Crisis Over Shrine Siege Brings Forth New Leadership
NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Abdul Gani Lone, linking arms with two comrades, led a march of hundreds of Kashmiris across a bridge into a phalanx of Indian police. He was beaten with truncheons, arrested, hospitalized and then jailed.
But his defiant act a month ago in Srinagar was a pronouncement that a new leadership is taking over, one that wants to negotiate - not fight - with India about the future of the verdant Kashmir Valley at the foot of the Himalayas.
For 45 years, India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir on the battlefield and in diplomatic arenas. In 1990, Muslim militants from Kashmir, supported by Pakistan, joined the fight, launching a guerrilla rebellion.
The militants drove out most of Kashmir’s Hindus and the traditional politicians whose corruption had alienated the people of the only state in predominantly Hindu India where Muslims are the majority.
India responded by suspending local government and putting Kashmir under federal rule. It also flooded the valley with army troops and tough paramilitary forces who showed no restraint in suppressing the rebellion. Estimates of deaths range from 7,500 to 20,000 in four years.
Now, a new local leadership is stepping forward to claim a political role.
Lone is one of the founders of the All Party Freedom Conference, an umbrella for 32 political and professional groups that coalesced in January. It is commonly referred to as the Huriyyat, which means freedom.
″The Huriyyat is the only political platform in existence in Kashmir,″ said Mian Abdul Qayoum, the president of the Kashmir Bar Association, a member body of the organization.
Critics accuse the Huriyyat of being a front for the CIA because Lone announced its creation while on a trip to the United States.
U.S. diplomats say Washington did not sponsor the group. But they see its advent as a possible break in one of the most durable and intractable international conflicts - one that runs the danger of escalating into a war between two countries on the threshold of nuclear weapons.
Lone’s march in Srinagar, the capital of the Kashmir Valley, on Oct. 19 came on the fourth day of the standoff between Indian soldiers and Muslim guerrillas holed up inside Kashmir’s most sacred shrine, the Hazratbal Mosque.
The Hazratbal crisis thrust the Huriyyat into visibility for the first time. It condemned the siege and demanded that the troops withdraw from the sacred shrine that is said to house a hair from the beard of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
When talks broke down for the militants’ surrender, the Huriyyat called a general strike and mass demonstrations. On the seventh day of the siege, thousands took to the streets. About 60 people were shot dead by police.
Previously, it was the underground militant groups who dictated when to shut the stores and boycott government offices, and who enforced their instructions with the gun.
″The Huriyyat is the overground of the militants’ underground,″ said George Verghese, of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. The Hazratbal crisis ″has brought it into the open. It has emerged as an alternative to the gun.″
Unable to coax the militants to surrender, Indian authorities turned to the Huriyyat to arrange a solution. Mediators tried for two days but withdrew, accusing the government of refusing to budge from its demand for unconditional surrender. Later, they resumed mediation.
The group today decreed a two-day suspension of the general strike that had closed the city for 26 days, and Srinagar’s residents rushed into the streets to stock up on food and fuel.
″That shows whose writ runs in Kashmir,″ Qayoum said in a telephone interview from Srinagar.
The idea for a new pro-separatist political force was drawn up by Lone and four other men who were jailed together in 1990 for leading outlawed organizations.
They were released two years later when the government began looking for an alternative to Kashmiri leadership.
″They were released in the hope that they would do exactly what they are doing now,″ said Verghese. ″These are the people who could become a moderate leadership.″