Our Freedom Struggle Needs Both The Political Movement And The Gun: Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai

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Srinagar March 26: The newly appointed leader of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat maintains that there is no place for extremism in Kashmir

It’s perhaps for the first in Kashmir that a leader of Syed Ali Geelani’s stature has voluntary stepped down as head of a political party. The 88-year-old icon of Kashmir’s Azadi movement last week passed the baton to his long-time friend and lieutenant Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai. It is, without dispute, a landmark moment.

Though, for now at least, Sehrai will lead only Tehreek-e-Hurriyat – which Geelani floated after breaking with the Jama’at-e-Islami in 2004 – and not the “hardline” Hurriyat Conference, the elevation confirms him as the aged leader’s eventual successor.

It’s been quite a journey for Sehrai and he shared it with Ink. In an exclusive interview, he also spoke about his new role, his plans for Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, the Azadi movement and the armed resistance. Excerpts:

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It has been a long political journey. Tell us about it.

It was through my brothers that I learned about Jama’at-e-Islami, which came into existence in Jammu and Kashmir in 1946, when I was two years old. In 1948, the Jama’at’s teachings and literature reached my Tikkipora village in Lolab, Kupwara, through my older brother Muhammad Yousuf. He was a brilliant man. He knew Persian, Arabic, and Urdu. An avid reader, he studied a lot of the Jama’at’s literature and rose to become its rukun in 1950. Soon, our other brother, Qamar-ud-din, joined as well.

Yousuf subscribed to two magazines published by the Jama’at from Karachi, Mahi-e-Now and Nai Roshni, which would reach our home by post many days after publication. Reading them, I got acquainted with the Jama’at.

The headmaster at my high school in Sogam, Ghulam Mohammad Sheerwani, was also a Jama’at rukun. He was close to my brother and would visit our home along with Syed Ali Geelani and other Jama’at leaders. They would discuss Islam and political issues concerning us and speak to small gatherings. I would serve food to the guests. So, I was brought up in an atmosphere saturated with Islamic mizaaj.

In 1959, as I was awaiting results of my matriculation exam, Geelani sahab, then president of the Jama’at in our district, asked my brother Yousuf to take charge of the Jama’at’s madrassa in Sopore. But after only a week there, Yousuf told Geelani sahab he could not carry on and wanted to return home. Geelani sahab then told him that since Ashlala – that’s what he lovingly called me – was done with his exam, why not send him to run the madrassa until his results are declared. I couldn’t say no to them. It was May 28, 1959 when I went to Sopore.

There, I worked not only for the madrassa but also for the Jama’at, to which I was formally admitted as rukun in 1960. In 1963, I was shifted out of Sopore and I spent nine months running a madrassa in Baramulla town.

On March 13, 1965, I was arrested for an anti-government speech and imprisoned in Srinagar Central Jail for about 20 months. After being released, I went back to working for my tanzeem in Sopore.

How did you come to be Geelani’s closest associate? There were many other towering leaders in the Jama’at?

He is from Sopore and worked for the Jama’at from there, as I did. We worked for the same ideology. But he’s very senior to me and I worked under him when he headed the Jama’at in our district. We are close because we have been working together since 1959. I was chairman of the Jama’at election board when he fought the assembly elections and I would campaign for him.

What were the differences that led you to part ways with the Jama’at and launch Tehreek-e-Hurriyat?

There was only one difference. The Jama’at actively participated in the freedom movement and many of its cadres and associates were killed by the Indian forces and some were forced to migrate, particularly during the Ikhwan regime. But in the late 1990s, a group of people in the Jama’at started objecting to its active participation in the movement and that was neither acceptable to Geelani sahab nor me.

One day, at a session of Majlis-e-Shoora, a senior rukun of the Jama’at remarked that “Geelani soban ti Sehari soban lage aase taavanas” (Geelani sahab and Sehrai sahab have made our life difficult). That was the immediate cause for us separating and forming Tehreek-e-Hurriyat under a formal agreement with the Jama’at.

