x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Kashmiri separatists feud for supremacy

Two major groups try to seek Saudi attention amid speculation Riyadh might play the role of a mediator between India and Pakistan.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // The Kashmiri separatist leadership is in disarray and an ongoing struggle for supremacy between factions turned uglier last month when the supporters of at least two of the major players clashed on the streets of Sopore town.

The developments come amid speculation that Saudi Arabia could assume the role of mediator between India and Pakistan, including the dispute over Kashmir. Supporters of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the octogenarian leader of the Islamist Tehrik-e-Hurriyat (TeH) party, allegedly set upon those of Muhammad Yasin Malik, the chairman of his faction of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), on March 14 in Sopore, 50km north of the capital, Srinagar.

Mr Malik's group had spent the day distributing cash to locals, whose houses had been damaged in previous violence between militants and the Indian army. Analysts say the TeH viewed that as a provocative attempt by the JKLF to win support in Sopore, which is a TeH stronghold. According to witnesses, Mr Geelani's supporters attacked the JKLF members with knives and stones, injuring five. Locals, who said the police did not intervene, chased the attackers away. The following day JKLF members ransacked a TeH office in Srinagar in retribution.

The JKLF seeks reunification of the disputed Himalayan state, which was split between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of their first war fought in 1947-48 soon after gaining independence from Britain, and wants to make it a secular, independent country. Mr Geelani, on the other hand, vows to integrate Kashmir with Muslim Pakistan. Amid the two sides exchanging insults and accusations, Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based leader of the United Jihad Council, an alliance of militant groups, warned the leaders to either resolve their differences or quit.

"If the pro-freedom leadership doesn't mend its ways, the people and the mujahideen will be forced to take the reins of the movement into their hands to carry it forward," he said in a statement from Rawalpindi. The dispute in the separatists' camps has resurfaced at a time when Indians and Pakistanis are trying to narrow their differences on a range of issues, particularly Kashmir. Meetings between the two countries' foreign secretaries held at the end of February ended fruitlessly, with New Delhi continuing to publicly voice concern over Islamabad's "inaction against perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks".

Simultaneously, New Delhi is holding private talks with a segment of the Kashmiri politicians, whereas Pakistan has invited half a dozen separatist leaders for consultations in Islamabad in an apparent attempt to fortify their respective positions and prepare the Kashmiris to accept a prospective settlement. The Kashmir dispute has led to two wars since 1947 and taken tens of thousands of lives, mainly during the 20-year insurgency on the Indian side of the state.

Before heading for Islamabad, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir's chief Muslim cleric and leader of the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, an alliance of separatist parties, held talks with Saudi officials in Jeddah. His visit to Saudi Arabia came close on the heels of a visit by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, during which the country's junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, said Saudi Arabia could be a "valuable interlocutor" between India and Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.

"We feel that Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia an even more valuable interlocutor for us," he was quoted by the Indian media as saying. But Mr Tharoor later clarified that he did not mean that Saudi Arabia should be a mediator between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, his initial remarks led to speculation in Kashmir that apart from the United States, Saudi Arabia is playing some role towards bringing the two South Asian neighbours closer, or, at least, helping them in ironing out their differences.

In any case, Mr Farooq sees a policy shift in India vis-à-vis third-party mediation in Indo-Pak dialogue. He told the Jeddah daily Arab News, "Currently a rethink is going on in India. Given the strengthening of ties between India and the Kingdom, New Delhi would be more comfortable with Saudi mediation than any other country." He added that Saudi Arabia was influential not only in the Middle East but also in South Asia.

"The kingdom has a history of playing positive role in disputes, such as Afghanistan and Palestine. Kashmiris would be more than happy if the kingdom mediated on our behalf," he said. India has, so far, not responded to Mr Farooq's observations although it has consistently rejected third-party mediation in the past. Pakistan too has not dismissed his suggestion that Saudi Arabia could play a role in resolving the contentious Kashmir issue.

Apparently encouraged by the possibility of Saudi mediation, Mr Farooq is planning to send a delegation of Kashmiri leaders to Saudi Arabia within a month to hold talks with the Saudi officials. "Already, we in the Hurriyat Conference are discussing on how to seek Saudi help ? [we] will work out a concrete plan before approaching them formally," he said. Mr Farooq's Hurriyat Conference called the recent attack on Yasin Malik's supporters at Sopore "fascist", admitting that such a behaviour on part of "certain elements" could prove detrimental to the separatists' cause.

"The people of Kashmir are passing through the most crucial stage of the resistance movement," said Masroor Abas, the leader of Itehad al Muslimeen, an Islamist group that is part of Mr Farooq's Hurriyat Conference. "Our leadership ought to rise above party politics and recoil from personal agendas. Incidents like Sopore can only leave negative hoofmarks on our cause." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae