For New Delhi, Bhat is the instigator in chief who can galvanise anti-India dissent in Kashmir. The 50-year-old incarcerated separatist leader was recently named as Syed Ali Geelani's successor.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir — The death of Kashmiri resistance leader Syed Ali Geelani has left a gaping hole in the separatist leadership of India-held Kashmir. Now the name of an incarcerated leader Masarat Alam Bhat is making rounds on the Internet as Geelani's successor.
The last time Bhat was seen in Kashmir was on April 14, 2015, the day he was returning home from several years of imprisonment in New Delhi. A large crowd welcomed him at the Srinagar airport chanting pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan slogans.
A broad-shouldered man with a long beard, Bhat is known for his firebrand rhetoric, slamming the Indian government for its bad human rights record in Kashmir and ruling the disputed territory with an iron fist.
For New Delhi and much of the ultranationalist Indian media, Bhat is an "instigator" of crowds, a troublemaker. The day he was released in 2015, the Indian news channels engaged in sabre rattling, asking the government to send him back to prison.
Just as Geelani snubbed the offers of bilateral negotiations with India in his lifetime, Bhat has displayed a similar repulsion toward New Delhi. Like Geelani, he also rejects any talks with New Delhi without Pakistan's presence on the table and wants the UN's referendum to be implemented for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Like Geelani, he has been a strong advocate of Kashmir's merger with Pakistan, a position that makes him a "threat" in the eyes of the Indian state.
Therefore, in the spring of 2015, Bhat's release from prison was short-lived. Two days later, he was arrested again and sent to New Delhi's Tihar jail. For the next six years, his name disappeared from the news cycle and the Internet.
A week after Geelani's demise on September 1 this year, Bhat's name reappeared on social media, with many wondering whether he would succeed Geelani as the chairman of Tehreek e Hurriyat, a separatist party in the disputed territory. Almost a week later, the party did name Bhat as its new chief.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Kashmiri political analyst and an academician, says that Bhat's succession was apparent as he held one of the key political positions in the party.
“There is nothing special about Masarat Alam Bhat being appointed as the chairman of Tehreek e Hurriyat,” Hussain told TRT World.
“After Syed Ali Shah Geelani his deputy Ashraf Sehrai was supposed to succeed the position but he is not alive. Masarat Alam was Secretary-General so automatically being next in rank responsibility came upon his shoulders”.
Born in 1971, Bhat attended Tyndale Biscoe School, one of the leading Christian missionary schools in Indian-controlled Kashmir. He lost his father at the age of nine. He was raised by his mother and uncle. And his family ran a clothing business
Bhat had a normal childhood but a year before he entered his 20s, an armed insurgency against the Indian rule erupted in the Jammu and Kashmir region. By 1990, Bhat was arrested for the first time on the charges of having joined the armed guerilla movement.
From that year onwards, Bhat's life changed — an unending era of detention began for him. In the early 1990s, Bhat joined a pro–Pakistan religious outfit named Muslim League led by Mushtaq Ul Islam, another separatist leader imprisoned for life in an Indian jail.
Bhat was again arrested in 1993 and released in 1997. Two years later, he was sent back to prison for another six years.
“Until 2008 people didn’t know him," said Bhat's uncle Farooq Ahmad Bhat.
The year 2008 was a watershed moment for the region's separatist discourse. Almost every regional expert believed that the Kashmir dispute was almost over as New Delhi had gained an upper hand over the armed rebels and simultaneously engaged Islamabad in a dialogue process that brought to the fore the famous Four Point Formula crafted by then-Pakistan's President General Parvez Musharraf.
The separatists' politics in Kashmir was heavily influenced by that dialogue process, with moderate factions gaining dominance over the hardliners.
But one discreet policy move carried out by the New Delhi-backed government in India-held Kashmir threw a wrench into the works of India's security agencies, disrupting the status quo. The transfer of a piece of land to a Hindu shrine board in southern Kashmir triggered a sense of insecurity across the region. Muslim Kashmiris, who are in a majority in Jammu and Kashmir, felt that New Delhi was trying to foment a demographic change with the land transfer being the first step toward it.