What would you count as your achievements after parting ways with the Jama’at?

Our achievements are many, may God accept them. After launching Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2004, we tried to give new shape to the Azadi movement. And you see the results now, although we are not the only one to play a role. Many other people have played important roles in popularising the movement, especially the youth who took up arms. This will continue until we achieve what we desire.

People started actively participating in the movement through Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Don’t you see thousands of people attending funerals of militants now, more than we saw even in the 1990s?

Given the benefit of hindsight, do you still believe that forming Tehreek-e-Hurriyat was a better solution in 2004 than continuing with the Jama’at?

Tehreek-e-Hurriyat was born of compulsion caused by some Jama’at members and some media outlets which supported their idea of withdrawing support to the movement. Geelani sahab told them in Majlis-e-Shoora that since the Jama’at had actively participated in the movement and sacrificed a lot, we should continue to do so, but they didn’t accept it. The incumbent Jama’at chief, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, led the organization in those days as well.

After the 2016 uprising, there was a crackdown on the cadres of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in which you have claimed hundreds of your members were put behind bars. The crackdown was followed the NIA raids. Why only Tehreek-e-Hurriya?

Most of our members are behind bars and many are not allowed to even move outside their houses. We have not able to hold our elections. Everything has been choked but we are prepared to bear it all for this sacred cause.

Now that you are taking the reins of the organization at this difficult time, what would your approach be?

We are not allowed to meet, our members are behind bars, the government is not giving us political space. The primary concern for Tehreek-e-Hurriyat now is to hold elections, which were supposed to be held in August 2016. Let us hold the elections, then we will decide the further course of action. We will have an elected Shoora and the people will get to evaluate our work. But let me clear one thing: if people think our stance may change with my appointment as the head, then they are wrong. Our stance will not change come what may: we believe Kashmir is a dispute that should be resolved as per the aspirations of its people. And we will not agree to any dialogue until and unless India is serious about it.

By appointing the so-called interlocutors, the Indian government is just buying time. Tell me what kind of dialogue is this that Dineshwar Sharma is going to far-flung areas and people are telling him that we are without transformers? Is this a joke? They can’t fool us. His appointment is just waste of time, nothing else.

Tell me did Sharma’s appointment as interlocutor make any difference? People are still being killed, blinded and tortured every day. It is a futile exercise.

What is a possible solution to the Kashmir dispute in your view?

There is only one solution: the right to self-determination. People should be allowed to decide their fate, as promised by the Indian leaders. The issue should be resolved according to the aspirations of Kashmir’s people. The solution should be acceptable to all, otherwise, there will be no compromise.

India is currently ruled by the hardline BJP. How do you see engaging with Delhi in such a situation?

Kashmiris have never bowed down before the hardliners and we’ll never bow down before them. The situation is always tough for us no matter who rules India, but we have been steadfast and will continue to. And the most important thing is: killing and dialogue can’t go side by side.

Hasn’t the NIA investigation dented the image of the resistance leadership?

It is in human nature that if somebody alleges anything to anyone and that too without evidence, it affects the victim the most. When a country starts any propaganda through its TV Channels and other sources to defame anyone, it will have a negative effect but people have to understand their games.

We will do our work and we will never change our stance. Let them do their propaganda, it will not stop us from speaking the truth.

Because you are not being allowed to move out, hold rallies and meet with people, the resistance politics has been shrunk to your offices. What would you intend to do about that?

We are not stuck in our offices of our own will; we are being forcibly restricted. Again, let us elect the Shoora. It will decide our course of action, what ways and means we need to adopt.

Have you discussed any alternatives to hartal as the primary tool of protest given that it has been widely criticised?

See, if you want to achieve anything, you have to make sacrifices. If you want to be free from occupation, you have to give your blood, your economies will be hit. If there is an option other than shutdown calls, people should come forward to tell us. Shutdown is a peaceful way of registering our resentment and it is a medium of protest that is accepted worldwide.

