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The Lone ranger

But in a land where nothing out-of-the box has emerged for years, Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest is the most audacious breakthrough to come out of Kashmir in a very long time, writes Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2009 21:38 IST
Neelesh Misra

Many years ago, I sat at the home of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s highest Islamic cleric, and asked him how it felt to oppose Indian rule in Kashmir and yet have to write ‘Indian’ as his citizenship in visa applications. “It’s just a piece of paper,” he had replied, in the middle of our joint crib about slow internet speed in Kashmir.

Separatist leader Sajjad Lone told us just that this weekend, how the nomination form he will soon sign for parliamentary elections, overturning years of anti-India campaigns, is just a change in “strategy, not ideology” – just a piece of paper, really.

Many people in Kashmir would call it a sell-out; those outside would call it hypocrisy. But in a land where nothing out-of-the box has emerged for years, Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest is the most audacious breakthrough to come out of Kashmir in a very long time.

With that, Lone has truly come to represent the new aspirations of young Kashmiris, who nurse discontent against India but also want to move on, and not keep their lives forever fossilised in the political quagmire.

Umar Farooq and Sajjad Lone have long been bound by their common, if disparate, separatist campaign — apart from the fact that their fathers, top Kashmiri leaders, were killed on the same day, May 21, 12 years apart. But Sajjad has just made a fascinating leap of imagination from all that the Mirwaiz and his separatist colleagues stand for.

This lot has long fought a war of negatives — a battle against Indian rule, based on nothing beyond that. If India were to tell the rival factions of the Hurriyat Conference, “We withdraw from Kashmir, please run it from tomorrow morning”, they would wake up clueless, with no idea of what kind of nation they want, how it would run, and how people would sustain themselves. It’s a separatist campaign that ran out of ideas years ago, having said and done nothing new in two decades.

The people of Kashmir saw through that last November in a state election where they voted overwhelmingly. It was a vote not for India or its rule in Kashmir, as jingoistic commentators like to point out, but a demand for good governance and a rebuff to separatists who had asked people to boycott the elections. It’s quite logical that Sajjad is the first one to do this — after all, in this bereft-of-ideas separatist lobby, he was the only person who, at the request of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, locked himself up in a Gulmarg hotel and wrote Achievable Nationhood, his roadmap for Kashmir. Sadly, it received a burial colder than the snows of Gulmarg.

Sajjad is a gentleman politician, despite his mercurial phases — like during the Amarnath agitation, when he suddenly transformed into someone unrecognisable, a rabble- rousing rhetorician who threatened to do a Varun Gandhi to anyone “who dares take an inch of my land”. If he wins — and I hope he does — he would have the responsibility of raising all the uncomfortable questions that have long been pushed aside in Kashmir and never raised in the Indian Parliament, starting with accountability.

What happened, for example, to the estimated Rs 50,000 crore of taxpayers’ money that has been sent to Kashmir in development aid from New Delhi since the insurgency began? Why are the thousands of human rights violation cases that lie at the heart of Kashmir’s discontent not getting special courts? Why is the Army presence not scaled down despite dramatically lower levels of violence?

And he will have to turn around towards Srinagar and ask why the separatist leadership wants to remain frozen in a directionless war — and say that every grenade thrown in a marketplace that kills a civilian is terrorism. Anything short of asking these questions will be both hypocrisy and a sellout.