Frequent hartals making Hurriyat unpopular, separatists needs to look for alternate means to be heard

Hartals and protest calendars are losing traction among the masses. And frequent shutdown calls are only alienating them from the people they want to address. Hurriyat leaders in Kashmir have woken up to the reality rather late.

Farooq speaks during an interview with Reuters in SrinagarAfter using hartals as strategy to make themselves heard in the over two decades old Kashmir conflict, the representatives of Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of different separatist parties in Kashmir, sat at Mirwaiz Manzil in Srinagar last week to think of “alternate means” of protest.

To many people in Kashmir, it is a welcome development that separatist groups have realised the changing mood on the ground against the politics of shutdowns, which have resulted in senseless killings of hundreds of youths, especially over the last eight years.

“Will the anniversary hartals and failed chalos lead us to freedom?” a student asked Mirwaiz, the head priest of Kashmir who leads Friday congregational prayers at the historic Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, to which he replied, “At times, hartal becomes the only option, but I agree we have to look for alternative means of protest.”Chairman of the moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who initiated the exercise, held day-long deliberations on Twitter, terming it as a move to “bridge the gap” between people and Hurriyat leadership. There were suggestion, criticisms and questions on the very idea of the institution of separatism and the failures it has encountered recently.

“For years now, people have been asking us on social media why can’t you come up with an alternative strategy, instead of giving strike calls?” Shahid-ul-Islam, political advisor to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told .

“We also realised the mode of protest has to change as our society is witnessing an unprecedented change in recent times. And it is not that everyone has been praising us. People have been speaking about Hurriyat and every criticism is valid if it is constructive,” Islam said.

However, political analysts see the move as the last ditch effort by Mirwaiz to keep the boat of moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir from sinking. It has seemingly lost favour with the present dispensation in Pakistan, especially over openly favouring the four-point formula of former army chief, Pervez Musharraf.

At the larger level, the change in tactic reflects a deep realisation in the Hurriyat leadership that the frequent hartalcalls and protest calendars, previously deployed to make a point, may have outlived their utility by putting the lives of common people under unnecessary strain. Not only have the protests resulted in spilling of innocent blood, it has also dealt a lethal blow to the economy of Jammu and Kashmir.

“In 2008, when much of the Kashmir valley and Jammu region was witnessing hartals, the businesses suffered losses worth Rs 100 crore every day for a 26-day period. The calculation was based on scientific parameters and even the governor had promised some kind of compensation for both the Jammu as well as Kashmir traders, but it somehow did not materialise,” Shakeel Qalander, a renowned industry expert in Kashmir told .

Although the intensity of protests and shutdowns has come down, the losses continue to mount.

In another subtle shift, Hurriyat leaders are taking to the social media with a sense of urgency to connect to followers and people at large. Besides Miwaiz, hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani, also uses Facebook and Twitter to connect with his followers. But a close look at Geelani’s Twitter account reveals that it is sans political comment. Instead, most of the tweets and posts are news items related to the activities of government forces or the Hurriyat leader.

Recently, in the run up to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kashmir, separatist leadership used social media to attract people for a parallel march that was disallowed by the authorities. “Earlier the Hurriyat Conference would stick on giving strike calls whenever an Indian prime minister visited the Kashmir valley,” said Parvez Imroz, a top human rights lawyer in Srinagar.

“But this time they were able to mobilise young people to participate in the ‘Million March’ by converging at the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar (close to the venue of Mr Modi’s rally) by using social media. It was a huge embarrassment for the state government as they had to put thousands of people under arrest to foil the march,” Imroz said

Noor Mohammad Baba, a political analyst, however, believes that the politics of strikes, like all the diplomacy, has not contributed towards changing the status quo on Kashmir, “But it would be interesting to see what kind of ‘alternative mode of protest’ the separatist groups would come up with,” he said.

Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches Law at Central University of Kashmir, says that Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat is using these tactics to connect to the people and regain his lost relevance. “Mirwaiz was closer to Pakistan during the Musharraf regime. He supported the former president’s four point formula for which it has lost its relevance in Kashmir,” he says.