“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Bukhri saheb is ignoring the basic tenant of Kashmiri leadership – which is to co-mingle religion and politics in order to harness every ounce of emotion out of hapless Kashmiris

(Syed Rafiuddin Bukhari, 72, was born in Kreri in Baramulla District. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Kashmir Media Group that publishes the English daily, Rising Kashmir, and soon-to-be launched Urdu daily, Bulund Kashmir. He had his early education in Sopore, Beerwah and then in Srinagar where from he got his post-graduate degree in English from the University of Jammu and Kashmir, and took up job as a teacher in higher education department. He taught English in various colleges in Kashmir took voluntary retirement in 1995 as Professor. Even though not a professional journalist by training, he has been extremely successful in the field, launching SANGARMAL, the first ever multi-coloured Kashmiri newspaper from Srinagar which is now in its fourth year. Later in 2008, he created the Kashmir Media Group. His interests are reading and writing and building value based institutions.)

Battle for Hazratbal and Kashmir Cry

Amid the larger battle for “Azadi”, a smaller one has begun to wrest control over Kashmir’s revered shrine Hazratbal. Without attaching much importance to his programme to offer Eid prayers at Hazratbal, the government arrested the hard-line separatist Syed Ali Geelani on September 8.

Apparently the arrest was effected three days before the Eid only to avoid public attention towards the fact that government did it to prevent the veteran leader from “using” Hazratbal to further his secessionist agenda. But it remains to be seen whether it makes any difference on ground.

Of late Geelani has emerged as the leader whom people follow. Apart from visiting other shrines and mosques in the Valley he had made it a point to offer Eid prayers at Hazratbal. He even turned down the offer of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq who had suggested that all resistance leaders should jointly offer the prayers at Eidgah to send a message that they were one. However, Geelani highlighted the importance of Hazratbal in the political arena of Kashmir and announced that he would himself visit the shrine on the day of Eid. His announcement sent shivers down the spine not only for the fact that he would turn the big congregation into a pro Azadi rally but also it would begin the process of wresting its control from the ruling National Conference which has traditionally enjoyed the supremacy at the shrine. By any imagination Geelani would seek the support for his “cause” from this important platform and that too on the eve of Eid. The ruling NC’s Chief Ministers from Late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to Omar Abdullah have generally offered Eid prayers at Hazratbal thus making it the permanent bastion for party’s political agenda. By putting Geelani behind bars that too in the backdrop of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s assurance to octogenarian leader that he would be given space for carrying forward his politics in a peaceful manner, it is clear that the government sees his announcement as a threat to “dislodge the Sheikh family” from Hazratbal. If the reports are to be believed Omar Abdullah has decided not to go ahead with his programme to offer Eid prayers at Hazratbal.

Hazratbal has otherwise been the centre-stage of politics in Kashmir. In 1963-64, it was the theft of Holy Relic at Hazratbal, which led to a political upheaval in Kashmir resulting in ouster of then Prime Minister Shamsuddin. It owes its political significance to none else but same Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who launched his political struggle from the same place. It was Late Mirwaiz Moulana Yousuf Shah who introduced him (Sheikh) to the people from the minarets of Jamia Masjid. It is a different case that in later years Sheikh dislodged Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah from Hazratbal. Sensing the importance of shrines in Kashmir’s socio-religious milieu Sheikh Abdullah consolidated the management of the shrines and mosques of Kashmir and set up Auqaf-e-Islamia which later became Muslim Auquaf Trust (MAT) and was rechristened as Muslim Waqf Board after its take over by the Mufti Syed-led coalition government in 2003.

Along with over 100 shrines and mosques, Sheikh Abdullah continued to hold his control over Hazratbal till 1953, the year when he was dismissed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. However, he made his appearance to a rousing reception at the Shrine on 21 February 1958 when he was set free for the first time after his dismissal. He continued to appear at Hazratbal as and when he was free. However, his biggest contribution is the reconstruction of the shrine, which stands alone in its architect and attraction in entire valley. Once Sheikh was finally released in 1964, his successor Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad formally handed over control of Auqaf to him as Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq who had by then replaced Bakhshi did not show interest in keeping the control of the religious body. Until 1990, the management continued to be with Sheikh family as Farooq Abdullah replaced his father as the chairman of MAT.

With the changing political landscape of Kashmir, the MAT came under the control of a new body with apolitical members of the Board headed by former Deputy Accountant General Ghulam Qadir Drabu. However, with the return of Farooq Abdullah in 1996, the Board was dissolved and a new setup took its control with most of the members owing allegiance to NC. The then secretary of MAT Sheikh Abdur Rashid was humiliated and put behind bars though he had played a crucial role in saving the MAT from various elements. Rashid later joined JKLF as its spokesman. I had the privilege of being on the Board of Trustees from 1993-2003 (in both non-NC and NC regimes) besides being member of general body from 1976.

With the change of guard in 2002, the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed led government had its eyes on MAT as also the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences as both were controlled by Sheikh family. Mufti is a known bête noir of the family. He got an Act in the assembly and took over both the institutions. As NC returned to power in 2009, it could not repeal the Act but Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took over as its chairman with most of NC loyalists as its members. So the cycle of losing and regaining the control over Hazratbal as also other shrines was complete in 2009.

However, the challenges thrown up by present political unrest cannot be delinked from these places of worship. Mirwaiz family has traditionally been holding control over Jamia Masjid wherefrom it propagated its political, social and religious agenda. The family has a notable contribution in the education sector as Mirwaiz Rasool Shah is also known as Sir Sayed-e-Kashmir. Even as Geelani is calling shots in Kashmir’s rejuvenated politics, he cannot afford to partake the space in Jamia Masjid at this juncture. But surely his goals of reaching Hazratbal are becoming clearer with each passing day.

However, at the time of his “softened” stand through five-point formula, the government’s action to curtail his programme may jeopardize any process for returning peace in the valley. As long as NC is in power it may not be difficult for Omar Abdullah to retain control over Hazratbal but to squeeze the political space for Geelani at this juncture may prove counter productive. It is time to put behind the mindset of how the political gains can be made. Any resolution will set its own course, as it will entirely depend upon people’s confidence as to who should retain the control and who should lose it.