When Shabir Ahmed Shah was released from prison in 1994, over 500,000 Kashmiris came out on the streets to receive him. Such was the enthusiasm among the people that it took Shah’s cavalcade 12 hours from Banihal tunnel to cover a three-hour journey to Srinagar. But with the passage of time, the ‘Nelson Mandela of Kashmir’ largely lost his appeal. Two decades later, in his bid to retrieve his lost ground he is seen shuttling between the two factions of Hurriyat Conference.
In a no-holds-barred interview with Kashmir Narrator Editor Showkat A. Motta and Senior Correspondent Aasif Sultan, Shah spoke about his rise and fall, his parting ways with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s Hurriyat and then joining Syed Ali Geelani-led Hurriyat and, of course, the serious revelations made about him by India’s former spymaster Amarjit Singh Dulat in his autobiography. Excerpts:
In the early ‘80s you were seen as the youthful face of the resistance movement across entire Jammu & Kashmir; for the agencies and police you were probably the most sought-after pro-freedom leader at that time; then you spent time in jail; you were called the ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by Amnesty International; some even described you as ‘Nelson Mandela of Kashmir’; and then lots of ups and downs and here we are today. How do you look at your political journey over the decades?
I was first arrested in 1968 when I was 14 and studying in Class 9. I must say I wasn’t consciously involved with the movement that time. It was a natural reaction like that of today’s teenagers. My family, though educated, was apolitical. I was in and out of jails. In 1986, when I was in Central Jail Jammu, Muslim United Front (MUF) decided to fight elections. They chose my elder brother, who was a librarian, as their candidate for Islamabad town. He won with a majority. But I opposed MUF’s stand and argued that India wouldn’t allow them to represent the sentiments of the people in the Assembly. When I was released in 1988, I persuaded my brother and others to resign from the Assembly.
There are ups and downs in movements especially when the conflict lingers for a long time.
You were an icon of freedom for people in the state even when people like Mirwaiz Umar, Yasin Malik or even Geelani were to emerge in full bloom. You enjoyed a clean image, were seen as someone who had rendered personal sacrifices, were seen as a leader who could deliver liberation—so what happened to the magic of Nelson Mandela of yesteryears?
In a lighter vein, Mirwaiz Umar was not even born when I started my struggle for freedom. You must realize that even Prophets were not free from criticism. Kashmir is a conflict zone and there are many agencies that work to malign the clean image of Shabir Shah. I don’t meet people during the night. I have never met a sitting Indian PM and if that’s proven I will quit pro-freedom politics. I met many officials to put forth my point of view. I met with senior George Bush. From A S Dulat to Vajpayee I met everyone to try to find some solution to the Kashmir problem.
While you were an icon of freedom once but today you have to look for political identity as you hop from one party to another. How do you explain that?
I am a small man. When I was released from the jail in 1994, Geelani Sahib and late Abdul Gani Lone Sahib came to me with an offer to join the Hurriyat. Even Mirwaiz Sahib also offered to join. Though my friends were against my joining the Hurriyat, I decided to join it for the greater good of unity. I purchased Raj Bagh Hurriyat office; some criticised and many others ridiculed my idea of transforming the movement into an institution. In 2008, our well wishers came up with the idea of institutionalizing the movement. I welcomed the idea…after joining the Hurriyat, I along with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq decided to establish offices in different districts. Ours would have been a parallel Civil Secretariat. I had even generated some finance for that. But unfortunately it didn’t continue. There were invisible hands that didn’t want the freedom movement to flourish.
Who were those ‘invisible hands’?
After the mass movement of 2008, I was arrested and all the district offices were closed. Umar Sahib gave a statement that the offices were closed due to ‘financial crunch’. Next day our sister and Dukhtaran-i-Millat chief Asiya Andrabi asked, “whether this (pro-freedom politics) is all about money?” Later, Umar Sahib gave another statement that we are going to reshape the district units. But till now they stand closed. There were invisible hands working behind the scene.
Do you mean Mirwaiz Umar Farooq ordered closure of these Hurriyat units?
