Considering his age, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who is just 31, shoulders a huge responsibility in trying to get the best deal for Kashmiris from the ongoing India-Pakistan peace talks.
The Mirwaiz is the hereditary title for one of Kashmir's most important religious leaders. He is also the imam (head priest) of the prestigious Jama Masjid of Srinagar.
Umer Farooq became the 12th Mirwaiz of Kashmir at 16, after unknown assailants gunned down his father Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohammad Farooq in May 1990.
Emerging as the most acceptable face of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella organisation of separatist parties, he will be playing an important role in the Kashmiri politics of today and tomorrow.
He heads the Awami Action Committee, one of the member groups of the Hurriyat, and as acting chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, he is trying to get an important role for separatists in the quest for a Kashmir solution.
He spoke to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt in Srinagar. The first of a two-part interview:
What are the issues you want to take up with New Delhi?
We believe the development of Kashmir is fine, it's needed but the real issue is that India has to realise the fact that the Kashmir problem cannot be solved through military measures. Neither militancy nor military can get results. India has to show a positive indication by talking to Kashmir as well as Pakistan.
As India has already been talking about Kashmir to Pakistan, India is talking to Kashmiris too, now let the next round be between Pakistan and Kashmiris. We can bring Kashmiris together, even people with guns in their hands. We should be allowed to pursue the problem through peaceful means rather than military means. We should be allowed to talk to all the parties. Even Pakistan can't do it alone.
You know well, India is unlikely to agree to tri-party talks.
That is something which has to change. If you look at the history of Kashmir, bilateralism has failed in Kashmir. Right from 1947 to till today. From Tashkent to Shimla to Lahore and Agra. All these commitments haven't survived on the ground because Kashmiris were not involved. Same is the case with the agreements between Kashmiris and India. Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah and Rajiv Gandhi-Farooq Abdullah accords have failed because Pakistan was not involved. I think if you are talking about lasting peace in the region all three will have to work together for it.
And when I say Kashmir, I just don't mean the valley, I talk about the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Why is a moderate leader like you, whom Delhi listens to, toeing Pakistan's line?
It's not about toeing Pakistan's line. It's a reality. A hardcore reality of Kashmir is that you can't get peace here unless you talk to people who are a hindrance to peace. You have to acknowledge this fact before searching for any solution. You are having a triangular dialogue. India is talking to Pakistan and India is talking to Kashmir. Let Kashmir now talk to Pakistan. Unless the circle is completed you can't achieve peace.
Aziz bid to unite Hurriyat factions fails
You simply can't have a bilateral say on Kashmir. It's a historical fact. I don't understand why the Government of India is not accepting it? Kashmir is a dispute. It is a problem.
Is it your condition to restart a dialogue with New Delhi?
No. The Hurriyat has not said so. We believe that it will be a huge benefit for India and Kashmiris if we are allowed to go to Pakistan and if we are able to achieve a major breakthrough in Pakistan. In the sense that if we are able to get Kashmir militant leadership on the dialogue table all of us will benefit.
But in any case you are in touch with Pakistan. You have been meeting them inside and outside India.
It's not question of talking to Pakistanis only. It's important to talk to Kashmiris living across the ceasefire line. We have to talk to people in Gilgit. We must talk to the mujahideen in Azad Kashmir. That's why we press for a Pakistan trip. We should be allowed to go to Pakistan and we shall try to bring them around, we shall convince them to renounce their approach and come to the table for talks. Why should it be seen as the reunion of people who are anti-India?
Then, what is it?
We believe that solving the Kashmir issue is in the national interest of the people of India. The people of India are also suffering because of Kashmir. It makes no sense to have more than six lakh troops here and spend rupees six crore a day. It's high-time that we live together. We exist together. Now, on a single visa you can travel almost around the whole continent of Europe. Let the issue be dealt at a similar level.
Is your Pakistan trip part of your roadmap for a solution for Kashmir?
Oh, I believe the people of India should look at Kashmir from a different angle. Forget about India and Kashmir. Think of Kashmiris who have suffered so much. Families are divided. Half of my mother's family is in Azad Kashmir. I have never met them, I have never seen them. Apart from the political problem, it's a human problem.
The people of India should re-look at Kashmir. Kashmir is not about territory only, it's about people.
How do you see the attempts to start a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad?
That's also not starting. The issue of travel documents is holding it up. The Hurriyat is saying let us have a rahdari system where the local district collector should give a permit for going to the other side. You will not need a passport and visa.
The Rahdari system was in place till 1953. Unfortunately it's not happening. I don't know what's the problem in reviving that system. For India, the problem is about the people of Kashmir. If it's about the land of Kashmir, India should say we want land and not people. If it's not so, then let the people of Kashmir decide. Let India and Pakistan allow Kashmiris from both sides sit, interact and talk. We are the primary party and we have not been allowed to meet each other. This is total injustice.
Is your movement a fight for Kashmiri identity or is it a struggle to preserve the secular fabric of Kashmir?
I think it's a fight for both. We don't say give freedom to Kashmir. We say give freedom to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmir fight is not only the fight of the Muslims. No. We are talking about Pandits, Buddhists. Our Kashmir has people of Jammu and Ladakh region, people of Azad Kashmir, where we also, have Baltistan.
And the first issue I would like to raise is that we are not part of the Indian sub-continent. We don't have Punjabi culture. We are more like Central Asia than South Asia. I don't know how we got stuck with South Asia. Look at food and culture and the ethnic part of it. How well we resemble with people of Central Asia. That Silk Route passed through our land. We feel that historic injustice has been done.
Now, let the people of Kashmir decide what course of action they want to take to ascertain their future. When we are talking about the Kashmir solution we are not talking on the basis of our Muslim identity. Not at all. We are talking on behalf of the entire state.
'Let India show some flexibility, na
Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images