Almost four decades ago, two men from the Valley would begin a journey that spanned four countries across the globe. In this second part of the four-part series on the role of Diaspora of Jammu and Kashmir, the author talks about the duo who would become persons of interest for Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC, American as well as British politicians, and numerous government agencies.
Born into a farming family in a Pudsoo Village, Shopian, Dr. Ayyub Thakur’s humble roots didn’t stop him from obtaining a PhD in Nuclear Physics from University of Kashmir. He would go onto establish three organizations in London – the Justice Foundation – Kashmir Centre, Mercy Universal, and the World Kashmir Freedom Movement (WKFM).
The first functions as a think tank that publishes reports and holds seminars. The second is a charitable body while the third is a group of umbrella organizations and expatriate factions pushing for the resolution of the Kashmir issue.
Thakur was relentless in lobbying for the self-determination, demilitarization, and the human rights situations back home. Hence, the Indian Embassy officials had their work cut out for them in England.
Like many politically-active J&K state subjects abroad, WKFM still seeks to help develop policies for countries that don’t have policies on Kashmir and developing a narrative for people whom they feel have the incorrect viewpoint.
Such lobbying is multi-layered.
Since the university is a marketplace of ideas that grooms young minds inside and outside the classroom, student clubs can help get the word out through events and panels. The political and diplomatic level though requires influence in power corridors. Thakur’s son Muzzammil and current WKFM President and Justice Foundation’s Executive Director, only got involved with the movement after his father’s death.
He tells an interesting anecdote about his father’s funeral that took place at London’s Regent’s Mosque in 2004. “Even people from the Indian Embassy, some of them might have been intelligence personnel, came to pay their respects as they considered him a formidable foe,” he narrates.
Although very academically inclined, the late Ayyub Thakur was very active on the political front as the founder of the J&K Students Islamic Organization in 1974. The student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Jamiat-e-Talba, would later absorb this group. Before returning to academia in 1978, he had a brief stint at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Zakura, Srinagar.
As a moulder of young minds, he galvanized students into intellectually combating the Indian state only to be expelled from his position by New Delhi in 1980. Eventually, the authorities had enough of Thakur’s questioning of the state’s accession to India and staunch advocacy of self-determination at seminars in the Valley and internationally. He fled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where a job as a lecturer at the King Abdul Aziz University was waiting for him.
Later, he would again immigrate – this time to the UK where he became a fixture in the pan-Kashmiri British diaspora there. Professor Nazir Ahmed Shawl would take over the Justice Foundation after Thakur’s death. Not too far away, Barrister Majid Tramboo also formed his Kashmir Center in Brussels.
Before Ayub Thakur’s temporary sojourn in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom was also a stepping-stone for a young Kashmiri from Wadwan, Budgam. A Jamaat stalwart, he was known for his campus activism from his Sri Pratap College days only.
When he was a student at the Aligarh Muslim University, the Jamaat sought to do a Seerat Conference in Kashmir. At a very young age, Ghulam Nabi Fai was tasked with getting the Imam of the holy mosque in Makkah to attend that conference. Merely two weeks before the conference, Fai pulled off a coup and got the Imam-e-Kaaba to attend. The liaising between bodies like the Indian Consulate in Jeddah and the Kingdom’s Consultative Legislative Assembly Council paid off.
Yet when he and his organization passed a resolution about the right to self-determination as per the UNSC Resolution 47, the authorities were onto him.
Fai narrates the ensuing journey into exile as if it happened yesterday.
“I got word that the police was onto me and that I shouldn’t leave town by air since the airport was alerted,” he remembers. He had his passport and a letter inviting him for a conference in Riyadh. That letter stated he could collect his visa from the Saudi Consulate in Mumbai. A cab driver and confidante of Fai took him all the way to Banihal via Qazigund where transportation was arranged for him.
After an exhausting trip from Banihal to Jammu, he took a flight to Mumbai. “Upon landing in Mumbai, I went right away to the Saudi Consulate. Within 48 hours, I was in Jeddah. It was the happiest day of my life,” Fai recounts.
With New Delhi clamping down on activity prior to Fai’s and Thakur’s exits, many people with similar ideologies were fleeing to Europe and the Middle East. Those going to the latter were mostly from Jamaat or its student wing. Saudi Arabia often served as a crossroads for qualified, sharp, and passionate activists to collaborate before they scattered themselves into other parts of the world.
Like Ayyub Thakur, Fai could have taught at King Abdul Aziz University. However, the Saudi Minister of Education who was in charge of the King Faisal Foundation, granted him a scholarship to pursue a PhD at Temple University in Philadelpia, Pennsylvania, USA. A few months before departing for the US, Fai met his compatriot Ayyub Thakur for whom he arranged a job at King Abdul Aziz University.
As Ayyub Thakur’s counterpart in America, Fai’s aim was also to get international support for Kashmiris.
“Ayyub and I held our first international Conference in 1990 in the Marriott Hotel just outside of Washington. Big names like Republican Congressman Dan Burton and Liberal MP Lord Eric Lubbock came to that conference. Even some Pandits came,” Fai remembers. The attendance of a mainstay in American foreign policy circles and a renowned British human rights champion of those times was quite a feat.
While the WKFM might have been based in the UK and conceived through the Makkah Declaration in Saudi Arabia, it had officially taken shape in Washington DC alongside Ghulam Nabi Fai. This was around the time Fai established its American equivalent, the Kashmiri American Council (KAC).