Yes. When I was released in 2011 it was decided that I will be the general secretary of the Hurriyat. But I refused, because I knew what they were up to. Umar Sahib again made a mistake. He listened to the advice of injudicious people. Promises that were made to us at the Martyrs’ Graveyard Eidgah when I joined the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat were not fulfilled. Finally in 2012, I asked my representative in Pakistan, Mehmood Sagar, to resign as Hurriyat convener.
…I was always for the unification of the two Hurriyats. I called a meeting in 2008 where Geelani Sahib, Mirwaiz Sahib and I had a closed-door discussion. We set up one committee from each Hurriyat faction. One was headed by Muhammad Ashraf Sahrai Sahib and the other by me. We prepared a document, which is still with me, and has the signatures of all Hurriyat leaders except Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, Maulana Abbas Ansari and Bilal Lone.
Then on the Martyrs’ Day on 13 July 2008, both Geelani Sahib and Mirwaiz Sahib jointly addressed a rally. Things were moving in a particular direction, but as soon as I was arrested some unknown pressure crept on Mirwaiz and the Hurriyat leadership split again.
Does that imply that agencies have infiltrated into the two Hurriyats?
I can’t say that. But I can say that we are living in a conflict zone and agencies here make such situations where unity becomes impossible. These agents are not soft hearted. They don’t have any mercy towards anyone.
Then you founded your own Hurriyat JK?
When I was attacked in Khanyar in 2012, I stressed that we are the real Hurriyat. Thus we came up with Hurriyat JK. That was the need of the hour and a platform to unify. But we didn’t give it a structure, everyone wanted me to head that Hurriyat. It was only for unification of the two factions.
But then you disbanded the Hurriyat JK?
We didn’t structure that thing in the first place. I just remained aloof from other factions.
Now when you have joined the Hurriyat (G), was launching the Hurriyat JK a tactical move or a failure?
You can’t say that it was a failure. It was just a platform to unify Hurriyat. It was not an attempt to float my own Hurriyat even as many people were in favour of it.
When Geelani Sahib made me general secretary of the Hurriyat (G), at the time of its announcement I was in jail. We haven’t sat together after this development.
How did you find Mirwaiz as a leader who claims to fight for Kashmir’s freedom?
Last time I met him was at Raj Bagh office. I told him that you belong to a great family. I gave him examples of Moulvi Ata Sahib and Moulvi Ama Sahib and I explained him their role in educational field. I told him that what you have achieved today is not only by virtue of your birth, rather it is due to the freedom movement. You are going to different nations and have great exposure. It is all due to the movement. I also told him that you have a bright future, why do you commit these wrongs?
What were these wrongs?
I told him that you have a responsibility to shoulder and a great role to play, which you are not playing. That is what I meant. This came straight from my heart.
There are some people who allege the Mirwaiz has aligned himself with the Indian state. Would you agree having been so close to him?
Everything is not revealed in an interview. Now the nation will decide. I don’t want to entangle myself in this debate. If I have shortcomings I have to introspect myself. Even if Mirwaiz Sahib wants to join the Hurriyat we will welcome him.
And what is your assessment of Geelani as a leader now that you been in his organisation for some time?
Mistakes do happen, but I would say that Geelani Sahib is rock solid and steadfast on the path of freedom movement. He remained firm when some people (former Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf) put forth the four-point formula.
But you supported Musharraf’s four-point formula?
No, I didn’t. I was always against it. Even in today’s newspapers you will find our statement asking for transparency in Indo-Pak dialogue process.
It’s argued that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah paved the way for Kashmir’s accession to India while former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became a willing facilitator in RSS’s dream of Kashmir’s complete integration with India. What are your views?
Regarding Sheikh Abdullah I would say lamho nay khata kee, sadiyoon nay saza payee. Our nation had pinned all its hopes on this man. People had thought that a man who would start his speeches with the Holy Qur’an wouldn’t betray them. There was no leader of his stature, we must accept that. When he signed the Accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975, he came to visit me in Srinagar Central Jail. MM Khajuria, who was DG Prisons then and Sheikh Ghulam Rasool of Ganderbal, who later became Chief Secretary of J&K, were with him. In their presence I told him there that you taught us to fight oppression but now you have made a U-turn. But he was drenched in pride and power and I was a prisoner. This nation gave him everything and in return he deceived us.
