The separatist leader’s release from jail by the state government stirred a hornet’s nest. Will he continue with his earlier stone-pelting tactics and foment trouble in the valley again?
By Vishwas Kumar
In 2010, at the peak of unrest in the Kashmir Valley, security agencies intercepted a conversation between Pakistan-based Syed Salahuddin, supreme commander of terror-outfit Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and a resident. Salahuddin was pouring his heart out to his former colleague, a surrendered HM militant, about feeling hurt over his effigies being burnt because he had called for moderation in the strikes paralyzing the Valley.
Salahuddin blamed Masarat Alam Bhat, the mastermind behind the unrest, for the strikes. Masarat belonged to the Muslim League (ML) faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference. He called Masarat “immature” and “ungrateful” and divulged that he was “paid a stipend of Rs. 30,000 per month by HM for two years between 2006 and 2008”. Salahuddin felt that prolonged strikes could be counter-productive and these should be eased so that people don’t get disillusioned with the present leaders.
This conversation showed the bitter rivalry, jealousy and one-upmanship among separatist leaders in the Valley as they did a balancing act between India and Pakistan and various parties in J&K, such as the National Conference (NC) and the PDP. In addition, they have to contend with important Pakistan-based terror groups—the HM and the LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba).
It is no wonder that Masarat learnt to survive by exploiting rival stakeholders to nurture his political ambitions and emerge as a top secessionist leader in the Valley. The 2010 stone-pelting incidents also created the first cracks in the NC-Congress coalition government of Omar Abdullah. Huge media coverage of the highly successful unrest showed the Abdullah government’s weakness, misgovernance and corruption and helped pave the ground for the return of the PDP, seen as more of a sympathizer for the separatists’ cause. It also helped the BJP increase its hold in the Jammu region.
Under these circumstances, the newly elected PDP-BJP coalition government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed sensed a political opportunity to facilitate the release of Masarat, who was arrested in November 2010 by the previous government and kept in detention under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA). The J&K government had a legal excuse to release him as it had become legally untenable to keep him in jail without invoking fresh grounds for bringing in PSA.
Mufti, a former Union home minister and a veteran politician, played his cards well by releasing Masarat and thereby trying to win the confidence and goodwill of the separatists, especially the hardliner faction of the Hurriyat Conference lead by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It was not a coincidence that the Modi government in the same week announced re-starting of the stalled Indo-Pak foreign secretary-level talks. Ironically, some six months back, India had suspended the talks, miffed over the Pakistan High Commissioner meeting separatists on the eve of scheduled foreign secretary-level talks. The decision was timed keeping in view the impending J&K elections, where the BJP was trying to foist its own chief minister. Mufti’s decision to release Masarat triggered reactions along expected lines, with the BJP, Congress and NC lambasting it.
The two-decade-old separatist movement in the Valley has been dominated by rival factions of the Hurriyat Conference led by Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and pro-independence leader Mohammad Yasin Malik. The rise of Masarat began in 2008 in the wake of the Amarnath land row. He was appointed spokesman of the coordination committee formed by rival factions of the Hurriyat. The row was triggered over the J&K government’s decision to hand over 800 kanals of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board for constructing facilities for pilgrimages. This led to separatists protesting and countering the BJP and other affiliated Hindu organizations in Jammu. The prolonged unrest over this highly emotive issued helped Masarat become a cult figure in the Valley, where Muslims dominate. Similarly, the BJP gained immensely in Hindu-dominated Jammu.
The letter of the district magistrate, Jammu, to senior superintendent of police, Jammu, refers to another letter from the J&K home department, saying Masarat’s preventive detention order had not been approved by the government. The letter wanted him to be released in case it had not already been done.
Two years later, Masarat got another chance to foment trouble over the lack of governance under Omar Abdullah’s chief ministership. As head of the Muslim League, he organized a structured “protest calendar” to paralyze the government. As the agitation grew violent, protesters brazenly attacked security forces by pelting stones. It led to the loss of over 120 civilian lives, but made him a very popular leader, even ahead of Geelani.
Incidentally, Masarat is married to a sister of a former militant and is a science graduate from Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College. He received his early education from the elite Tyndale Biscoe School in Srinagar. A major part of the 44-year-old’s life has been spent in jail. Between October 1990 and July 2005, he was in jail for a total of nine years, till he got arrested again in 2010.
Will his release be the beginning of troubled times for the Valley?