He is a master of body language, cameramen love his expressive gestures, and at 65, he shows no sign of slowing down. Professor Abdul Gani Bhat, chairman of the separatist conglomerate All Parties Hurriyet Conference, still speaks in professorial paragraphs instead of political phrases.
All Parties Hurriyet (Freedom) Conference
leaders Moulvi Umar Farooq (L), Mohammad
Ashraf Sehrai (2nd L), Moulana Abbas Ansari
and chairman Abdul Gani Bhat (R) meet at
their party headquarters in Srinagar, the
summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir
in India, 11 January 2001.
But what he has to say is riveting. His own brother was killed by the pro-Pakistani Hizbul Mujahideen, and yet Bhat is staunchly pro-Pakistan. He dreams every day of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan – and yet he is not rigid about it. "We don’t want to go with blinkers on," he says. "If India, Pakistan and the representatives of Kashmir agree on an alternative, we will wholeheartedly agree."
Bhat is widely seen as an honest and a simple man. His son works as a driver at the Hurriyet office. His only problem, according to his detractors, is that he is not a politician – he tends to speak his mind rather than take refuge in diplomatic euphemisms.
He talks of civilisational identity and believes religious bonds are stronger than ethnic character. Partition of India, for him, was the outcome of a clash of civilisations. He says that Kashmiri Hindus and Sikhs never supported Kashmir’s struggle – a glaring example of how strongly religion binds people.
Bhat heads the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, a party with a constitutional stand that the state should accede to Pakistan. In fact, Bhat’s party pioneered the resistance movement in Kashmir against Dogra autocratic rule, before the National Conference was carved out of it in 1938.
Bhat was born in the small north Kashmir village of Botengo, 10 kilometres from Sopore. His father was illiterate, but "worldly wise and a village headman." After leaving school he joined the Government Degree College, Sopore, an institution where years later his future would take a new turn.
He studied Persian, economics and political science at Sri Pratap College in Srinagar and then joined the renowned Aligarh Muslim University to pursue his postgraduate studies in Persian and a degree in Law. On his return home joined the Bar in Sopore, but left it soon.
"I couldn’t reconcile to the legal profession and switched to teaching," he said. He became a college lecturer. "It was 1 March, 1963 when I joined as Lecturer of Persian at Government College, Poonch," he said. He taught Persian for the next 22 years, becoming a favourite teacher for his skills of oration and rebellious views. "I would always mix with my students, and that kept my ideas always young and energetic," he said.
Joining politics was an accident, though he feels it was divine will. In February, 1986, Bhat was dismissed from government service for "constituting a threat to the security of state," which finally threw him into politics. "I was always interested in politics but never knew I would have to join practical politics and that too at an excruciatingly painful period of Kashmir history," he said.
Why was he dismissed from his government job? Bhat believes that the state government, in a bid to assuage the wounded feelings of a community after the alleged desecration of Hindu temples in south Kashmir, "sacrificed me and eight others at the alter of secularism to propitiate the powers in Delhi".
Bhat believes the Government made a big mistake. "They felt they were dismissing block presidents, not knowing we were professors and teachers, people who could float an idea and create awareness which could even lead to a revolution," he said. Bhat joined politics and started emphasising the collective personality of the opposition in Kashmir.
"To cap it all, I suggested that we form a collective political forum. I even gave it the name Muslim United Front," he said. He said that the constitution of this political body was framed in his Botengo home on 13 July, 1986. Interestingly, the defeat of the Muslim United Front (MUF) in the rigged assembly polls of 1987 is believed to be the prime reason for the emergence of armed resistance in Kashmir.
Bhat, however, has a different take on the elections. "We decided to participate in the elections at a critical juncture of our freedom movement. We had an objective: to impart political education to our people and involve them as well," he said. If the MUF had won a majority in those elections, Bhat said his political forum would have passed a bill for de-accession on the floor of the assembly.
Bhat was the spokesman of MUF and was jailed. "When I was released after exactly nine months, I smelled that something was to be born. Violence was to breed violence and the brewing discontent finally became an armed struggle," he said. He believes the outcome of the elections was just one of the factors. "It had to happen and it did happen."
After a decade of violence, is he content with the decision of Kashmiri youth to wield guns? "We are grateful to our boys, who took up arms and made our cause felt and voice heard," he said.
Bhat, however, lives with a contradiction. He is a staunch pro-Pakistani and heads a separatist conglomerate. But he suffered more at the hands of pro-Pakistan freedom fighters than the security forces. His younger brother, Mohammad Sultan Bhat, was killed by Hizbul Mujahideen fighters.
"I know he was killed by the militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen. I have absolutely no doubt about that. I even know I became the reason for his killing but I don’t want any revenge," he said. Bhat said though it festers like a wound, he has "forgiven the killers in the larger interest" of the movement. "In movements and in politics, one has to drink a cup of venom silently," he said.