Nearly three decades after its inception, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference finds itself at a crossroads. The reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory in August 2019, along with the arrest and imprisonment of several Hurriyat leaders who preceded it, has politically marginalized the once powerful umbrella body of the separatists. The chances of a revival seem rather slim, since several of its key members are dead or face long prison sentences.
The Hurriyat was formed on July 31, 1993 by separatist parties with disparate ideologies. The aim was to create a political platform that would complement the armed struggle that took root in Kashmir in the late 1980s. The Hurriyat is the brainchild of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a preacher and guardian of the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar , the most influential mosque in the valley. Mirwaiz was only 19 when he united separatist organizations on a common platform; his father, Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq, had been shot dead by unidentified gunmen nearly three years earlier.
The Hurriyat was seen as the rebirth of the Muslim Mutahida Mahaz (Muslim United Front, or MUF), a coalition of separatist-leaning parties that challenged the National Conference in the 1987 assembly elections. The ruling NC and Congress coalition had rigged the election, sowing the seeds of militancy in the Valley. After the polls, MUF supporters were among the first to cross the Line of Control for weapons training.
The Hurriyat had a two-tier structure – an executive body of seven members and a general council of almost two dozen members. The executive body – which included Mirwaiz and separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik, Abdul Gani Lone, Professor Abdul Gani Bhat and Sheikh Abdul Aziz – made all decisions after consulting the general council.
The Hurriyat constitution describes it as a union of political, social and religious parties which have waged a “peaceful struggle” to resolve the “Kashmir conflict”, either in accordance with the UN resolution in 1948 (which had recommended that the India holds a plebiscite) or through tripartite talks involving India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir.
The Hurriyat became a dominant force in the early 1990s, when the insurgency was on the rise and the imposition of presidential rule sidelined the main political parties. It retained its influence even after the 1996 elections, the first in six years after the assembly was dissolved in January 1990.
Differences over the role of armed struggle and the need for peace talks with New Delhi divided the Hurriyat into moderate and extremist factions. The moderates, led by Mirwaiz, Bhat and Lone, supported talks with the Union government. Extremists led by Geelani demanded that the 1948 UN resolution be implemented. As a precondition for peace talks, they insisted that New Delhi accept Kashmir as a dispute involving Pakistan. This position struck a chord with activists and their supporters in Pakistan.
Ties between the two factions soured after Lone was shot dead in Srinagar on May 21, 2002, during a rally held to commemorate the anniversary of Mirwaiz’s father’s death. The split came a year later, when Hurriyat’s chairman rejected Geelani’s request to expel Lone’s son, Sajjad Lone, for fielding proxy candidates in the 2002 elections. Yasin Malik, a prominent member of the tough faction, went its own way after the split. He then became the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).
Moderates backed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula on Kashmir, which envisioned demilitarization and autonomy on both sides of the Line of Control, free movement across the Line of Control and joint management of areas such as water resources without altering existing international borders. Geelani rejected the plan. On January 22, 2004, Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani hosted Mirwaiz and other moderates in Delhi.
Peace talks with Hizbul Mujahideen, which announced a ceasefire in 2000, continued even after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Center came to power in 2004. In September 2005 and May 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with a delegation of moderates. led by Mirwaiz. The meetings enabled the Center to travel on a passenger bus between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pak-occupied Kashmir, to rally support for a peace deal. The visit was seen as a success for the separatists, especially the Hurriyat moderates, and a step towards resolving the Kashmir issue. Musharraf’s Kashmir formula, however, stalled after losing power and New Delhi saw a changing of the guard.
Extremists recovered in 2008, launching an agitation against the state government’s decision to allocate land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) in Ganderbal district. After more than 60 people were killed by fire from security forces, the government canceled the land allocation to defuse the crisis. Masarat Alam Bhat, who led protests against the military for killing three civilians in a fake encounter in Machil in 2010, has come forward as a possible Geelani heir. Alam evaded arrest for four months, undermining the credibility of the ruling NC-Congress alliance and forcing the Center to convene a multi-party meeting on Kashmir in Delhi. In the four months before normalcy returned, more than 100 people were shot dead by security forces.
