Few will have the audacity to dispute that Kashmiri society is sharply polarised on the basis of ethnicity, religion, culture and politics. Equally true is the fact that, since independence, both India and Pakistan have tried to promote and protect their respective interests in the state by creating certain lobbies and groups there. Being an occupying force, India always enjoyed a tactical edge over Pakistan in this war of interests and injured egos.
Islamabad has always been trying to bleed India in the streets of Jammu and Kashmir. Certain inbuilt factors such as common faith, history and geographical proximity helped it extensively to establish close relations with the people of the held state. Indian policies vis-a-vis Kashmir also provided it with a handy opportunity to win the support and sentiments of the Kashmiris to its own advantage with certain objectives in mind.
In this perspective, both New Delhi and Islamabad have a big say in the internal dynamics of Kashmiri politics. Hence, every move and initiative is seen in the context of an India-Pakistan rivalry in Kashmir. The influence and impact of the policies of Delhi and Islamabad are so strong and wide-ranging that to find an indigenous political voice in Kashmir is never an easy task. A few voices like Yasin Malik, Mabooba Mufti and Sajjad Lone claim that they represent the sentiments and urges of the people, but others out-rightly discount such claims. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and Omer Abdullah clearly represent the Indian mainstream in the valley. Until recently, Syed Ali Gilani was largely viewed as an Islamabad voice in the valley politics. But now Islamabad has dumped him and bidding on new horses sending deep shock waves in his camp. They had never thought that Islamabad would ever break ties with them. Given this, the natural allies of the Pakistan establishment in Srinagar are on the verge of the breaking point. It is widely believed that once Ali Gilani and his followers change their political track, Valley politics will take new turn and Islamabad’s role will further be marginalized.
With this in the viewpoint, Mirwaiz Omer Farooq is seemingly the best choice for Islamabad as well as New Delhi to try their options in the days ahead. He is also considered by the world capitals to be a moderate, flexible and pragmatic youthful leader of Kashmiris. But the question remains whether he will be able to deliver as expected by the key regional as well as world players. There is no doubt that he has a commendable support base Srinagar city. But the city does not represent the entire state or even the Valley. Secondly, he does not have a grass root network or a cadre based party. More significantly, his comrades also lack public following and are considered drawing room politicians. They hardly move into public and seldom mix with suffering people. Quite often, they speak to the captive audience of the Friday prayers rather going out into the streets of the Valley. The lavish life style and brigade of expensive vehicles also creates a wedge between the common suffering Kashmiri and their leadership. Except for Yasin Malik, every leader has a big house and dozens of servants to run the freedom struggle, which draws a line between the people and leaders. Furthermore, an undue lenient attitude towards Islamabad coupled with a NGO-like style of representation also hurts their constituency in the state. While commenting on this situation, Shujaat Bukhari, a Srinagar based correspondent of The Hindu, maintains that New Delhi has invariably been following a plan to discredit Kashmiri leadership. Shabir Shah went to Delhi to talk but they refused to hear him. The same is the case with moderate Hurriyat leaders.
Another commentator, Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, views the Valley political scene in a very interesting way. He believes "making and breaking parties and alliances — political, religious, militant, trade union — has become a mark of identification for Kashmir’s separatist politics in the last 17 years of turmoil. This particular phenomenon has created more parties than leaders. Mir Waiz Umar Farooq’s Awami Action Committee (AAC) and its religious arm Anjuman-e-Nusrat-ul Islam have the unique distinction of neither breaking into factions nor reaching close to split. The reason: son after the father." However, internal rivalries between groups and personality clashes are a daily routine here.
The militancy is gradually vanishing but it still has a potential to dictate the political course of action. While travelling in Srinagar, I witnessed two different incidents of militant strikes that killed Indian soldiers. Indian forces claim that the first and second line of militant commanders has largely been eliminated. A source in one of the security forces put the number of militants at only 750, down from 950 last year, and from 1,400 in 2003, a little more than half being foreigners. There is no more recruitment or inducement for militants, may be due to the fence or because of action taken by the Pakistan armed forces in recent times. Currently, it is believed that active militants are provided logistical support by a handful of locals. However, militants have become more effective in targeting officers, with more lives being lost in the last two years than in the previous 14. Now militancy has become a faceless character, no one knows who is a militant and who is not.
Aside from how powerful they are, or who they are, the question is what sort of role they are going to play in the peace process. It is almost a known fact in the Valley that militants are not ready to trust on moderate leaders and unless they are not taken on board they will not allow anybody to make any deal on their behalf. In fact, the Valley has turned into a ravaged polity during last one and half decade. Legendry Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Lone and Abdul Majid Dar were killed as they were supposed to have made a deal with New Delhi. Thus, many opinion makers of the Valley strongly felt that if current endeavour by moderate leaders did not yield any tangible results, then the backlash would be natural. Strangely, local Kashmiris, for the first time in recent history, openly criticise militancy and the unlawful acts of militants. It is really a sea change in the society as it has taken a stand against all types of misconduct.
Azadi sentiment is overwhelming everywhere in the region. I went to Sopore, once known as mini Pakistan, to have a chit-chat with the commoners. I asked a student of a local college about his feelings about Azadi and resistance. He said, "Azadi runs in our blood and we would not compromise on our basic right." Here everyone talks about Azadi but the people are unable to spell out the details. Local Kashmiri youths are highly charged up and sensitive. But, they are frustrated by the local leaders, no matter whether they represent the Azadi sentiment or if they are in line with the Indian mainstream. Surprisingly, the last 15 years of turmoil has not nurtured a new breed of leaders. This is a stark departure from the established notion that crises always create new leaders. Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the weekly Chattan, opines that, "it is almost impossible for independent voices here to survive. All political forces have to take the shelter either of Delhi or Islamabad. Other voices have always been muted in one way or other."
Barring a few exceptions, the reality in Kashmir is that political leadership has been discredited and people have lost faith in them. Secondly, Kashmiris desperately look for an indigenous leadership capable of representing their true sentiments, aspirations and interests, besides having the guts to say ‘no’ to key regional powers. Lastly, everybody that is anybody seeks lasting peace on the basis of the principal of justice, equality and self-respect.