In a petition submitted to the Delhi High Court, the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir denied all links to separatist politics. In particular, it distanced itself from Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose death has brought on a fresh bout of restrictions and internet shutdowns in Kashmir, and the late Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, who died of Covid-19 while in preventive detention this year.

Both separatist leaders had once been prominent members of the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir.

The petition, filed in January 2020 and accessed by, challenges the Union home ministry’s ban on the Jamaat. In February 2019, it had banned the Jamaat for five years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Declaring it an “unlawful association”, the Centre accused the Jamaat of “indulging in activities, which are prejudicial to internal security and public order, and have the potential of disrupting the unity and integrity of the country”.

In its petition against the ban, the Jamaat claimed it had “never supported violence” and “never been associated with the Hizbul Mujahideen”, Kashmir’s largest militant group.

The petition points out that the group had “participated in the democratic process” until the assembly elections of 1987, widely believed to have been rigged. The Jamaat had stepped away from the electoral process, the petition says, until there was a “guarantee of free and fair elections”.

In 2002, the petition goes on to say, the Jamaat “undertook a complete overhaul of its membership to weed out any persons who might support militancy, extremism or underground or unconstitutional means.”

In 2004, the Jamaat suspended Geelani and Sehrai. The same year, Geelani formed his own separatist faction, the pro-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. According to the petition, he had also wanted the Jamaat to “devote itself entirely to finding a political solution to the strife in the state of Kashmir”.

According to the petition, a growing unease with this position had led to the suspension of Geelani and his ally, Sehrai. “A bare perusal of the constitution of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat,” the petition says, is enough to show “that the two associations are of diametrically opposite views.”

Syed Ali Shah Geelani (second from right), Ashraf Sehrai (third from right), and Yasin Malik, leader of the banned Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (fourth from right), attend a seminar in 2017. Photo credit: IANS

A raid, a statement, an appeal to the court

The petition is set to be heard at a time when the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat and other separatist factions also face a ban under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Moreover, it seems to have gained urgency after the National Investigation Agency conducted searches at 61 locations in Jammu and Kashmir this August. All of the locations, allegedly linked to the Jamaat, were under the scanner because of a terror-funding case.

On August 11, just days after the raids, the Jamaat issued a rare press statement, signed by three former chiefs of the organisation. This was the first time the organisation had broken its silence since it was banned in 2019. It stated that the “Jamaat had nothing to do with the militancy” and had always followed “democratic and lawful means and methodology”. Despite this, it continued, the Jamaat had become the “most harassed group”, targeted by the “state machinery as well as some vested political interests”.

Soon afterwards, the organisation approached the Delhi High Court, pleading that the petition be slated for an early hearing. The court advanced the date of the hearing by over two months, from December 13 to October 11.

Since the petition was first filed in January 2020, it has been listed for hearing on four separate dates but is yet to be heard by the Delhi High Court.

First, hearings were held up because the Centre objected to the petitioner who had signed off on the affidavit, one Asadullah Mir, a 76-year-old resident of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. “There was some issue raised about whether [he] had the authority to file the petition,” explained Jawahar Raja, the advocate representing the Jamaat. “We have filed documents to clear that confusion and the court has accepted that.”

Then, Raja said, hearings got held up because of the pandemic, which disrupted court proceedings.

Before it approached the Delhi High Court, the Jamaat had appealed to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Tribunal in Delhi. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Centre must refer its decision to brand an outfit an “unlawful association” to the tribunal of one – a high court judge appointed to the task by the central government. The tribunal must confirm or reject the decision within six months.

In a statement submitted to the tribunal in May 2019, the Jamaat had said the ban should be “cancelled… without any further proceedings”. In June that year, the tribunal dismissed the plea. Then in August 2019, it upheld the Centre’s decision to declare the Jamaat an unlawful organisation.

The writ petition now before the Delhi High Court challenges both the ban and the tribunal’s decision.