Coming to Mufti Sayeed, I would say that he indeed paved the path for Sangh Parivar and BJP in Kashmir, which otherwise would have never found any ground here. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti would go to martyrs’ homes and cry there, would voice solidarity with them. When in opposition she would criticize our house arrests but now in power she has further tightened the screws. I have been under house arrest for 180 days. No permission for Friday prayers, visiting relatives on deaths. It can’t get worse than this.
Do you think that the resurgence of militancy in the Valley is because the pro-freedom leadership has failed?
As a political activist I know that the mujahideen are in favour of a solution only if India agrees to the disputed nature of Kashmir. I am talking about the United Jihad Council, the amalgam of Kashmiri militants. They have always favoured tripartite talks. Now educated youth are very conscious of the movement. They have realized that when their leaders have voiced their right to self-determination they have been imprisoned. In rural areas of Kashmir, it is the Indian Army that calls the shots. They are the rulers there. What kind of reaction would you expect from a Kashmiri youth when he realizes that his sisters are not safe here? I would say our youth are being pushed to the wall. That is why they prefer to die an honourable death rather than die as cowards.
Former Indian spymaster AS Dulat has in his book ‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’ talked extensively about his long engagement with you. He has dedicated an entire chapter to you. You have not come out with any clarification. Why the silence?
The whole book is devoted to me. I want to ask only this much: the man who has stood firm and steadfast for 62 years of his life, do you want him to reply to these accusations? Besides, I don’t deem it fit to reply every Tom, Dick and Harry’s charges. Yes, I must agree that some portions of his book are correct. When he says that Narasimha Rao offered Prime Ministership (pre-1953 position) to me and I rejected, this is a fact.
Dulat is not any Tom, Dick or Harry. He writes and I quote, “I would tell him, ‘Shah Saheb, now we want to see you there. I want to come and stay with you (when you become the CM).’ Shabir would laugh about it…” Did this relationship and conversation go so far that you were actually warm to the idea of becoming a CM?
This is wrong, too. He used to meet me in the jail along with then DGP Ghulam Jeelani Pandit. I have been made to sit with a number of foreign secretaries and other top officials so that I may agree to their demand of accepting Chief Ministership. When I refused, they even offered me the PM post. That implies they were even ready to go back to pre-1953 era.
Again Dulat reords in his book, “Rao was so keen on Shabir that when I reached the stage of talking to him, the prime minister asked me to meet the finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. I went and met him. He asked me what it was all about, so I told him we were talking to some Kashmiris, some separatists. Singh’s query was whether Farooq (Abdullah) knew about this. ‘I’m not sure if the PM has briefed him,’ I said. ‘But maybe Farooq doesn’t need to know everything.’ This made Singh uncomfortable, though he did meet Shabir. The whole idea had been to make Shabir feel that the engagement was getting serious; that Narasimha Rao was keen on him.” Of all the people in his cabinet, why did Rao want you to meet only finance minister? Did you meet Singh?
Again a lie. I never met Manmohan Singh when he was finance minister or later when he became the PM of India. I did meet Manmohan Singh but it was at the G7 meet in Delhi where I also met the senior Bush. I even met Sonia Gandhi at 10-Janpath. It was not a secret meeting. When I came after meeting her, I told the press there that we want a solution to the Kashmir dispute.
It has been more than nine months since Dulat’s book hit the stands. Why did not you react to his charges earlier? Didn’t you deem them as serious?
Books are written and they are not gospel truths…I today refute all these allegations of Dulat through your magazine. I dismiss these charges as lies.
On one side you stand for Kashmir’s freedom and on the other you are discussing Chief Ministership, according to Dulat? Is this not dichotomy?