Unlike the early days of the WKFM and KAC, the Internet is now among the many readily accessible avenues for information about the happenings in J&K. How to use that information, shape it into actionable policy suggestions, and incentivize the pursuit of specific policies for a legislator – therein lies the challenge of lobbying.
But even after learning from his perfectionist father, Muzzammil finds the bureaucratic red tape and complexities of constituencies to be vexing. An MP could be a Muslim or a Kashmiri but that doesn’t mean his/her constituents are. According to him, some Muslim community leaders take advantage of their position and use causes that are dear to their constituencies as planks to maintain their power. “People who are unconnected to Kashmir tend to be completely neutral, mouldable, and easier to influence,” Muzzammil says.
Moreover, relaying the right information to the right legislator is imperative. But even then, lobbying does come with its challenges as well.
Fai once printed 200 copies of an Asia Watch report titled Kashmir Under Siege in the 1990s. An acquaintance from Capitol Hill, the building which houses the legislative branch of the US government, told him to distribute copies of those reports among the Congressmen’s and Senators’ offices.
One particular legislator he remembers is the erstwhile Democratic Senator from Ohio, Howard Metzenbaum. After giving a few copies of the report to Metzenbaum’s office, one of the staffers told him that he might be able to do something for Kashmir. This was an encouraging sign.
Fai followed up with a phone call to the office and then the legislative aide said, “We will do something.” He inquired further as to what they would do. The staffer responded, “Why don’t you come by? I will talk to you.”
Although when he made the second trip to the office, he was told, “After you left the last time, the Senator asked that you draft a resolution on Kashmir. But there was a leak and the Indian Embassy came to know that you are disseminating the resolution.”
Senator Metzenbaum’s staff received 25-30 letters from Ohio countering Fai’s claims, mostly from the mainland Indian-American diaspora mobilized by the Indian Embassy. “Our hands are tied. Our constituents are telling us ‘no way,’ ” the aide relayed to Fai.
The Budgam-native implored him, “That doesn’t mean the situation has changed in Kashmir.” The staffer then suggested, “We got 25 letters. You arrange for 50.” Fai tapped into his extensive network of Kashmiri contacts and Muslim Student Association Groups. The Indian Ambassador at that time, Abid Hussain, was the man responsible for the mobilization of the Mainland Indian-American community.
In the mid-90s, it was the then Senate Foreign Relations Committee head, Jesse Helms, who forced the Indian Ambassador’s hand by putting American developmental aid to India on hold. Abid Hussain’s counterpart, Abida Hussain, was also helpful during this ordeal.
That aid only went through when Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Ghani Lone, and Shabir Shah were released from Tihar Jail. “When I got word that the Indian Ambassador had notified his American counterparts of Geelani’s, Lone’s, and Shah’s release, it was a historic moment,” recollects the former KAC chairman.
Fai understood that if one knew the tricks of the lobbying trade, s/he can do wonders. He would go onto interact with leaders of Pakistan, America, and India to push for a resolution of the issue. His op-eds in widely circulated outlets of those countries would also be consulted.
In 2011 though, the KAC founder was under arrest for violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Entities representing foreign governments aren’t prohibited from doing their bit to lobby with American officials. The FARA legislation only requires that those carrying out these activities officially disclose to American authorities their relationship with the foreign government.
The FBI arrested Fai for acting on behest of the Pakistani government to sway Washington’s policies on Kashmir. “I might have taken money from the government of Pakistan, but I was always acting on behalf of the Kashmiri people, not as a Pakistani agent,” he contends.
This would render the Kashmiri American Council dormant compared to its more active days. Fai is now Secretary General for the quasi-successor to the KAC, the World Kashmir Awareness Forum.
Albeit in a reduced capacity, Fai still is very much a part of the discourse on J&K in the diaspora, be it at seminars in Turkey or welcoming visiting politicians from Azad Kashmir. While there is a small population of Azad Kashmiris in the United States, it surely doesn’t outnumber the population in the United Kingdom.
The help from their LoC comrades, namely the huge British Kashmiri population, could not be more appreciated by Muzzammil and the Valley Kashmiris. “My best friends are Azad Kashmiris whom I grew up around. Their community has been kind by supporting our cause and opening doors for us. In many ways they have been crutches for us and we hope they will continue with their generosity,” Muzzammil says.
In a roadside roundtable last year at London’s Parliament Square chaired by Majid Tramboo and Professor Shawl, the three main JRL Leaders all joined via telephone. The common thread between Geeelani’s, Malik’s, and Mirwaiz’s speech was their need for people to come under the leadership of the Valley Kashmiris.
“Lord Nazir, Fahim Kayani’s Tehreek-e-Kashmir, and other similar diaspora organizations are doing a fantastic job. We hope we can share each other’s experiences and resources,” Muzzammil adds.
Emphasizing the indigenous voice supplemented by the Azad Kashmir one, Muzzammil stresses, “We just hope that Azad Kashmiris don’t tread on the toes of those actually representing the causes. We hope they offer their platform to indigenous Kashmiris who are better connected to the ground situation and can more eloquently inform the public of those realities.”
Although other voices from Indian Administered Kashmir have begun to emerge, namely the Valley’s Hindu minorities and the Jammu province’s Dogras. Nonetheless, Muzzammil says, “When people say that there is a [Pakistani] proxy war in Kashmir, then these voices are torchbearers of proxy narratives too.”
Regardless of one’s views about these emerging perspectives, they are gaining some traction.
To be continued…