An ‘agent’ of Kashmir

An interview with Hashim Qureshi

In January 1971, Hashim Qureshi, then 18, suddenly rose to fame when he hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Srinagar and diverted it to Lahore. The hijacking led India to ban Pakistani flights over its airspace, and crippled Pakistan's military efforts to tackle the emerging crisis in East Pakistan. Branded an 'Indian agent', Qureshi was incarcerated for nine years in a Pakistani jail. Thereafter, he went into self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. He returned to Srinagar in 2000, where he now lives. In conversation with Aditi Bhaduri, Hashim Qureshi, presently chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Democratic Liberation Front (JKDLF), talks about initiatives for peace in Kashmir, as well the emergence of a "United States of Southasia".

Was it difficult to return to Kashmir?
Yes, in many ways. I had a very comfortable life overseas. Moreover, immediately on my return I was arrested.
So what made you come back?
My land, my people, my nation. I left Kashmir when I was 18 years old. I was in exile for 30 years. I was living a comfortable life in the Netherlands, but I wanted to do something for this land. I could not watch it bleed.
You are a proponent of non-violence today, yet you were one of the first to resort to violence against the Indian state.
Yes, yes. I was very young, angry and disillusioned with India and its treatment of Kashmir, and I wanted to draw the attention of the world. But I did not have anything against the passengers, and I still remember their frightened faces. When we landed in Lahore, the first thing I did was to fold my hands and tell them, 'Brothers and sisters, we mean no harm to you, our struggle is against the Government of India'. We let all the passengers go. In prison, I read books by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I realised that the gun would not solve the problem of Kashmir. Especially now, there is no international support for violent movements. Taking the path of violence was a big mistake. Kashmiris were being used as pawns by Pakistan, and Pakistan itself has come to the brink of insolvency.
When did you form the Jammu & Kashmir Democratic Liberation Party? What is your programme and goals?
I had problems with the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front [which Qureshi helped to found], as I believed that the armed struggle in Indian Kashmir was not a freedom struggle and was being fought by Pakistan's ISI. So I resigned from the JKLF in 1993. The JKDLP was formed in 1994, in Kathmandu. I came from Holland, and people from Kashmir came. Our main agenda is a single Jammu & Kashmir: to unite Pakistani Kashmir, the Northern Areas – Gilgit and Baltistan – with Jammu & Kashmir here. We want to build up the economy. Today we run the Maqbool National Welfare Association, to look after orphans and widows who are the victims of militancy, empower women and run self-help groups. In the long term, we advocate the forming of a 'United States of Southasia' which will include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Like the European Union, it will have open borders, a visa-free regime and free trade. It will help end the enmity in this region, and help resolve the Kashmir problem.
Some critics say your only agenda is anti-Pakistan, and that you work for the Government of India.
From my freedom in 1980 till my exile in 1986, I was active in Pakistani Kashmir and Pakistani politics. But eight times I was banned from entering the district, and four times I was arrested. Today, even Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is for Indian Kashmir's accession to Pakistan, is saying that the Pakistani rulers are betraying us. If I am an Indian agent, why is there a case against me as a Pakistani agent? I was in prison for one year; I'm out on bail. There are cases against me under the Enemy Ordinance, the Official Secrets Act and for robbery and airplane-burning – the same charges for which I was tortured and incarcerated in Pakistan. But it is not the people who call me an Indian agent; it's only some stooges of Pakistan who do so, because they are following the maxim that anyone against them is an agent of someone else. Sixteen years ago, I spoke out against militancy, and said that Pakistan was helping to turn Kashmir into a graveyard. Now Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has said the same thing. This is proof enough that I'm only an 'agent' of Kashmir and the Kashmiri people. What was the state of affairs that you witnessed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir?
In Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, anyone who publicly supports or peacefully works for an independent Kashmir faces persecution. There is no High Court in Gilgit, and yet you have 30 lakh people living there! The region does not get royalty from the Mangla Dam, or its share of foreign exchange. Many have migrated to West Asia, Europe and other countries to find work, and they remit enormous amounts of foreign exchange to Pakistan. Yet, there are no industries, no medical colleges, no engineering colleges. 'Azad Kashmir' is azad in name only.
Are you planning to contest elections in the future?
I want to serve the people, and am doing that in a variety of ways. However, if the people want us to participate in the elections, we will try to fulfil their wishes. You criticised the Hurriyat and the JKLF for boycotting the recent roundtable conference. Yet, you yourself boycotted the second roundtable conference.
At the first roundtable conference, I had suggested that the second roundtable conference should take place in Srinagar, and also that political prisoners should be released. The Centre agreed, but did not fulfil its promise. I heard that the Hurriyat had asked the prisoners to be released after the roundtable conference so that the Hurriyat could claim success. In protest, I boycotted the second roundtable conference. But you have to keep the dialogue going, so I participated in the third round table conference held recently.
Are you for demilitarisation of the state?
Demilitarisation should also include Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. I will be extremely happy to see the streets of Kashmir free of the army.

You are one of the few who has spoken of the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandit community. What suggestions do you have for their return to the Valley?
Yes, at the very outset of the armed struggle to attain freedom, Kashmiri Pandits were pushed out. The community had contributed greatly to the education of Kashmir; they were true secularists. It is sad that we could not protect them and their property. Even if we assume that the Pandits left at the behest of Governor Jagmohan – which is not true at all – what has been the fate of those Pandits who stayed back? It is the moral, national and religious duty of every Kashmiri to go to the Pandits and bring them back to the Valley. Without them there can be no settlement of Kashmir. The Pandits are part and parcel of the Kashmiri identity. But I don't support 'Panun' Kashmir [the Pandits' demand for a Kashmiri homeland] because they want a separate land – and then Jamat-e-Islami will also want a separate land, and again there will be a 1947-like situation.
So what kind of azadi do you envisage for Kashmir? Given its geopolitical situation, do you think independence is viable?
I want independence for both Kashmirs – Indian and Pakistani, including Gilgit and Baltistan. Then we can fight against poverty and illiteracy, instead of fighting against one another. This is the 21st century: we need computers, not communalism; we need to open borders for trade, for people-to-people exchange, for peace, for progress. Azadi is possible if India, China and Pakistan can guarantee it. Jammu & Kashmir can be the road to Central Asia. We can have a visa-free entry system, it can be a tourist state, and it can even be semi-independent, without an army. But we will need guarantees from the surrounding countries.
You have advocated freezing the Kashmir issue for 20 years.
Yes, in the 'freeze period' the borders should be opened and trade relations should be increased. Armed and unarmed foreign nationals should leave Kashmir, and both India and Pakistan should evolve a joint mechanism. Only defence, currency, foreign affairs and communication should remain with the two states, and all the remaining powers should be delegated to the people of Kashmir, including Gilgit, Baltistan and Azad Kashmir.
That may take some time. What initiatives would you suggest that can be implemented immediately?
Human-rights violations must stop immediately. The army must stop custodial killings, fake encounters, humiliation and torture of the common people. Roads must be built, infrastructure must be developed, the environment must be cleaned up, the education system should be developed and jobs must be found for the youth. There must be investment in the state, to generate employment. Families of the disappeared and the victims of militancy must be taken care of. The Indian prime minister's promise of 'zero tolerance' of atrocities towards the people of Kashmir must be felt by the people. The government of India should show magnanimity, and declare a unilateral ceasefire.

'Sighting' is a new space, in which the editors of Himal will offer readers an update on personalities or subjects long out of the headlines.

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