Dulat himself says, “Shabir did not take the bait”. This thing exonerates me if at all you want to base your entire argument on his book. They had might, yet I didn’t bow down to that pressure. Might is never right. India was talking through the barrel of the gun and offering Prime Ministership to me. This sounds odd.
How far do you feel Dulat and the Indian state were serious in offering you the CM or the PM post?
It was Chanakya politics. They wanted to allure me to accept their demands. But Shabir never succumbed. My only demand was, and is, that the solution of Kashmir dispute should be found according to the wishes and aspirations of the people of Kashmir.
But did you realise it then that they were putting you on the path of a political suicide where you would lose all your credibility and image?
Yes, indeed. They were trying to kill two birds with one arrow: they would offer me the PM post from one side and from the other side they would pressurize Farooq Abdullah to take over as CM. They wanted to do a Laldenga to me. (Laldenga led the Mizoram militant movement for freedom from India but later signed the Mizoram Accord with New Delhi in 1986, by which he became the CM. He died four years later). But Shabir Shah is not a fool. CM or PM post is not my destination.
For how long were you in touch with Dulat?
As Vajpayee’s point man on Kashmir whenever he used to visit me I would tell him that you have to first accept the disputed nature of Kashmir. We are not after power, I would tell him.
Are you still in touch with Dulat?
I am no more in touch with him. The communication has stopped since 2005.
After his revelations about you, how does Dulat come across to you—untrustworthy, deceitful, dishonest or what?
If I have read Dulat’s book correctly he says that Chidambaram, who was then the Home Minister, was very angry with him for failing to lure me. And this thing cost him his position. This thing sums up everything for you.
A person who cannot realise all these things is not fit to lead a freedom struggle. Right or wrong?
When I was first imprisoned in 1968, Dulat would have been a small employee. I would figure out everyone who would visit me in jails. You have to even gulp poison for the sake of movement and Shabir has had it.
What lessons have you learnt from your engagement with Dulat?
There were people from outside India who said that Dulat has done a mighty wrong by denting Shabir Shah’s reputation. But then what happened to me? Nothing.
If Dulat, or for that matter any other RAW or IB official, knocks your door would you still welcome him?
All communication channels with New Delhi stand closed. By the way, these channels were in the first place opened by our own people. However, I won’t name them. Let them not fear that I will disclose their names to anyone. If anyone wants to talk to me on Kashmir dispute I am open to talk at any forum.
What sort of help do you offer to all those youth and their families who die, get injured, crippled or are blinded by pellets when they lead the protests which the azadi camp supports and actually calls for?
I don’t want to publicize my philanthropic activities. I do it on personal level as much as I can do. For example, Shaheed Maqbool Bhat’s mother once said that among the Hurriyat leaders only Shabir Shah used to visit her. Mohammad Afzal Guru’s family is another example. This is our responsibility we can’t shirk it. We must organize it on a bigger level. We must open district offices and pay stipends to the families of martyrs.
Do you see yourself as the next in line to head the Hurriyat (G)?
I want to work as an ordinary member of the Hurriyat.
Recently, incarcerated leader Dr Muhammad Qasim Faktoo issued a statement suggesting that some pro-freedom leaders stage-manage their house arrest. Are you among them?
Qasim Sahib has, indisputably, rendered great sacrifices for the nation. He is the longest serving prisoner of Kashmir. I don’t think he would have said it with reference to Geelani Sahib, at least. I would like you to put this question to Qasim Sahib and tell him to name those people so that the nation would know.
Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar, Yasin Malik and many other Hurriyat leaders have had Indian passport at one point of time or the other. You never applied for one. Are you planning to apply in the near future?
I continue to receive invitations from the US, Pakistan and other nations, but I have said that we are fighting for freedom from India and my conscience will not allow me to carry an Indian passport. I do not consider myself as an Indian. You must realize that if I travel on Indian passport then I have no right to advocate the Kashmiri cause. But I hold no grudge against those resistance leaders who are travelling abroad to represent the movement. They must continue that.
Believe me, before meeting Allah, I wanted to undertake a pilgrimage to Makkah. But my conscience does not allow me to travel on Indian passport.