The ‘brain’ behind the Hurriyat?

Since it was declared an unlawful association in February 2019, hundreds of Jamaat members have been arrested or swept into preventive detention, many of them in prisons outside Jammu and Kashmir. This is the third time in its 68-year history that the Jamaat-e-Islami has been banned in Kashmir.

In a background note submitted to the tribunal, the Centre claimed that, after 1947, the local wing of the Jamaat “started to follow the instructions and directions imparted by JeI of Pakistan [Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan] and began to question the accession of the state with the union of India.”

The note refers to the Hizbul Mujahideen as the “militant wing” of the Jamaat. The Hizb, the note says, “is the biggest subversive group spearheading the current secessionist movement in the valley, with Pak/POK support in terms of arms training, supply of arms and ammunition and guidance.”

It also calls the Jamaat the “brain behind the formation of All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a conglomerate of various religious-political and militant organisations.”

The note provides a list of 169 cases registered against alleged members of the Jamaat in various police stations across Jammu and Kashmir. They are charged with arson, stone pelting, damage to private property and other offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It also gives details of 10 cases filed against purported members of the organisation by the National Investigation Agency.

In its petition, the Jamaat contends that, except two of the people named in the cases, none of the accused were associated with the organisation. “The only link between persons named in the FIRs and the petitioner was that the petitioner is an ‘Islamic’ organisation and the persons named in the FIRs had ‘Islamic sounding’ names,” the petition says.

Geelani's death on September 1, 2021, brought on a fresh bout of restrictions and internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Photo credit: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP

Jamaat under fire

The petition does indicate, however, that the Jamaat is distancing itself from older political and ideological associations. The Jamaat-e-Islami was originally established in Lahore in 1941, under the aegis of the theologian, Abul Ala Maududi, who advocated for “political Islam”. The idea was to gain political power within the structures of the state in order to spread the ideas and principles of Islam.

It splintered into various factions as new borders were drawn in the subcontinent and new politics took shape. The Jammu and Kashmir branch was formed in 1953 after it separated from the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Geelani joined the organisation the same year.

From 1965 to 1987, the Jamaat was part of electoral politics in Jammu and Kashmir. Geelani won several elections on a Jamaat ticket. Sehrai was once head of the Jamaat’s political division.

When militancy spread in the state in the 1989s, Geelani stepped down as legislator from North Kashmir’s Sopore constituency and spoke in support of the militancy. Many other members of the Jamaat took up arms. It led to the belief that the Hizbul Mujahideen was the “armed wing” of the organisation, although the Jamaat never acknowledged any formal ties.

Still, the group’s perceived proximity to the Hizb meant hundreds of its members were targeted by the Ikhwan, the counterinsurgency militia composed of former militants who had switched sides to back state forces. Its members were also attacked by separatist militant groups that opposed the Hizb. Many Jamaat families in rural Kashmir were forced to move to the relative safety of cities.

As the violence ebbed in the late 1990s, the Jamaat began to emerge from the ruins. Differences within the group surfaced in 1998 – Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, then chief of the Jamaat, declared it had no ties with any militant group, even the Hizbul Mujahideen. This created some debate within the Majlis-e-Shora, the main advisory council of the Jamaat. According to the petition, of the 30 members of the majlis, Geelani and Sehrai were the only dissenting voices urging the Jamaat to focus on the Kashmir dispute:

“Both Mr Geelani and Mr Sehrai made several efforts at forcing the petitioner [the Jamaat] to adopt their position. Their efforts went on from the late 90s until 2004. The petitioner’s leadership, however, was resolute and Mr Geelani and Mr Sehrai were unable to prevail on the petitioner to change its position.” 

As the Jamaat recouped its losses, it shied away from open participation in politics. It focused, instead, on socio-religious activities – running schools and charities, organising disaster relief programmes. It was able to rebuild substantial support in the Valley. When it was banned in 2019, the petition says, the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir had approximately 5,000 members.