In deep freeze: the silent politicians of Kashmir

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There is no end in sight to the longest political winter of Jammu and Kashmir, a picturesque yet sombreful region that is struggling to face-off with the dramatic and villainous events that split and degraded it politically and geographically.

It has been eighteen months since New Delhi unilaterally revoked J-K’s limited-autonomy and statehood amid a massive crackdown that has made Kashmiri politicians, across the spectrum, to fall silent.

The politicians have issued none to few statements during the past year and a half, and made no pushback against the ongoing blitz against them and the course of their future politics.

The erstwhile state’s prominent unionist parties had come together under the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) last year but have barely attempted to fill in the communication void. So far, there is no word on a roadmap to achieve their stated goals and their public outreach is non-existent.

The many Hurriyats, on the other side of Kashmir politics’ spectrum, have also fallen silent and gone out of circulation. The silence that is forced upon them by incarcerations and the lack of organisational structures to outdo and outlive the crackdown. 

The silence of Kashmir’s many political characters has created a leadership vacuum that none is attempting to fill. The statements of those who have spoken reveal a deep sense of confusion as their talks have switched gears between the restoration of 4G internet and the pre-August 2019 position.

PAGD, Kashmir politicians
Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Quiet Since Quarantine: Farooq 

The PAGD’s president, a three-time chief minister and the president of the National Conference, Farooq Abdullah’s last political address was on 24 December — two days after the results for a local bodies election were announced.

Farooq’s presser of 24 December was his first political comment in more than a month since he had gone into quarantine after coming in contact with a person whose relative had tested positive for COVID19.

At the presser, the last by the PAGD in its original formation, an irate Farooq had lashed out at a reporter who asked if the alliance would “work together hereafter?”. “Absolutely,” he said as he raised the tone of his voice and instead questioned the journalist’s intentions. “Why do you have doubts about it? You try to create doubts?”

Since then, the octogenarian political veteran made no political comment and instead preferred light-hearted talk.

At a book launch in Jammu on 19 January, Farooq complained that he can’t even kiss his wife owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the audience broke into laughter, he continued: “Who knows (what will happen). There is no question of a hug, though the heart wants it. I am sincere in my words.”

In another address to his party workers in Jammu, Farooq had assured that “a big mass outreach would be undertaken across Jammu and Kashmir to galvanise the party at the grassroots level.”

Reluctant politician: Omar 

Much like his father, Omar Abdullah, also a former chief minister, too, has gone quiet on political matters. Otherwise active on social media, particularly the microblogging platform Twitter, Omar has spoken on little beyond the weather and administrative woes.

Like his colleagues, the NC’s vice president has also avoided speaking to the Kashmiri press — and the Kashmir audience — for the most part since his release from detention in March 2020. Omar, however, spoke to multiple Indian publications.

In his last interview, Omar told New Delhi based portal The Wire: “I find it very difficult to motivate myself, I have lost motivation. A certain light inside may not have been switched off but it’s a lot dimmer. I have never been like this.”

Days after the interview, in an apparent cryptic message, Omar tweeted: “There is an old Kashmiri saying – Wa-and chali, sheen gali, Bae yeeyi bahaar! (winter will end, the snow will melt, spring will return).”

Silent spokesperson: Sajad 

The PAGD’s former spokesperson Sajad Lone’s first press conference was also his last. Standing along with the alliance leadership, Lone had expressed his gratitude for the public for repoing “their faith” in democracy “after so many upheavals.”

Lone had decried the “interferences” in the election outcome by a “partisan” government. “History is replete with examples that those who try to humiliate verdicts [sic] of people, they end up with a disaster. We need to respect this verdict and show respect to the people,” he had said in December, weeks before he exited from PAGD.

Lone has avoided speaking to the press for the most time he was the spokesperson of the PAGD. He preferred being quiet even after withdrawing from the alliance.

Loudest, but with baggage: Mehbooba 

The only loud voice from the unionist bloc is that of Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister and president of the People’s Democratic Party. Mufti has been consistent in addressing the press and regularly comments on politics via her Twitter account.

Of all the unionists, Mufti and her party also have the heaviest burden – she and the PDP were the pivots that allowed BJP to enter the corridors of power in JK and her remark that the teenagers killed in the 2016 uprising were not out “to buy toffee and milk” were brutish. 

Since the fall of her government in 2018, after the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support, Mufti has turned to the PDP’s signature style of high spirited rhetoric with little execution on the ground. Many of her party members are currently under arrest.

Hurriyat, Kashmir politicians, Mirwaiz Hurriyat, Yasin Malik
Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Missing in action: Mirwaiz 

On the other side of Kashmir’s political divide, the most conspicuously absent pro-freedom leader is Umar Farooq, a Mirwaiz (chief preacher) and chairperson of his faction of Hurriyat. Since August 2019, his faction has maintained that the cleric has been “incarcerated” but a slip on social media led to speculations.

Sometime in 2020, the verified Twitter account of the Mirwaiz had ‘liked’ a tweet about the Taliban’s peace deal with the United States of America. The ‘like’ on the tweet was removed soon after.

His party has, since August 2019, called for a shutdown on 31 October 2020 against the imposition of the new land laws that give ownership rights to non-locals in J-K. Since then, and prior to that also, the faction has remained silent.

Acknowledge me a martyr: Geelani

At the dusk of his life, Syed Ali Geelani decided to abandon the ship and resigned from the Hurriyat faction that he had formed and headed for nearly two decades. He blamed his faction’s leaders for the misappropriation of finances and lack of discipline and called it quits.

Geelani, a former legislator who then switched to pro-freedom camp in the mid-1990, has been under house arrest for more than a decade now and hasn’t made any public appearance in recent years; though his occasional videos make it onto social media.  

Geelani’s resignation from Hurriyat was hailed as a victory by the BJP. “I just can’t afford to be answerable. You are free to make your own decisions,” Geelani had said in his resignation letter of 29 June last year. 

In the past 18 months, at least two videos of bed-ridden Geelani have also made their way to social media including the one in February 2020 in which he asks the people to acknowledge him as a martyr. “Whoever, a molvi, or party, says otherwise, I reject them all. I want to tell them I have made a promise with God to be a martyr. No one can change it,” he had said in the video. 

Against the odds: Ashraf Sehrai

The incumbent Tehreek-e-Hurriyat leader Ashraf Sehrai broke his silence in an interview with The Kashmir Walla on the day his militant son, Junaid Sehrai, was killed in a gunfight in Srinagar on 19 May 2020. 

“India has declared a war against Kashmiris. They may not say it openly but they have declared it practically through their actions,” he had said. “It is for Kashmiris to now protect their faith and withstand [attacks on faith].”

The Kashmir issue, he had emphasised, was not about the “special status” within the Indian Constitution but of the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination. The Government of India, however, Sehrai said, had instead “given a final shape to their plans to overturn Kashmir’s Muslim majority” in the wake of the “forced integration”.

Sehrai, who was at his Srinagar home for months following the August 2019 abrogation, was jailed under the Public Safety Act on 12 July 2020, prior to a planned press conference.

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