The return of a hawk

Posted on: December 5, 2011

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 81-year-old chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, is perceived today to be Kashmir’s most mature politician. Sonia Sarkar on the man who has been steadfast in his demand for Kashmir’s right to self-determination

Grand old man: Syed Ali Shah Geelani speaks to supporters at his house in Srinagar
There is little in the silence outside the two-storey house to indicate that the man who sits inside is the reason behind the stillness. But a hartal in Srinagar and an ensuing curfew have forced the people to stay indoors. And Syed Ali Shah Geelani is waiting to hit the streets again.

The 81-year-old chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (G) has been out in the streets for three months now — and periodically in and out of jail as well. The Valley is on the boil; in a span of 100 days, 100 people have been killed, allegedly by security forces. And as the government looks at ways to bring peace to Kashmir, Geelani, who some say is the mastermind of the anti-government movement sweeping across Kashmir, is unfazed.

“That’s a perception that New Delhi would like to maintain,” Geelani replies, sitting in his living room, frugally done up with a red woollen carpet, a small wooden table and a 14-inch television set. “I have asked our youth to go for peaceful protests.”

To an extent, the state and central governments believe that it is only Geelani who can convince the youth to turn to peaceful methods of protest, says Srinagar-based political analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain. He points out that Geelani was arrested in mid-June after violence erupted following the death of a 17-year-old boy, killed by security forces.

“But the government had to release him in August because the situation was turning from bad to worse. With violent protests ruling the streets of Kashmir, the government could not identify any other leader who could successfully appeal for peaceful protests,” says Hussain, who also teaches law at Kashmir University.

Kashmir has seen the rise and fall of leaders in the last two decades. But clearly Geelani has been gaining ground in recent times. Once sidelined by the young insurgents who called for independence, the people now see him as a defiant leader who has held on to his position over the years. “His popularity is directly proportionate to the unpopularity of moderates such as All Parties Hurriyat Conference (M) chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik,” says Gul Wani, professor of political science, Kashmir University. “Geelani emerged as a stronger leader because he is the only person who has maintained all through that the Indian government is not serious about resolving the Kashmir issue.”

Geelani has been marking his own lonely furrow on a land — and issue — that has had many claimants. In June 2005, he did not board the first passenger bus from Kashmir to Pakistan’s Muzzafarabad — unlike the moderates, who did. In 2006, he did not join the moderates when they responded positively to former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s formula for peace — which envisaged, among other things, a phased withdrawal of troops from Jammu and Kashmir and joint supervision by India and Pakistan.

“When nothing came out of these initiatives, Geelani was seen as the more mature politician who not only had the courage to say no to India but to Pakistan too despite the fact that he always stood for Kashmir’s accession with Pakistan,” says Wani.

Not surprisingly, crowds have begun to chant pro-Geelani slogans at protest rallies. “Na jhukne wala, Geelani! Na bikne wala, Geelani! (The one who doesn’t bow down, Geelani; the one who can’t be bought, Geelani!).” And the man himself is refusing to bend. An all-party delegation will be in Kashmir tomorrow, but Geelani has no intentions of meeting the group. “It’s a farce,” he says.

New Delhi calls him a “hawk” for his pro-Pakistan position. Geelani, who began his political life in the pro-India camp in Kashmir under the guidance of former National Conference general secretary Maulana Massoodi, started changing ideologically as he moved closer to the Jamaat-e-Islami. During the years of militancy, he was seen as the mentor of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the armed wing of the Jamaat with pro-Pakistan leanings.

Some stress that after months of violence, people have been clamouring for a hardline position. “So even moderates are getting Geelani-ised since they are openly supporting his strike calls,” says Hussain.

But Mirwaiz Farooq refuses to buy the argument. “It is Geelani who is now turning out to be a moderate. His statement last month that he would try and review the strategy of protest if five conditions proposed by him are met clearly reflects his new flexible approach.” The five points include accepting the Kashmir issue as an “international” dispute, demilitarisation, repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and punishing those responsible for the recent killings.

Geelani, however, maintains that he has stuck to his demand for self-determination. “Since Delhi has not responded to my five points, it clearly shows that India is not serious about Kashmir,” says Geelani. Pakistan, he adds, should be kept on board when the Kashmir problem has to be resolved. “But as of now, we need to break the shackles that the Indian security forces have tied us with.”

Political analysts say that Geelani has, at last, felt the pulse of the people. “He has finally understood that people are more keen to be free of Indian occupation than join Pakistan. And this is what brings him closer to the youth,” Hussain says.

Helping him reach out to the young is his trusted lieutenant, 38-year-old Masrat Alam Bhat, the general secretary of his party. “Masrat not only speaks the language of the young but his style of functioning is different from that of the old separatist leaders,” says a Kashmir watcher. Bhat, he points out, makes use of Facebook and YouTube to urge the young to keep pelting security forces with stones — a method of protest that has stymied the government.

Not everybody, however, believes that Geelani is gaining popularity, “It is just a perception, and this perception is as false as the India Shining campaign,” says a young Kashmiri politician. “Geelani is definitely relevant in today’s struggle but other leaders cannot be ignored either. Since the issue is so complex, there are fragmented views across the Valley,” he says.

Some say that the leader’s post is irrelevant, for it’s the people who call the shots. “The movement is led by the people. Geelani is just a representative of the bigger cause,” says Aadil Bashir, a postgraduate student of conflict studies in the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantigore, J&K.

A senior doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital observes that Geelani is just an “unwitting victim” of circumstances. “He is a leader by proxy. He is there because there is no one else. Considering the present impasse, the leadership post in Kashmir is a hot potato that nobody wants to touch. Perhaps, not even Geelani,” he says.

But moderates such as Farooq, who recently joined hands with Yasin Malik, are making their own plans for Kashmir. “Collective leadership is what we need at the moment. So, we might talk to Geelani saab and discuss a strategy which ensures that the momentum does not break but still gives some relief to the common man by relaxing the protest calendar,” says Farooq.

But not many are sure that flames can now be doused. “The movement has grown so much that people will not listen to anyone,” says Babar Qadri, a young lawyer from Srinagar.

He points out that Geelani and other leaders earned the anger of the youth when they called off a strike during the Amarnath land transfer row in 2008. “The situation is so volatile here that even 100 more Geelanis cannot douse the flame of azaadi.”


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