When an all-party delegation visited Kashmir last week, Syed Ali Shah Geelani kept his door firmly shut. Muzamil Jaleel says that while the Hurriyat leader has always stood his ground on Kashmir, he has now got other separatists around to his position
ONE AFTERNOON, a few days ahead of the visit of an all-party delegation to Srinagar, the policemen around Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s residence in Srinagar’s uptown Hyderpora neighbourhood had taken an unusual break. Though the Hurriyat leader is under an almost permanent house arrest, the siege around his home has been further tightened ever since the July 8 killing of Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani triggered an uprising across Kashmir. That day, however, the door was left open because the city was under curfew and the police didn’t expect any visitors.
The main entrance of the house opens into a small double-storey annexe, which houses Geelani’s office. In a small room upstairs, three men sat on a sofa, reading old newspapers. A word was sent inside and soon, Geelani’s elder son Nayeem entered. “Geelani sahib isn’t giving any interviews these days but you can meet him,’’ he said. Inside a small room sat Geelani. He looked old, holding himself together with an effort.
At 87, New Delhi considers Geelani the biggest hurdle in its efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue and find a solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. In fact, Geelani’s stance has been unwavering: the solution for Kashmir lies in plebiscite, a vote to determine whether Kashmir will go to India or Pakistan, a promise made by India’s first prime minister. While he wants Kashmir to become part of Pakistan, he has repeatedly said that he would accept the results of such a plebiscite. “If people vote for India, we won’t question that,’’ he has repeatedly said.
During the brief conversation at his house that afternoon, Geelani didn’t say anything different. But this time, his defiance to New Delhi holds a much greater political weight in Kashmir.
The trigger for the latest uprising, unlike previously, isn’t a human rights violation by forces, but the killing of Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old Kashmiri militant commander. Though the separatists aren’t in control of the streets and are only reacting to the azadi groundswell that had filled villages and towns across Kashmir, the Hurriyat’s protest calendar is the reference point for the protesters. Geelani realises that this is no ordinary protest. It is a public endorsement of Wani’s call for “Kashmir’s freedom from India”. And this is exactly what Geelani has been saying even before Wani was born.
On its part, the Centre has been trying to match Geelani’s perseverance with some tough talk of its own – indicating that it was likely to harden its stance against separatists and curtail the alleged ‘largesse’ they get from New Delhi, a position from which the Centre has since backtracked. But as is evident from the way he responded to the all-party delegation at his gate, Geelani isn’t known to keep his door open, not to any peace talk with New Delhi, unless, as he says, Kashmir’s azadi is on the table.
Geelani supporters say he isn’t against dialogue per se. During the 2010 uprising, Geelani put five steps before New Delhi to begin talks. His first demand was that New Delhi should accept Kashmir as an “international dispute”; the other four demands, including demilitarization and withdrawing cases against youth, were linked to creating mere atmospherics. New Delhi didn’t respond.
This time too, when Geelani wrote to SAARC leaders last month, he put forth a similar list of confidence building measures before New Delhi. But, like always, he insists that New Delhi must accept Kashmir as a dispute first.
A Hurriyat leader close to Geelani says, “To world powers, they (New Delhi) tell Kashmir is a bilateral issue between them and Pakistan. To Pakistan, they say it is our internal issue. To us, they tell Kashmir is an integral part… so no issue. So there is a reason why Geelani sahib insists that they accept the Kashmir dispute before anything else.”
National Conference leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah says that unlike other separatists, Geelani “is willing to say no and stick to it”. “He didn’t want to meet the members of the all-party delegation and he shut his door. I don’t think government pressure is going to work on him. You can’t force him to buckle down by refusing him or his family members their passports or by taking away their security. He doesn’t have security in the first place,’’ he says.
Born in 1929 in Zoori Munz, a village on the banks of Wular lake in Bandipore, Geelani went to Oriental College in Lahore but returned home a year before Partition. Geelani’s initiation into politics was at the hands of Moulana Mohamamd Syed Masoodi, a National Conference leader who trained him as his assistant at the party headquarters in Srinagar. Geelani, however, was drawn towards the Islamist philosophy of the Jamaat-e-Islami and joined the organisation in 1959. In 1972, Geelani won his first election, as a Jamaat candidate from his home constituency Sopore. He was again elected to the J&K Assembly in 1977.
In 1987, the Muslim United Front, an alliance between the Jamaat and several other social and religious outfits, contested the elections. Geelani won from Sopore for the third time. That was the last time he contested an election. At the height of the militant movement, Geelani resigned from the Assembly and took a lead role in Kashmir’s separatist politics.