As the extremists emerged stronger, the moderates faced internal problems. The crisis escalated after Bhat said the 1948 UN resolution was outdated and unworkable, and suggested creating a joint minimum program with the NC and the opposition People’s Democratic Party to settle the issue of the Cashmere. Bhat’s remarks led to a rebellion in the moderate ranks. Disappointed with Mirwaiz’s leadership, many dissidents sided with Geelani.
Despite their differences, Geelani, Mirwaiz and Malik came together to form the Joint Resistance Leadership in 2016, after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter. The consequences left scars in Kashmir. More than 100 people were shot dead and dozens injured by pellets fired by security forces to quell protests. This created a rift in the BJP-PDP coalition, which came to power in 2015. The BJP wanted to act against the separatists, but the PDP feared further damage to its image and refused to cooperate. The BJP gained traction in 2017, when the National Investigation Agency arrested members of the Hurriyat and other separatist groups for “financing terrorism”.
Malik was arrested in February 2019 for his alleged involvement in terrorist and secessionist activities. He also faced multiple charges under the strict Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. A month later, Jamaat-e-Islami, Kashmir’s largest socio-religious organization sympathetic to the separatist cause, was banned.
The arrest of Hurriyat leaders and the ensuing communications blackout prevented a public backlash against the removal of Section 370 in August 2019. Geelani, who once warned the government of dire consequences if Section 370 were overturned , said he “distinguishes” himself from the Hurriyat. Weakened by years of confinement at his home, the patriarch of the separatist movement died in Srinagar on September 1, 2021, at the age of 91. His funeral took place under police control to prevent demonstrations.
Malik was convicted on May 19 this year and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is also on trial for his alleged involvement in the 1989 abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and the 1990 murder of four air force personnel. Geelani and Yasin’s sentencing dealt a double blow to the separatists. cause.
In the absence of Geelani and Malik, Mirwaiz has the daunting task of reviving the Hurriyat on his own. He has been under house arrest since August 5, 2019, while his oldest colleagues, Bhat and former Hurriyat chairman Mohammad Abbas Ansari, are in their 80s and not well.
Known for his nuanced opinions, Mirwaiz has been cautious in releasing statements over the past three years. He reacted cautiously to the J&K administration’s decision to ban prayers at the Jamia Masjid for fear of separatist outpourings. The mosque, which also serves as the seat of power for the Mirwaiz family, has only held Friday prayers twice in the past 30 months. On April 9, a day after the last prayer, police arrested 13 people and charged them under the strict Public Security Act (PSA) for allegedly shouting anti-national slogans.
The government has been proactive in marginalizing separatists. He sacked government employees sympathetic to the separatist cause and detained suspects under the PSA. About 500 Kashmiris have been charged under the provisions of the law, and some are interned in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as prisons in Jammu and Kashmir are full.
Observers say the Hurriyat’s silence on recent developments shows it has lost its power. “The Hurriyat has become redundant,” said Professor Noor Ahmed Baba, former head of the political science department at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. “The Hurriyat leaders who are not in prison have not been active. As an organization, the Hurriyat used to connect with people, but that hasn’t been the case for several years.
What are the chances of a revival? “None in the given political context,” Baba said. “That could be unfortunate, because extremists can fill the void.”
A senior JKLF leader and former militant commander said the Hurriyat was at an impasse. He used to attract international attention – he was granted observer status with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the request of Pakistan, and American and European Union diplomats had used to meet regularly with Hurriyat leaders for briefings on Kashmir. However, the situation has changed. “The Kashmir conflict is not about the US and the EU,” the JKLF leader said. “Pakistan has also withdrawn its support. So it became easy for the BJP to come down hard [on the Hurriyat].”
Bhat, however, said the Hurriyat should be understood not as a political structure but as the “manifestation of a collective feeling rooted in the history of the Kashmir conflict”. “Sentiment sometimes takes the form of a structure, like the Hurriyat or the Plebiscite Front,” he said.
This means that the Hurriyat may have lost its relevance and influence, but the sentiment it tries to represent remains prevalent in Kashmir. A new separatist group, modeled on the Hurriyat, may well emerge in the future.