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Kashmiri separatist: The life of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai

Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai has long been the global face of Kashmiri separatism. His arrest last week has triggered a wave of ramifications from the US to Kashmir.

, ET Bureau|
Jul 24, 2011, 05.18 AM IST
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Kashmiri separatist: The life of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai
WASHINGTON/SRINAGAR: Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, who the FBI arrested on Tuesday for allegedly spying for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligences, has been the leading voice of Kashmiri separatism in the United States for more than two decades. “He is the public face of the anti-India Kashmiri lobby in the United States,” said an Indian American who has known Fai, head of the Kashmiri American Council, for several years.

A friend went a step further. “He is the public face of the Kashmir [secessionist] movement outside of Kashmir,” Malik Nadeem Abid, executive director of the nonprofit Kashmir Mission USA and supporter of Fai, said on Friday.

Fai, who formed the Council in 1992, a few years after insurgency intensified in Jammu and Kashmir, has organised high-profile events, and blasted press releases criticising India with great regularity. Since leaving the valley in 1983, he has travelled afar to speak and promote his anti-India cause.

Now, according to prosecutors, the money for many of Fai’s activities came from the ISI. They allege that the Pakistani government was paying him $500,000 to $700,000 a year. The ISI also encouraged him to lobby and influence the US government on the Kashmir issue. “Up to 80% o f the public statements made by Fai were provided by the Pakistani spy agency to repeat and disseminate verbatim,” according to an affidavit filed by FBI in connection with the indictment of Fai.

Kashmiri Whispers

In Kashmir, the separatists admit Fai’s arrest is a setback. They are doubtful if they will find an able replacement for Fai, who was their global public relation spokesman.

Syed Ali Geelani, the first to react, called for peaceful protests on Friday. He says the FBI arrest was the outcome of New Delhi’s “diplomatic conspiracy” targeted at “weakening our struggle”. Shabir Shah alleged US lacks respect for “democratic struggle”. Nayeem Ahmad Khan sees it as an attack on the Kashmir interests.

Barring these politicians, nobody wants to speak on record. Fai is being talked about in whispers. The general discourse over the arrest is revolving around certain key issues. Firstly, nobody is willing to accept that FBI was ignorant of Fai’s activities for all these years. Secondly, people are unwilling to see the arrest as the outcome of souring relationship between Washington and Islamabad only. They see it as New Delhi’s diplomatic power. Malik says it is “clearly a shot in the arm of India and a severe jolt to Pakistan”.

Agent Fai

Documents filed by Kashmiri American Council with the Internal Revenue Service from 2007 through 2009 reveal that the non-profit organisation had an average revenue of over $310,000. It revealed that KAC spent nearly $81,000 on conferences in 2009.

The FBI charges have caused discomfort among Indian security agencies. Senior officials say they will be watching the FBI moves. “We have almost everybody on scanner who has availed the hospitality and once the government permits us to move ahead we will start quizzing,” says a senior intelligence officer.

But invitees to his conferences are defiant. “If the FBI took 20 years to discover what Fai was doing, how does anybody know it while sitting in Srinagar by getting a ticket to read a paper?” asked a participant.

After Fai’s arrest, opinion is divided on the US policy towards Kashmir. Most politicians and analysts believe the arrest marks a “significant policy shift on Kashmir”. But some Kashmir nationalists see it as “snapping the umbilical cord that was connecting Kashmir with Pakistan” so that “Kashmir starts surviving at its own”.

The Constant Separatist

Together with nuclear physicist Ayub Thukar, who died a few years ago in London, Fai has remained one of the many constants in the separatist discourse on Kashmir. He is oft referred to as an ‘envoy’. A soft-spoken man from Wadwan village in Budgam, Fai was influenced by Jamaat during his college days. He would occasionally write columns in the vernacular press under the pen name Fay Budgami. He eventually changed it to Fai.


Fai visited Kashmir for the last time in 1983. After a trip to Saudia Arabia, he flew to the US, where he joined the Islamic Society of North America. In 1987, he got US citizenship. Fai is married to a Chinese and has two children.

The Kashmiri American Council is located five blocks from the White House. Most of its founding members went their ways. Fai’s profile as a lobbyist grew steadily in Islamabad and Delhi. As head of KAC, Fai became a globetrotter. He was last seen in Astana in Kazakhstan where OIC met this summer. Fai became close to politicians, including the then Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel.

But lately, his activities have been reduced to holding the yearly Capitol Hill conference attended by academics, journalists, authors, activists, and officials from India, Pakistan, the US and the UK.

For Kashmiri separatists, Fai was not only the occasional ‘telephonic adviser’ but also their major public relations man during trips abroad. Fai has also cultivated friends in the US Congress. Chief among them is Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton to whom he gave more than $10,000, according to the campaign watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.

Besides Burton, Fai has donated money to several other candidates from both parties, as well as party committees. The recipients include President Barack Obama, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Few of his friends in the Kashmiri community and in the suburban Fairfax, VA, neighbourhood would speak on the record about his arrest or political activities.

Abid, who did, termed Fai “a thorough gentleman” and “a personable person.” He lamented that few have rushed to help Fai yet. “He is not getting any help — he is fighting his own war.”

(Asif Ismail of GIN and Priya Potapragada contributed to this story)

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