Top Kashmir leader: Article 370 is non-issue

Mirwaiz Farooq, leader of pro-independence group in India-administered region, says Kashmir has no military solution.

India-administered Kashmir is one of the world's most militarised zones [EPA]

Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – A top Kashmiri leader has said that the provision in the Indian constitution, which grants India-administered Kashmir autonomous status, only exists on paper as the status has been diluted over the decades.

Pro-Independence groups such as Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, 41, told Al Jazeera that the entire debate focuses on Srinagar-New Delhi relationship when the Kashmir dispute is about the future of the state that existed prior to August 1947.

India’s new government led by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran into controversy after a junior minister called for a debate on Tuesday on the future status of India-administered Kashmir.

Pro-India parties such as National Conference and People’s Democratic Party have criticised the minister’s remarks, who later said that he was misquoted.

The BJP manifesto calls for the repeal of Article 370, which guarantees special status to the Muslim majority region that has witnessed an armed rebellion against Indian rule.

The region has been disputed by both India and Pakistan since the subcontinent was divided into two countries on religious grounds in 1947. The two countries have fought three wars over the territory.

Thousands of people have been killed, including Indian soldiers, during the conflict and thousands have disappeared in one of the world’s most militarised regions.

In a freewheeling interview with Al Jazeera, Farooq says the Kashmir conflict cannot be solved by removing provisions but either by implementation of UN resolutions or by a negotiation in which all parties to the conflict: Kashmiris, Pakistan and India could collectively come up with some new alternative acceptable to the people of Kashmir.

Al Jazeera: A junior minister in the new government has called for a debate on Article 370. Even the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has openly endorsed a debate on this provision. How would you react?

Farooq: Removing Article 370 is a non-issue for us. We must understand that the provision exists only on paper. On the ground, Kashmir has become an army and police state. The men in uniform run it. Kashmir dispute is not about Srinagar-New Delhi relationship; it is about the future of entire Kashmir that also includes parts under Pakistan’s administration.

We used to have autonomy under Indian constitution (pre-1953 status), but successive Indian leaderships have already diluted it. I think the BJP should have avoided talking about it at this stage. Hurriyat is always pro-dialogue, but at the same time people have lost faith in the dialogue, as nothing substantial has yielded so far.

India has to be very clear about the dialogue process. We have 6,000 unmarked graves in Kashmir, besides 9,000 people are disappeared. If new government can come clean on these issues, then we are ready to engage in talks. But if Modi government follows the same approach and policy as his predecessors followed, then there would no movement forward.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to Al Jazeera: “The biggest problem that India and Pakistan face right now is security and development, and both are related to Kashmir.” [File: AP]

Al Jazeera: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to India to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Does it reflect a change in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy?

Farooq: Hurriyat Conference welcomes the gesture of Modi when he invited Pakistan’s prime minister to India. We also welcome Sharif’s decision to come to India. I think it is in the interest of the people of Kashmir, because eventually the solution to the dispute cannot happen until both the countries come closer to each other. I hope leadership of both the countries realise that they cannot live in animosity and they have to address problems.

The biggest problem that India and Pakistan face right now is security and development, and both are related to Kashmir. We can tell for a fact that India’s defence budget has crossed $48bn while Pakistan’s defence expenditure is $18bn. So, it is a huge expense which they are putting at the cost of development when 40 percent of children in India are suffering from malnutrition. And same is the case with Pakistan.

So, we believe that if Modi’s agenda of development and economic progress is to be implemented because he fought elections on that plank, then it is important he has to look at the core issues – which is obviously Kashmir.

Al Jazeera: But Hafiz Sayeed of Jamaat-ud-Dawa – which India believes is a front of Lashkar-e-Taiba – had insisted that Sharif reconsider his decision to visit India. Besides, the rebel groups associated with United Jehad Council too seem reluctant to endorse this approach. Do you think there is a disconnect between political and armed groups in Kashmir on the issue?

Farooq: Look, I can only speak about political leadership, as a chairman of the Hurriyat Conference. And the Hurriyat and I firmly believe that there is no other way to solve Kashmir issue but to address it politically.

