Minutes after we watched ‘Tezab’ at Hari Theatre in Jammu’s Raghunath Bazar once in 1987, Masood Hussain took me to see Syed Ali Shah Geelani, then a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader and MLA of the Muslim United Front at his room in the Dak Bungalow, the Tourist Reception Centre. Masood being young but from a Jamaat-e-Islami family background, they knew each other. He introduced me to Geelani Sahab. Next time I saw him was when I was interviewing J&K Youth Congress leader and Minister of State for Education, Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed for monthly TAKBEER, at his office on the ground floor of the Civil Secretariat in Srinagar. Geelani Sahab tripped in, kept standing for 2-3 minutes, asked Peerzada about some daily wagers and posting of Ateeqa Banu of Sopore, then a district education officer. He withdrew after the minister’s assurances and we continued the interview which Zaffar Meraj picked up for a front-page story in Kashmir Times.
I remember, when Sofi Mohammad Akbar passed away, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah called for Geelani Sahab and took him along on his helicopter from Jammu to attend the funeral in Sopore. Not much later, all the four MUF MLAs resigned when a separatist movement began erupting in Kashmir and there was an extremely cool response to the Lok Sabha elections. With a paltry turnout of 3-5% in Baramulla and Anantnag, nobody even filed a nomination against National Conference’s Mohammad Shafi Bhat in Srinagar. In 1980, Farooq Abdullah had been elected unopposed for Lok Sabha from Srinagar. It was only the second time that someone in J&K got elected as MP without contest. Those were the days when one section of the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership wanted to take a militant stand but another section, which included Geelani Sahab, was strongly against any promotion of the armed insurgency. This section feared that attachment to militancy could spoil Jamaat-e-Islami’s larger agenda of Islamic propagation. I remember many of them used to view and call militancy as ‘terrorism’.
In his electoral politics of around 30 years, Geelani contested 8 elections — 5 for Assembly and 3 for Parliament. He lost 5 but was returned successfully for Assembly from Sopore in 1972, 1977 and 1987. He was never appointed/elected as Jamaat’s Amir but, for years, he continued as head of Jamaat’s Political wing and its sole representative in Hurriyat Conference.
Things changed fast after Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnapping and release of 5 JKLF militants in exchange for her. As the Union Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed realised his plan of appointing Jagmohan as J&K’s Governor, Farooq Abdullah translated his threat of resigning in protest into action. It triggered an unceasing period of militancy and bloodshed and mass displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits. With few exceptions like Mirwaiz Maulvi Mohammad Farooq, almost all the prominent non-NC/Congress leaders of Kashmir were jailed. They were released in 1993.
Days after quitting Kashmir Times and joining Daily Excelsior as its Srinagar Bureau Chief in 1995, I went to interview Geelani. The nameplate at his Hyderpora house read: “Syed Ali Geelani ex-MLA”. He was critical of the counter-insurgent Ikhwan’s crackdown on the militants and their Jamaat-e-Islami supporters but all through the interview he mentioned the Ikhwan chief respectfully as “Kukka Parrey Saheb”. In the assembly elections of 1996, which were swept by the NC, we saw SAS Geelani and Abdul Gani Lone, escorted by Police guards, appearing for anti-election campaign at Pulwama. Their followers gathered and began raising pro-azadi slogans. Police on duty fired teargas. Later, Mr Lone retained the Police protection but Mr Geelani surrendered it fully when a controversy arose over the separatists accepting Indian Police cover. Notwithstanding my unapologetic opposition to violence of all shades and the gun culture in Kashmir, which I believed would only destroy Kashmir, Geelani Sahab used to address me affectionately “Lala Phalia” (Oh my eyesight).
I attended and reported most of his press conferences at his home and his Hurriyat office at Rajbagh. I was often critical of his hardline ideology in my opinion pieces and would hold him responsible for encouraging and glorifying the militants without using his influence to stop the civilian and political killings but, unlike some of his colleagues, he was incredibly tolerant and never complained about it.
Geelani was brutally honest and unapologetic about his ideology of Kashmir’s separation from India and its merger with Pakistan which people like me viewed to be patently utopian. I remember how audaciously he shouted his trademark slogan of “Ham Pakistani hain, Pakistan hamara hai” as many as 10 times in one breath to a massive audience at TRC Grounds in Srinagar in 2008. But, in my belief, there was one stark difference between him and other separatist leaders: While almost all others acted like Pakistan’s dumb puppets, he was the only Kashmiri separatist leader who had the guts to differ with the Pak establishment’s line over Kashmir when Gen Musharraf was the President. He was marginalized by Musharraf’s establishment and pushed to the wall but he stuck to his guns and continued to assail Musharraf’s way of resolving the Kashmir issue with India. The rebel within made him not only move out of the unified Hurriyat Conference and launch his own faction of the conglomerate, but also break away from Jamaat-e-Islami and float his own organisation. History will hold him responsible for most of the 2200-odd hartal days from 1993 to 2019, which affected everything including Kashmir’s economy, development and studies of the students of two generations, and its cascading effects. His critics and detractors will also blame him for thousands of the innocent civilian killings done by the militants which many of them insist he could have stopped. But his awe, charisma, articulation of his political ideology will go unmatched for years of foreseeable future in Kashmir.
His death signifies the end of an era in Kashmir’s separatist politics as none among his peers and colleagues has potential to shake a country like India. After 5 August 2019, which many call Kashmir’s 9/11, Geelani’s death at 92 years of his age is the second biggest setback to the separatist movement. In his death, Pakistan has lost her biggest asset in Kashmir.
Among all leaders, none other than Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah has enjoyed massive support of people in pre-1990 J&K. I was a young witness to his hero’s reception in Kashmir in 1975 and also to his funeral which was attended by over one million Kashmiris in 1982. But in post-1990 Kashmir, Geelani alone matched Sheikh’s level of popularity, even as it either diminished or became invisible in the last few years of his physical and political life.
With Ashraf Sehrai already dead, Salahuddin in Pakistan since 1993, Mian Abdul Qayoom demobilised after August 2019 and Massarat Alam in jail since 2010, Geelani has passed away without passing the mantle of his legacy to anybody. This is why many many of his followers on social media said that Kashmir’s separatist movement had been orphaned with Geelani’s death.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.
This article has been republished with permission from Ahmed Ali Fayyaz’s Facebook post.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.