Pressured by radicals in their ranks, secessionist leaders are reluctant to join in dialogue

Fifteen days after troops drove through Srinagar, seeking to impose order in the wake of weeks of urban rioting that claimed 15 lives, Jammu and Kashmir's summer capital is discovering a new rhythm for normal life: a “normal” made up of shuttered shops, schools without students, and streets sealed off by razor-sharp rolls of wire.

It isn't the Army, though, that's enforcing the new normal. Last week, incarcerated Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's Tehreek-i-Hurriyat issued the latest in a series of protest calendars — calendars demanding, in essence, that Kashmir's residents impose a curfew upon themselves. The calendar lays out a schedule for shut-downs, sit-ins and street protests stretching from Monday to Friday. From dawn to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, Kashmir's people may shop, or do whatever else pleases them. Sunday is a day of rest.

For some Srinagar residents, the calendar seemed farcical — until protesters linked to the Tehreek enforced the schedule using rocks and wooden rods. In one bizarre incident, a group of women travelling for a wedding in north Kashmir were lashed with stinging-nettle.

New Delhi is now believed to be contemplating the contours of an initiative intended to break the political deadlock. Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram is reported to be preparing to consult with major political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, including secessionist groups like the Tehreek.

But the secessionists he needs to engage don't seem to want to talk — and even if they did, it's unclear if they wield effective power over their constituents.

New Delhi-based scholars Amitabh Mattoo and Radha Kumar, as well as former Navy vice-chief K.K. Nayyar, met with a wide spectrum of Kashmiri leaders during a private visit to Srinagar this week. Key secessionist leaders, a source linked to the initiative told TheHindu, refused to commit themselves to negotiations. Mr. Geelani suggested several confidence-building measures, including the release of his party colleagues from prison — but showed no sign he was willing to reconsider his long-standing opposition to dialogue with India.

Part of the problem is that a new leadership hoping to succeed the ageing Mr. Geelani seems determined to ride the tide of street violence as far as it will carry them. More than once, in recent months, Mr. Geelani has urged supporters to stop chanting inflammatory slogans supporting the Lashkar-e-Taiba — only to be ignored.

In June, he appeared to censure stone-pelting protesters while speaking at a condolence meeting held to mark the killing of Tufail Mattoo — the school student whose accidental death in police action sparked off the most intense street violence seen in years.

Mr. Geelani complained that stones were being hurled “on ambulances, local transport and common people.” Even if stone-throwing was legitimate “when used for self-defence against the police and Indian occupation forces,” Mr. Geelani said, it had “no justification if it is done for the sake of fun.”

His more radical deputies, though, appear disinclined to listen to the Islamist patriarch. In a June 20 interview, Islamist leader Massrat Alam Bhat described the stone-throwing protesters as “the future of our nation.” He suggested that parents worried about schooling should start educating their children at home instead. Instead of worrying about their children, Mr. Bhat went on, parents ought to be thinking about those children who were sacrificing their lives for Kashmir.

Earlier, Dukhtaran-e-Millat leader Asiya Andrabi had lashed out at Mr. Geelani for failing to join in last summer's protests against the alleged rape and murder of two women in south Kashmir — deaths Central Bureau of Investigation detectives later determined were accidental. “I don't think,” Ms. Andrabi said, “that he did what he was supposed to do as a leader.”

It doesn't take much to see where this criticism is coming from. In February, protesters who had assembled to mourn the death of Srinagar resident Wamiq Farooq in police action lashed out at their leaders. Both Mr. Geelani and his pro-dialogue rival, the Srinagar cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, spokespersons for the protesters told media, were “leading a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the people.” “We do not need any Geelani or Mirwaiz to lead our movement,” reporters were told.

Mirwaiz Farooq, who held covert meetings with Mr. Chidambaram last year, appears reluctant to swim against the tide. Earlier this week, the Mirwaiz expressed disappointment at the failure of the recent India-Pakistan talks in Islamabad, which he said constituted a setback to the prospects of peace.

“Right now,” he argued, “India and Pakistan are not in a position to move ahead. I do not think this is the right time for the Hurriyat to jump in.”

Last week, Manzoor Anjum, Editor of the influential Urdu-language Uqab, described the Tehreek's protest calendar as “a humiliation to the entire Kashmiri nation.” He attacked “leaders who deliberately and intentionally want to push our young generation into the abyss of ignorance and then have the cheek to talk about freedom.”

There are growing numbers of people in Srinagar who agree with that sentiment — but few able to make their argument on the streets.

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