Valley that separatist leaders accept money from Pakistan. In fact, Indian intelligence agencies are also known to have regularly paid separatists as well as mainstream political parties in Kashmir.

What are the implications?

The bigger question here is: what does New Delhi hope to achieve by discrediting the separatist leadership?

In the wake of a new militancy emerging in Kashmir, separatist leaders have already lost much of their sting. The talk of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Valley emerging from militant camps has pushed them towards irrelevance. The National Investigating Agency and Enforcement Directorate raids and arrests will add to this.

Will an irrelevant and discredited separatist leadership fit in the broader game plan of New Delhi? Given the ground realities in the Valley, the answer is a big “No”.

The young boys joining militancy in Kashmir these days are a radicalised lot. They do not care about historical realities, United Nations resolutions or Pakistan. They seem to have just one agenda – the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir – a dream akin to the ideology of terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In fact, a report in the Guardian on Thursday said that an Al Qaida-affiliated propaganda channel has declared Zakir Musa, 23, one of Kashmir’s most popular militant leaders, as the head of its newly created cell in the Valley. This marks the formal presence of a global terror group in Kashmir for the first time.

Once the separatist leadership is out of the picture, New Delhi is likely to be confronted by these largely faceless radicals, who believe in an ideology where there is no scope for any dialogue or reconciliation. It is likely that some security analysts in New Delhi will be happy with this situation because it will give the government a free hand to deal with it militarily. However, such thinking, if it exists, is fraught with many dangers.

Any violent conflict is like a fire. Common sense has it that bare hands cannot be used to control fire. States suffering violent conflict have traditionally kept handy some kind of tools – akin to a fire-poker, a spade and tongs – that they use when they need to manage the fire, or to keep its thermo-politics from burning up the state.

The Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir’s separatist political leadership, has so far performed the role of these fire tools. Now, by throwing them away, the government of India is actually exposing itself to the dangerous prospect of burning itself. At the time of need, it will no longer have the privilege of using these tools to regulate the thermo-politics of the Kashmir conflict, which, right now, is facing the added threat of radical groups like Al Qaida blowing fresh air into it.

Bashir Manzar is editor, Kashmir Images, an English daily published from Srinagar.