That is why, it is important that India-Pakistan peace process should be set in motion. And if this process is taken forward then they have to come out with a mechanism – as how to involve Kashmiris on both sides of ceasefire line. In this context, I think it is important that all sides need to be represented, including both the political leadership and the militant leadership.

Indian people have given Modi a strong mandate, and so is the case of Sharif. Both the leaders can take bold decisions. We hope to see them accommodate the mission and aspirations of the people of Kashmir.

Al Jazeera: Do you think outgoing Congress party ‘wore out’ and ‘exhausted’ Kashmiri leadership since 1947. Do you think the BJP will be able to solve the oldest dispute on the UN agenda?

Farooq: History has given a chance to the BJP and its leader to solve the Kashmir conflict once and for all.

Congress party has always taken a traditional approach on Kashmir since 1947. And it is the Congress party, which is responsible for the mess in Kashmir. I believe, the Congress party has lost many opportunities to settle the issue. But now, Modi-led BJP government has a golden chance to solve the dispute.

Al Jazeera: Amid the bonhomie, how do you see Indian media and its army? Some Kashmir watchers say they have become fourth and fifth party of the otherwise tripartite dispute?

Farooq: Indian army is now in the political arena of Kashmir. They have been taking political decisions and it tells a lot about India’s power structure. It is unfortunate that the army is consolidating its position in Kashmir day by day. And India also seems to have more of a military approach than a political approach. But that policy has already failed.

In fact, we have been demanding that there should be demilitarisation, removal of army from towns, borders and districts. And yes, the same applies for some selective Indian media, which are adding confusion on Kashmir conflict by projecting a misleading picture of Kashmir.

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Al Jazeera: Do you think good relations with Pakistan will affect Indian Muslims who are still seen with suspicion? Is it connected?

Farooq: Well in a sense, it is connected, because Indian Muslims also face the wrath at times by the Hindu fundamentalist forces. Instances show that they are still dumped as pro-Pakistan. Look, Indian Muslims have taken decision to be the part of India. And the same should be respected by all, especially by the people who are at the helm of affairs. They should not be always viewed with suspicion. And as for as Kashmir is concerned, yes, it definitely impacts Indian Muslims. And that is why, Kashmir issue has to be viewed from a political angle and not from religious angle.

Al Jazeera: Modi believes in Hindutva (religio-cultural nationalism). Do you think Kashmiri leadership can do business with him?

Farooq: The people of India chose Modi and one cannot overwrite this decision. We saw a change in the mindset and approach at the time of [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee (former India prime minister from the BJP], who offered a solution in the ambit of humanity. He talked about shedding the beaten tracks. He talked about open borders and open engagements. So, if that change is there, we will welcome that.

Al Jazeera: When we talk about your capabilities, your stand on Kashmir dispute is quite clear. But do you think, it is enough to throw some out-of-the-box solution on the dispute?

Farooq: There are only two ways to address the Kashmir dispute: one is obviously implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir. And the second way out is to adopt alternative negotiated settlement – which means all parties to the conflict: Kashmiris, Pakistan, India can collectively come up with some new alternative, acceptable to the people.

In that backdrop, the four-point formula of former Pakistan president General Parvez Musharraf gave some sort of flip to this concept of out-of-the-box solution. And, I believe there are many ways and means, provided there is a political will especially, in New Delhi.

Whenever we talk to Indian leadership, it is seen in the context of Indo-Pakistan relations. The common Indian looks Kashmir through the prism of Pakistan: the problems created by Islamists, the militants and the jihadis. They don’t try to go into the background of the conflict. So, I think that the out-of-the-box solution will emerge if all the three parties to conflict agree to take that process forward.

Al Jazeera: Does a recent spurt in armed attacks by rebels indicate Kashmir will return to the situation such as the 1990s?

Farooq: It is difficult to say that, but let me tell you something. The policy of choking adopted by New Delhi in Kashmir, where they deny political space to youth will have its backlashes.

Though Hurriyat wants to keep the movement very peaceful, but then if the policies adopted by New Delhi keep pushing youth towards the wall, then there is a possibility of re-emergence of militancy in the valley. Hurriyat wants to keep the movement very peaceful but the policies adopted by New Delhi keep pushing youth towards the wall. In such a scenario, there is a possibility of re-emergence of militancy in the valley.

Source: Al Jazeera