Syed Ali Shah Geelani
Syed Ali Shah Geelani Image Credit: Gulf News

“I will meet my maalik-e-haqiqi (maker) one day. Life and death are ultimately in God's hands. Ideas are important. Aspirations matter. Not individuals,” Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the padre of Kashmir’s separatist politics, told me on an informal evening, nearly a decade ago.

I had flown to Kashmir after a long time and much to my joy, it was raining in the valley. Least expecting Geelani, who almost enjoyed a cult-like status in Kashmir, to be in my neighbourhood, I was looking forward to a relaxed time in the hills.

But in Kashmir, there is no going away from politics. And here he was!

Geelani’s brother had recently passed away and the leader was visiting his residence, a 5 minute walk from my locality. The journalist in me could not let it pass. I had to go, meet up the grand old man of Kashmir’s resistance.

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There is a certain informality about Kashmir that is both whisper-style and soul baring. When it rains in the valley, it pours. You can hear the rain.

By the time I made it to his brother’s home, I was drenched. Geelani was surrounded by a bunch of youngsters, most of them enraptured by his presence.

He was 81 or 82 then and not in the best of health. After small talk about the weather and his frail health, I asked him about the future/futility of resistance politics in Kashmir. Geelani spoke softly, gently — like a poet — lamenting the historical turn of events and the various political deceptions in our neck of woods.

“Beneath every history, my dear boy, there is another history,” he said, stressing history. Geelani would know. The trajectory of his own life history was nothing short of extraordinary.

From a schoolteacher to the top political ideologue in Kashmir — one who was respected across all shades of political opinion, Geelani stood firm for his convictions and clarity of ideas.

Symbol of separatist politics

Born on Sep. 29, 1929, at Zur manz, a tiny village on the banks of the Wular Lake, Geelani rose to become the face of separatist politics in Jammu and Kashmir. An author and a fiery orator, he started his career as a schoolteacher, joining Jamat-e-Islami party during the 1950s.

He plunged into electoral politics, contesting elections three times for local governance but resigned as a lawmaker to spearhead Kashmir’s separatist politics in the late 1980s. He continued in that capacity — as an icon of separatist politics — becoming the face of Kashmiri political resistance until his death on Sep. 1, 2021.

Geelani’s foray into politics is well documented. As one of the candidates of the Muslim United Front (MUF) in 1987 — an alliance of political, social and religious organisations in Kashmir — Geelani learnt his lessons the hard way. Those elections, widely believed to be rigged, brought National Conference-Congress combine to power but also put in motion militancy in the valley.

An early proponent of freedom struggle for resolution of the Kashmir issue, Geelani along with other secessionist leaders, found the Hurriyat Conference in 1993.

A constant thorn in the side of the establishment, he was imprisoned for more than 12 years on aggregate since his first arrest back in 1962.

Erudite and steadfast

One thing that even Geelani’s staunchest critics gave him was his sophisticated demeanour. He treated people with respect and even spoke about his tormentors with dignity while they repeatedly vilified him.

Geelani wrote more than 20 books, including his autobiography, Wular Kinaray (by the Bank of Wular) that he authored during his prison time. His works, mostly in Urdu, lend a deep insight into his own humanity. Beneath the tough exterior and the hawkish image, Geelani was essentially a freethinker with a firm conviction.

At the core of that conviction was his belief in the region’s right to self-determination. For years Geelani used civil disobedience like shutdowns and protests — some of which caused hardships to local populace — as a stratagem to make his point. For his supporters — and he had a vast support base — Geelani lent discipline.

By 2007-2008, Geelani’s popularity had soared as Kashmir witnessed mass civil uprisings. He also emerged as the tallest leader among the new generation of Kashmiris. There were three main reasons for Geelani’s massive lionisation.

His staunch, unbending political position that resonated with people who saw this new phase of political evolution as a natural progression from the difficult militancy years. Two, Geelani was a grass-root leader, being among the earliest leaders of the cadre-based Jamat-e-Islami, and was able to plug into what ordinary folks aspired for. Lastly Geelani remained uncompromising till the very end, further cementing his reputation as a very important leader.

Syed Ali Geelani
Geelani's death signifies the end of an era in Kashmir's resistance politics Image Credit: Devadasan K P/Gulf News

Break with the past

Bedridden during the last few years, he remained under a rolling house arrest for most of this time. Geelani sprang a surprise on June 30 last year when he dissociated himself from the Hurriyat, an organisation he helped found.

Curiously this break up came in the aftermath of the BJP-led government's decision to revoke Kashmir’s political autonomy on Aug. 5, 2019. While the move came as a shock to many, it remains a fact that Geelani’s legacy will endure as someone who single-handedly safeguarded and nurtured a political ideology that merged nativism with aspiration.

“But there are many who think that you are too hard-line and inflexible,” I asked Geelani on that rainy evening ten years ago. He smiled a feeble smile and let the smile linger. “All estimations have a perspective. It is a free world.”

Syed Ali Shah Geelani (Sep. 29, 1929 to Sep. 1, 2021)