Interview with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: ‘I’m personally working to bridge gap with youth’

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By Sheikh Saqib, Khawar Khan Achakzai

Inside his office adjacent to his guarded mansion at Srinagar’s Nigeen, Kashmir’s chief cleric and Hurriyat Conference (M) chairman has put up a thoughtful composure in the face of the renewed Indo-Pak war of words. Behind the latest blitz was the call that rang up Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s office on 29 January 2019.

“The Foreign Minister briefed him on the efforts of the government of Pakistan to highlight the gross human rights violations being perpetrated by the Indian occupation forces in Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir,” Pakistan Foreign Ministry Office said in a statement.

Summoning Pakistan’s envoy Sohail Mahmood a day after, Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale termed Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s telephonic conversation with Mirwaiz a “brazen attempt to subvert India’s unity and violate its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

“If such action by Pakistan … is repeated, it will have consequences,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar warned.

But Islamabad dismissed India’s protest as “nothing new”: “We would like to reiterate that Kashmir is an outstanding dispute between India and Pakistan, and acknowledged as such through UN Security Council resolutions as well as numerous Pakistan-India documents, including the Simla Agreement and Lahore Declaration,” it said, rejecting India’s objections to the conversation.

Inside his Nigeen residence, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq terms New Delhi’s protest as an attempt to rake up the “normal” call in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections in India.

“One can only understand why so much noise is being made over it in the election season,” he says. Even in his press conference held in backdrop of the call controversy, Mirwaiz said, “My conversation with the foreign minister should not irk India if it believes in dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue.”

Amid the renewed bilateral blitz, Mirwaiz is a busy man in office, trying to address political as well as social issues.

At 17, he rose to political prominence and became the youngest Mirwaiz of Kashmir after his father Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq’s assassination on May 21, 1990. “I had just passed my matriculation and wanted to pursue my career in software engineering and had even applied for the same,” he told Rediff in an interview.

After assuming the mantle of Mirwaiz, he was soon presiding over the conglomerate of (then) above 30 political parties, under the banner of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in February 1993.

In an interview with The Indus Post, the 45-year-old Mirwaiz advocating Kashmir’s freedom from Indian rule and an end to repression in the valley spoke about many issues. Edited excerpts:

  • New Delhi has warned Islamabad of “consequences” if they repeat any attempt, like calling you again. What was the call about?

It was simple call from Pakistan foreign office reiterating Islamabad’s traditional support to Kashmir issue. In fact, Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke about Pakistan effort in raising Kashmir issue on global front. He even talked about how relentless peace talks offer from Prime Minister Imran Khan was turned down by Narendra Modi government.

  • But did you expect that the call would soon trigger a war of words between India and Pakistan?

Well, I am not able to rationalize New Delhi’s miffed response over it. Both countries have been talking about Kashmir since many decades now. There is a clear roadmap on it. Also, we should not forget that Pakistan is a party to the Kashmir dispute. In past, even Hurriyat Conference met various Pakistani delegations in New Delhi. Even the former NDA prime minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee batted for the dialogue. But now, it’s quite ironic when much noise is being made over a call.

  • Since New Delhi justifies its dominant political posturing citing Islamabad’s “insincerity” to the peace initiatives in past, do you think new dispensation is ready to walk extra mile on Kashmir?

Well, my last interaction with Imran Khan makes me believe that he is extremely sincere on Kashmir issue. And he has already said it that he is ready to walk the extra mile on resolving the issue.

  • Talking about the recent Jamia Masjid pulpit desecration incident, how serious was it?

What happened was unfortunate. But I think we need to look at a broader picture here.

The fact is that this conflict has affected our youth in a humongous way. There is this sense of disillusionment among the younger generation that nothing is moving forward, that there is an inexplicable stagnancy that they think we’ve reached.

On one end of the spectrum our youth are losing their lives every day and on the other end, apparently, everything is normal—life is moving on, people are involved in their daily errands, business, other activities and things.

There’s a sense of severance amongst our youth while trying to balance the complex nature of our struggle.

About the incident that happened, we’ve gone into the detail of it. As far as ‘Daesh’ is concerned, it does not have any solid backing in the valley. Yes, to some extent, young boys might be getting swayed by some online videos and speeches, but that is due to the ramifications of the social media and the age of easy access that we live in. The easy dissemination of every kind of ideology and whatever is happening on global level, with regards to Islamic societies right or wrong, can sometimes influence the thinking and thought of a few.

