In late December, a group of masked youth stormed into Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, waving the Islamic State’s flags. It created ripples in the Valley and beyond, giving rise to fears that new ideologies had permeated Kashmiri separatism.

The Jamia Masjid is a place of religious as well as political significance. It’s the seat of the Mirwaiz, traditionally considered the religious leader of Kashmir’s Muslims. The current Mirwaiz, Umar Farooq, heads a faction of the Hurriyat Conference, the political platform for Kashmiri separatism.

The Mirwaiz condemned the “desecration of the mosque” by the masked youth and performed a “purification ritual”.

This week, he found himself in a controversy after speaking with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi over the telephone. India strongly objected to the call, summoning Pakistan’s envoy on Wednesday night to condemn “this latest brazen attempt to subvert India’s unity”. But Islamabad dismissed the objections, insisting there was “nothing new” in its contact with the Kashmiri separatist leadership.

Speaking to, the Mirwaiz said he saw no reason why India should be “irked so much” by his conversation with Mehmood. He also spoke about the flag-waving at the Jamia Masjid and what it meant for Kashmir’s separatist politics, the Hurriyat’s perceived failures, and the upcoming elections. Excerpts:

You got a call from Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi early this week. What did he tell you?
He shared his concern about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, the human rights violations and killings. He said Pakistan is trying its best to highlight these issues from various platforms. He also said Pakistan is going to observe Kashmir Solidarity Day on February 5.

Qureshi said Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan tried reaching out to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi a couple of times but the response was negative. He said now that elections are coming in India, whatever initiatives need to be taken will take place only after the conclusion of the polls.

Basically, he was saying as far as Pakistan is concerned, they will continue to support Kashmir, diplomatically, politically and morally.

The call has triggered a controversy. India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan and Pakistan has adopted a tough stance. How do you see these developments?
It’s unfortunate. I don’t see any reason why the Government of India should be irked so much by this. The fact is that Pakistan is a party to the Kashmir dispute. And Pakistan and India have been talking and holding deliberations in the past as well.

We have met the Pakistanis many times in Delhi whenever their presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers or foreign secretaries have come. It’s quite ironic that this NDA (the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party) is the same NDA of Atal Bihari Vajpayee which not only conceded that engagement should be there within the ambit of humanity outside the Constitution of India, but also facilitated our visit to Pakistan. At that time, they gave us passports so we could start talking to the government in Pakistan.

There was an understanding and complete agreement that the only way to move forward was for India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris to engage with each other. I don’t see any reason for the Indian government to create so much hue and cry over this (call).

Has Pakistan’s new leadership encouraged the Hurriyat towards dialogue? In the Valley today, people criticise Pakistan as well...
Pakistan has its own problems. We would have liked Pakistan to be more vocal about Kashmir and take steps to highlight and internationalise the dispute. They have not been able to do that because of their own internal tussles, economic and security problems. Now, Imran Khan has tried to walk that mile. He has also come across as a very realistic and honest person in terms of dealing with India. Let the elections in India happen and let us see what government comes in and what policy is framed.

Why do you think the Islamic State flags were waved at the Jamia Masjid?
Honestly, I don’t believe the Islamic State as an organisation has any big support or major structure in Kashmir. Some young boys would come and display the flags on Fridays and the media would give them some coverage. The people of Kashmir and even political parties are not swayed by that ideology, which is detrimental and will cause harm to us and to our movement.

These are teenagers who are disgruntled, who feel that nothing is happening. They feel let down by even the Hurriyat leadership because we could not find a way out.

We understand that there is disenchantment with the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as they have not done anything vis-à-vis Kashmir. But that does not mean we can underestimate them. There are resolutions in the United Nations that justify our struggle and call for self-determination. So you can’t just ignore them.

Having said that, I do feel that some youth are drawn to it (the ideology represented by the Islamic State) due to the conflict and the current situation in Kashmir.

Does Hurriyat feel such groups might eventually overtake the political narrative of Azadi?
I don’t think so. When we talk of self-determination we talk in terms of commitments and political engagements between India and Pakistan, the international community, United Nations, and past agreements between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris. It is important not to lose sight of that because it is not going to help us, but our adversary.

