|Farooq's stance holds Kashmiris' right to self-determination as central to any solution [EPA]
The current Mirwaiz (head priest of Srinagar's Jama Masjid and a significant spiritual leader), Mirwaiz Omar Farooq is the chairman of the Awami Action Committee and was a key force in the formation of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a moderate faction of which he continues to head.
Born on March 23, 1973, Omar is the son of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, who held considerable religious influence and who his critics said held pro-Pakistan sentiments. Maulvi Farooq was shot dead at his home on May 21, 1990, by "elements working against the interests of the Kashmiri movement", according to Omar, who was 17 at the time. While the killers have never been identified, the assassination sparked tensions between militant groups and New Delhi, both of which blamed each other for it.
"We know that the gun cannot really be the answer to the problem. It introduced the Kashmiri issue at the international level, by bringing it out of cold storage into the limelight, but now it is the job of the political leaders to work for the movement"
Mirwaiz Omar Farooq
Omar Farooq, who holds a Masters degree in Islamic Studies, assumed the mantle of Mirwaiz shortly after his father's death, and rose to political prominence through his efforts to form the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in February 1993. The umbrella organisation brought together more than 30 political parties, with the young Mirwaiz elected as its chairman, based on his being the least objectionable to all the factions involved.
While the members of the APHC were divided on whether they favoured unification with Pakistan or outright independence, they agreed that Kashmiris should be given the right to choose. This is also the stance that Mirwaiz Omar Farooq himself has consistently espoused throughout his political career.
"[The Kashmir movement] is portrayed as a terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist movement, while that is not the case," he said in 1995. "We want the Kashmiri Pandits [Hindu refugees] to return. We feel that the battle has to be fought on political grounds. We know that the gun cannot really be the answer to the problem. It introduced the Kashmiri issue at the international level, by bringing it out of cold storage into the limelight, but now it is the job of the political leaders to work for the movement."
In the same interview, he took a pragmatic view on the involvement of Pakistan in supporting the Kashmir movement, saying that support was justified because it was not motivating the movement, rather it was a "totally indigenous movement and it is the Kashmiris who are getting killed".
The APHC, however, was criticised at the time for failing to bring an end to violent clashes between various groups, and Omar Farooq stepped down as its head in 1997, being replaced by Syed Ali Shah Gilani, the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
By 2003, however, Gilani had split from the APHC to form his own group, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Jammu and Kashmir, leaving Farooq as head of what was considered to be a more moderate faction of the APHC.
Moderate or not, he is universally described as having a straight-talking style, not holding back when sharing his opinions. He once famously described groups involved in violence in Kashmir as being "virtual thieves, using the Kashmir conflict to solicit funds of which nothing is passed on to the people". Just as famously, he also called Indian security forces "killers and looters with a licence".
Since 2003, the APHC's moderate faction, under Gilani, has engaged in negotiations in New Delhi, Islamabad and abroad, holding the Kashmiri right to self-determination at the core of the Mirwaiz's stance, while advocating tri-partite talks. No significant progress has been made towards a resolution in those talks, though the Mirwaiz has often praised the leadership on both sides for agreeing that the problem has a significant human dimension.