Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s political activism was chequered. He belonged to the right-wing Islamic revivalist movement—Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Its J&K chapter has a different trajectory and exists as an independent entity both from its counterparts in India and Pakistan. Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir (JeIK) took part in elections during the early 1970s, when the trend of boycotting elections was initiated first by Sheikh Abdullah after his illegal deposition and incarceration on August 9, 1953.
The election boycott trend was then popularized by the Plebiscite Front (PF). From early 1970s till 1987, JeIK took part in every election held in J&K by fielding its candidates. JeIK was one of the strongest networked and grassroot organizations after the National Conference (N.C). So, if some candidate was proposed for elections by the JeIK, there was a potential to be elected. Many times, their candidates were successful.
Syed Ali Geelani was one among them. Even during 1987 elections when mass rigging was orchestrated by the state, he along with other three candidates of the Muslim United Front (MUF) was declared successful. If few leaders of MUF are believed, MUF candidates were supposed to resign in protest against the mass rigging, but they joined the assembly in contravention with MUF orders.
As the armed struggle initiated in 1988, it created confusion among masses and political leaders particularly those representing politics of Plebiscite. The youth who were spearheading the armed struggle were condemned by few of these leaders as a bunch that had been led astray. On the other hand, the armed youth had decided to assassinate every person who had taken the oath to safeguard the constitution of India. This looming threat made three MUF MLAs including Syed Ali Geelani to resign from their assembly seats. The fourth MUF MLA was killed by the militants.
SAS Geelani in his personal capacity and directed by Pakistan started patronizing the armed youth but with radical Islamist, pro-Pakistan leanings like those of Hizbul Mujahideen (H.M). The pro-Independence groups like Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) who initiated the armed struggle were condemned as ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘nationalist’. So, their ‘sacrifices’ were not worth the sacred cause of Islam. Geelani undermined the leadership of JeIK who did not want to endorse and patronize the armed struggle by using their cadres and networks for the same. But somehow the state of Pakistan, encouraged Geelani and cadres of JeIK to be part of the Hizbul Mujahideen at the cost of decimating JKLF and later on JeIK too as the state initiated an iron fist policy against it.
Patronizing one and decimating another resulted in the internecine battles and clashes among pro- Pakistan and pro-Independence groups in which hundreds of youth lost their lives. Syed Ali Geelani continued to represent JeIK in Hurriyat Conference. The internal bickering, political manoeuvrings and tussle for dominance inside the Hurriyat have been evident to its members.
An insider account of marginalization of women and other voices at the cost of others has been described by Anjum Zamrooda Habib in her autobiography, Nighaa e Anjum (Kitab Mahal, Srinagar 2019). She had earlier related in her jail dairy Prisoner No. 100 (Zubaan Books, New Delhi, 2011) how she was made scapegoat by Hurriyat leadership and had to spend more than half a decade incarcerated in Tihar jail.
Just within a decade of its creation, the Hurriyat Conference was split in 2003 as Geelani alleged that a constituent of Hurriyat, Peoples Conference fielded proxies in 2002 Legislative Assembly elections. Geelani was also critical of the talks of few Hurriyat leaders with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajayapee. Thus, the Hurriyat split into two, were addressed as Geelani and Mirwaiz factions of Hurriyat and were described in media as Hurriyat Conference (G) and Hurriyat Conference (M). Each Hurriyat claimed to have around two dozen affiliates. Then these affiliates also got split. Geelani also rejected General Musharraf’s four-point formula about Kashmir.
Geelani continued to maintain a strong grip on his Hurriyat faction, reiterated a hardline approach in Kashmir separatism, believed in mixing of religion and politics, while spearheading the movement for accession to Pakistan and creation of an Islamic state.
In 2008, the people’s movement against the transfer of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) catapulted Geelani again on the centre-stage along with other leaders. Given his supremacist leanings that he had inculcated through a specific reading and an exclusivist interpretation of Islam. This exclusivism became manifest as he claimed to be the sole leader of the people while making them recite in a mass congregation that they were Pakistanis and it was their homeland. This claim of being the only supreme leader had to be retracted after it raised criticism from other leaders.
