“As-salam alaikum,” he smiled, pausing just inside the doorway. “Omar Farooq,” he said by way of self-introduction, inclining his head slightly towards his guests.
Arguably the second most-powerful man in Kashmir, this 24-year-old religious head of Kashmiri Muslims, provides the antithesis to Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah. Since May 30, 1990, when he had been forced to take over as the Mirwaiz following his father’s assassination by unknown assailants, Omar Farooq has played an important role in the state politics.
Between performing nikkahs (marriages), giving religious sermons, and the other many duties associated with his institution, Omar Farooq founded the All Party Hurriyat Conference (an amalgam of 32 organisations) in 1993 which has — is — playing a pivotal role in the valley.
“When my father was assassinated,” he told Rediff On The NeT’s Chindu Sreedharan,“I was just past my matriculation. I wanted to become a software engineer and had applied for the science field. But…”
The new Mirwaiz continued with his studies privately, standing first in the state higher secondary exams. For his bachelor’s degree, he switched to Islamic studies and, again, topped the ranks. Now majoring in the same subject, Omar Farooq, juggles politics, religion and studies into 24 short hours — and still manages to make the day look long and relaxed.
Thus, when he met us soon after August 15 at his home in downtown Srinagar, he appeared as ‘cool’ and unhurried as any other youngster, chatting away merrily — and coming across as strongly anti-Indian, though inoffensively so — his tone quietly confident.
“Other parties cannot achieve a complete shutdown in the valley,” he said in answer to our query about the August 15 bandh which his party had initiated to protest the 50th I Day celebrations, “But when the Hurriyat calls a hartal, it stays a hartal!”
Here, except for a short discussion about the Internet (which happens to be his hobby), is what the Mirwaiz had to say in a two hour interview:
What does 50 years of Independence mean for you and your followers?
Nothing, not a thing at this stage. It is nice that India is celebrating. But the Kashmiris have nothing to cheer about it. In fact, we have everything to mourn about these years — every family here has suffered, we have lost thousands.
But believe me, the people of Kashmir are not against the nation as a whole. They are against the state policies which have been implemented in the last so many years. We have suffered a lot because of the leadership, the governments.
In other words, the politicians.
Yes, the politicians. Because of them, these years of freedom have been a period of subjugation for us. The Kashmiris have fought for Independence, we have sacrificed a lot. It is totally unjust for a country which claims to be democratic to ignore our wishes.
Through the wrong policies it adopted, India has done much damage to its cause. Had it not been for that, we would have been better citizens than the rest. Now, we have lost even our identity. Who are we? When a Kashmiri goes out to India, he is looked upon with a lot of suspicion — that’s why we can’t identify with the Indian celebrations.
When a Kashmiri goes out to India? As in..?
Well, when he goes to Delhi or Bombay or Calcutta. He is not seen as an Indian. He is not treated the same way his counterpart from any other state would be treated.
For the last couple of weeks, what has been happening here? The so-called state government wanted to give the impression that everything was normal. So they organised the Independence celebrations on a grand scale. But did they give a thought about the common people? There were so many search activities, so many arrests — all to ensure that everything went on smoothly (on August 15)!
The way the security forces behave to the Kashmiris is totally unjust. There are cases day in and day out when common people who have nothing to do with militancy are arrested and beaten up. There was total confusion and chaos for us, thanks to the Independence celebrations.
How would you define your role in the state? Is it more political than religious? More of Khalifa than Imam?
Well, it is a combined role — of politics and religion. But where my religion and politics are concerned, they are one and the same. We (the Hurriyat) don’t believe in power or sheer electoral politics. The politics I practice is based on the ideas and principles of our religion.
My family played a major role in evolving politics here. The first party, the Muslim Conference, was established in the valley in 1931. My great grandfather, the then Mirwaiz headed it. In fact, it was he who introduced Sheikh Abdullah to the people. Later, Abdullah formed the National Conference and my grandfather was exiled to Pakistan where he died.
My father then took over. In 1963, he formed another party — the People’s Action Committee — which stood for giving people their basic rights. Till 1990 when he was assassinated, he was campaigning for that cause. So all along, the political role has been present in the institution of the Mirwaiz.
Which role is more prominent now?
The political one. There was a time when the more prominent role was of the Mirwaiz. That was before 1963. But after that, when the situation became unstable, the role changed. The institution of the Mirwaiz entered active politics.
Now we are passing through a period where there are political wars to be fought. Kashmir needs a strong political leadership. We formed the Hurriyat for that.
Are you saying you entered politics to save the religion?
Islam teaches that to fight for your right is the best you can do. That is jihad, which essentially means making an effort in the right way. It doesn’t mean fighting for your religious rights alone — it implies political rights as well.
What you have to understand is that the Kashmir struggle is a political one. It has nothing to do with Islam. It is true that the majority of the people living in the valley are Muslims. So there are Muslim ideas, Muslim thinking. But the fight is basically political.
We have the conviction that our struggle is based on a just cause. Islam teaches us that if you don’t get your rights, then you have to adopt measures to get it. Which is what I, and the Hurriyat, are striving for, democratically.
