Syed Ali Shah Geelani, often described as the “hardliner” among Kashmir’s separatist leaders, stepped down last week as chief of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Since he was replaced by Ashraf Sehrai, a close aide and ideological ally for decades, it is believed that not much will change in Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. The “hard line” set down by Geelani will remain, most reports have concluded.

Over the weekend, reports emerged that Sehrai’s son, Junaid Ahmed Sehrai, had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. In the past, Hurriyat leaders have been taunted for sending their children outside the state or seeing them safely ensconced even as they incited others to join militancy. “Senior Sehrai now finds himself free of that taint,” one local newspaper reported, almost approvingly.

But will it be enough to secure the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat’s hardline credentials? Sehrai recently triggered a debate when he said those raising “ISIS flags” in Kashmir were only “strengthening the roots of occupation”. He insisted that the Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella organisation of which the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat is a constituent, and indeed the struggle for “azadi”, or freedom, did not have any global agenda and was not linked to the ideology of the Islamic State. He also urged the Kashmiri youth not be swayed by “extremist ideology”.

The old hard line, as embodied by Geelani and his politics, is gradually being displaced and, with it, the Hurriyat in Kashmir. For decades, the tall, gaunt leader has been the most recognisable face of separatist politics, refusing talks with Delhi, tending towards Pakistan and emphasising the role of religion in the political struggle. He has also been the centrifugal force holding together separatist groups of various political hues.

If the Hurriyat still has some political cache in the Valley, it is largely because of Geelani’s leadership. Will the quiet, retiring Sehrai be able to hold the fort after him? Geelani’s retreat – if retreat it is – could mean a further waning of the Hurriyat and traditional separatist politics in Kashmir. But Delhi has no reason to rejoice at the retirement of its bête noire.

The hardliner

Geelani’s image as a hardline leader hinges on several factors. These include his long association with the Jama’at-e-Islami, a socio-religious organisation, and a history of close ties with militants, especially the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen.

As a 2010 profile in the Caravan magazine points out, Geelani’s political career started in 1949 with Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference, the party which claimed to stand for a secular Kashmiri nationalism. But Geelani would soon gravitate towards Jama’at-e-Islami, formed by the Muslim revivalist Abul Ala Maudoodi in 1941, campaigning for “complete Islam” and a state set up in accordance with the shariah or Islamic law. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Jama’at flickered between mainstream politics and the underground; it contested elections in the 1970s and ’80s but was banned in 1975 and again in 1990.

Geelani became one of its most important leaders, mobilising support for the organisation in North Kashmir and winning three Assembly elections as a Jama’at candidate. Sehrai would also follow him into the Jama’at, starting a political association that has lasted five decades.

In the 1980s, when the Muslim United Front, a conglomeration of Muslim parties, was formed, Jama’at leaders played an important part. One of the Muslim United Front’s candidates from Srinagar was Mohammad Yusuf Shah, the man who would later become famous as the leader of the pro-Pakistan militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen. As militancy gathered steam from 1989, the Hizb came to be seen as the armed wing of the Jama’at.

After the elections of 1987, won by the National Conference but widely believed to be rigged, the parties of the Muslim United Front broke with the mainstream to form the nucleus of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, established in 1993. The Hurriyat is a mixed bag of leaders and ideologies, ranging from Geelani to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the influential hereditary imam of Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, to Yasin Malik, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, once a militant group which claimed to be fighting for a secular, independent state.

When the Hurriyat was formed, the youthful Mirwaiz, often described as a “moderate”, was appointed its chief, perhaps because he represented the safe middle ground. In his hagiography of Geelani, Abdul Hakeem writes disapprovingly of the choice: “Jama’at was one of the key constituents of the APHC, which nevertheless clearly had a majority of secular elements. Despite recognising Geelani’s leadership abilities, bias prevailed over rationality.”

There was dissension within the Hurriyat from the start. According to Hakeem, Geelani often warned that the Jama’at would part ways if the Hurriyat took the “wrong direction”. That moment arrived in 2002.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani waves at supporters gathered outside his house in Srinagar. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

Defying Delhi

For Delhi, what made Geelani the hardliner was his refusal to engage in talks or electoral politics even as other separatist leaders softened. In the Valley, it proved to be a successful stance.

In the early 2000s, while some sections in the Hurriyat considered contesting the 2002 Assembly election, others were convinced of the need for talks with the Indian government. Geelani positioned himself firmly against both proposals. In 2001, Hakeem writes, he renewed his appeal to Kashmiris to show “full support to the politics supported by religious tenets”. Reports from the time show how the Indian government cracked down on Geelani even as it tried to draw other separatist leaders closer.

The split in the Hurriyat was complete in 2004. Geelani broke away to form the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which demands that, for talks to take place, Kashmir must be recognised as disputed territory, tripartite talks between India, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists should be held, and the matter must be resolved by a plebiscite held according to the resolutions passed by the United Nations in 1948.

Meanwhile, talks between Delhi and the separatists floundered. While Abdul Gani Lone, a prominent leader of the “moderate faction”, was murdered, those like the Mirwaiz and Malik, who had softened towards Delhi, were discredited. The only strand of separatism that seemed to have survived Delhi’s manoeuvres was Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat.

Protest politics

From 2008, Kashmir would see a new era of mass demonstrations against the government, accompanied by civilian casualties as protestors faced security forces. It also returned the Hurriyat to relevance.

The various factions of the Hurriyat came back together during the crisis years of 2008, 2010 and 2016, and marshalled the protests with its protest “calendar”, a roster of strikes and shutdowns.
The main faces of the “joint resistance leadership”, as it came to be called in Kashmir, were Geelani, Malik and the Mirwaiz. But Geelani was the undisputed leader of the separatists this time. His walled residence in Srinagar’s Hyperpora, where he has been under house arrest for much of the last eight years, has become the operational headquarters of the separatist camp.

But the strategy of hartals, or strikes that lasted for months, exacted a heavy toll on the lives and livelihoods of people without visible political results. With each round of protests, the Hurriyat Conference lost ground.

During the protests of 2016, while the Hurriyat still issued the “calendar”, it no longer had control over the popular energies of the uprising. In the districts of South Kashmir, for one, these energies seemed to be directed by a newly formed coalition of socio-religious groups called the Ittehad-e-Millat.

Beyond politics?

As the protests of 2016 sputtered out, giving way to increased militancy and almost daily armed violence, there was fresh disillusionment with hartals and the Hurriyat. In some pockets of the Valley, there seemed to be a drift away from the old nationalisms that had shaped separatism in Kashmir.

While Geelani has asked the youth not to wave the black flags made familiar by the Islamic State, they have become a recurring feature at militants’ funerals. So have anti-Hurriyat chants. In the villages of South Kashmir, residents wince at the mention of the word “politics” even as they speak wistfully of a state governed by Islamic laws.

A new crop of militants has also directed its ire against the Hurriyat. Zakir Musa, the Hizbul Mujahideen militant who broke away to form the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind, threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders or anyone calling the Kashmir conflict a political struggle. He also rejected the idea of a nation state.

Sehrai’s son’s decision to take up arms seems to have restored the old association between the Hurriyat and the Hizbul Mujahideen. It could boost the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat’s popularity in the Valley but may not be able to stop the drift away from politics and political methods. Without Geelani’s leadership, it may not even be enough to keep the various factions of the Hurriyat leadership together.

The disintegration of the only separatist front which speaks of finding a political, and not a violent, resolution to Kashmir could only be bad news for Delhi.