Posts Tagged ‘Syed Ali Shah Geelani

Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education

  • LESSONS FOR LIFE: A community school in Budgam

Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.

Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.

Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.

Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.

Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.

  • Security forces guard a school in Padgampora

Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”

But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.

The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.

“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.

  • A game of cricket at the Idgah in Tral
    Photographs by Sonia Sarkar

To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.

Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.

“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.

Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”

The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.

Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.

  • ANOTHER TEST: File photo of students heading for an exam centre

But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.

“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.

The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.

For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.

“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.

But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.

Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.

The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.

The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.

More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.

In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”

For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.

This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.

Published in The Telegraph. November 27, 2016.



IMG_1799 (1).PNGWe We are in another season of tumult in Kashmir. Violence has been spiralling in the Valley ever since the 22-year-old Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM) commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed on July 8. More than 40 people have been killed in sporadic clashes with security forces. Miles away from the scene of action, across a forever tense Line of Control, sits Syed Salahuddin, fount of the HM, Kashmir’s only homegrown militant outfit – for most, a shadowy figure that drifts between Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Islamabad and looms over Kashmir. Some believe that the seed of the turmoil in Kashmir was planted when Salahuddin – then known as Mohammed Yusuf Shah – fought an election in the state as a candidate of the Muslim United Front from Srinagar’s Amirakadal constituency in 1987. His supporters hold that he was winning by a wide margin, but widespread electoral rigging led to his unexpected defeat. The seat was won by Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference. Two years later, he had crossed the border into Pakistan, and launched an armed struggle for the freedom of Kashmir. Salahuddin, who is on the NIA’s ‘most wanted’ list, warns that there’s more trouble on the way, if security forces do not stop killing ‘unarmed’ civilians. And it won’t be restricted to Kashmir alone: ‘We will hit everywhere and anywhere we like.’ Pertinently, at one point the militant also offered himself as a peace mediator between India and Pakistan. Sonia Sarkar spoke to him for an hour over Skype, imo and telephone. Excerpts:
Q. Did you know Burhan Muzaffar Wani?
A. I did not meet him but he was inspired by me. There are thousands of mujahideen in Kashmir whom I have not met, but who follow me and my path.Q. How do you see the recent spurt in violence after the killing of Burhan Wani?

A. Burhan Muzaffar Wani was not just any man killed by security forces. He is the sentiment of the Kashmir Valley. Every person in the Valley – man, woman and child – all of them are attached to this sentiment. There is a Burhan in every corner of the Kashmir Valley. This sentiment will not go away with the killing of Burhan Wani.

Q. Media reports said that the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Hafiz Saeed, and you organised a prayer meeting for Wani in Muzaffarabad. Also, in Lahore, Saeed said that there would be more trouble for Kashmir. What exactly did he mean?

A. I organised the prayer meeting for Wani. I did not invite Hafiz Saeed to come, but he offered to come on his own.

I agree with Hafiz Saeed. More trouble means that when the security forces of India are killing unarmed Kashmiris, we will intensify and escalate our attacks not just in Kashmir but elsewhere. There is no alternative left for us.

We want to stress that it is for the good of the Indian government to understand that the people of Kashmir are asking for their right to self-determination. If they don’t, we have to start target-oriented attacks.

Q. But the Indian government blames militant leaders like you for encouraging people to come out in protest to the streets, leading to civilian deaths…

A. It is government propaganda that we are pushing the people of Kashmir to come out on streets and protest. Children, doctors, government servants, old men, mothers – they are not coming out on the streets because I asked them to do so. They are committed to their cause.

Q. Aren’t you using the bodybags to fuel your movement? How is the Hurriyat helping you?

A. Hurriyat leaders are with us, shoulder to shoulder in the ongoing freedom struggle. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Shabir Shah – all of them are with us on the same page. They are in touch with us on a regular basis. But I have been cautious and have not spoken with any top separatist leader in the past one week. They are also supporting it (the protest) because themujahideen and the children, who are getting killed, are their children as well.

Q. Many youngsters are dying in these protests. Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to stop these children from going out on the streets so that this cycle of death comes to an end?

A. What we are seeing on the streets of Kashmir is a spontaneous public reaction to the killing of Wani. Also, there is pent up anger against the security forces because every day, somebody or the other is being targeted. You must understand that the youths of Kashmir, who are protesting on the streets, are a part of the generation which was born during the armed struggle. They have grown up witnessing unrest, killings and crackdowns. You need to understand their desperation to be freed from India on the basis of the fact that they are attacking heavily armed security forces with stones. It means they have no fear for life and they are not ready to compromise their right to self-determination.

Q. What is your plan of action in Kashmir now?

A. Our armed struggle and political struggle will carry on simultaneously. So far, our effort was to limit our activities to Jammu and Kashmir. If the Narendra Modi government continues to oppress the Kashmiris and if the security forces increase their assault on Kashmiris, I promise that we will hit everywhere and anywhere we like. We will go to any extent. You will see it, we will intensify our attacks.

Q. Several of your family members including your four sons are government employees. What’s their part in all this? Did you ever ask your sons to join the militancy movement?

A. I have not asked a single man to join militancy. It is the choice of the person to join it. It could be possible that my sons don’t think I am doing the right thing. You should understand that people joining us feel it strongly from within. They think this is the most befitting reply to oppression.

Q. How are you using the social media to recruit young men into militancy?

A. We don’t recruit people. Young boys are coming to us on their own because they have been facing assault by the Indian government. If we don’t recruit them, then they will pick up stones and protest on the streets. Also, the social media revolution is everywhere in the world. The young and educated Kashmiris do not need to learn from me how to use the social media. They know how to make the best use of it.

Q. Don’t you think, your movement has failed because it’s been 26 years since the struggle began – and there has been no real outcome? Also, according to security agencies, militancy has decreased in the Valley. Have you lost the war?

A. What has India got in these 26 years, tell me? Have they got Kashmiris with them? Let me tell you, in a freedom movement, a struggle of 26 years is nothing. India’s freedom movement went on for 90 years, so how do you even say that 26 years is enough? If there is no militancy and if we have lost the war, where is the need for such heavy deployment of security forces in Kashmir? Let me tell you, everyone in Kashmir is into the freedom movement now.

Q. Why is the Kashmir movement getting Islamised?

A. The Kashmiri movement was Islamised from day one. Why do you think an educated young man, who has a bright future otherwise, is willing to die? Is he mad? Azaadi is not his objective. What will he do with azaadi if he dies during the struggle?

He is into militancy because he knows that if he dies for a noble cause, he would become a martyr, as per Islam. We tell him that he would get into the “real life” after this death and he would get peace. Khuda usse raazi hoga.

Q. Is the ISIS with you?

A. There is no ISIS at all [in Kashmir]. This is fabricated propaganda by the Indian government. There is no support for ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban in Kashmir.

Q. Has there been any step by the Indian government to reach out to you? Do you think it would be difficult for you to operate in Kashmir because the BJP government under Narendra Modi has a more hardline approach?

A. [Atal Bihari] Vaj- payee was broad-minded. There is no com- parison of Modi with Vajpayee.

We still believe in peace but subject to one condition – let the Modi government give up dilly-dallying with the Kashmir issue. He should first accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Q. You had earlier accepted that you were fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir. This time, how is Pakistan helping you to fuel the tension in Kashmir?

A. Let India agree to come to the table for our right to self-determination – it is my personal obligation [that I will get] Pakistan to the “peace” table.

The story was published in The Telegraph, July 17. Link :

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.”