Kashmiris respond to arrest of alleged secret agent in Washington

The arrest of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai on spy charges in the US has highlighted a generation divide among Kashmiri separatist activists.

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2007 photo, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, executive director of the Kashmiri American Council addresses a news conference in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Pakistan has protested the arrest of a Kashmiri-born man in the United States on charges he was working for Pakistan's spy agency to lobby in Washington for the cause of Kashmiri independence.
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Elder Kashmiri separatist leaders are condemning the arrest of a Kashmiri lobbyist in Washington and are calling for demonstrations.

Tuesday the FBI arrested Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai on spy charges, alleging that he received instructions and at least half-a-million dollars a year from Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI.

Mr. Fai’s arrest is unlikely to have much impact on the Kashmiri struggle for independence from India. Young people protesting through street demonstrations, Facebook, and pop culture are providing the movement’s momentum now, not the kind of foreign lobbying work done by Fai.

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Fai belongs to an older generation of Kashmiri activists who are deeply enmeshed in the power politics of the region. Such elders are respected but not necessarily followed by young Kashmiris, whose tactics have actually forced India and the outside world to take a second look at the decades-old dispute.

“I believe that the kind of work that Fai was doing belongs to a different time,” says Sanjay Kak, a Kashmiri filmmaker and editor of the new book “Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir.” Fai’s work mostly consisted of organizing conferences, lobbying Congress, and connecting opinion makers on Kashmir.

“I’m not saying that kind of politics is over, but people also realize that a new image will come out,” of the media reports on the new youth uprisings, says Mr. Kak. “If it was only about lobbyists and PR outfits, [Kashmir] would go to the highest bidder. It doesn’t work like that.”

Fai founded the Kashmiri American Council in Washington in 1990, near the beginning of an armed insurgency inside Indian-controlled Kashmir that received heavy support and fighters from Pakistan.

Kashmir is disputed and divided between India and Pakistan, with many Kashmiris refusing to accept Indian control.

The violent fighting that flared in the 1990s tailed off a decade ago, as did Pakistan’s influence among younger Kashmiris who have grown more attracted to independence, rather than Pakistan.

The elders of Fai’s generation have tried to get the Kashmir dispute discussed and resolved in the corridors of power in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Washington. But the issue has been trapped by the geopolitics of the India-Pakistan rivalry and the manipulation of Kashmiri leaders.

Syed Ali Shah Gilani, the elderly leader of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said he sees the FBI allegations as “Indian designs to weaken the Kashmiri struggle.”

Many observers, however, view the arrest as the latest salvo in the spy vs. spy fight going on between the US and Pakistan, with India and Kashmir as peripheral.

“The Indian government had objected to Fai’s activities in 1994. No action was taken by the US government,” says Luv Puri, author of “Across the Line of Control.” “The present action taken by the US is rooted in its own perceived national interest.”

Several Kashmiri journalists in Srinagar expressed doubt that Fai’s arrest alone would spawn a major demonstration tomorrow.

"Most of the people will hear his name for the first time," says one journalist, who declined to be named. "It is, I guess, something that touches the Hurriyat's skin more and people's skin less."

So far this summer the Kashmir Valley has remained quietly tense. Last summer, Indian security forces killed 117 Kashmiri civilians in months of street clashes. Many Kashmiris say that this summer’s “calm” could explode in an instant, however.

Tomorrow’s planned demonstrations may draw intensity not from the Fai incident but from a local woman's allegations that she was gang raped for two days by Indian soldiers. The state police said they are investigating.

Many young Kashmiri activists may not have known much about Fai’s work, but they care deeply about getting American attention for Kashmir. Some have expressed frustration to the Monitor in the past that their uprising did not receive the Western media coverage given to the Arab Spring.

Now the Fai spy story has captured US media attention, not with the story of a grassroots pro-independence movement, but with the story of covert Pakistani funding of separatism.

Mr. Puri, however, doubts that Fai’s work nor his arrest will have much impact on US policy on Kashmir.

“One of the critical factors impacting the US policy is its academic institutions and think tanks, and in this particular arena Mr. Fai was almost a non-entity. So I cannot say that Fai’s arrest is a major PR disaster” for the separatists, says Puri via e-mail.

And the challenges for a Kashmir resolution lie not just in international politics, argues Puri, but in harmonizing the different visions among the many ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities inside the region.

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