Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who passed away in Srinagar aged 92, was one of Jammu and Kashmir’s tallest separatist leaders who believed that the Valley’s destiny was linked to Pakistan. If that defined his political vision, it blinded him as well. For, his endorsement of the two-nation theory that considered religious identity as the basis of statehood was and, to this day, remains antithetical to the very idea of a plural democracy. His intransigent, intractable views could draw crowds of supporters but they also glaringly revealed the narrow limits of separatist politics in J&K. Geelani’s hardline and maximalist agenda — the merger of J&K with Pakistan — allowed little scope for any negotiated settlement that factored in the ground reality of a territorial dispute involving two nuclear-armed nation states. Moreover, by providing political cover to violence and terror aided and abetted by Islamabad, he failed the people he claimed to represent.
And, yet like most things in the Valley, there was a paradox. Geelani started his political career as a stakeholder in electoral politics — he was thrice MLA in the J&K Assembly. His disillusionment with electoral democracy after the rigged 1987 elections was the moral weapon that he, very effectively, used against the political mainstream. However, it also ended up demonising mainstream politics itself, set off a violent militancy and, eventually, marginalised the Hurriyat Conference, a platform of separatists he once led. He denounced then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for mooting a plan to settle the J&K issue and exhorted the Valley to embark on a path of hartals and stone-pelting. His strike calendars disrupted normal life in the Valley while his own family lived a relatively sheltered existence. Governments for long indulged him by providing security, allowing him to travel to Delhi for meetings with Pakistan’s diplomats, medical treatment and so on.
When the political terrain shifted in 2014, Geelani found himself in the margins. A hard state has since read down Article 370 and diminished J&K to a UT, his brand of politics is subject to the law of rapidly diminishing returns. Geelani had his moment in the late 1990s and 2000s but he lacked the expansive vision to seize it. The Indian state outwitted him and his beloved Pakistan moved on to new assets. In a way, the Valley’s head hardliner scripted his own political obituary.