Kashmiri Impelled to Lead by His Father's Death - By Raymond Bonner Back   Home  
As a teenager, Umar Farooq had the typical conflicts an only son has with a busy and important father, his being the spiritual leader of Kashmir's Muslims and political leader of the struggle for an independent Kashmir.

Because Umar, an honor student, knew how to type, his father called upon him for letters and reports. "I would get annoyed," Umar recalled. His father tried to impress upon him the importance of the struggle. "I would not take it seriously," Umar said.

"My father was totally committed," he went on. "I remember when I passed my high school exams, a major exam, I passed them with good numbers. My father didn't call me. He was at the office. And he remained at the downtown office for a week or so. I got so angry with him. I didn't speak to him for four or five days. Then he called, and said, `I'm sorry.' "

Three months later, on May 21, 1990, Umar's father, Maulvi Mohammed Farooq, a moderate voice in the Kashmiri struggle, was assassinated. Umar was at home, heard shots, ran outside with his mother and two sisters and found his father lying in a pool of blood.

Reluctantly, Umar, over the objections of his mother, put aside his thoughts about working some day in Silicon Valley. At the age of 17, he became the mirwaiz, or chief preacher.

This May 21, at a rally commemorating his father's murder, another moderate Kashmiri separatist leader, Abdul Ghani Lone, was assassinated. "I lost another father figure," Mr. Farooq said, sitting in the garden of his house, where his father had been murdered. "On the same day. In the same way."

Mr. Lone was 70 years old, a veteran of the independence struggle and a moderate voice in a movement that includes hard-liners and men with guns.

Now, all the burdens have fallen on Mr. Farooq, who, like his father and Mr. Lone, is determined to find a political settlement to the Kashmir crisis. In spite of pressure, he does not call on his followers to take up arms, but neither does he condemn them, not, he insists, when India will not even sit down to talk.

At 29, Mr. Farooq, who was admitted to a graduate program at Columbia University in 1998 but turned it down because of political exigencies at home, is one of the most powerful leaders in Kashmir, a place that nature made a paradise and man seems determined to destroy with war.

He is a founder of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of 23 political parties and organizations. As mirwaiz, he is the spiritual leader of several million Kashmiri Muslims. Islam in Kashmir, influenced by Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam, is moderate. Most women go unveiled.

"Whatever he says, they will follow," said Yusuf Jameel, a journalist here in Srinagar and neighbor of the Farooq family, who remembers watching Umar walk home from school and being offered bananas and mangos by every fruit seller because he was the mirwaiz's son. "He is trusted by his own people."

BUT hated by many others for his plain-spoken manner.

Those who could make him a martyr like his father and Mr. Lone include Kashmiri militants who have had the backing of the Pakistani intelligence agency and who believe that only violence will deliver independence.

The Indian government, which considers Kashmir's place in the Indian state to be a nonnegotiable issue, will not talk to him.

Educated at a Christian missionary high school, Mr. Farooq is a thoroughly modern man. He has a Web site, is well traveled and is about to marry a Kashmiri-American, Sheeba Masoodi, who was born and raised in Buffalo. "It is a totally arranged marriage," he said.

They met last year, when Ms. Masoodi came to talk to him about women's education. She was apparently smitten with the man of keen intellect, a professorial image reinforced by wire-rim glasses, neatly trimmed beard and thick dark hair parted in the middle.

Ms. Masoodi became good friends with Mr. Farooq's eldest sister, Humaira.

"One day my sister said, `What do you think about her?' " Mr. Farooq said. "I said, `I met her a couple times, I have no objection.' "

They became engaged, Ms. Masoodi returned to Buffalo, and they got to know each other through e-mail, Mr. Farooq said as he sat in the garden filled with red and pink roses where the wedding will take place.

At recent Friday Prayers at his mosque here, which can hold 33,000 people, Mr. Farooq fired up the worshipers, including several hundred women (albeit in a separate part of the mosque), with shouts of "What we do want?" answered by cries of "Freedom!"

OUTSIDE the mosque, he talks about "process." Look at Israel and Palestine, he said. Even there, a dim outline of a path toward a peace exists. He went on: "Here we are, a 53-year-old problem, everyone has his own position, and there is no process."

"Once a process is set in motion, let us not talk about solutions," he said. "If we talk about solutions, this solution or that solution, we're going to run into controversies. Let us give more trust on a process, which will ultimately lead to a solution."

A solution has been evasive since 1947, when the British empire in the subcontinent was divided between India and Pakistan. Logic suggested that Jammu and Kashmir, which was majority Muslim, be part of Pakistan, created as an Islamic state. But the maharajah in Kashmir, a Hindu, opted for India.

Today, most Kashmiris want neither Pakistan nor India but independence, according to polls and even some Indian officials. But that is something India can not abide, fearing that independence for Kashmir could stir up other ethnic and religious minorities.

For Mr. Farooq, if not for many of his followers, complete independence is not the only path. "There are at least 37 solutions," he said, ranging from confederation to various forms of autonomy.

In 1989, the Kashmiri quest for secession from India turned violent, with the appearance of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. In the mid-1990's, Pakistanis and Afghans effectively took over the guerrilla force and Pakistan began arming and training them.

Many of Mr. Farooq's followers implore him to endorse armed struggle because, they say, the political approach has only yielded more dead Kashmiris.

Mr. Farooq resists. But he is not ready to completely forswear violence either. "Unless and until there is some acceptability in New Delhi about our problem, I would not say to the militants that they should stop their activities," he said. "We are ready to tell the boys to stop their activities. We can do that. But provided there is some alternative mechanism."

Mr. Farooq wants tripartite negotiations India, Kashmir and Pakistan which the Indian government rejects.

Friends urge Mr. Farooq to leave Kashmir, for his safety. But he says he has no option but to pursue an elusive path toward some solution for Kashmir. "My father died for these people," he said. "Mr. Lone died for the cause, this nation. I'll give it my best."
Published in NewYorkTimes