In Conversation with Masarat Alam

Masarat Alam Bhat, Chairman, Muslim League, part of the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Geelani. He has spent most of the time since 1990 in prison, repeatedly charged with the draconian Public Safety Act. He is described by many as the successor of Syed Ali Geelani in Kashmir’s resistance leadership. No wonder, the Indian parliament witnessed an uproar unprecedented up on the release of any political prisoner before. He refuses to accept Kashmir as a “dispute” that needs a “resolution”. It is an occupation which has to end, he says. Excerpts from an interview with Nawaz Gul Qanungo.

Q. Why do you think there’s been such a huge outcry in India against your release?

A. Well, they have their own political compulsions. It is not that I’ve been released for the first time. At the same time it is quite revealing… they claim that all is normal in Jammu & Kashmir. But then, one man is released and just look at the controversy it has generated. It tells you a lot about the situation in the state.

Q. You are not the only anti-India politician outside, yet they are not asking for anybody else’s arrest. On the other hand, there are scores of political prisoners in jail yet no one is in a hurry to release them. It seems the entire political establishment in New Delhi wants to see just you behind bars, while those in authority have chosen just you to be free… Why are they particularly interested in you?

A. See, let’s also understand that it is the media that sets the discourse in India. Of course the political parties have their compulsions too. The Indian parliament was in session. The media created an outcry and the rest followed. Otherwise, as I said, neither was I the only prisoner nor was I released for the first time.

Q. You have been saying that it was a normal legal process, but it is not that the government has strictly been following any legal processes in such cases, particularly the PSA.

A. Yes. The release was basically a result of a direction in 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court. I was being kept in prison without charge, something I challenged in the High Court. They still charged me in more cases but the courts didn’t entertain them. The charges were fabricated. But how long could they keep doing that?

Now, the Mufti government took over when I was finally set to be released. So they tried to take credit. But after all the controversy in New Delhi, they were forced to come out with the real details.

Q. Then why are they taking the risk of releasing you? They wouldn’t have cared about any legal technicalities if they wanted to see you behind bars.

A. As I said it was a legal process which came to a conclusion and I was released. It is not that I was sentenced for life. They just had nothing to justify in the courts my incarceration endlessly.

Q. You have been quite reluctant in conceding that the PDP saw in your release a great opportunity of doing some damage control after tying up with the BJP…

A. See, the government tried to project my release as part of its agenda where it claims it will release political prisoners. But that’s not true. They are not releasing political prisoners. Am I the only political prisoner? Why don’t they release others then if they are saying the truth?

Q. So you don’t accept that your release has got anything to do with Mufti’s claim that they are releasing political prisoners.

A. Absolutely. I don’t accept that. Let them release all the political prisoners. If they do that, we’ll accept they have taken a step ahead.

Q. If the government actually had any intention of releasing political prisoners, do you think all this controversy after your release has jeopardised those plans?

A. If that’s what they claim in their common minimum programme and if they are serious about it, why don’t they go ahead? Who is stopping them? Above all, the political prisoners deserve to be freed. Take Qasim [Faktoo] saab’s case. His release was recommended by the advisory board which included a judge, a DG of Prisons, and even the home department. They have arrested small children, let alone adults, under the PSA. Why don’t they release them?

Q. But you have been quoted by the media as saying that you have “faith in the judiciary”… (‘I have faith in the judiciary’ –, 10 March 2015.)

A. No. I have never said anything like that.

Q. But people are praising chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. They say he defied the Indian government…

A. There will always be people impressed by such things. But most know the truth. Of course they are trying to do damage control after tying up with the BJP. But so far we are concerned we hardly see a difference between any of them (various pro-India political parties).

Q. You spent nearly five years in jail this time. How did you spend your time?

A. Alhamdulillah (all praise be to Allah). I spent the time with itminaan (contentment). I used to pray, read, play volleyball, etc.

Q. Any lasting impressions of these years?

A. There’s one thing I observed. Whoever the government has incarcerated for political reasons, they are all content with the life they have chosen. I remember a very rich prisoner who is in jail for a murder charge. By chance his wife came to visit him one day when mine had come to see me. They (the other couple) were crying. And we were happily talking about things. Later he told me he’d give all his wealth if only there was a way to get out of the jail. The guards would often tell us how we’d always sleep peacefully. I told him we suffer for a just cause; for us this is worship. And there are people who have spent far longer in jails than I have. People whose families are in deep crisis. But each one of them, let me tell you, is living a life of dignity, and itminaan.

