December 2, 2021

Obituary: Syed Ali Shah Geelani was symbol of Kashmir resistance

Top Kashmiri separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani died on Wednesday evening. He was 92.

As soon as news of his death began to make the rounds in the disputed Himalayan region, authorities blocked the internet and deployed hundreds of troops in the main city of Srinagar to prevent a mass funeral procession or protests against Indian rule.

His family told Al Jazeera the police “snatched his body and forcibly buried him” in a quiet pre-dawn funeral on Thursday.

New Delhi had reasons to be apprehensive: For decades, Geelani was the symbol of popular resistance for the Kashmiris who either want to carve an independent country out of the Himalayan territory or merge with neighbouring Pakistan.

Until June last year, Geelani headed the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an umbrella group of various Kashmiri political and religious groups formed in 1993 to spearhead a movement for the region’s right to self-determination.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, with the two nuclear powers claiming the region in full but administering separate parts.

Kashmiri rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebel goal of merging the region with Muslim-majority Pakistan or creating an independent country.

New Delhi accuses Pakistan of sponsoring Kashmiri fighters, a charge Islamabad denies. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government soldiers have been killed in the conflict.

Geelani flanked by separatist leaders Yasin Malik, right, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, left, during a protest against the killing of a teenage boy in Narbal near Srinagar [File: Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Geelani was born in 1929 into a poor family in Zoorimunz village in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Bandipora district in the north.

He studied in local schools and later in the current Pakistani city of Lahore under the tutelage of Mullah Saeed Masoodi, a close confidante of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah.

Referred to as “Sher-e-Kashmir” (Lion of Kashmir), Abdullah was the founder leader of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference and the first elected prime minister of Indian-administered Kashmir after its accession to India in 1947.

‘Loss to the society’

In the 1950s, Geelani joined Jamaat-e-Islami, the region’s largest political-religious organisation that shared ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. The organisation was banned by India’s Hindu nationalist government in 2019.

Geelani had been a thorn in India’s side since the early 1960s when he began campaigning for the Muslim-majority territory’s merger with Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Geelani was jailed for nearly 10 years in 1962 and after that was often restricted to his home. He contested and won several regional elections and lost one election for the Indian parliament.

“I have heard his addresses in assembly when I was in opposition. He was a young man. He had a good hold on Urdu and his style and knowledge was intense,” senior Congress politician Saif Ud Din Soz told Al Jazeera.

“He had a deep knowledge of Quran. He used to talk about social, political and religious issues… He was very well educated.”

“It is a loss to the society despite me having many disagreements with ideology”.

Indian forces patrol near Geelani’s residence in Srinagar after his death [Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Three decades of armed rebellion against Indian rule saw Geelani transition from a three-term legislator for his home constituency in Sopore to becoming a “spiritual leader” of Hizbul Mujahideen, an armed group that wants the region’s merger with Pakistan.

In many songs sung and slogans raised by the rebel group, Geelani was the central character.

‘He confronted both’ India and Pakistan

In a famous move in 2005, Geelani rejected then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s four-point solution to the Kashmir dispute.

Musharraf had proposed joint control of the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan and increased access to trade and travel between the regions controlled by the two nations.

“When he felt that General Parvez Musharraf was inclined to compromise, he bluntly opposed him and he continuously, without any hesitation kept on resisting the Indian rule,” academic and political analyst Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain told Al Jazeera in February last year.

Moves like that made Geelani popular among the masses in Indian-administered Kashmir in comparison with prominent leaders such as Sheikh Abdullah, whose legacy, according to experts, was compromised.

Hussain said Geelani “espoused the (Kashmiri) cause for a long time” when Abdullah had “abandoned it”.

“Unlike Sheikh Abdullah who, despite rendering huge sacrifices, made his first mistake in 1947 by opting a wrong track,” he said.

“I feel he tried to perpetuate the flame of Kashmir aspiration when almost every actor in Kashmiri had lost hope and abandoned to espouse the cause of freedom,” Hussain added.

“Usually, the politicians in Kashmir were obliged to side either by the Indian or Pakistani governments. But he confronted both and that added to his stature.”

Geelani gestures as he speaks to media before his arrest in Srinagar [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

After stepping down from the hardline faction of the APHC, Geelani handed over control to his deputy Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, who died in police custody earlier this year while in detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a controversial law under which a person can be detained for a year without trial.

‘He did his work’

Most of the separatist groups in Indian-administered Kashmir such as Hurriyat have been in disarray since India began its crackdown following an attack on Indian forces in Pulwama in February 2019.

The suicide attack, blamed on a Pakistan-based armed group of Kashmiri rebels, led to the mass arrests of the region’s leaders, including from the religious group Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

The groups were banned by New Delhi for “harbouring secessionist ideology”.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped the region’s partial autonomy in August 2019, most of the region’s pro-independence – and even pro-India – politicians were arrested and booked under stringent laws.

For more than a decade, Geelani was under detention and confined to his home despite his multiple ailments. He was only allowed to visit hospitals.

A police vehicle was permanently stationed outside his residence in the main city of Srinagar.

His continued detention and relentless defiance against Indian rule earned him a huge following in India’s only Muslim-majority region. He used to issue shutdown and protest calendars during the mass uprisings in 2008, 2010 and 2016.

But in the aftermath of the scrapping of the region’s special status two years ago, accompanied by a massive crackdown and restrictions, Geelani maintained an unusual silence.

For the first time in recent decades, no statement came from Geelani and there were no formal shutdown calls. His close associates attributed the silence to his failing health.

After a severe chest infection in 2014, Geelani’s health deteriorated, but he continued to maintain a strong grip on his political conglomerate.

Geelani’s family remembers him for his steadfastness for the cause. He rejected any direct talks with New Delhi until it “accepts Kashmir as a disputed territory”. All Indian governments since independence in 1947 have insisted on the country’s sovereignty over all of Kashmir.

“His persistence and his faithful stance is the only thing that kept us going. I think he didn’t choose the life for himself, he cared about people. He always did what he believed was right,” one of his family members, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.

Kashmiri political analyst Siddiq Wahid said Geelani became “the very symbol of resistance” in the last decades of his life.

“His gift to us was one of successfully piercing the carapace of insincerity that shielded government of India’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir. He did his work.”