Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the uncompromising face of Kashmir separatists, is in grave danger of being left in the shallows as the tide changes and younger, more flexible leaders surge ahead.

Geelani, 75, leader of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a breakaway group of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, is refusing to mend fences with the moderates and present a united front.
Pakistan wants an all-inclusive group that can face the steady inroads by the Congress-led People’s Democratic Party’s so-called “healing touch” policies which has split the Hurriyat down the middle.

“What do you say to those who violated the Hurriyat constitution and started a dialogue with the Indian government? They have damaged the cause, there is nothing more to say to them,” he said.

Geelani broke with the Hurriyat when the faction led by Abdul Gani Lone decided to participate in the 2002 elections.

Lone paid for his independence with his life. “I was in jail in Ranchi at the time and left the running of the party in charge of these colleagues,” said Geelani at his spartan home in Humhama, near Srinagar airport.

“Mr Ansari gave Lone’s party a clean chit so I abolished the Executive Council and the Legislative Council and have launched a Majlis-e-Shoora, a body where everybody, not just seven so-called leaders have a voice.”

He raised strong objections when Mirwais Umar Farooq and others in the Hurriyat began formal talks with the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government earlier this year.

The two rounds came to nought as the BJP government fell and Congress leader Manmohan Singh became prime minister.

Opposed to holding talks with the “same old Congress government”, his ambivalence and mistrust of peace talks between India and Pakistan are equally evident.

“Neither Tashkent, nor Simla or Lahore brought peace because the essential issue of Kashmir was never tackled,” he said.

“The sacrifices of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the blood they have spilt for the cause cannot be wished away, it cannot be ignored,” he said.

Asked whether he is called a hardliner because he says what he believes and believes in what he says, the angular lines of his bearded, patrician face soften and he smiles for the camera.

“I think you have summed me up, I am like a rock, they will never break me, I stand by what I believe, and will do so till the day I die.”

For the Pakistanis who want him to make peace with the moderates led by Mirwais, therein lies the rub. Not only is he uncompromising, he has rapidly emerged as an embarrassment, the anachronistic supporter of a discredited method of doing business – winning freedom and a homeland through the gun rather than negotiation.

“After 9/11, Pakistan cannot support the terror route,” said a senior Pakistani official. “Geelani is no longer their poster boy, Mirwais is.”

Curiously, New Delhi would also like to see Geelani out of the Kashmir equation. Although they would like to dismiss him as irrelevant, as the political voice of the mujahideen he casts a long shadow over Hurriyat leaders who dare to deviate from the script.

The constitution of the Hurriyat calls for the implementation of all 18 UN Resolutions on Kashmir including a plebiscite.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s dumping of the plebiscite option therefore cannot have been easy to accept.

Geelani takes comfort from the fact that it was no more than a “negotiating position, for internal debate”, and that it demonstrated India’s rigidity particularly when Musharraf raised the seven religious-linguistic division formula.

“The voice of the Kashmiris must be heard through a plebiscite but there is no harm in raising the divisions, after all so many parts of Kashmir are now Muslim majority like Doda, Pulwama and Kargil in Ladakh,” he said.

New Delhi holds one more card. It has not pressed charges against him for receiving money allegedly from Pakistan.

Asked what kind of following he really had, he said he had won elections from Sopore thrice and quit in the face of army excesses.

“I want to ask you did Mahatma Gandhi ever win an election, he’s the father of the nation, did Nelson Mandela ever stand and he’s revered in South Africa. When the people love you, when they shut the city down when you call a strike, you know your power.”

Emotions run high in the separatist camp, and for Geelani these are trying times. His convictions and his staying power will be severely tested.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met Hurriyat leaders separately and could give them no assurance on what role they would have in the future.

It will be an uneasy few months for this man of contrasts – given to long rants against Indian forces, sparked when he was slapped by a soldier when he was ten. At the same time, he is hospitable and polite, a former teacher who inspires fierce loyalty, he called me “daughter” several times during the hour-long interview.

Outside, soldiers patrol the Kashmiri capital. Winter is setting in and there is a chill in the air but there is also hope that despite the bickering in New Delhi and Islamabad over their future,

Kashmiris may have a future of some sort. But Geelani’s visceral hatred of things outside his ken, makes it impossible for him to compromise.

For once in this terrible tangle, India and Pakistan may agree on one thing – this dyed in the wool old-timer is out of step with the times.

Syed Ali Geelani - A man of contrasts

  • Former chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
  • Now leads the breakaway Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Formerly headed the Jamaat-i-Islami.
  • Hawk on Kashmir – wants all Indian forces to leave state, backs a UN plebiscite to determine the future of all the people of Jammu and Kashmir, against talks with India.
  • Has been jailed 10 times, including a 22-hour incarceration in a dank, airless cell.
  • Blames his poor health – he has a pacemaker, and has lost one kidney – on his years in jail.
  • Powerful speaker and orator, he won the Sopore seat to the State assembly thrice.
  • He resigned his assembly seat in 1989 after army excesses.
  • Is accused by Delhi of being funded by Islamabad, a case is pending against him in courts.