Q. So political prisoners in the jails are in itminaan. What about politicians outside? They too seem to be in itminaan?

A. (Laughs) What can I say about that? My leader is (Syed Ali) Geelani saab, and he’s been under house arrest all through…

Q. And others?

A. What can I say about others? If I do, you will put yourself into a needless controversy… By the grace of Allah, whenever I speak I’ll speak the truth. So it is better to maintain silence on this.

Q. Now the state government says they are going to reform you… (“…want to see Masarat Alam changed from being a separatist to someone we can engage with, and get him into the mainstream.” – J&K Finance Minister, Haseeb A Drabu.)

A. (Laughs.) Well, let’s see. Let them try. And we will test ourselves too. How will they reform us, anyway? If you see the charges against me, they have described me as “incorrigible” and that I have “inherited this sentiment”. Yes, this is our inheritance – varaasat. Who gives away an inheritance? We stand for rightful aspirations, which exist in the heart of every person here. We need to reform those who play the role of collaborators. We know where they come from. We have sacrificed our lives in the cause. What will they reform (us)? (Laughs again.) They have always been saying various things. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, some years ago, in Ganderbal said, “Mujahido, ab aap ka kaam mai khud karunga…” So?

And see the contradiction. They claim they are committed to freedom of political expression. They say they want a Kashmir solution and so do we. Now there’s a difference between what we believe is the solution and what they believe it is. If the freedom of political expression is real, where is the question of reform? If the battle of ideas is the thesis of the PDP, then reform what and reform whom? The truth is the claims of political freedom that the Indian state is making – leave the state government and these parties… they are mere puppets – and the claim that they are a democratic state is all false. You throttle one entire political discourse and then announce the victory of the one that suits you. What kind of democracy is that? Allow a level playing field, and see the result.

Q. The media often describes you as the architect of 2010, while some in the government call you a creation of 2010. How do you respond to these claims?

A. This is something for the people to decide. Not for me. What happened in 2010 was people displaying out on the streets their spirit, their aspirations, and their sentiments towards the movement. Yes, we gave it the form of organised political protest. Beyond that, what we did and what became of us is something that time will decide. History will decide.

Q. How much do you believe you were actually in control of the public mobilisation?

A. Well as long as Geelani saab was under arrest, I was organising things. When he was released, he took over.

Q. So you were in control of the mobilisations?

A. Absolutely. Whatever we announced was followed by the people.

Q. Does that explain how the demonstrations stopped after your arrest?

A. No. I don’t think my arrest was the reason the agitations stopped. Also, agitations had slowed down even before my arrest. Geelani saab and others must have consulted each other and decided on how to go about the whole programme.

Q. What were the factors they considered?

Better know to him. I am yet to meet Geelani saab ever since. (Pauses.) Ek bhayaanak suratehaal bhi thi. There was a huge security crackdown by government forces. Thousands were arrested, tortured, and humiliated by the police. Boys were stripped, beaten up, you must have seen the video clips. Over a hundred and twenty were killed. It is not easy to come out in protest and face bullets. It was the youth after all who were protesting on the ground, and they were crushed by the government. That was a big factor.

Q. Did you read the common minimum programme of the BJP-PDP alliance? What do you think of it?

I don’t think there’s anything new in it (smiles). In the hue and cry around the Article 370 and AFSPA, though, the Mufti government might do something about giving state subject status to West Pakistan Refugees, using humanitarian grounds as an excuse. It’s a very serious issue and we are minutely observing that issue, and the Hurriyat has already announced that it will oppose any such move.

Q. It also says the “coalition government will facilitate and initiate sustained dialogue with all internal stakeholders”. Will you talk to them?

A. Let them first answer what Narendra Modi has declared just recently – that Kashmir is an issue between India and Pakistan with no scope for any third party – even as they describe in their CMP the Hurriyat as one of the “stakeholders”. Let them take care of this contradiction first.

Q. But if there is an offer of dialogue?

A. It will be discussed in the Hurriyat. Geelani saab had given the five pre-conditions. I don’t think there’s any change in that position. At any rate, there will as usual be discussions for an appropriate response if there is any such offer.

Q. Did you meet your political workers after your release? What did you tell them?

Yes. I told them we will win this war, inshallah.

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