For over two months now,as stone-pelting crowds have hit the streets and grounded the Kashmir Valley,this 39-year-old man has been in hiding and furiously at work. He is Masrat Alam, the most wanted separatist today, whose shadow lurks behind each protest via his angry solidarity videos and carefully crafted protest calendars. Theres a Rs 5-lakh police reward for any leads on where he may be.
After much persuasion, Alam agrees to meet The Sunday Express at a location that cannot be identified. An hour-long journey by car, auto rickshaw and then on foot, this reporter is escorted deep inside a congested neighbourhood. Only then does it get clearer why police find it hard to trace Alam. He doesn’t use phones, landline or cell and none of his men do either.
We know their (police and security agencies) tactics too well, Alam smiles. We are careful.
Being careful also means having a formidable network of young men and boys to ferry messages across the city and keep a round-the-clock tab on who comes to meet him and why.
Thats why almost a mile from his hideout,our auto-rickshaw is stopped in a narrow lane. A group of boys sitting on the pavement point to another young man,dressed in white,flashy slippers, who leads us down a corridor, dark and silent,up a narrow flight of stairs to a tiny room where Alam sits.
We dont throw stones for fun, he says. Throwing stones is not our hobby. The stone is a reaction. We want peaceful protests. We dont want our children to lose their lives. The problem is they (the security forces) dont let people protest. They impose curfew and restrictions. They open fire straight at people. Then it becomes difficult to control passions and people react by throwing stones.
So how can there be a let-up in this violent cycle?
You cant stop these protests, says Alam, then quickly adds: If (the government) allows protests, I can vouch for the fact that nobody will throw stones. But they want to crush us, rather than acknowledging that we have a genuine demand, their response is force and force alone. I am underground because they want to put me behind bars.
A militant commander who has turned into a firebrand separatist, Alam walked out of prison on bail on June 8, barely three days before the killing of 17-year-old student Tufail Ahmad Matoo in police firing which triggered the current unrest across the Valley.
He had served 21 months in custody under the Public Safety Act the law hes been booked under six times.
Considered an excellent organiser, Alam is chairman of Kashmirs Muslim League, a separatist group that looks at the Kashmir issue as an unfinished agenda of partition. Our agenda does not cross the borders of Jammu and Kashmir. Our aim is azadi,complete liberation from India, says Alam. Let people decide what they want. Our demand is right of self-determination. Syed Ali Shah Geelani is my leader and my inspiration.
Though Alam rebuts that he wants to be a successor to Geelani and his hardline legacy,it is clear that he is among the main contenders for leadership after Geelani.
Asked about his ideology and politics regarding the Kashmir conflict especially as he is viewed as an extreme hardliner within the separatist camp, Alam declines to comment, preferring to speak in more general terms.
To have a beard and pray is a matter of faith for me. To have a beard does not mean we are intolerant¿ it doesnt mean that we will not allow anyone else to live here. They (the government) have no answer to our genuine cause so they try to demonize us, he says. He raises the issue of minorities.We are Muslims and it is our responsibility to provide all protection to the minority community even while we ourselves feel insecure living here.
As evidence,he underlines the fact that this years Amarnath Yatra,which ended last week,reported no incidents. The government always portrayed a successful yatra as proof for the so-called return of peace in Kashmir. This year, they (the government) did everything to provoke people. Sixty four of our young men, most of them students and children, were killed. The Hazratbal shrine was desecrated but people didnt fall prey to their (governments) machinations. There has not been a single incident when protesters attacked any yatri while they were here, he says.
Isnt this a clear enough message that we are fighting for our rights and this struggle is not against people of any other religion but the state that has been crushing our voice with force and killings? The problem of Jammu & Kashmir is not that the people are protesting. It is the state that doesnt want to see the truth. They (the government) think that once the people stop protesting,the problem will go. It wont. It hasnt all these years.
Why have his protest calendars shut down schools and businesses?
What was 17-year-old Tufail Matoo doing when he was killed? He was returning from tuition. How many students are among the 64 of our young men who were killed? They (the government) are always looking for an alibi to discredit the protests, he says. We will never want the education of our children to be hampered. But look at the situation. Whether there is a strike call or not, the government imposes curfew to stop the protests. If they (the government) allow people to protest peacefully,everything will be fine. They wont because they dont want the people to raise their voice against injustice.
Alams fiery speeches, burned on to CDs, are a throwback to the well-worn hardline routine but freshly packaged as a direct message to the security forces, bypassing the government.
You thought your violence would kill our dreams for freedom? They have not. You thought our spirit would break; we would turn against each other? We will not.
Whats his message to the central government?
New Delhi should stop closing its ears. This is a resistance movement. This is a peoples movement and it has gone beyond the organisational set up of any group, says Alam. If I am not there tomorrow, the resistance will continue because its source of strength are people. A car honks outside, Alam peers through a little window. There is a knock at the door. Its getting late, a young man says. We need to leave.