By Kaveree Bamzai
He's spent 15 years in various prisons. He's survived 12 assassination attempts in the past 20 years. He's undergone seven surgeries, including two for carcinoma at Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital. At 81, Syed Ali Shah Geelani has finally achieved a dream, leadership of the anti-Indian sentiment in the Kashmir Valley. This time, the chairman of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat and long-time member of the Jamaat-e-Islami is in no mood to walk off quietly. A bit to his surprise, "radical" fringe stars like Arundhati Roy are prepared to support his demand for secession.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani
After four months of lockdown, 111 deaths of young men and women, 1,025 arrested and 3,500 injured, Geelani believes he is on the verge of pulling off a miracle - an Islamic state in Kashmir. This may be a dream too far, but it has been the principal focus of his life since he joined the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1953. He was a government teacher then, after having spent four years in Lahore, between 1940 and 1944, studying the Quran and theology. He has not returned to Pakistan after 1944, though his elder son, 47-year-old Nayeem, has been living, and is being looked after, in Islamabad for the last 10 years.
The curious fact is that the man who wants to destroy India's unity, who hates the idea of a secular India, should get, then accept, financial aid from the governments of Delhi and Srinagar. There are whispers of cash being passed from intelligence secret funds. But what cannot be denied is that his surgeries have been paid for by the government, and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed even sent a special plane to pick him up from Ranchi jail where he was then lodged.
His pacemaker was replaced at Escorts Hospital, his gall bladder was removed at Gangaram Hospital, two cataract operations were conducted at Apollo Hospital, and even his teeth have been overhauled at Batra Hospital - all in the Capital. His surgeries at the Tata Memorial Hospital have been so successful that the portion of the right kidney which remained has now regrown to do the work of two. His large and comfortable three-storey home in Srinagar's Hyderpora is, however, provided by the Jamaat-e-Islami. He also maintains an independent home in Delhi's Malviya Nagar where he stays for the three months of Kashmir's winter.
But he remains firm on the demand for self-determination, which in his view would lead to Kashmir's accession to Pakistan. He does not want an independent Kashmir, although independence is preferable to "Indian imperialism". He is an ideologue who believes Kashmir should be an Islamic state within a theocratic Pakistan.
The pro-independence Sajjad Lone, one of his fiercest critics, believes that the Indian Government would prefer to project Geelani in order to discredit the independence movement which is secular in its objective. "It's statecraft. As long as he is there, freedom for Kashmiris will seem like a dangerous idea." Geelani has already launched his campaign for Islamisation, speaking freely of how the youth of Kashmir have to be saved from the "Delhi Public Schools and the Army schools which are Indianising them". Indeed while DPS-Srinagar chairman Vijay Dhar was told by Jamaat men to give children a holiday on Friday for prayers, Siddiq Wahid, vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, was asked to provide a masjid on the campus. Both refused.
Geelani is eager to take credit for the young men who took to the streets in hundreds over the summer, saying how their lack of fear of death is both "unique and appreciable". Their source of inspiration? "Wherever we have spoken to youngsters at rallies, seminars or at masjids," he says, "I have told them the source of inspiration is the Quran and the Sunnah." The results are coming in. "An awareness has come in thanks to the Jamaat schools we started since 1947 and the literature we prepared," he says.
This is the environment that caused Kashmiri Pandit scholar Shashi Shekhar Toshkhani to leave Srinagar in 1984. "Geelani embodies the idea of Islam flexing its muscles against non-believers. It is this idea that caused the greatest tragedy of independent India, the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits that cannot be wished away." For many young Kashmiri Muslims, though, Geelani is a folk hero, a sort of Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan who fought Italian occupiers in Libya, who has never compromised. It's something even Mirwaiz Umar Farooq acknowledges. "Every time Kashmir has engaged with New Delhi, whether in 1947, 1953 or 1975, its leaders have come back with less autonomy, not more," he says, referring to how he was abandoned by Delhi after participating in three rounds of talks, based on Pervez Musharraf's four-point formula. Geelani wasn't part of this effort, though he met Musharraf in Delhi in 2005. Geelani refused to relent on the issue of self-determination, despite the shift in the Pakistani position during Musharraf's time, which has only added to his aura among young people. His position has always been: declare Jammu and Kashmir a disputed territory, demilitarise it, withdraw all "draconian" laws, release all political prisoners, and make the talks trilateral. Lone has a different point of view: "He wants the talks only if they are with him, not with anyone else."
Lone has reason to feel aggrieved. Geelani accused Lone of betraying the movement by contesting the 2002 Assembly elections indirectly and got him expelled from the 26-party-strong Hurriyat Conference. But Geelani himself has fought elections, even Parliamentary elections in 1980, as a Muslim United Front candidate from Baramulla. He was MLA thrice, in 1972, 1977 and 1987. "We wanted to raise our voices democratically. We hoped that India would respect it. But India did not," he says. It's not that he hasn't talked to Indian negotiators. He has been in dialogue at various times with Wajahat Habibullah and R.K. Mishra, among others, but only in private, carefully avoiding the tag of officialdom. "What happens after these meetings?" asks his younger son, Naseem Zaffar, 40, a Ph.D student at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology and his father's constant companion. "They come for their photo-ops and go away."
"At one time, we had written him off," says A.S. Dulat, former R&AW chief who has dealt with Kashmir. "He also realised he would never be acceptable to the Government of India because of his extreme position." His links with the Hizbul Mujahideen, one of the militant organisations headed by Syed Salahuddin, didn't help. Salahuddin, formerly Syed Yusuf Shah, was the Muslim United Front's candidate for MLA in Srinagar's Amira Kadal constituency. He was jailed for disputing the results in what was considered a rigged election. Geelani fought and won the same election, quitting the Assembly only in 1989 when militancy began.
As he sits in his heated living room, clad in a dressing gown, a muffler around his neck and a warm woollen cap on his head, he seems as inflexible as ever. He has, however, toned down his anti-American rhetoric, no doubt to seem more palatable to Barack Obama, whose visit to India has elicited a call for a four-day hartal in the Valley from him. In September, he had told INDIA TODAY that the superpowers were not taking notice of the "precious blood being lost" in the Valley because the "present age of politics is not based on human values but led by economic interests" and that "occupying forces in Iran, Iraq and Jammu and Kashmir" were oppressing innocent people. Today, Geelani says, the world is taking notice of the peaceful struggle where there is no gun and no grenade. "There are conferences in Brussels, Washington, London, New York and Geneva."
As for dissensions among separatists, he says it is "past history". Masarat Alam, the hardliner portrayed as his successor, is vice-chairman of the Muslim League, "a constituent of our forum". Every person fighting for the cause is important, according to him. So is Alam the new leader? "This is not the problem," he says, brushing it aside. "So many of our people are behind bars," he says. "Shabbir Shah, Mohammad Yousuf Mujahid, Tariq Ahmed, Asiya Andrabi are in different jails. Some like Asiya's husband Dr Qasim are in Tihar jail. We have love and respect for all of them. They are our colleagues and working for us. We have been in jails together."
I have made my sacrifices too, Geelani points out. When his father, Syed Peer Shah Geelani, a poor labourer from Zoori Munz in Baramulla district, died on November 14, 1962, he was not allowed to come out of Srinagar's Central Jail to perform his last rites. In 1985, he had to miss his elder daughter's wedding as well as that of his second eldest daughter. For a moment, he looks like a sad, frail old man. "She died later, She was very bright. She was studying M.A. English."The father surfaces briefly. Then the grandstanding politician in him takes over. Again.
Source: India Today