Last year in August, separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah was the first to step on India’s new red line on Kashmir: that Pakistan should not meet separatist leaders ahead of a dialogue.
Ahead of last year’s foreign secretary level talks, Shah met Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit. Shortly after Shah called on the envoy, the government of India announced its decision to call off talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries.
This year too, Shah was the first to reach New Delhi to meet the Pakistani national security adviser (NSA) Sartaj Aziz, even after the Modi government let it be known that any talks with separatists would kill the dialogue with Pakistan. However, this time, he was not allowed to reach the Pakistan high commission and was detained at the New Delhi airport.
Aziz said he was disturbed to hear the news of the arrest of Hurriyat leaders and described it is a "violation of their fundamental rights". External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, alluding to separatists as the third party, said that if talks were to happen, Pakistan should not involve any third party. The dialogue was called off and all the limelight turned on Shah, who was the first representative of the “third party” to reach New Delhi to meet the NSA of Pakistan.
Shah has a long history of being in the separatist movement. He has been in and out of jail so many times that he was once described as a prisoner of conscience. In 1994, when he was released from jail, he received a massive reception in Srinagar as the entire Kashmir Valley turned out to welcome him. This was a kind welcome never received by anyone in the Valley after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.
Former spy chief of India AS Dulat says in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years that in 1995-1996 for a settlement of the Kashmir issue the government of India could have made Shah the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The then prime minister PV Narashimha Rao, according to Dulat, was seriously thinking about a breakthrough on Kashmir and had great hopes on Shah and was ready to give Kashmir “peace with honour.” Dulat accuses Shah of dithering. Shah has not responded to Dulat so far.
Meanwhile, shortly after the great reception in Srinagar in 1994, Shah couldn’t sustain his new-found stature and soon became irrelevant with Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Mohammad Yasin Malik, taking centre stage. He was further marginalised following his expulsion from the Hurriyat Conference after he met US ambassador Frank Wisner and former prime minister VP Singh in 1996.
He could never regain prominence, but his incidental role in sabotaging the India-Pakistan engagement has brought him in focus again. He has become a well-known Hurriyat figure nationally, but back in Kashmir, he continues to be on the margins.