There is a genuine effort by certain agencies that want to push the Kashmir narrative towards the global Islamic agenda and try to portray it in that context.

We, including the militant leadership, have said it very clearly that we do not have any global agenda. Our agenda is only the resolution of the Kashmir dispute that is based on self-determination. Nothing else.

Who do you think is pushing the global Islamic agenda?
There are many factors. Social media is one factor. People get influenced by what’s happening in all these videos, which are coming from different parts of the Islamic world. I am sure there are certain people, even educated ones, who are trying to push this narrative but it is not clear as such who these people are or who is behind them.

Why has the Hurriyat failed to take a firm position against groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?
We have been talking about it. Probably, Geelani Sahab (Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani) was one of the first who spoke about it. Even militant organisations have been giving statements about ISIS and how it is a creation of agencies. There is no ambiguity.

The Jamia incident united all people, the political, religious and militant leadership. Everybody was on the same page that this has to be denounced. This is not what we are fighting for.

Hurriyat Conference leaders Abdul Gani Bhat, Bilal Gani Lone and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq with Pakistan's former Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, right, in Islamabad in 2007. Photo credit: Reuters

Many people criticise the Hurriyat for failing to effectively lead the 2016 mass protests, only declaring months of hartal, or shutdown. Is it true the Hurriyat might stop using hartal as a means of protest?
The problem with us is that we are not in a position to do anything. Most of the time we are confined to our houses, or we are barred from carrying out political activities, or our party people are put in jail.

As far as hartal is concerned, we realise that we have to minimise its use because, at the end of the day, it does affect our economy, day to day living and education. At the same time, the state has to give some space to the people. In a sense, if you want to protest peacefully the state has to ensure it. That is why at times the people feel so desperate that stone-pelting and hartal are the only options they are left with.

Has the Hurriyat’s credibility been dented by the mass protests? Is it becoming irrelevant to the younger generation?
First, we have to be clear that the genesis of the Kashmir dispute is not 1989, but 1931 and 1947. In the struggle against the autocratic rule of the Dogras and then the Indian occupation, there have been ups and downs. It is very clear that if militancy is up, you can’t have political activities. We have the example of [Kashmir] post the 2016 uprising before us. Political activities or political institutions will only work in a [conducive] environment. We can’t work in a vacuum.

A deliberate attempt has been made by the state to keep us cut off from the people. We are not even allowed to go and mourn our youth who are getting killed.

But why are the youth drawn to the militant groups rather than the Hurriyat?
Because they feel the Hurriyat also has no space. Last week, we said let the youth come forward and give suggestions. Many have come, or written to us. Some have said they are scared to write in the newspapers because police will be after them. If you join the Hurriyat, you won’t get a passport or you would be put under surveillance. These are all genuine problems.

The state is not giving space to these young boys to be part of a peaceful resistance. Somewhere, it suits the Indian narrative to push these boys towards the militancy.

They also see that the Hurriyat tried to engage with the Government of India and nothing happened. The last official meeting we had with the Government of India was in 2006. The anger is so high that they feel the political channel is not going to give vent to their anger.

'We realise that we have to minimise the use of hartal because, at the end of the day, it affects our economy, day to day living and education,' says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

How do you see former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s visits to the families of slain militants? Do you see her People Democratic Party’s ‘soft separatism’ encroaching upon the separatist political space?
This is not a fight for space. We are fighting for principles. And that space is there when the people are with the resistance movement, despite the fact that they have tried to push the Hurriyat to the wall, whether through the National Investigation Agency or the Enforcement Directorate.

We are not worried Mehbooba Mufti or any other politician is encroaching upon our space. Because at the end of the day, the people drive the movement. That is exactly what the people have shown, with or without the Hurriyat. For the past three years, we have been nowhere in the picture. We have not even been allowed to hold a rally.

Mufti has claimed that she called you after the desecration of the Jamia Masjid a few weeks ago...
Yes, she did call me on my phone. I just picked and she said, “I am Mehbooba Mufti and I condemn this incident.”

She sort of played it over the media then. Ironically, she is the person who (as the chief minister) barred prayers at the Jamia Masjid the most number of times.

