Srinagar: Did Syed Ali Shah Geelani resign from his faction of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) due to disillusionment? Or is Pakistan backing him to change the status quo in Kashmir?
The driving force behind the decision of the ailing 90-year-old, who has influenced Kashmir politics for decades, to quit the separatist group Monday has divided Kashmir observers in the Indian political and security establishment, central and state officials responsible for dealing with Hurriyat affairs told ThePrint.
Officials who have dealt with the separatist conglomerate in the past are also divided along the same lines.
The convenient explanation would be that Geelani’s decision is a result of his disillusionment with his own compatriots as described in his letter to the Hurriyat constituents, said a senior central government official who didn’t wish to be named.
However, Geelani’s resignation could also have come due to the blessing and backing of at least a certain section of the Pakistani establishment, which is looking for a game-changer in Kashmiri politics, a second official said on condition of anonymity. Geelani’s resignation letter, in which he makes no indications of dropping separatism as an ideology or his own organisation Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, back this view, said the official.
The official added that internal fissures do exist, but if the move is made in collusion with Pakistan, Kashmir politics might be up for a major upheaval.
For Geelani, however, this could prove to be his final move in a long history.
Who is Geelani?
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who hails from Sopore in north Kashmir, is a three-time MLA from the same region — 1972, 1977 and 1987. But he gave up electoral politics when armed insurgency erupted in Kashmir.
It is no secret that Geelani was revered by militant groups, particularly the Hizbul Mujahideen. In March 1992, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militants, then considered rivals to Hizbul, had to release Geelani just a couple of hours after they kidnapped him and were forced to issue an apology the next day, according to Manoj Joshi’s Lost in Rebellion.
In 1993, Geelani became one of the founding members of APHC, along with Gani Lone, Gani Bhat and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
While most separatists maintained that their fight is for ensuring that “Right to Self Determination” is given to people of J&K, Geelani went a step further, stating he personally stands for the state’s merger with Pakistan by holding a plebiscite under United Nations supervision.
The popularity of the slogan ‘Hum Pakistani hain, Pakistan humara hai’ among pro-Pakistan constituencies in Kashmir is largely attributed to Geelani.
In 2003, he parted ways with APHC as he alleged some of the members had floated proxy candidates in assembly elections, which the Hurriyat boycotts. A year later, he also left the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the largest socio-religious outfits in Jammu and Kashmir, to focus solely on political activities.
The APHC, a conglomerate of over two dozen outfits was split with more than half the groups siding with the Geelani faction. Others remained with Mirwaiz Molvi Umar Farooq.
Geelani then founded the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat which became the main constituent of his faction of the APHC.
The unwavering pro-Pakistan stance by Geelani made him stand apart from other separatist leaders, who were branded moderate in comparison to Geelani. His opposition to ex-Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula to resolve the Kashmir issue and the Government of India’s choice to keep sending emissaries and delegations to meet Geelani only added to his aura.
‘Biggest asset of Pakistan in Kashmir’
In the three decade history of militancy in Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani could never be connected to any incidents of violence, including stone-pelting, but his words offered impetus to the hostilities on the streets of the Valley, said a retired IPS officer who had served in the Intelligence Bureau.
“During the peak of militancy he was an important figure, especially for the Hizbul Mujahideen which had close associations with Jamaat-e-Islami but his prominence increased only after 2008 when there was an agitation after the J&K government transferred land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board,” said the IPS officer who had served as the director general of police in J&K.
“After 2008, Geelani was able to reign in warring factions of separatists to adhere to him. The 2008 agitation and the unrest after that in 2009 and 2010 helped him yield more power as he issued ‘protest calendars’ which were abided by the people. All other separatists had to take a back seat. The Pakistanis realised he is their biggest asset in Kashmir,” the officer added.
But this power not only came from his defiance of New Delhi, but also from Pakistan, which according to officials, could pose grave ramifications.
“In 2003 Geelani opposed a ceasefire between some Hizbul Mujahideen commanders and the Government of India, a move which at that time had backing of the Pakistani government as well as some Jamaat leaders,” said the officer.
“The watershed moment for him was when he successfully opposed the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula (to resolve the Kashmir issue), which he considered as a compromise, given Geelani has always advocated J&K merger with Pakistan. With Geelani opposing Musharraf, all other separatists who were opening up to the idea fell like a pack of cards,” added the officer.
