The 50-year-old new Hurriyat chief is a hardliner like the late Geelani but given that he is in jail, his appointment is merely symbolic

On September 7, six days after the death of veteran separatist leader and Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Geelani at his home in Srinagar, his protégé Masarat Alam Bhat succeeded him. The 50-year-old staunch Pakistan supporter currently lodged in Tihar jail for terror funding has spent more than two decades of his life in jails. But his appointment, at a time when separatist outfits in the Valley have been left redundant by the BJP-led Union government’s zero tolerance against separatism, is seen as an attempt to marginalise the moderate voices such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of his faction of the Hurriyat.

Born in Zaindar Mohalla in Srinagar’s downtown, the fiery orator is an alumnus of the prestigious missionary school, Tyndale Biscoe, in Srinagar. In 2010, when Kashmir rose up against the killing of teenager Tufail Mattoo, he became the vanguard of the agitation issuing protest and shutdown calendars while in hiding. He was arrested by the J&K Police from Srinagar's outskirts and booked under the Public Safety Act, a controversial law that allows detention of a person without bail up to six months. After the PDP-BJP government led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed came to power in J&K, he was released briefly in 2015 but was re-arrested a month later. Since then, he has behind bars along with scores of separatists and activists including top leaders such as Yasin Malik, Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan and Asiya Andrabi with charges ranging from money laundering to terror funding.

“It’s a crucial phase now with circumstances not favouring the separatists,” says an activist who has followed Geelani since the early 1990s. “In normal circumstances, there would have been many claimants for the post. But today, no one among the separatists is willing to take the lead. Masarat’s appointment, hence, has symbolic value.”

With the majority of leaders from the Geelani faction in jail, there is a ready space for moderate faces such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to take over. But for the past two years, ever since the abrogation of Article 370 and J&K being split into two Union territories, the moderate separatists have toned down their rhetoric and maintained a stony silence. Many including the 48-year-old Mirwaiz who is also the Valley’s chief priest and presides over the pulpit in Srinagar's Jama Masjid, are out of jail but are under house detention. His faction has not carried out even routine activities such as calling for a shutdown, protest or even a seminar. Many noticed that the last statement mailed to media persons in Srinagar expressed condolences for Geelani’s death but did not announce a shutdown even after the family alleged that their father’s body was snatched by the police and given a quiet burial. The police have denied the allegations. It is hard for Mirwaiz, especially amid the current situation, to publicly endorse or give political legitimacy to the militancy. Ironically, his father Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq was assassinated by gunmen on May 21, 1990. Besides, he lacks mass appeal and the youth would connect more with Masarat Alam, a stone thrower himself.

Soon after Geelani’s death, a top security official who monitors separatist politics noted that Pakistan would prefer Alam over the others. “Geelani’s death is a setback for Pakistan because an announcement in his name would yield results even if he was out of public life. Alam has the same appeal, as seen in the 2010 protests,” he adds.

The All Party Hurriyat Conference came into being on July 31, 1993, as an amalgam of 23 political and religious parties led by Mirwaiz. But with its political ideologies at variance, it suffered a spilt in 2003 after Geelani accused the Peoples Conference of fielding proxies in the assembly election. Since then, there’s been a divide between the Geelani and Mirwaiz groups and at times they would level serious allegations against each other.

Geelani would often act as the sole custodian of the separatist movement in Kashmir. After the Mirwaiz-led faction started a dialogue with former prime ministers A.B. Vajpayee’s government, Geelani opposed it tooth and nail declaring them ‘traitors’. He also vociferously opposed the four-point formula on Kashmir of former Pakistan military dictator Gen. Parvez Musharraf, prompting the latter to say, “Get out of the way, old man”. In the Valley, his standing up to all comers including Pakistan earned him respect, especially among the youth. Many militants wanted Geelani to lead their funeral prayers; in fact, he held funeral prayers for Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden too.

“Geelani set a benchmark in politics, but that is in the past,” says an activist pleading anonymity. “He was uncompromising in his love for Pakistan. On the other hand, his counterparts would dabble with Pakistan but covertly engaged with New Delhi too. Ibhar bhi, udhar bhi,” he says.

On August 22, the signboard at the office of the Hurriyat Conference in Hyderpora, Srinagar, suddenly disappeared. The move followed the central government considering a ban on the Hurriyat under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). Though nothing has been officially announced, an official argues the removal of the board was an indication of the growing fear among the separatists. Former J&K deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh of the BJP argues that such action is necessary for anyone who advocates separatism. “Though they (Hurriyat) are silent now, if it is established that they funded terrorism, they must be banned,” he says. The August 2019 move, according to Singh, has dealt a psychological blow to the “anti-nationals”. The cases of termination of government employees in the national interest, police cases for raising the Pakistan flag and shouting anti-national slogans, have spurred fear. “Basically, the entire nation is aware and united about these issues,” says Singh, a history teacher and author of ‘Inter Communal Relations in Jammu and Kashmir from 1846-1931'. “Even if there is a change in government--though that is unlikely in the next 10 years--no government at the Centre will allow it (separatism) nor for that matter will any government in Kashmir allow things of the past to happen again.”

However, Prof. Ghani Bhat, a senior leader of the Hurriyat Conference and a votary of dialogue on Kashmir, does not believe it is irrelevant. The 85-year-old whom former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat calls his friend, philosopher and guide in the acknowledgment section of his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, says the amalgam will have a role in coming times as he predicts a dialogue between India, Pakistan and Kashmir in the face of the US troops’ exit from Afghanistan. “The Hurriyat is a thought process, not a political structure,” he says. “It may have problems but this idea of thinking together to speak in one voice will never go away. The Hurriyat is a symbol. People will come and go, but symbols never die.”