Syed Ali Shah Geelani projected himself as a champion of Kashmir. But in his narrow worldview, the interests of Kashmir were synonymous with that of Kashmiri Muslims. In turn, the interests of Kashmiri Muslim were aligned with that of Pakistan. This, then, for him, entailed a prolonged battle, against the Indian State, its Constitution, and its secularism. While, within Kashmir, this position resonated with a segment of society and was responsible for conflict, violence, terror, and only enhanced the trust deficit between Kashmir and the rest of India. And this will be his dark legacy.
For decades, Geelani operated within India’s democratic framework, even becoming an elected legislator of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly thrice. But his shift to the politics of separatism, advocacy of a pro-Pakistan position, open espousal of hartals which shut down the valley for months, hostility to the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits, and either active complicity or passive approval of violence was all wrong — and extracted a heavy cost. And those who suffered the most were Kashmiris themselves. The Indian State may have made mistakes in Kashmir, but the way to battle it was within a non-violent and democratic framework. By misleading Kashmiri society for three decades and encouraging opposition to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Geelani based his politics not just on a wrong proposition, but an unwinnable one. No regime in Delhi could ever tolerate this political line.
Geelani’s death also comes at a time when the situation in Kashmir remains fragile. Mainstream political actors are waiting for Delhi to move on statehood and then elections, while Delhi is keen on elections first and statehood later. And while the separatist political leadership is weak, terror groups are emboldened after the Taliban’s win in Afghanistan. India, while respecting democratic norms in Kashmir, will have to be careful that Geelani’s death does not become a moment for radical mobilisation.
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