Don’t you feel it may be wearing out as a strategy? Do you have any new strategy?

What is the new strategy? New strategy means surrender? If people have any other alternative to hartal, they should discuss it with us.

How do you see the Joint Resistance Leadership going?

You should ask them. They would be better placed to answer.

But aren’t you part of the JRL?

No. The JRL consists of three leaders (Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik) and they are doing what they have to. And people have accepted them.

What is your view of the ongoing armed struggle? People claim that a fringe element within it is seemingly creating confusion.

Both the gun and our political struggle are important and both are playing their part.

Our youth spill their blood for freedom. They pick up arms against the tyrant and Islam also tells us to rise against the tyrant. I believe armed resistance is an integral part of every freedom movement in the world. Look at Palestine, they have Hamas. When India was struggling for freedom, there was armed resistance by Bhagat Singh and his colleagues. So, political struggle and armed resistance run parallel in every freedom movement.

As for as the talk about confusion being created, agencies are out there trying to disrupting the movement and they won’t sit silently.

Of late, we have witnessed black flags being waved, purportedly in support of the Islamic State, at the funerals of some militants. Is it a matter of concern for the Hurriyat leadership?

We don’t have any global agenda. Our agenda is simple: that we want Kashmir to be free from Indian occupation. Daesh and Al-Qaida have nothing to do with our movement and we will never accept them. It could be the handiwork of agencies that are keen to defame our movement and undermine its indigenous character. They are trying to divide us into sects so they can strengthen their roots here. Look at Iraq, Syria, Libya and other Muslim countries where people have been divided into sects, and see how the enemy is ruling there now.

Daesh is a creation of American think tanks. Some of our youth are influenced by their ideology, but I appeal them to read the Qu’ran, Hadith and Islamic literature to understand the rules that Prophet Mohammad has laid down for war and decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong.

I want to tell the youth waving black flags that by doing so they are strengthening the Indian occupation in Kashmir. Our enemy directly benefits from this. They show the world that Kashmiris are extremists who deserve to be killed.

I strongly condemn what happened at Easa Fazli’s funeral; these things are unacceptable to us. Mysterious forces are creating chaos among the masses. Our youth have to maintain discipline for the sake of this sacred freedom movement.

What about Zakir Musa? He recently termed militant groups backed by Pakistan as “armies working under Nimrod’s agency”.

Zakir Musa is the light of my eyes. He left everything for the sacred cause. But I want to ask him that by going towards extremism, who you are benefiting? Neither yourself nor the freedom movement. We sincerely appeal him to come back.

We aren’t extremists; we belong to Ummat-e-Was’t (moderate nation). There is no place for extremism in Kashmir’s freedom struggle.

Who doesn’t want to see an Islamic state? But you have to fight against the occupation first. It’s better to remain united and fight against the enemy first.

But Zakir Musa asks why Kashmiris should give their blood just to merge with Pakistan.

Alright, if Zakir Musa and his comrades don’t want to merge with Pakistan, nobody is forcing them to do so. But let them fight the Indian occupation first and then let our people decide what they want to do. It is simple.

Kashmir is faced with the threat of the removal of Article 370 and demographic change and rising polarisation. How will you plan to deal with these challenges?

Let the elections be held. We will counter every threat.

Do you foresee any crises or leadership vacuum in the post-Geelani era?

Only time will decide that. When Prophet Muhammad passed away, Harzat Umar Farooq, in an emotional speech, said, “Whosoever says Prophet Muhammad has passed away, I will cut his head off.” But Abu Bakr Sidiq read a Quranic verse which translates, “Muhammad is no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then turn back on your heels? If any did turn back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah; but Allah will swiftly reward those who (serve Him) with gratitude.”

So, Allah is there to create another Geelani. He is not bound to anyone

(Courtesy Auqib Javeed – Kashmir Links)