Almost the entire 2008 summer went by with tens of thousands of Kashmiris participating in anti-India protests. In response, the Indian police shot dead 45 protesters and injured hundreds more.
Exposed to police brutality, a large section of Kashmiri youth, who were born in the early 1990s and grew up hearing stories of military crackdowns, detentions and custodial killings, felt alienated from India.
That was when Kashmir's hardline separatist politics took the centre stage with leaders like Massarat Alam Bhat cultivating the support of the region's youth and organising dissenting crowds.
“I witnessed every episode of his life, the major transition from a Biscoe boy to a grown-up resistance figure and his journey of lockups,” Bhat's uncle Farooq said, sitting on the lawn of his two-storey house in Srinagar.
Bhat's family vividly remembers his childhood and teens but they don't know much about his adult life, most of which he spent in various Indian jails. He has been booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA)—a law that allows authorities in Kashmir to detain any person for up to two years without trial. He has been booked under PSA 38 times and jailed for a period of 23 years in total.
“He may have hardly been home for just 200-300 hours. Even after getting married, he stayed with his wife only for a couple of months,” Farooq said.
Police shot dead 45 protesters in 61 days
“He was a very gentle person, respected everyone and always talked in a mild tone at home. Earned respect in the locality as he remained firm on his ideology but was never given a chance to balance his social and personal life. I remember in 2014 when he was released after four years of imprisonment, the police came in and re-arrested him in a matter of minutes. He hadn't even stepped inside his house”.
In 2010, when Bhat was out of prison for a brief period, he was one of the key organisers of the ‘Quit Kashmir movement’.
Police launched a massive manhunt to catch Bhat and his associates. Bhat managed to escape from the police on several occasions by changing hideouts at frequent intervals. The police succeeded in arresting him after putting a reward of rupees 10 lakh [$ 13581] for any information leading to Bhat's hiding place.
During the 2010 protests, he encouraged the slogan Rugdaa-Rugdaa, which meant wiping off the presence of India from Kashmir.
In 2015, in an interview with a New Delhi based publication Hindustan Times, Bhat denied every allegation of being a terrorist saying, “People were killed by armed forces; youth were showered with bullets. If they say I instigated people, let there be an international probe. Let the world know how the 120 youth were killed [in police firing in 2010]. I am not a terrorist, nor were the people who came out to protest. Did I instigate all of them? They were genuine freedom lovers who were demanding their right to be free. I am no Osama bin Laden. I am also a freedom-lover who has spent 17 years in jail for a dream of freedom.”
While Bhat has proved himself in amassing large crowds, he is also known for showing disdain toward the moderate separatist factions and their leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Like his predecessor Geelani, Bhat also considered Mirwaiz as a ‘traitor’ who "betrayed" the Kashmir cause.
Geelani and Bhat blamed Mirwaiz for engaging with New Delhi at a time when India and Pakistan were debating then-President Musharraf's Four Point Formula, which sought to address the Kashmir conflict by making its de-facto border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir fluid, encouraging trade and people to people contact, while the armies of the two countries would continue to remain entrenched on the two sides of the Line of Control.
For Geelani and Bhat, the formula was a ruse to rob Kashmiris of the UN-sanctioned right to self-determination.
“The differences between Masarat Alam and others were basically a divergence of approaches instead of approach between Hurriyat lead by Geelani and Hurriyat lead by Mirwaiz, and the root of that divergence was General Musharraf’s approach Hurriyat (Mirwaiz) endorsing it while as Hurriyat (Geelani) opposing it”, Kashmir expert and former law professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain said.
“At this juncture, there is neither General Musharraf nor his soft posturing an issue. Present Pakistan government, unlike Musharraf, subscribes to a solution through the UN resolution of the Kashmir dispute”.
Speaking to TRT World, a young Kashmiri man studying political science, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Indian government's military policy and absence of any civilian and democratic process are the factors that prove leaders like Bhat right in the eyes of many Kashmiris.
“The Indian state has imposed silence on Kashmir. People are disoriented and feel hopeless. Masarat Alam Bhat, given his popularity and fame of being unapologetic about his politics, is capable of reigniting the fervour of resistance among the people,” he says.