India’s nemesis in Kashmir: Life of Syed Ali Shah Geelani

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, 91, the most prominent figure in Kashmir, died on 01 September. 

Geelani wanted himself buried at Mazar E Shuhada — Martyrs’ graveyard in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. But even after his death, he remained a ‘security threat’ to New Delhi. Geelani’s ‘will’ was abrogated as were the rights of Kashmir on that night.

His political life reflected the changing political environment of Kashmir. 

Early life

Around the 1940s, Syed Geelani completed his education at Oriental College, Lahore. While in Kashmir, discontent against Dogra Monarchy grew among Muslims.  Under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir protested the unjust rule of Maharaja Hari Singh and urged self-rule for Kashmir.

Geelani was drawn to the fight 

He briefly worked under the National Conference leader Muhammad Syed Masood in the daily Urdu newspaper, Khidmat, before joining as a government teacher.

When the British left India in 1947, the territory was split into India and Pakistan with Kashmir in between. The valley instantly became a contested land. Maharaja requested India for help. India expressed unwillingness to help until an accession was signed. Maharaja decided to accede to India. However, this accession was subject to a referendum by the people of the state.

Then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced in Lal Chowk, Srinagar that once peace is established, people will be given a chance to decide their future.

Meanwhile, Geelani joined the Kashmir wing of  Jamaat e Islami, a socio-political Islamic organization. While he personally endorsed Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan, he advocated for a right to self-determination for Kashmiris throughout his life.

Following the arrest of Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, India used arbitrary forces to keep Kashmir under its administration. Geelani left his job and completely devoted his time to the functioning of Jamaat e Islami. He was arrested in 1962 for raising the Kashmir issue and remained in jail for more than a year.

In 1964 Geelani was made General Secretary of Jamaat e Islami. But next year, he was again arrested and remained in jail for about 22 months. Geelani spent almost 14 years of his life in prison. 

In 1972, Geelani contested and won the state assembly election from his home constituency of Sopore.

In 1974, Sheikh Abdullah signed the Indira-Sheikh accord, backtracking his two-decade fight for the plebiscite, to return as the Chief Minister. Geelani termed it as a betrayal.

He was re-elected in 1977 while NC led by Sheikh Abdullah won by a thumping majority. He remained a critic of Abdullah in and outside the assembly. Geelani kept stressing the demand for Plebiscite.

After the death of Sheikh Abdulla, his son Farooq succeeded him. Political unrest made Farooq lean to New Delhi. Finally, Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah formed an alliance between Indian National Congress and NC in the 1987 elections. 

Parties that didn’t accept Kashmir’s accession, created a coalition called Muslim United Front (MUF). Syed Geelani’s Jamaat e Islami was a constituent unit of it. Their aim was to push for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute via state assembly.

The 1987 election was a tight fight between NC-Congress and MUF. These elections ended up being rigged by the government. While MUF believed it would have won enough seats to form a government, most observers estimated that they would have won considerable seats but not enough to form a government. 

These rigged elections led to pro-independent groups shifting to armed resistance against the Indian administration.

Geelani was among four MUF candidates who managed to win their seats in the 1987 elections. Hundreds of people including MUF candidates and agents were put behind bars. Geelani along with other MUF assembly members resigned from their seats in assembly as a mark of protest in 1989.

According to Geelani, 1987 elections demonstrated that India would never allow Kashmiris to democratically express their true will. This happened to be Geelani’s last test with electoral politics. He never contested elections, rather endorsed boycotting elections. 

He continues his struggle for Self-determination but now via mass public movement endorsing armed rebellion. The unrest which began post-1987 elections, in 1989, led to the fall of Farooq Abdullah’s government. New Delhi directly ruled Kashmir from 1990 to 1996. 

Geelani believed that the movement wasn’t the result of just a rigged election but the culmination of 40 years of Kashmiris being denied their right by India.

Unflinching leader

In 1992, all the pro-freedom political parties came together to form the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Geelani was its founding member and later became its chairman. APHC vowed to fight for Kashmir’s right to self-determination under a mass movement. The unrest in the form of mass protest accompanied by arms prevailed for most of the 1990s.

By the early 2000s, many senior Hurriyat leaders began direct talks with the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later with Manmohan Singh. 

But Geelani distanced himself from it. 

Geelani believed India’s acceptance of Kashmir as a dispute was a prerequisite for dialogue. After the 2002 assembly elections, he accused many of his party mates of fielding proxies in the election and demanded their expulsion. The differences led to a split in Hurriyat. Mirwaiz leading a moderate faction while Geelani leading the hairline one.

In 2004, he refused to accept Musharraf’s four-point formula. According to him, the four-point formula endorsed the status quo in Kashmir. Former Pakistani Foreign minister mentioned that it was really hard to convince Geelani of this formula.

The same year, he established his own party called Tehreek e Hurriyat after coming to an agreement with Jamaat e Islami.

He influenced the 2008 mass unrest. Geelani was in the frontline. He would call for protests, processions and strikes which were well responded to by people. His popularity kept increasing especially among Kashmiri youth born to one of the most militarized zones in the world. 

Since 2010 he had been under house arrest.

In June last year, he quit the Hurriyat Conference faction that he headed. Allegedly Geelani was dissatisfied with the working of some constituent members, specifically members from Pakistan Administered Kashmir, accusing them of political Corruption. Geelani accused party members of failing to react to the Indian Government’s August 5 2019 decision.

He had earlier resigned as the chairman of Tehreek e Hurriyat followed by Ashraf Sehrai taking over as Tehreek e Hurriyat chairman.

Syed Geelani possessed scholarly traits. He authored more than 2 dozen books. He was well versed in religion, history and the specific work of Alama Iqbal which he considered an important influence on his life. He even wrote a two-volume book on the work of Iqbal. 

Geelani was suffering from different medical conditions. He had a pacemaker, no gallbladder, and possessed just two-thirds of one kidney. He was also diagnosed with renal cancer. 

His passport had been withheld by the government in 1981. With the exception of a hajj pilgrimage.

Hamaad Habibullah is a freelance writer from Srinagar, Kashmir based in Delhi. His work has appeared in TRT World, Decan Herald, The Citizen, Two Circles, Rising Kashmir and more.