Syed Ali Shah Geelani has been the reigning patriarch of separatist politics in Kashmir for close to two decades now.

For Delhi, Geelani became the “hardliner” who refused to join talks on the government’s terms. For much of the Kashmiri public, Geelani gained stature as the only political leader who refused to compromise with the government.

Since the mass protests of 2008, he has been under house arrest. Shut into a high-walled house in Srinagar, he became an almost mystical figure in Kashmir. Even as the Hurriyat Conference crumbled around him, he remained the revered “Geelani saab”. On June 29, the ailing 91-year-old announced he was going to “part ways” with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (Geelani faction), also known as Hurriyat (G). He is, however, still part of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, the party he founded in 2004.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1993, an umbrella body for various groups, aimed at providing a political platform for Kashmiri separatism. A youthful Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was appointed chief of the conglomerate. Geelani left the original group in 2003, and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference was split into two factions – Hurriyat (G) and Hurriyat (M). But since 2008, at least, almost all separatist politics in Kashmir had been conducted under the aegis of the gaunt, fierce-browed veteran.

Will the abdication of Syed Ali Shah Geelani hasten the decline of separatist politics as we know it?

Different separatisms

A departing Geelani railed at Hurriyat leaders in the Kashmir Valley for not speaking up against the government’s decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and split the former state into two Union Territories on August 5 last year. Most of the Hurriyat leadership had been jailed but those still free had a duty to “stand up against the government’s naked oppression”, Geelani argued. He also railed at Hurriyat leaders in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, for “infighting”, “financial irregularities” and using their “family status to become part of the government structure” there.

According to some reports, an unconstitutional “shura” or decision-making body based in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir had shifted the separatist conglomeration’s centre of gravity away from Srinagar. The nonagenarian was repeatedly isolated, facing rebellion within the ranks.

Whatever the current power struggles may be, the Hurriyat Conference has always been pulled in different directions. When the umbrella body was formed in 1993, its constituents agreed only on this: that Jammu and Kashmir was under “Indian occupation” and its people should have the right to self-determination, expressed through a long-promised plebiscite.

The “big three” among Kashmir’s separatist leaders, known locally as the “joint resistance leadership”, represented divergent ideologies. There is the pro-Pakistan Geelani, considered the most religiously conservative of the three, who wants complete secession from India and whose party has openly supported militant groups.

There is Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, an important religious leader in Kashmir, seen as “moderate” in his political beliefs, keeping a distance from armed groups and non-committal about whether he wants independence, accession to Pakistan or even some form of self-governance with greater coordination across the Line of Control.

Then there is Yasin Malik, a leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which was once a militant group fighting for a secular, independent state. In the mid-1990s, Malik and his followers gave up arms to pursue political means to resolve the dispute.

Yasin Malik. Credit: PTI

The three factions have disagreed on various matters – whether to hold talks with the government even if it did not acknowledge that Jammu and Kashmir was disputed territory, whether to participate in elections. In 2003, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference over the question of fielding proxies for elections. In 2015, the Hurriyat (M) split again as a number of prominent leaders walked out.

Over the past decade and a half, the big three only seemed to present a united front during the mass civilian protests that raged across Kashmir, in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016.

Hartal politics

Under Geelani’s tutelage, the two factions of the Hurriyat and Malik’s group steered the direction of these uprisings. They put forward a charter of demands and used hartals, or shutdowns, as a tool of protest. Every week, the Hurriyat would issue a “calendar” or schedule for hartals, indicating when shops would be closed and public vehicles would stay off the roads, what windows of “dheel” or relaxation could be allowed.

Yet, with each round of protest, the separatist leadership lost a little ground. Many in Kashmir began to question the tactic of hartals, which were drawn out for months at great economic cost to many and few results. Meanwhile, civilians died in hundreds, falling to bullets and shotgun pellets as they protested on the streets.

It was pointed out that Hurriyat leaders exhorted other people’s children to protest but sent their own abroad. It was pointed out that many Hurriyat leaders had corruption charges against them, using unexplained wealth to build malls and hotels in Kashmir. It was also pointed out that the Hurriyat “moderates” had compromised by engaging in talks with the government, talks which went nowhere and seemed to provide a smokescreen of political activity while Delhi maintained status quo.

The disillusionment with political channels also coincided with a rise in local militancy, made popular by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The young, swashbuckling Wani had used social media to breathe new life into the militancy, making it suddenly glamorous for a generation of teenagers.

By the time Wani’s death in 2016 triggered a fresh round of protests, the Hurriyat was barely in charge. They issued a calendar for protests and hartals, which was observed. But the vast tide of public anger that spread protests in every corner of the Valley, that drove teenagers to the streets, was beyond their control. The old political language of the Hurriyat suddenly seemed dated, out of touch with the exuberance of the streets.

Miwaiz Umar Farooq being detained outside his home in Srinagar in July, 2016. Credit: AFP

Of all the separatist leaders, Geelani fared best in public opinion. He kept his reputation for uncompromising leadership, refusing talks with the government even when a delegation went to meet him in Srinagar. His telephone calls with Wani were common knowledge. His party, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, also established another link with the armed movement – its new chief, Ashraf Sehrai, was the father of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant.

Separatism beyond the Hurriyat

In the last three years, as the separatist leadership lost public support, it was also subjected to a sustained crackdown. The Mirwaiz was in and out of house arrest, routinely stopped from delivering his Friday sermons at Srinagar’s Jama Masjid. Malik is locked up in Tihar Jail, facing charges in a 30-year-old case. Several senior Hurriyat leaders are also in Tihar, booked in terror funding cases. In the last year, as the government moved to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir, it made a sweep of Hurriyat leaders, jailing even block and district level functionaries.

So on August 5, 2019, the “joint resistance leadership” did not come together as it had in previous moments of crisis. The communications blockade and media gag reinforced the silence. The Hurriyat (G) is believed to have made a few statements from Pakistan but these were barely reported in the media this side of the border.

Geelani’s exit from Hurriyat (G) comes at a moment when the old separatist conglomerates of Kashmir are at their weakest. Tainted, muzzled and short of public support, their leadership in disarray, it looks unlikely they will recover. But even if the Hurriyat withers away, separatist politics in Kashmir will not.

The 91-year-old veteran left Hurriyat (G) declaring he would not stop fighting “Indian colonialism”. It raises the prospect of a new separatist politics outside the old formations. What shape it will take remains to be seen. But the anger against the Indian state post August 5 will ensure it has deep wellsprings of support in Kashmir.