By 2002, however, cracks began appearing in the Hurriyat with differences on future strategies, the role of militancy in the separatist movement and dialogue with New Delhi. Geelani was firm that talks with New Delhi can only happen once the government accepts that J&K is a dispute. However, the group led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the man seen as the ‘dove’ by New Delhi, wanted talks. The killing of one of Hurriyat’s top leaders, Abdul Gani Lone of the People’s Conference, allegedly by militants in 2002, also led to the widening of the rift. In September 2003, the Hurriyat split into two camps – the Geelani faction and the Mirwaiz faction.
When the split finally happened, it was over the fielding of proxy candidates by the People’s Conference, a constituent of the Hurriyat conglomerate, in the 2002 Assembly polls. Geelani vehemently questioned the proxy participation and sought the eviction of the People’s Conference led by Bilal Lone and Sajjad Lone. While Bilal is still a member of the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat, Sajjad switched sides, contested polls and became a minister in the PDP-BJP government.
Though Geelani has been consistent about his position on New Delhi, there is a reason why his voice carries more strength now. Over the years, there were disagreements within the Jamaat, the party which Geelani represented in the united Hurriyat, on the future course of the organisation. Several of its top leaders believed the organisation had suffered heavy losses, especially because scores of its cadres had been killed by security agencies, and that the organisation should let politics take a back seat and focus primarily on socio-religious issues. Jamaat supporters, especially in South Kashmir, even helped the PDP in successive elections since 2002. At one point, Jamaat even tried to replace Geelani as its representative in the Hurriyat. Finally, Geelani left the Jamaat-e-Islami and formed his own party, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Jammu and Kashmir, in August 2004. Now, with the PDP-BJP government launching a major crackdown against Jamaat across Kashmir and booking most of its leaders under the draconian Public Safety Act as part of its plan to quell the current protests, the Jamaat cadre has now come around to Geelani’s position.
The most important development, however, is the unity of the separatists. After more than a decade, even as the two Hurriyats exist separately, the recent protests have brought Geelani and Mirwaiz on the same platform. At least for now, there aren’t any hawks and doves, with the public mood fading the political fault lines within the separatist camp. Geelani’s statements during this uprising aren’t his alone; they now represent the stand of a united alliance. This has given his words a new strength. And, as he knows that this may be his last defiance, Geelani isn’t allowing his failing health and old age to come in his way.
A second rung Hurriyat leader says that all separatist leaders realise that New Delhi isn’t willing to even throw the bait of dialogue because they see Kashmir’s complete integration and assimilation into the Indian Union alone as a solution to the Kashmir problem, with no tolerance even for the degrees of autonomy advocated by pro-India parties such as the PDP and the NC.
“Our leadership has understood this big shift. If you remember, when Modi took over as Prime Minister, Mirwaiz sahib was expecting that he would restart the dialogue process that had been initiated by Vajpayee. That wasn’t the case,” he says, adding that moderate separatist leaders “have woken up after being mistreated for decades” by successive governments. “Geelani sahib has been vindicated. The promise of dialogue was only a farce aimed at managing the status quo,” he says.
Another Hurriyat activist says that until now, every time Kashmir erupted, successive governments in New Delhi would follow a single script to calm tempers: open channels with sections of separatist leadership and promise them dialogue. But once calm was restored, the process too would end.
“It wasn’t only the Indian leadership that distrusted Geelani sahib; the moderates always felt he was an unnecessary hurdle. Thus every effort was made (among the separatists) to isolate him as an anti-dialogue hardliner who can’t see logic. That isn’t the case anymore. All the top leaders have decided to come together on a joint platform. Their statements are on behalf of all. So now, whatever Geelani sahib says is the view of Mirwaiz sahib and Malik sahib (Yasin Malik) as well.”
This is why Mirwaiz now doesn’t see any merit in “talks for the sake of talks”. A few days before he was shifted to Cheshmashahi sub-jail from house arrest and his phones were taken away, Mirwaiz sounded extremely upset about the way the current government was responding to the uprising.
“They (government) are killing our youngsters, blinding our children day after day. They want complete surrender. That will never happen,’’ he said. “We have always been ready for talks but not talks for the sake of talks. That’s unacceptable.”
This time, Mirwaiz said, there are other serious fears, which didn’t exist earlier. “The Hindutva agenda of this government is seen with a lot of apprehension. They regularly talk about assimilation of Kashmir and it is the RSS that drives this government’s Kashmir policy,’’ he said. “This isn’t Vajpayee’s BJP. We know that now… Everybody knows how we put our lives and credibility at stake when we agreed to hold direct talks with New Delhi earlier”.
He should know. Mirwaiz’s uncle Moulvi Mushtaq was killed by militants and Fazal Haq Qureshi, a prominent leader in the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat and the pointsman between Hizbul Mujahideen and the Vajpayee government, too was fired at and seriously wounded.
Mirwaiz’s entry into separatist politics happened through a personal tragedy. Two years after his father Mirwaiz Molvi Mohammad Farooq’s assassination, allegedly by militants in 1990, 19-year-old Umar Farooq had to halt his studies to become the chairman of the Hurriyat Conference.