Having said that, it’s very important not to lose sight of our cause. The ideology of ISIS and our struggle are polar opposites and do not represent the aspirations that our cause represents. And it will not in any way take us forward.

I personally think that the Jamia Masjid incident was more of an act of bravado, to garner attention. Such elements thrive on media attention.

  • So you think there is no ISIS presence in the valley?

Definitely not! I don’t even think that there is a very deep-rooted conspiracy behind this.

See, we have to understand that people nowadays see a youtube video, listen to some lectures and start giving their opinions without understanding the fundamentals. Some of our youth, who unfortunately are yet to channelise their strengths and talents, listen to one or two religious videos and get incited to talk about Khilafa.

We as an Ummah are proud of our faith and all that it stands for. But we have to learn to take a stand against what does not fall in line with our religious teachings.

The space for unfortunate incidents like that of Jama Masjid also stems from the fact that leadership has been imprisoned either in their houses or put behind the bars and not able to communicate with the youth. While it has led to frustration and disappointment among youth, it has also emboldened certain elements, who are trying to infuriate and propagate misinformation and misbelief in the garb of a concocted definition of ‘Islamic State’.

But now, we are trying at every level to connect with youth who are more into religious practices so that we can familiarise ourselves with their thought process and accordingly work to guide them ahead in the right direction.

The senseless noise at times on social media needs to be curtailed and we have to put ourselves in a better position as well to educate our youth about Kashmir and its history of struggle.

  • But do you think that Hurriyat has somewhere failed to address and educate youth?

See, as I said, our activities have been choked by the establishment from the last many years now.

Geelani Sahab, Yasin Sahab and I are mostly under house arrests or put behind the bars. Whenever we started a dialogue process with people and try to carry out our activities, India, which swears on its democratic fabric, suppressed our voice, at the drop of hat.

And this has unfortunately created a gap between our leadership and the youth, who have high expectations from us. This has also led to a certain amount of alienation among our youth with regards to the leadership for not doing anything to address their aspirations.

But now, I am working personally to start our activities again and bridge this gap. And I am very optimistic we will succeed. I am getting inputs from people, going out to interact with youth. It is helping me to draw a map on how to go ahead.

I will also be going to my downtown office Rajouri Kadal once or twice a week, so that people can come and put forth their opinions, give suggestions and hopefully make it a productive deliberation. Meeting our youth – the boys and girls, is one of my top priorities.

  • You have also organized such programs earlier where you had asked people to share their views. What happened to that?

Yes, we had organized such events a number of times but as I said Indian state always muzzled our activities whenever we tried to do something new.

Earlier we had asked people of all sections of the society to send their views and ideas to us but we could not follow it because the 2014 flood brought everything to a halt.

Then, we launched another such event and again 2016 uprising happened and we were put in jails and barred from meeting anyone.

But yes, we’re deliberating on the letters sent to us. Some of the suggestions are very good. These things take time, but we are on it and trying to see how best we can implement those suggestions.

  • Did you get any alternative strategy for Hartal in your letters?

I’d be lying, if I tell you that I am not aware of the fact that how people seek new strategy to Hartal calls.

But the fact is that government is not allowing any space for peaceful protests. Seminars are banned. Meetings are not allowed. Student activities have been barred. So hartal, at times, remains the only option for us to protest. But, we are looking at alternatives.

We have suggested to traders to look into the possibility of shutting down their shops for one or two hours. We discussed with transport organizations to look into the possibility of blocking roads for half an hour to highlight issues and to students to hold candlelight marches in their campuses.

But I guess, it will take more oraganised effort to make it workable. Besides, I am also getting inputs that our young boys are taking drugs which is very unfortunate. 

  • Drugs?

There are forces who are working to deviate our youth. But we want to give them a message that we won’t let you crush our movement, no matter how nefarious your means are.

We are already losing our youth to bullets; we cannot afford losing them to this menace.

We are trying to rehabilitate those kids who have unfortunately fallen into this trap. Our entire movement is shouldered by the energy of our youth and the experience of our old. We are trying our best to help these things culminate in tipping the balance in our struggle.

  • How do you see the younger generation of Kashmir?

I am in my forties but I started when I was a teenager. So, I know that our children are blessed with great qualities, of learning and struggling to meet the desired ends. They should study the history of their land, read about the narratives, construct them and deconstruct the myths and counter narratives denigrating our cause.

(The Indus Post Online Team contributed for this interview.)

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