A tense build-up to the proposed talks between India and Pakistan has given a much-needed lifeline to the Hurriyat Conference, dramatically pulling out the Kashmiri separatist bloc from the political margins and turning it into a make-or-break factor in the bilateral engagement.
The two neighbours are locked in an intense war-of-words over Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Sartaz Aziz’s invite to the Hurriyat leaders for a meeting before the proposed high-level engagement with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on Monday.
In the process, the Hurriyat has emerged as an unlikely roadblock to the neighbours’ renewed bid at smoking the peace pipe.
A high turnout in the assembly elections last year had shrunk the separatist constituency, much to the chagrin of Pakistan which majorly counts on the Hurriyat to keep the Kashmir pot boiling.
The Hurriyat’s rabble-rousing rhetoric had of late turned into a mere whimper, especially after the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which champions soft separatism, came to power last year.
Pakistan’s calculated insistence on meeting the Hurriyat leaders before the resumed bilateral talks is aimed as much at resurrecting the separatists’ sagging profile as at rubbing in its Kashmir-is-the-core-issue stand at the Delhi meeting where India expects terror to be the only menu on the table.
The Narendra Modi government drew a new red line last year on its terms of engagement with Islamabad when it baulked at Pakistani high commissioner’s pre-talk consultation with the Kashmiri separatists and called off the scheduled foreign secretary-level talks at the eleventh hour.
What makes the Hurriyat so important and where does the separatist spectrum draw its strength from, and who are its key stake-holders?
Forged in 1993, the All India Hurriyat Conference remains an umbrella organization espousing the cause of Kashmir’s secession from India.
Though it has never tested its strength in the electoral arena, it draws support from a deep-seated, pro-secession sentiment that has historically competed and collided with the pro-India political narrative.
While the Hurriyat calls itself the “heartbeat of Kashmiris”, mainstream parties dub it a stooge of Pakistan.
Many in Kashmir view the Hurriyat as merely a ‘hartal party’, a euphemism for the separatists’ frequently-called shutdowns to protest India’s “illegal occupation” and alleged human rights violations by security forces. Such tactics, in fact, have been the Hurriyat’s way of showing its clout in the valley.In the last two decades, the Hurriyat has seen many splits and mergers and is presently represented by two dominant factions. While the moderate faction is led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the hardliners have Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an 85-year-old rabidly pro-Pakistan leader.