World

Kashmir’s Chief Cleric, Detained in Crackdown, Is Free After 4 Years

Kashmir’s chief cleric, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is also a top separatist leader and vocal critic of the Indian government, was released from house arrest after four years and allowed to lead prayers on Friday, a move that may signal New Delhi’s efforts to bring some normalcy to the region.

In 2019, India revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status and turned it into two federally controlled enclaves. At the time, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi detained thousands of Kashmiri Muslims, among them Mr. Farooq, and moved tens of thousands of troops into the region. Even pro-India leaders were jailed, essentially gagging the entire political and intellectual class.

For years, India’s Hindu nationalists had wanted to curtail the special laws enjoyed by Kashmir, which had its own constitution and flag, among other things. The mountainous, predominantly Muslim territory had turned into a tinderbox between India and Pakistan.

Officials in Kashmir said Mr. Farooq, who has long called for dialogue and reconciliation over the region’s future, was released by court order.

“We have always believed and participated in efforts of resolution through an alternative to violent means,” Mr. Farooq said on Friday.

He spoke at the central mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, before Friday prayers and was welcomed by thousands of his supporters. Many showered him with rose petals and candies, a centuries-old tradition.

“We are not so-called separatists or peace disrupters, but realists and resolution seekers,” he said.

After taking away Kashmir’s semiautonomous status, the Indian authorities sent a majority of Kashmiri separatist leaders and their supporters to prisons hundreds of miles away. Many continue to be held there.

Critic say the moves were meant to stifle dissent, but New Delhi insisted that it was trying to improve governance in the region and to cut down on militancy. The Kashmir Valley is home to as many as eight million people. But it has been mired in crisis for decades after an insurgency against Indian rule erupted in the 1980s.

Mr. Farooq’s moderate separatist political alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, has long led protests against New Delhi. In the last four years, those protests have largely ebbed after the prolonged crackdown.

Still, violence in the region has continued, with militants now carrying out more attacks in Jammu, which is the Hindu-majority region of Kashmir. New Delhi has long accused Pakistan of sending armed infiltrators into the region to foment trouble, a charge Islamabad denies.

Last week, two high-ranking Indian Army officers and a local police officer were killed during weeklong gunfights with separatists in the forests of southern Kashmir. Those killings were among the most notable Indian losses in recent years.

Videos from the Jamia Masjid Mosque in Srinagar, where Mr. Farooq spoke on Friday, showed him crying from the pulpit and his supporters chanting. But supporters’ usual demands for independence were not heard.

After his detention in 2019, Mr. Farooq said, the authorities directed the region’s media to avoid giving space to separatist leaders like him, with the goal of making them irrelevant.

“In these circumstances when there is absolutely no space for us, or for our opinion and aspirations and our concerns, what can we do?” he said. “This is the time to be patient and act responsibly.”

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