And if the democratic means do not work? Doesn’t Islam advocate militant ways?
Yes, we have to take any other alternative. That can be by the gun or the sword.
Do you, as the Mirwaiz, see yourself calling for the gun or the sword?
That stage is behind us now. The young generation has already resorted to arms. The basic cause of militancy in Kashmir was the 1988-89 rigged elections, when the youth found that votes had no value. They had no hope left in the democratic set-up and responded militarily. And thus, Kashmir came out of cold storage, onto the world agenda. Thanks to that, there are countries — whatever their interests may be — categorically saying that Kashmir is a disputed state.
So militancy has done a lot of good to your cause.
It was not militancy alone. Militancy was part of our struggle, not the whole. It was the mass movement which is more important — don’t forget that thousands of people came out onto the streets.
But had it not been for militancy, would the world have taken such an active interest in your struggle?
Definitely not. It is basically the youth which brought it to the limelight. But now, after the Hurriyat came into existence, the movement is stronger on the political side than the military.
How long do you think it will take to arrive at the ‘political solution’ you are striving for?
I can’t specify the time frame, but we are confident of arriving at one. Our case is very strong. We have the people behind us. Every individual, every citizen of Kashmir realises that the the thousands who died gave their lives for a cause, that their sacrifice should not be in vain, that things should not come back to square one. But again, a lot depends on the Indian government. The Hurriyat has time and again said it was ready for a dialogue. Now, the Indian state has to take the initiative.
But India and Pakistan cannot discuss the Kashmir problem, leaving the Kashmiris aside. Deciding on Kashmir’s future without our participation is totally unjust.
Do you see the return of militancy to the state?
It is difficult to comment on that at this stage. The gun is still working in Kashmir. True, the quantity of militancy has come down, but not the quality. Even now, there are militants who are committed to the cause. The person with the gun has the same goal as the Hurriyat. They are fighting militarily and we are fighting politically.
But if the people see that nothing is happening democratically, militancy may re-erupt. Maybe tomorrow, if the Hurriyat fails, the Kashmiris may join the militant struggle again.
This puppet government (Dr Farooq Abdullah’s), which is repeating the same old mistakes, has worsened the situation. They have given full authority to the army and the paramilitary. The people here are desperate. They need a solution fast. And there are plenty here who feel militancy should be strengthened, and we should focus on the gun than the ballot.
Talking of militancy, do you think today’s extremists subscribe to the same values as the Islamic warriors of old? Do they have the same moral fibre, the chivalry? Isn’t their jihad adulterated with petty interests?
Well, you can’t really compare today’s militants with the great warriors. The situation has changed so much. Now, they are fighting a war, a war against a far powerful force than theirs. So naturally, they have adopted guerilla warfare, the war of hit and run (which the warriors of old would not even think of).
As far as ethics are concerned, yes, there are many renegades who do not subscribe to the cause. Hordes of people who have no ideological principles took care of their petty interests behind the gun. There have been extortions, needless killings… Now we are past that stage.
But by and large, I think the militants have stuck to their tasks. If (Islamic) values weren’t there, they would not be holding on grimly like this.
Coming back to your combined role as the Mirwaiz and the Hurriyat chairman, has there been any conflict between the two?
No, not at all. Our politics, like I said, is not the politics which extremists or other political parties practice. It is not a politics of vote. It is the politics of the destiny of a nation. And as such, my politics and religion are one and the same. What I preach as the Mirwaiz is what I practice as a politician. Our struggle is based on justice, we are on a righteous path. So there is no conflict.
How has being the Mirwaiz helped you in your career?
It has been a great advantage. Even the initiation of the Hurriyat came about because of that. It happened in 1993, after a Kashmiri, the sole breadearner of a family, was killed in custody. I gave a strong speech from the Jama Masjid, and later called for an all-party meet. As the Mirwaiz, I sent invitations to all the religious, social and political organisations. Everyone, including senior leaders like (Abdul Ghani) Lone, responded positively. We formed the Hurriyat Conference and I was elected the chairman.
At that time, I was only 19 years old. You cannot expect senior politicians to choose a 19 year old to head them, had I not been the Mirwaiz.
As the Mirwaiz, I have a certain hold on the people’s religious emotions. My sermons have two parts. The first is completely religious. And the second, political. The Jama Masjid, from where I make my sermons, is the main pulpit of the Mirwaiz. It also serves as the main political stage in the valley. So I am playing both the roles as, not different entities, but one.
But the Hurriyat’s politics is not decided by you alone — there are other leaders too. Hasn’t there been any instance when your decision as the Mirwaiz conflicted with that of the politicians?
Well, yes, there have been. The Hurriyat’s stand regarding the hostage crisis is an example.
The hostages’s relatives had requested us (the Hurriyat) to appeal to militants and the people for their release, and also to condemn the abduction. Many of my party leaders were against such an action; by doing so, they maintained, we would be labelling certain organisations as responsible for the action. But I stuck to the decision.
Do you think the hostages are still alive?
I hope they are. But again, it is more than two years now — and it is difficult to keep four foreigners hidden from the public eye for so long…