SAS Geelani: The man central to the separatist story in Kashmir departs

The irony is unmistakable.The Kashmir Valley has been locked down by the State, for the funeral of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the father of separatism, who was able to bring the Valley to a standstill with one hartal call.

Geelani went silently to his grave amid an internet shutdown and traffic restrictions, but that perhaps is the epitaph of a long separatist journey, without which Kashmir’s contemporary history cannot be written.

The 91-year-old — often referred to as a hawk and a hardliner — took a public stand against “India” and its “occupation” after a long tryst with electoral politics. He won three elections to the Sopore assembly but hardened his position after the infamous 1987 polls, widely perceived to be rigged.

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After the advent of militancy in 1989, Geelani openly called for the boycott of all elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Known for issuing protest calendars – earmarking shutdowns and stone-pelting venues – Geelani remained steadfast in his opposition to India and his demand for a merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. “No talks without Pakistan,” was an oft-raised demand and Geelani, over the years, came to be known as the man who always declined overtures from New Delhi. During the Vajpayee years, when leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of separatists, were invited to the Prime Minister’s office for talks, Geelani was the only one who refused.

The teacher-turned-separatist had a huge following amongst the Valley’s youth and he held sway over an anti-India sentiment that still prevails in some sections of the Kashmiri population.

Infamous for his open call for prayers in the memory of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, Geelani earned his separatist stripes over decades of protest politics wherein he called for foreign militants (Pakistani and Afghan mujahideen) to be treated as “guests”.

He was the face of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the political arm of the outlawed terror organisation, Hizbul Mujahideen. Kashmir saw a phase when a dress code was announced and girls barred from wearing jeans by Jamaat. Several who defied the diktat were shot.

After a piece on how the Hurriyat Conference leaders, backed and financed by the deep state in Pakistan had amassed wealth and built palatial homes in Srinagar, Geelani invited me for lunch to his home in Sopore where he introduced me to his wife and daughters. Don’t your protest calendars affect their education too, I asked. He smiled and said, “They are part of the same Kashmir.”

Over the years, criticism grew over the fact that Geelani and other separatist leaders openly supported armed militancy but none had their own children join the jehadi ranks. Their kin enjoyed the benefits of education and many worked abroad.

In an alienated Valley, many, however, looked up to Geelani and his power over sections of the population. At various stages, chief ministers Farooq, Omar Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, while pointing to the support he received from Pakistan, also favoured a dialogue between the Hurriyat and New Delhi and between the separatists and Pakistan.

Geelani, however, remained unrelenting. His meeting with General Pervez Musharraf, ahead of the bilateral Summit in Agra in 2001, led to a breakdown of the dialogue between India and Pakistan and Geelani – along with other separatists – emerged as the man who had wrecked the peace process. After the interaction with the separatists, the Pakistani President had a breakfast meeting with Indian editors in which he justified the killing of innocent civilians as “collateral” damage and reiterated his position of the Hurriyat being a legitimate stakeholder.

In 2006, however, Geelani clashed with Musharraf after the latter offered India a four point formula — self governance, free cross-LoC movement, a phased withdrawal of troops and a joint mechanism for a final resolution.

Geelani was an unaccommodating separatist and it was rare to see a leader stand up against a force that had kept him and his cause going.

He spoke often against human rights violations, and was quick at reading the mood of the people. In 2008, when land was transferred to the Amarnath Shrine Board, Geelani became the face of a large-scale agitation. In 2010, when protests rocked the Valley after a fake encounter killing by the army in North Kashmir, Geelani was at the forefront. In 2016, he issued week-long protest calendars after the killing of local militant commander Burhan Wani.

The uncompromising separatist finally faded from the public eye after the momentous events of August 2019 when the Narendra Modi government effectively nullified Article 370 that gave Jammu and Kashmir its special status.

Geelani was put under house arrest and remained confined to his home in Srinagar. His views on the altered status remained unarticulated. He quit the Hurriyat Conference in 2020 amid reports that Pakistan was looking for a younger face.

In the end, Geelani was defanged by the vagaries of age and Kashmir’s altered reality. The separatist is dead but the common sentiment and aspirations that he could so easily fan, are not. The restrictions in the Valley are a mute testimony to the legacy of the man.

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