On February 17, the Jammu and Kashmir administration withdrew the police security given to four separatist leaders. “In view of the recent terror attack on a CRPF convoy in Lethpora, Pulwama, in which 40 CRPF men lost their lives, the Government of India has emphasised the need to immediately review the wastage of police resources in providing unnecessary security to a large number of non-government persons in the state,” said the order issued by the state’s home department. “This is particularly relevant in the context of security provided to separatists and their sympathisers.”

The state is currently under Governor’s rule. Two days earlier, at a press conference in Srinagar, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said “those people who take money from Pakistan are hand in glove with the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence]…their security should be reviewed”.

All four leaders named in the order belong to the Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of separatist parties. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq leads a faction of the Hurriyat and is chief cleric of Srinagar’s Jama Masjid. Abdul Gani Bhat, a former professor of Persian, is a leader of the Muslim Conference. Bilal Lone heads the People’s Independent Movement. Shabir Shah, founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, is currently being held in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on terrorism funding charges. Absent from the list was the Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has been under house arrest for much of the time since 2008.

Another statement by the government’s information department said the “police headquarters will review if there are any other separatists who have government security or facilities and will withdraw these immediately”.

The Mirwaiz claimed that move would not cause him any trouble., “It was the government that insisted on keeping the personnel based on what they said was their assessment of the threat perception,” he said. “It was the government decision at that time to keep it, today it is their decision to remove it. It’s not an issue for us.”

On February 18, Hurriyat elder Mohammad Abbas Ansari asked that his security cover be removed as well.

Securing ‘moderate voices’

Since militancy spread in Kashmir in 1989, several separatist leaders have been assassinated. In 1990, Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, father of the current Mirwaiz, was killed by unidentified gunmen. In 2002, Abdul Gani Lone, a Hurriyat leader and Bilal Lone’s father, was killed, again by unidentified gunmen. In the months leading up to his murder, he had been warming up to talks with the Indian government. While Mohammad Farooq reportedly refused security, Abdul Gani Lone is said to have been killed just months after his security detail was lowered.

Hurriyat workers outside Srinagar continue to be targeted. At least three were shot dead by unknown gunmen last year alone.

Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar in 2002. Photo credit: AFP
Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar in 2002. Photo credit: AFP

The identity of the killers has never been established. The Indian government has usually pointed fingers at militants or the Inter Services Intelligence, accusing them of eliminating separatist leaders who do not toe Pakistan’s official line on Kashmir. Separatist leaders, though, have blamed these killings on Indian security agencies.

In the early 2000s, the government provided security to separatist leaders who were willing to engage in talks. It was an issue that split the Hurriyat, with Geelani heading the anti-talks faction and the Mirwaiz the pro-talks faction.

“Security to Hurriyat leaders had a context,” said a political commentator in Srinagar who did not want to be identified. “In the period when the Hurriyat got divided, these leaders were considered as moderate faces. Security was provided to them when they engaged in talks with LK Advani and Manmohan Singh. Those days, the government wanted to infuse a sense of security among them.”

After last week’s attack, the Indian government no longer seems unwilling to spend resources on their security. Last year, the state government said it had spent nearly Rs 11 crore on security and transportation for 14 Hurriyat leaders over the previous 10 years.

‘Challenge for us’

Police officials in the Valley pointed out that providing security to separatist leaders made it easier to keep tabs on them. Most of the prominent separatist leaders have long been under surveillance by the police and other security agencies. Their movements and communication, the visitors who drop by at their homes are monitored. Often, visitors have to seek permission from police officials before meeting the leaders.

Police outside Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's home in Srinagar. Photo credit: Reuters
Police outside Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's home in Srinagar. Photo credit: Reuters

After Sunday’s order, the police said, they face fresh challenges. “It’s actually going to increase the problem for law enforcement agencies,” said a police official who asked not to be identified. “First, there is a law and order concern if something happens to them. Second, you can say it was easier to keep an eye on them. The reality is that we have to continue spending resources on them and it is going to be more challenging now.”

‘Never asked for it’

Hurriyat leaders such as the Mirwaiz, however, claimed they “never asked” for security. “The government and its propagandist anti-Kashmir media had repeatedly been raking up the issue of police personnel provided to the resistance leadership to politicise it, knowing fully well it has no bearing nor can it in any way change the reality of the lingering Kashmir dispute or the situation on ground or our principled stand and outlook regarding its resolution,” he said.

Bhat agreed. “Security has nothing to do with my political perceptions,” he said. “It was an arrangement undertaken by the government of Jammu and Kashmir for reasons I don’t know. Nobody would kill me. On the basis of their own assessment, I was under threat. So, they deployed security personnel for me. I never asked for it. Now, they have withdrawn it. How does it matter?”

The veteran leader is known for taking positions that often contradict the Hurriyat line. In 2011, he ruffled feathers for saying Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone were not killed by the Army or the police but by “our own people”. In 2017, he broke with the official Hurriyat position and met New Delhi’s interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma.

Today, he’s bitter about how sections of the Indian media report on separatists, “They say government spends crores on our security. Have we asked them to spend money on us?”

‘Childish decision’

Kashmir’s mainstream politicians have also used security, or the lack of it, to make political points. During the mass protests of 2016, for example, several leaders claimed to give up allegiance to mainstream parties, often by renouncing their security cover.

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
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

The mainstream parties have criticised the government’s decision to withdraw police security from separatist leaders. “Whatever you may do – withdraw security or go for other measures – ultimately, you have to talk,” said former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. “And these are the people you have to talk to. A political process needs these people. When you take such a confrontational posture against them, it’s ultimately the people of Kashmir who suffer. It has consequences.”

Mufti, who is president of the Peoples Democratic Party, said the decision illustrated the Centre’s lack of understanding of the situation in Kashmir. “You had invested so much into dialogue process during Vajpayee ji’s tenure,” she explained. “A lot of energy and other things were invested in the India-Pakistan relationship during the PDP-Congress coalition government. Suddenly, everything has turned topsy-turvy. It’s a very childish kind of thing to do.”

The National Conference also had objections. “Security-related decisions are not taken on the basis of political considerations but on threat perception,” said Aga Syed Ruhullah, the party’s chief spokesperson. “These are optics. Beyond optics, these steps aren’t going to help in any case. By and large, Jammu and Kashmir is a political issue for which they need to engage with all sections of whatever political shades to engage in a substantial dialogue.”

‘An election stunt’

Some political commentators saw the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral calculations behind the move. “It is an election stunt,” said the commentator in Srinagar. “Modi wants to show a sort of bravado to his people. That’s why you will see the BJP clamouring for the withdrawal of security from mainstream politicians in Kashmir as well. The idea is to push every Kashmiri and brand him as an extremist.”

In the wake of the Pulwama attack, BJP leaders demanded that politicians from Kashmiri parties such as the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party be investigated for so-called anti-national statements.

According to Noor Ahmad Baba, who teaches politics and governance at the Central University of Kashmir, there are dangers in posturing against moderate separatist voices. “Presently, the government of India is under pressure from its own people,” he said. “They must be seen to be doing something very very strong.” But it could push the state’s politics towards more “radical territory”, Baba warned.

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