Is the Hurriyat going to issue boycott calls for this year’s elections in Kashmir?
Our strategy has been very clear. Elections are not an alternative to a referendum. The Government of India has time and again sold elections as the people’s vote for Indian rule to continue in Kashmir – which is not the fact.

Our policy is clear. We are going to boycott polls and tell the people to stay away from them.

But many people assert that boycotts only work in favour of national parties such as the the BJP.
This narrative had emerged the last time as well, that the boycott helped the BJP. When you have regional mainstream parties like the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party ready to become willing tools to be used by the BJP or the Congress, what can you do? These concerns are being highlighted to legitimatise this (electoral) process.

Former bureaucrat Shah Faesal has said he wants to join electoral politics. How does the Hurriyat view his claim that he seeks to “redefine” the electoral politics in Kashmir?
It is very clear that he wants to go into electoral politics. Many people have talked about “redefining” mainstream politics and speaking about Azadi in the Assembly. I think there has been an experiment on these lines; Geelani Sahab and others did it in 1987 by contesting elections under the banner of the Muslim United Front. That experiment failed.

There is hardly any space to talk about people’s views and aspirations in these state institutions. I wish these pro-India parties would not go for elections. You know, just let Delhi rule directly. At the end of the day, how does it matter. Policies are being made by Delhi. It is not Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti or, tomorrow, Shah Faesal. In fact, this Assembly represents India in Kashmir. They don’t represent Kashmir in India or for that matter in Parliament.

Resistance politics is the only domain in which you can put forward your case.

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq meets a delegation of Indian politicians led by the communist leader Gurudas Dasgupta, right. Photo credit: Reuters

Recently, Governor Satya Pal Malik asked Hurriyat leaders to discuss human rights violations with him. Will you go?

Our grievances are all in public. I do not think we need to approach him. If he wants, I can send him the file of our new campaign on political prisoners who continue to languish in jails despite serving their terms for 25 or 26 years. I will send him the file. The problem is that, at the end of the day, it is the dispensation in Delhi which has to take a call.

The kind of statements that are coming from the Army chief and other is very clear that in India also the political voices are being replaced by military voices. They used to say so about Pakistan.

Several Hurriyat activists were shot dead last year and there are several theories about who was behind the killings. Are you worried?
It is difficult to say who was behind them. We do not know what’s happening in a hamlet in South Kashmir or in an Army camp. It is a very discreet thing. Militant organisations have time and again dissociated themselves from these acts or killings, so who are these people?

The Hurriyat has said it is open to dialogue with the Indian government, provided there is clarity. What exactly does it want clarity about?
By seeking clarity we ask, “engagement for what?” Our stand is that we want to engage with both India and Pakistan and we have to address the dispute. We believe there are only two ways to address the Kashmir problem: either you go by international agreements on Kashmir or you have engagement. Srinagar, Delhi, Islamabad and Muzaffarabad are the four cornerstones of the engagement which we feel need to be involved so as to arrive at a final political solution. Srinagar talking to Delhi will not end the conflict.

What we are saying is that there’s no political mechanism. The only time we saw a process was when Vajpayee initiated tripartite dialogue.

How does Prime Minister Modi compare with Vajpayee?
He wanted to chart his own course. Vis-a-vis Kashmir, we have seen the worst kind of violations and a difficult time for the people. Probably, that is what the BJP of today is. I would say it has not helped India’s cause. They have created a situation which could have been avoided if they had really followed the spirit of what Vajpayee had set out. Probably, we could have moved forward.

Many Hurriyat leaders were jailed after the National Investigation Agency raids, including your close aide Shahid ul Islam. But they have not gone after the top leaders of the Hurriyat such as yourself. Are you apprehensive?
I think we have passed that phase now. There was an attempt when they started arresting our people and they said they are coming after us. They did leak information about our assets through the media. We came clear on that. We said if we are the problem we are willing to go to Delhi. Let them arrest us and prosecute us if they feel that’s the problem.

The raids and the whole story about stone-pelting were aimed at creating a false narrative and diverting attention away from the main cause of the problem. They wanted a scapegoat and they thought the Hurriyat was the best choice.

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