On March 11, in a sprawling compound housing Pakistan’s High Commission in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri an unusual prayer was held in which more than three dozen people echoed with “Aameen” to every word said by the Moulvi (the preacher). It was not a prayer meeting held for the victims of terrorism in Pakistan or for the stability of the country that has been reeling under extremist violence for past over a decade. The occasion was to pray for the speedy recovery of ailing veteran separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani— a staunch advocate of Pakistan in Kashmir valley that has been wrestling with political crisis in last over 25 years.
The 86-year-old “hardliner” was admitted in a Delhi hospital last week after he complained of chest pain. He has since been discharged. Geelani is suffering from kidney cancer, heart ailment and bronchitis and generally shifts to India’s capital in winter months to be away from chilling Kashmir cold. But this time he spent most of the winter in Srinagar. The news about his illness spread like a wildfire, trending on social media with prayers pouring in from all everywhere. Even the former chief minister Omar Abdullah joined the chorus in praying for his recovery.
WHY HIS HEALTH IS A MAJOR CONCERN?
In the last nearly three decades Geelani has emerged as a strong voice for Kashmir’s “freedom” from India and is seen as someone who symbolizes defiance and resistance. In other words, Delhi fears him as he continues to challenge its rule in Kashmir and shows no signs of compromise in contrast to his colleagues in the rest of the separatist camp. As Kashmir slipped into massive unrest in 2008 and 2010, it was Geelani who had the last word and by default helped the authorities to bring the situation under control. When the youth were engaged in stone pelting with police and paramilitary forces in 2010, Geelani came out with the appeal asking them to desist from doing so. “I understand the passion for freedom you have,” Geelani said, “I am as passionate as you are, but we will fight peacefully. If they (police) stop you, you sit down and ask them to open fire.” And this worked. He invited criticism for giving relief to the Omar Abdullah government but the reality that came to fore was that his words meant a lot to youth in Kashmir.
Same was the case with the controversy over beef ban imposed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court early this year. Geelani again stepped in and asked people to restrain from cow slaughter (in defiance of the order) publicly to respect the religious sentiments of other communities. This saved the Mufti government from a serious crisis.
Born in September 1929 near north Kashmir’s Sopore town, Geelani had an interesting transition as he showed interest in active politics. After studying in Srinagar and Lahore, he had his apprenticeship in politics at Mujahid Manzil, the headquarters of pro-India National Conference. Deeply influenced by Jamat-e-Islami founder Moulana Abul A’ala Moudoodi, he joined Jamat and became an Islamist linking Kashmir’s fate with Pakistan, the country that was founded on two-nation theory. He actively participated in electoral politics under the Indian constitution, which he now terms “Haram” and has been three-time member of Legislative Assembly from Sopore. He is often criticized for having been part of Indian electoral process but he defends the same by saying that he would do it in the larger interest of resolution of Kashmir problem. Geelani is a hardliner not only vis-a-vis a dialogue with New Delhi. He has taken a tough stand within his parent organization Jamat-e-Islami where he defended the recourse of Kashmiri youth to militancy and criticized the Jamat leadership for not taking a clear stand on the political issue. When the pro-government militia Ikhwan let loose reign of terror, Jamat was its number one target that led to its leadership distancing itself from the armed struggle. In early 90s, Hizbul Mujahideen, then a formidable militant organization, was declared as armed wing of the Jamat as most of its cadres were drawn from its political ideology. However, Geelani continued to support militancy and does so even today.
When the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of over 20 political and social organisations espousing the cause of freedom, split in 2003, Geelani founded his own Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, breaking away from Jamat. His Tehreek became the basic constituent of Hurriyat Conference faction led by him. The other faction called as Hurriyat (M) is led by moderate seperatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. It was Geelani who raised the banner of revolt in Hurriyat seeking action against Sajjad Lone, a leader of Peoples Conference, who according to him had fielded proxy candidates in 2002 assembly election. Founded by his father Abdul Gani Lone, the PC was part of Hurriyat Conference. As the Hurriyat dithered in taking action, Geelani was proven right in 2009, when Sajjad finally joined the electoral bandwagon.
WHY IS GEELANI RELEVANT OR POPULAR?
Notwithstanding his support for militant violence and saying ‘no’ to anything that is related to dialogue on Kashmir, Geelani has emerged as a popular leader in the past over a decade, which even his rivals admit. It is mostly because of consistency vis-a-vis Kashmir issue and New Delhi’s continuous denial to recognize Kashmir as an issue and engage with political leadership on those lines. One can easily compare two prominent political leaders – Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who fell ill in 2014 and 2016 respectively, but their illness did not trend on social media the way Geelani’s does, nor were any prayer meetings held in Kashmir. Both Farooq and Mufti (who died in Delhi on January 7) have dominated the political scene of Kashmir for a very long time. Farooq underwent kidney transplant in London in November 2014 and Mufti lost his battle with life after 15 days at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Delhi. Though Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the tallest leader Kashmir produced and his funeral was attended by over a million people in 1982, he was soon abandoned by people following armed rebellion leading to 24×7 police guard at his grave.
Since he attracts large crowds leading to massive pro-Azadi processions, the authorities did not allow him to go out of his home for about ten months. After his return from Delhi on April 15 last year he could only offer congregational Friday prayers once in May, that too when he gave a slip to Police. He literally freed himself on February 6 when he flew to Delhi. For Geelani going to jail or remaining under house arrest is not new. He went to jail for the first time in 1962 and spent over 10 years (in different phases) in jail for his strong anti-India views.
Ghulam Rasool Kar, a veteran Congress leader, who passed away last year had termed Geelani’s popularity as the outcome of people’s frustration who according to him had been ditched by their leaders. “This quom (nation) is in search of heroes as it has been ditched by leaders,” he told a journalist adding, “so they (people) see satisfaction when someone defies or stands up with his head high”. Interestingly, Geelani had defeated Kar from his home constituency in Sopore in the assembly elections.
Geelani draws immense support from the youth in Kashmir and that is the reason he could publicly admit that people failed the separatist leadership in the backdrop of their participation in the elections. Hardly any leader would admit the failure so candidly.
In the changing political dynamics in Kashmir when sense of despondency and frustration especially among the youth has reached a crescendo, Geelani is seen as someone who defies Delhi. His strategy to deal with the situation does not draw complete support but with New Delhi’s continued denial of recognizing Kashmir as a political dispute his stand is always vindicated. For example, when the Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz entered into a dialogue with Delhi in 2004, Geelani was the one who declared that it would yield nothing as “Delhi was not sincere and serious”. And the same thing happened and dialogue eventually failed.
Not only has Geelani defied New Delhi, he was the only Kashmiri leader who opposed Pakistan President Parvez Musharraf’s peace process with India. Earning his ire, he was sidelined making Mirwaiz the favourite of Islamabad. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is making peace overtures with India, Geelani again does not fit in that scheme of things, leaving space for moderates but he still remains their best bet in Kashmir.
An abridged version of the article was earlier published by BBC
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