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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fall of infallible?

Attack on a separatist icon, once known as ‘Nelson Mandela of Kashmir’ and ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ at Dastgeer Saheb can’t be a non-event for media and politics  

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

Kashmir’s politicians have been excitingly fond of getting themselves honoured at the shrines of Sufi saints. Dastaarbandi, in fact, has grown a popular ritual since the 20th century icon Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah discovered the art of impressing his masses from shrines and mosques. Till his death in 1982, Sheikh retained the distinction of being one among the few political leaders who were never heckled and booed---not even in the most hostile environs of the infamous Sher-Bakra street skirmishes.

In 1987-88, even the charismatic Mirwaiz Farooq was subjected to attack twice---first at an invitation in Nowhatta and later at a religious congregation at Iddgah. The advent of insurgency and counterinsurgency in 1990 benumbed all hands. Kashmiris put turbans on heads of their politicians---and sometimes removed them soon disgracefully---even through the somber years of turmoil and mayhem.

On at least one occasion at Chrar-e-Sharief in 1996, there were slogans, amid tossing of Kangris, to block entry of some Hurriyat leaders. But the way Shabir Shah, one of the Valley’s senior most separatist leaders, was subjected to assault and humiliation in foreground of the devastated shrine at Khanyar last week, goes unprecedented. There have been infighting and assaults in the past but smearing the face of a political opponent and tearing his outfits off has been witnessed arguably for the first time.

Since the subject of the attack has been no less a person than Shabir Shah, who, in yesteryears, came to be romantically known as “Prisoner of Conscience” and attained the sobriquet of “Nelson Mandela of Kashmir”, it has perplex the state’s political observers. A section of intelligentsia could perhaps conveniently dismiss as an “aberration” or “mischief by few miscreants” but there seems to be more than meets the eye. The questions in the air are galore: Was that a murderous assault from the die-hard followers of Ali Mohammad Sagar? Did Mirwaiz Umar settle his political score and teach Shah a lesson of challenging his influence and authority? Was that the handiwork of an Indian agency to generate infighting among the separatists? Was that a spontaneous emotional outburst and the wild, anarchic expression of Srinagar’s “frustrated Generation-3”?

Irrespective of what precisely it was, the attack on Shah by apparently a non-Ikhwani crowd, for many, marks a political watershed at the end of 22nd year of the Valley’s separatist movement. By completely brushing it under the carpet and by suppressing the horrible picture and publishing merely condemnations, media could favour a favourite but simultaneously attract the accusation of subjectivity. At an occasion when media in Kashmir is asserting with professionalism and neutralized the worst of its critics with its conduct, it would be hard to justify the blackout. Critics outside until recent past had been calling it ‘resistance media’ and the ‘media of double standards’. They can now ask: Had it happened with Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mufti Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti, Ghulam Nabi Azad or Saif-ud-din Soz, would there have been this treatment?

Interestingly, just a nondescript daily carried Shah’s unenviable image next day. It was horrible, indeed. For days, it remained but a fun for the unbridled social media. Arguably, none among the mainstream politicians could afford this privilege of total blackout as newspapers and television channels in this country, including in J&K, have had their tongues wagging for all state actors without exception.

As the much fragmented Hurriyat has ended up a house in abject disorder and Police have ‘more important business’ of identifying the saboteurs of the revered shrine in hand, nobody would ordinarily know who thrashed and slurred Shah. There are reports that Shah’s longtime associate Nayeem Khan was around and, somehow, he was luckier to escape.

Founder-leaders of Peoples League, Shabir Shah and Nayeem Khan, in fact, share the distinction of being older than even the iconic Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Kashmir’s secessionist politics. When Geelani was contesting Assembly and Lok Sabha elections with the oath of protecting India’s sovereignty and integrity, Shah and Khan were busy in underground activity of dismantling liquor shops, closing down cinema and coining pro-Pakistan slogans. They created the first major scene with waving of the Pakistani flags at Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, Sonwar, when an India-Australia test match was in progress, in 1983. Death of Shah’s father at the hands of Police on April 4th in 1989 sent shockwaves throughout the Valley.