Unlike Geelani, Mirwaiz believed that engagement itself was a good beginning. Although his family’s stronghold in downtown Srinagar was staunchly pro-Pakistan, held direct talks with the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments and openly supported then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf Musharraf’s four-point plan to address Kashmir. This plan, announced on December 25, 2003, was based on suzerainty without international borders for Kashmir on either side of the Line of Control. This major policy shift was followed by several big changes in Pakistan’s K-policy, with Musharraf replacing self-determination with self-governance, ruling out complete independence and encouraging a direct dialogue between Kashmiri groups and New Delhi.
Once again, the separatist camp was divided, with Mirwaiz supporting this solution and Geelani opposing it. Irked, Musharaff sidelined Geelani but he didn’t give in. The deal couldn’t become a reality because New Delhi developed cold feet and soon, an agitation led by lawyers forced Musharraf’s ouster.
Yasin Malik, meanwhile, has a different appeal in Kashmir. He represents those who seek a Kashmir independent of both India and Pakistan. While he began his journey as a militant commander of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front as a teenager, he has been an ardent advocate of non-violence ever since he was released in 1994 and has been campaigning for a meaningful dialogue for a permanent solution to Kashmir ever since.
Malik was one of the pioneers of militancy in Kashmir who crossed over to Pakistan for arms training in the late 1980s. He was one of four area commanders, the others being Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majid and Javid Mir, and they came to be known as the ‘HAJY’ group. The four of them were JKLF’s top leaders. Malik’s stint as a militant was short-lived — in 1991, he was arrested and jailed for three-and-a-half years. After his release on May 17, 1994, Malik emerged a changed man. He became an ardent advocate of non-violence and declared a unilateral ceasefire. Despite JKLF giving up arms, scores of Malik’s colleagues were killed. In 2007, Malik even launched a statewide door-to-door campaign, the Safr-e-Azadi (Journey for Freedom), to mobilise support for the Indo-Pak peace process and create a space for Kashmiri voices in the dialogue. There was no response from the government.
Malik was, however, one of the first separatist leaders to be arrested when the current uprising erupted. One of the reasons for the government’s suspicion of Malik is the appeal of his message: of Kashmir’s independence from both India and Pakistan.
Unlike other separatist leaders, Malik hasn’t been part of any of the factions of the Hurriyat. In fact, he was always trying to united the separatists. Today, he is among the top leaders of the joint platform.
While Geelani’s has an ardent support base, he has his share of critics. Apart from those who see his politics rooted in religious identity as divisive, there are many among the separatists who disagree with his politics. “His politics is reactionary. Each time a situation emerges, he responds to it. We have been asking, what is next after a strike call? This question was there in 2008 and 2010 too,’’ says a Hurriyat leader belonging to the moderate camp.
He says Geelani stays away from taking “unpopular decisions. A leader has to do that for the larger good. That doesn’t mean he has surrendered.” The Hurriyat leader says Geelani’s politics is shaped by his biggest adversary, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the founder of the National Conference. Referring to the Sheikh’s decision to side with India in 1947, he says, “(Unlike Sheikh Abdullah) Geelani sahib wants to die as an unwavering leader. He wants to be remembered as a leader who didn’t surrender. He knows age is not on his side. So he doesn’t want to muddy his hands in murky realpolitik”.
Senior PDP leader and Education Minister Naeem Akhtar says that “in a way, he (Geelani) represents the Kashmir problem as it is, the Kashmir conundrum”. “He is one of that old guard, who has been part of the story, the tragic story of Kashmir. The final verdict on him will come from history. It depends on his own strength. Whether he wants to continue to be part of the problem or solution, that is his choice”.
Next in line
Masarat Alam: A militant-turned-political leader, Alam could well be Geelani’s successor. Alam, whose political career as a separatist leader started in 1996, first came on the radar of fellow separatists in 2007. Alam was a top commander of pro-Pakistan militant outfit Hezbollah. After his arrest and release 13 months later, he joined separatist outfit Muslim League and later became its chief. In 2003, when the Hurriyat Conference split, Alam joined the Geelani-led faction. He rose to prominence in 2008 during the Amarnath land row agitation that was followed by massive pro-freedom protests in the Valley. He also led the 2010 uprising. Since 2010, Alam has spent his days — barring a month in March 2015 — in jail, booked under PSA.
Mhd Ashraf Sehrai: A long-term associate of Geelani’s from Kupwara, Sehrai is seen by many as his natural successor. But the veteran Sehrai is reluctant to take up any posts. Sehrai quit the with Islami and became a member of his Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Sehrai, like Alam, is known to take positions that are more hardline than Geelani’s. Sehrai, Hurriyat insiders say, was against calling off the shutdown in 2010 and express his displeasure through a letter from jail.