An LED television is installed on the wall opposite the sofa on which Syed Ali Shah Geelani is sitting. “The technician will come tomorrow and set up the cable connection,” Geelani’s deputy Peer Saifullah tells him. “So it is just a showpiece there,” Geelani responds with a smile.
The Hurriyat Conference leader isn’t really fond of watching TV. But five years of being kept confined to a 1,100 sq ft space in a double-storey house can alter your habits. Geelani confesses he is now “bored”. So, a week ago, the 86-year-old who swears by BBC Urdu’s Sairbeen, that gives a round-up of news from across the world, asked for a television set.
The only time Geelani is allowed out of the house is when he visits Delhi, where he spends the winter months at a rented accommodation with his wife. The chill of Srinagar gets too much for even his self-confessed fiery bones.
Outside the black gate of his house with a small garden at Hyderpora, Srinagar, that was bought by the separatists for Geelani in the early ’90s, a blue police van blocks the entrance. Hyderpora is a posh Srinagar suburb inhabited by the city’s affluent, and Geelani’s house is among the smaller ones.
Geelani lives here with his wife Jawahira Begum and domestic helps Ambreen and Shaheen. Geelani’s sons Dr Naeem Geelani and Naseem Geelani live elsewhere. The garden also has a small office of the Hurriyat.
At a time 12 policemen are stationed outside Geelani’s house, led by a sub-inspector. A tent has been put up for them and plastic chairs. One of them stands up as anyone approaches, asking for their identity card. “Why do you want to meet him?” a 30-year-old constable demands to know.
By now, everyone who wants to meet Geelani — and even the policemen know there are many — know the drill. You just say you are here for a “mulaqaat (meeting)”. The only people specifically barred are journalists. And among the items you can’t be caught with is a camera.
“Whenever Geelani sahib announces a programme or calls for a shutdown or protest, the entry to his house is closed for all,” says Ayaz Akbar, the spokesman of Geelani’s Hurriyat.
On “normal” days, everybody coming for a meeting is allowed inside. There is no frisking of the visitors either, since Geelani is one of the few separatist leaders to have declined security.
“We have different directions at different times,” smiles one of the policemen. “So if he calls for a rally or protest, we are told to be strict. On other days, we are directed to show some relaxation. But we have clear orders not to allow him to venture out.”
Geelani’s day starts at dawn when he gets up to offer morning prayers and recite a portion of the Quran. Once done with the prayers, he exercises.
A patient of asthma, the separatist leader has a pacemaker installed and only one functional kidney. So health ranks high on his day’s list of priorities —something he regularly advises others to copy. Apart from outdoor exercises, he walks around briskly in the grounds — the drill taking up nearly two hours.
Breakfast is fixed — three eggs without yolk and cornflakes and milk. He mostly eats alone, except when his grandchildren are around. He then spends the rest of his day in an outer room.
On his table in this room are books, a blue diary and close to a dozen newspapers — in Urdu and English. He goes through almost all over the next hour, underlining any news that interests him in red. Words that he doesn’t like are also marked out.
On a local English language newspaper, Geelani underlines the news item ‘Kashmiri leaders are not third party, says Sharif’. “This statement of Nawaz Sharif is encouraging for us. Pakistan has now taken a stand on Kashmir. It is a realistic stand,” he says. “You see the cancellation of (NSA-level) talks has been a blessing in disguise for us. Kashmir issue has been highlighted again.”
The separatist leader has a fixed time for everything during the day but the visitors, who keep trooping in. Some come just to meet, others with applications of help, and some to complain against harassment by security forces. Geelani meets everybody.
Late in the evening, one visitor arrives with an application seeking two pints of blood. The blood is sanctioned from the blood bank named after Geelani.
“He is always busy,” complains his 21-year-old granddaughter. “That’s his greatness or maybe also a weakness.”
At 1 pm, Geelani takes a break for afternoon prayers, followed by lunch. Again, the menu is fixed — rice and chicken, “preferably a leg piece”. Sometimes, he takes an afternoon nap.
Whenever there is no visitor, Geelani scribbles into the blue diary he has titled ‘Shab-o-Roz (Nights and Days)’, on his table. He notes down events of the day in it, in neat Urdu. “It is this diary that I consult when I want to write a book,” he says.
He has written more than 40 books and pamphlets already, including the three-part autobiography ‘Wular Kinaray (On the Banks of Wular)’. But, Geelani claims, the writing isn’t as easy as it used to be. Most of his other books were written when he was in prison. “Prison is a good place to write books,” he says. “To write a book, you need to be free of all disturbances. You get that atmosphere in jail. Here every other minute somebody drops in.”
Security forces started resorting to house arrests in the Valley to prevent separatist leaders from participating in protest marches. Initially, police would lay a cordon around the residence of a separatist leader and not allow him out. The detention would last a day or two. But since the massive protests in 2008, police are using it to keep separatists and their followers apart. In case of Geelani, police believe lodging the ailing leader in jail would lead to problems.
The Omar Abdullah government that started the house arrest of Geelani in July 2010 had experimented with releasing him for a month in November 2013. In those 30 days, Geelani addressed five massive rallies across Kashmir. “They (the government) were unnerved and put me under house arrest again,” Geelani says.
Once in the dead of night the Hurriyat leader had managed to give his guards the slip to reach his home town Sopore to address an Eid congregation. “He left without informing even us,” says a close aide. “We were all offering prayers.
He (Geelani) left midway and signalled the driver to come along. The car didn’t have Geelani and so policemen let the driver leave. Geelani had already left by then, finding the policemen off-guard. He boarded the car and switched off his phone. Finally he appeared at Sopore and addressed the Eid gathering.”
There have been other times when Hurriyat supporters have broken the cordon outside Geelani’s house and taken him.
After all these years, there is a sense of camaraderie between Geelani and his guards now. “At times, people from inside the house bring us tea. Whenever there is some function of the Hurriyat, they also share the food with us,” says a policeman.
At around 9 pm, Geelani and his wife have their dinner.
Enjoying his meal of rotis and vegetables, the Hurriyat leader says, “It’s only slightly different from being in a jail. But I get food of my choice here and can meet people.”
Family members attest that Geelani is fussy about food. Says his granddaughter, “It may be only khichdi, but it is most difficult to cook for him. The food should be simple and without any spices but it should taste well. There is no compromise on taste.”
He “seldom” takes tea, and never has Kashmir’s traditional salt tea.
Around 10 pm, Geelani retires for the day. Outside, his guards take turns to man the gate through the night. A constable says their instructions are to never let up the vigil. “We hardly sleep for a few hours, that too only inside the vehicle.”
The routine may see some variations on days, but one thing has been constant for the past few decades. At 8.30 pm, Geelani always tunes into BBC Urdu. “I still believe that it is the only credible news,” he says.
Will that change with the coming of television? “It is yet to be connected,” he says with a smile. “Let’s see.”