In a widely circulated video from 2018, Syed Ali Shah Geelani is seen banging on a door, asking to be let out. “Open the door,” he says. “The funeral of your democracy is on its way.”
When the 92-year-old Kashmiri separatist leader died on September 1, 2021, he had been under almost continuous house arrest for 13 years. In the Valley, he was revered as the man who refused to compromise with Delhi and acquiesce to talks, even when other factions of the separatist leadership of the Hurriyat appeared to thaw.
Over the last decade and a half, Geelani had become the face of civil protest in the Valley. He routinely called for the boycott of elections held in Kashmir. But the veteran pro-Pakistan leader had not always despaired of democratic processes in India.
On the banks of the Wular
Syed Ali Shah Geelani was born in 1929 in Zoori Munz, a village on the banks of Wular lake in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. The village would later inspire the name of his three-volume autobiography Wular Kinarey [On the Banks of the Wular]. His family was poor – Geelani’s father worked as a contractual labourer in the irrigation department.
Neither of his parents could read but they were keen on educating their son. Geelani went to school in Sopore, a prosperous town in North Kashmir, and then to the Oriental College in Lahore. He returned to Kashmir in 1946, a year before the subcontinent was partitioned.
From 1949, he taught in various government schools in Sopore and downtown Srinagar. He started his political career as a protege of the National Conference leader, Mohammad Syed Masood. It was at the party headquarters in Srinagar that Geelani came across the works Abu Ala Maududi, who had founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941. Geelani was soon drawn away from the socialist National Conference to Maududi’s ideas of “political Islam” – gaining power within the structures of the state to propagate the tenets of Islam.
In 1953, when local leaders of the Jamaat broke away to form a separate Jammu and Kashmir branch, Geelani joined the party. Through the 1970s and ’80s, he was member of the legislative assembly from Sopore constituency, contesting polls on a Jamaat party ticket. The Jamaat fought elections, Geelani argues in his book, Nava-e-Hurriyat, so that they could fight for a plebiscite on the future of Kashmir within a democratic arena.
It is perhaps no surprise that this Maududi scholar’s politics were always rooted in Islam. Before he became a legislator, Geelani spoke about the Kashmir dispute in religious seminars. As an elected representative, he opposed liquor shops in the Valley.
The pro-Pakistan leader
Geelani finally broke with electoral politics in 1987. A conglomeration of Islamic political parties, including the Jamaat, had banded together as the Muslim United Front to fight the assembly elections that year. They were tipped to win, but the elections were believed to have been rigged to favour the National Conference-Congress alliance.
According to Geelani, it demonstrated that India would never allow a truly democratically elected government to come to power in Kashmir. Such a government, he believed, would reflect the political aspirations of the majority, which was secession from India.
Many Muslim United Front leaders left the electoral fold, never to return. Some took up arms. Geelani, who had won the Sopore assembly seat yet again, resigned in 1989 as militancy spread across Kashmir. In 1993, he went on to become one of the founding members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a political platform for separatist parties.
There were many shades of opinion within the Hurriyat. Some parties, like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, favoured a secular, independent state. Geelani was staunchly pro-Pakistan.
It was a kinship that stemmed from religion, he believed. “There can be no two opinions on the fact that the entire struggle of the Kashmiri people is for the sake of Islam and for accession to Pakistan,” he writes in Nava-e-Hurriyat. Muslims were a separate “qaum” [nation] from Hindus so Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir should have acceded to Pakistan when the subcontinent was partitioned, he believed.
Just as Geelani was opposed to the Indian state, he was against a third option in the long-promised plebiscite on Kashmir’s future: not just India or Pakistan but an independent state. It was a “dangerous political trap” devised by India to divide the Muslim community, he said at a press conference in 1992.
By the early 2000s, Geelani’s political positions had isolated him from many of his political allies. He split from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and carved out a new faction, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, in 2003. The next year, he was suspended from the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was uneasy with his insistence that the organisation devote its energies to ending the Kashmir dispute. He even criticised the Pakistani establishment at one point, rejecting Musharraf’s four-point plan, which proposed that the borders remain unchanged and that Jammu and Kashmir be granted “self-governance” without independence.
Geelani had walked out of the Hurriyat after some separatist leaders sent proxy candidates to fight assembly elections. Unlike many of his Hurriyat colleagues, he also refused to join peace talks with Delhi. Over the years, it would prove to be an astute political move. The peace talks went nowhere. In the Valley, they were seen as a ploy by the Centre to maintain the status quo in Kashmir.
Kashmiri separatist leaders who took part in the talks were discredited; Geelani emerged as the outlier who held out. It earned him tremendous political cache, especially with a generation coming of age as Kashmir entered a decade of civil protest in 2008.
When Kashmiris took to the streets in the mass uprisings of 2008, 2010, 2016, the different factions of the Hurriyat came together under the aegis of Geelani to steer the protests, calling for hartal [strikes] that lasted months. As each season of protest ended in bloodshed and economic losses, the limits of hartal as a tool of protest became clear and the Hurriyat lost much of its popular support. Geelani, however, still commanded respect in Kashmir as the man who stood up to Delhi.
Geelani’s views and actions earned him the reputation of being a hardliner. Yet a leader whose political career spanned almost the entire lifetime of independent India and Pakistan is not easy to define.
He felt Kashmir’s future lay with Pakistan but he claimed the plebiscite could be a genuinely democratic process whose results may not have gone his way. In several interviews, he said he would accept the results of the plebiscite even if Kashmiris chose India. He encouraged protests but is said to have opposed stone pelting.
There was Geelani the austere religious ideologue who held funeral prayers for Osama bin Laden. And there was Geelani the witty, urbane scholar who had written 40 books, spoke Urdu, Arabic and Persian, quoted the poet Iqbal in conversation. All his life, he articulated his demands through peaceful channels but he openly supported the militancy, arguing that the youth in Kashmir had no other option.
Geelani stepped down from the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2020, writing a bitter resignation letter accusing colleagues of corruption and cosying up to power in Pakistan without actually speaking up for Kashmir.
As he is laid to rest, hastily, under a blanket of restrictions, the Hurriyat faces an existential crisis. Its leaders have fallen silent. Almost all its members are jailed or under house arrest. While Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front has already been outlawed, other factions of the Hurriyat also face a ban under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Does his death mean the end of organised separatist politics in Kashmir?