In 2008 and then again in 2010, Geelani and others came out with calendars of observing strikes. Ultimately, they failed to achieve any sustainable gains. In 2013 when Afzal Guru was sent to gallows, Geelani also failed to deliver. Later during the massive summer protests in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing on July 8, 2016 Geelani and others had no idea or plan about how to react to the state violence and chalk out a constructive plan that would be followed by the people. From 2008 to 2016, witnessing the failure of resistance leadership to deliver, masses had become disillusioned with them.
Resistance in Kashmir has always been people-centric not leader-centric. Here no ideology or leader except Sheikh Abdullah to a certain extent has been able to articulate a certain vision, that he compromised during his own lifetime to the extent that people remember him today as a traitor. His grave has to be safeguarded as the fear of desecration looms large over it even now. The sentiment for Azadi still is a potent force among masses and now the political leadership is again being overshadowed by armed groups as happened during the 1990s. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) raids against separatist leadership and booking them for receiving money from Pakistan and abroad has further reinforced the perception that Hurriyat leaders were filling their coffers at the cost of sacrifices of people. Around six executive members of Geelani’s Hurriyat including his son-in-law Altaf Ahmad Shah (Fantoosh) are being held at Tihar jail for money laundering. That is why Geelani was feeling cornered.
His recent resignation letter (29 June, 2020) needs to be read in the background of NIA raids, failure to chalk out a response, maintain a united front and prepare new leadership. His two- page letter in Urdu was full of rantings against the Hurriyat leaders particularly those based in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). He blames opportunists, who according to him, are indisciplined and corrupt, sabotaging his leadership. It started with the ouster of his representative Abdullah Geelani replacing him by Hamza Khateeb. Also, few Hurriyat leaders met in a park in Srinagar and endorsed the decision of PoK. It enraged Geelani as he felt sidelined by Pakistan, resulting in a diatribe against his fellow leaders whom he rarely considered equal. It was a result of his ego and megalomania that alienated most of his compatriots in the Hurriyat. Even Pakistan thought that given his age, death was at his door that offered them a safe exit to honour Geelani. But states cannot wait endlessly so they decided to replace Geelani and patronize others. However, the state of Pakistan in order to pacify and revere him conferred him with Nishan e Pakistan on 14 August. It is the highest civilian honor awarded in Pakistan. Despite the fact that the government of Pakistan is angry at the silence of Hurriyat leaders in the aftermath of abrogation of Article 370, Geelani absolved himself and blamed the members and leadership of constituent units failing him, as despite repeated orders and requests they avoided meeting him.
If the members and leaders of the constituent units are believed, they are resentful and angry at being sidelined by Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), composed of Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik of JKLF. Yasin was responsible for the JRL initiative and JKLF played the most active role in executing JRL programs. It was established in 2016. These three were calling the shots and other leaders felt alienated. So instead of being in the line of fire now, they have resorted to silence. With Yasin in jail, JKLF banned, they wanted Geelani and Mirwaiz to take lead but they failed miserably.
Geelani instead of owning the failure of his leadership, as usual, blamed others. The questions about accountability and leadership can be raised genuinely against him too be it the MBBS and Engineering seat scandal, money laundering and getting the opponents killed by issuing provocative statements against them. Pakistan offered reservation to the kith and kin of Kashmiris killed in violence and granted the recommendatory power to Hurriyat leaders including Geelani. They abused the allocation and sold these professional seats for hefty amounts of money. Children of various bureaucrats and state functionaries are studying or have completed their professional studies in Pakistan. Also, Geelani’s son in law is arrested along with others under these charges. He was fearful that his Pakistan-returned son Naeem Geelani may face the same fate. So, he made the false impression of being indispensable for Pakistan but states do not have empathy. They just serve national interests. Therefore, now the patronization was gone and Geelani was standing alone. In order to save himself from embarrassment he resigned from a post where he had declared himself leader for life. At last, he stated that he was not weak or frail and still had a good sound mind and body and so he would continue to fight India till death. It appeared just as an assurance with little pragmatism.
The death of Geelani does not mean an end to Islamist politics in J&K but an initiation of a new one, where old players will be discarded and new ones introduced. The leadership void will be filled by the violent militant leadership that will be faceless but controlled more strongly by Pakistan. Decimation of non-violent leadership will lead to subsequent increase in violent one and Kashmir will continue to remain mired in arson, violence and death.
Author of this article, M.H.A. Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.