“He established his character as someone who would take on Pakistan, a country with whom he wanted Kashmir to merge, if required,” said the officer.
He added that Geelani’s exit from APHC won’t have an impact unless and until he is not “seen as an ideologue”.
‘Realisation about corrupt movement’
However, the central government official quoted above said the resignation will not only impact morale of the Geelani faction in APHC, but also the faction headed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the militant movement at large, which derives a lot of its cadre from the same school of thought to which Geelani belongs.
In his letter, Geelani accused Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatists of “heinous acts of immorality, indiscipline and non-cooperation”.
The 90-year-old also attacked APHC’s constituents for not being able to do enough or resist Narendra Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. But he clarified towards the end of his letter that Syed Abdullah Gilani, a Kashmiri native based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, will continue to represent him in Pakistan and abroad.
A third central government official said, “In the best case scenario, the resignation signifies realisation on part of Mr Geelani that how empty and corrupt the so-called movement for liberation of Kashmir is and how Pakistan has used him to further its agenda.”
The official added that as far as “we are concerned there is no worse case scenario” as his exit from APHC is also an opportunity for all the constituents of the conglomerate to introspect and decide their future.
“There already exists a sense of disillusionment and in future you might see more resignations,” said the official. However, he added that the Centre was taking Geelani’s resignation with a “pinch of salt”.
S.P. Vaid, former Jammu and Kashmir DGP, said multiple pressures might have finally got the best of Geelani.
“He is ageing and is not keeping well. He also has differences with other leaders in Hurriyat such as Ashraf Sehrai. NIA is investigating his sons. So these can be reasons,” said Vaid.
“There was also information that he has differences with the ISI. After the 5 August decision, the ISI wanted upheaval in Kashmir but nothing happened, so it’s a possibility that Pakistan wants someone younger and better to do their bidding. There are many reasons but I can only speculate. Only Geelani sahab himself can say which one is true,” Vaid added.
Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav also shared Geelani’s resignation on his Twitter account even as the state BJP said that it was beyond doubt that Hurriyat was irrelevant in Kashmir as its funding had been stopped.
Gilani resigned from Hurriyat pic.twitter.com/N6A5uuHyFh
— Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) June 29, 2020
This man was singularly responsible for ruining the lives of thousands of Kashmiri youths n families; for pushing Valley into terror n violence. Now resigns from Hurriyat without giving a reason. Does it absolve him of all d past sins? https://t.co/369C9Y1Rqe
— Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) June 29, 2020
‘Bid to change status quo’
Officials in the security apparatus in Kashmir say that Geelani could be signaling that his resolve remains strong despite complacency among APHC constituents.
Moreover, Geelani’s choice to not criticise Pakistan directly but to attack Pakistan-backed separatist outfits is being seen as a call to “level” the status quo in Kashmiri separatism, ensuring entries of new actors while disciplining those who he perceives as uncommitted to the separatist cause.
Some officials said Geelani’s move could rejuvenate separatist activities in J&K, which took a major hit after the 2019 Pulwama attack with the banning of Jamaat-e-Islami and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.
Two J&K government officials told ThePrint that Geelani’s resignation seemed to have “backing and blessing” of at least a section in Pakistani establishment, which believed that the Pakistani government and Hurriyat leaders haven’t been doing enough in the face of a wavering APHC or in the aftermath of the 370 decision.
“He hasn’t criticised Pakistan directly and his resignation might give a free hand to Pakistani handlers of Hurriyat leaders who might want them to be more pro-active which has not been the case lately,” said a state official who didn’t want to be identified.
“Secondly, the resignation and the attempt to discredit Hurriyat leaders might be Geelani’s move to level the playing field for entry of new actors who would be more aggressive to prove their worth. This would mean an upheaval. This could very well Pakistan’s deeper involvement and even an entire reshaping of the APHC,” added the official.
Srinagar-based political expert Ibrahim Wani described the move as significant.
“Separatist politicians, with this decision, have reintroduced them to the news. It will be interesting to see what direction this separatist politics takes in the future. Will there be attempts at reunification of all factions of APHC? What would be the effect on the future political activity of this grouping are some of the questions that would be answered in the coming days,” said Wani.
But nearly all officials ThePrint spoke to said “it was too early to give a final verdict”.