And when the underground pair in 1989 walked accidentally straight into a Police trap while driving to Jammu, life screeched to a halt in Valley. The shutdown without anybody’s call was a blinker, indicating the history’s lowest voter turnout of 5% in the Lok Sabha election, just four months away. That time around, Geelani was for the first time directly baptized into secessionist politics, alongwith three of his Muslim United Front (MUF) fellow MLAs, including Shah’s brother, Sayeed Shah, who resigned days before the armed struggle sprouted with a big bang with the kidnapping of then union Home Minister Mufti Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya. 

By the time Shah and Khan ‘walked to freedom’ from two separate jails in 1994, Kashmir had become a Pakistan without declaration. Geelani had been released in April 1992 and he had begun to spurn everything Indian though the title of ‘ex-MLA’ had not gone from his nameplate. Later, he stormed into the secessionist politics in a big way and eclipsed all, including Shah and Khan, on the spectrum of Azadi.

But for years, Shah survived as an icon. Every inch of space at Lalchowk was filled up by over 80,000 of his enthusiastic ‘freedom-lovers’. His rally from Jammu to Srinagar was strikingly reminiscent of Sheikh Abdullah’s heroic arrival in Srinagar, after Indira-Abdullah Accord, in 1975. Shah got the historic red carpet welcome, humbling the legendary JKLF chief Yasin Malik’s release and return to home with a modest Maisuma caravan in 1993.

“My first and foremost agenda”, Shah told the multitude of his followers that evening in August 1994, “is to reunite all leaders of the freedom struggle”. “It is the rosary of a hundred beads, but all scattered and in disarray. I’ll go door-to-door with my needle and the thread. You’ll soon find it back as a complete rosary of leadership”, he asserted to a standing ovation and zindabad slogans from his audience. Hurriyat was just one-year-old. Paradoxically, this great zealous binder was himself thrown out of the fold next year when he insisted Hurriyat grant an appointment to the suppliant American Ambassador, Frank Wisner.

On the eve of the first post-militancy elections in 1996, union Home Secretary Padmanabhaiah told The Pioneer that Shah was “an undependable politician”, generating speculations of the separatist’s commitment of participating in the political process. Padmanabhaiah’s observation came in days of Shah ruling out his interest in electoral politics.

On completing 10 years of its tender age in 2003, Hurriyat split into the two principal factions led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Geelani. Like Malik’s JKLF, Shah’s Peoples League, now represented by Sheikh Abdul Aziz, was too confused to embrace one.

Later, Shah repeated his attempts of unifying the Hurriyat but, worse than his peers, he met with failure each time. In the last five years, however, Shah has regained his importance with his dignified return to the Hurriyat’s Mirwaiz faction, though his liking of the hardliner Geelani has been no secret all through the street turmoil in 2008 and 2010. Since last month, he has been assertively gunning for Prof Gani Bhat for the latter’s purported--- and, finally denied--- anti-UN resolution remarks. He even confronted Bilal Lone and Chairman Mirwaiz, accusing both of being ‘soft’ and permissive to Bhat’s escapades.

Amid rumours that the Khanyar stage had been actually set by the miscreants for Geelani, Shah has claimed to have identified the assailants. Even if Shah alone was the target, it must be pathetically sad for the lords of Kashmir’s separatist movement to find their own followers---or their rebellious, nihilistic offspring---involved in a broad daylight assault on an icon of Azadi. This being the reality, something serious has gone wrong with the way of spearheading a perennially popular political movement. Visibly building fortunes and accepting Police and CRPF protection by some separatist politicians could be just one of the many reasons. An introspection, rather than the much clichéd and hackneyed conspiracy theory, could lead to answers.


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