What the Geelani’s Death Foretells

Syed Ali Shah Geelani – File Photo

In the separatist patriarch’s passing, Kashmir gets an overarching political symbol that New Delhi can’t confine to his home

Syed Ali Shah Geelani dominated Kashmir’s discourse over the past three decades and with each passing year, the separatist patriarch loomed larger over the Valley’s political landscape. His political mantra was simple: He blended an unwavering political stand on the Kashmir issue with a deft handling of the street resistance. And he stood out even among the very few politicians in Kashmir whose message carried conviction and resonated with the people.

This is what made him a bigger challenge for New Delhi among all Kashmiri separatists: It was not his hawkish politics, not even his rehearsed line on Kashmir dispute, or his refusal to hold dialogue with New Delhi but his capacity to harness the simmering anger in the Valley and spin it into a large-scale popular revolt.

Ever since the split of Hurriyat Conference in 2003 – which he himself engineered in protest against the then separatist leader Sajad Lone’s decision to field proxy candidates in 2002 Assembly polls – Geelani largely determined the separatist agenda in the Valley, frequently even disrupting the politics of the pro-India parties. This is why despite a crowded competition for the title,  Geelani was able to set himself up as the symbol of Kashmir’s separatist consciousness. His one-track political line on the resolution of Kashmir struck an instant chord among a large section of people, most of them youth. What further set him apart was the lacklustre moderation of his moderate counterparts. Their politics despite its pragmatic foundations failed to inspire faith.

It was not his hawkish politics, not even his rehearsed line on Kashmir dispute, or his refusal to hold dialogue with New Delhi but his capacity to harness the simmering anger in the Valley and spin it into a large-scale popular revolt that made him a bigger challenge for New Delhi among all Kashmiri separatists

Geelani had some inherent advantages over his competitors: He had been in politics for over six decades and was one of the most familiar names in the former state if not the most popular. And before his name became identified with the separatist cause, he was synonymous with Jamaat-i-Islami, his parent party. In fact, it was more his personal charisma than the Jamaat’s religious appeal  that had madethe party into a formidable political force in the Valley before the onset of militancy. And if it was not for the blatant rigging in 1987 Assembly polls he nearly brought the Jamaat to form its first elected government as part of the Muslim United Front, a broad adhoc coalition of political, religious, social parties.

But then Geelani was also the one who made the Jamaat formally a part of the separatist struggle in early nineties and acceded to a prominent militant role for the party. That is, before the Jamaat under Ghulam Muhammad Bhat pulled the party out of the fray and decided to make the propagation of religion its basic duty.

Ever since, while the Jamaat has all but slipped into the background and all its leadership has embraced obscurity, Geelani not only outgrew the party but also forged a new strong political identity for himself. So much so that he rendered his name and the concept of Azadi interchangeable, thereby creating an absolutistic version of the separatist ideology as against the fluid, evolving concept of some of his colleagues. Soon, the streets in Kashmir were ringing with a chant calling for a new exalted ”Geelani-wali Azadi,’‘ as against the matter-of-fact freedom propagated by the moderates.

Geelani’s achievement goes beyond setting himself up as the overarching symbolic representation of the Azadi sentiment. His success lay in the fact that his version of Azadi resonated with a large mass of the people, evoked passions and got people out on the streets.  He could single-handedly exploit events to build a Valley-wide groundswell that re-invigorated the separatist movement. And, he was  the only  separatist politician who could whip up mass fury even without the aid of the favourable events.

The 2008 unrest was a handy example of what Geelani could do: It was he who mobilized the massive groundswell against the Amarnath land transfer that stretched through summer. It was he who made army’s alleged land grab in the Valley or for that matter the alleged murder of two  women in Shopian a powerful street issue. And it was he who posed a formidable challenge to the engagement between New Delhi and Hurriyat moderates and also sometimes between India and Pakistan. He was the only Kashmiri leader who opposed the Four Point Formula for resolution of Kashmir issue proposed by the former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf.

The other feature that made Geelani the favorite of the vast majority of Kashmiris was that he was considered a reliable trustee of the people’s political aspirations. The long history of perceived betrayals by the popular Kashmiri politicians right from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to current lot of leaders acted as a foil to his uncompromising political stance. Geelani was not seen as someone who could deliver a solution but as an upholder of an idea, often for the sake of it. Underlying this mindset was a clear public preference in Kashmir for the absoluteness of the demand for Azadi rather than the compromises and complications of a solution.

But the question that many have been asking is whether the popular fascination with Geelani justified his politics. And whether his brand of rigid and rejectionist politics was what Kashmir needed under the circumstances? Geelani, it is said, made the very pursuit of a political solution and its tortuous twists and turns a hazardous undertaking for the other political actors. In his case, the demand for the right to self-determination seemed to have become an end in itself. He was accused of conducting his struggle in a bubble, without any reference to the changing ground situation in Kashmir, rise of India as a global player or the larger geo-political situation in the region and beyond.

But for his admirers, Geelani’s utility was in his being himself, in preserving the sanctity of the demand for freedom. Geelani as such, was a symbol, a personification rather than a mere representative of Kashmir’s political aspirations. And this symbolism is certain to not only outlive his death but like his political influence during his lifetime loom larger with time.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer.

  • The author is the Political Editor of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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