The installation of Mohammed Ashraf Khan Sehrai as chairman of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in place of Syed Ali Shah Geelani marks a reassertion of the Pakistan line. Given his style, and his closeness to Geelani, the transition ought to be smooth. For decades, Sehrai has been like Geelani’s political shadow – two-dimensional compared with the charismatic leading man, but more sharply etched with zeal for Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan amid the turbulence of the last few years.
There was some public criticism of Geelani after the funeral of a prominent caliphate-oriented militant, Eisa Fazili, last week. Geelani had spoken glowingly of Fazili, and said the young man had been close to him.
This surprised many, for Fazili had joined the Tehreek-ul Mujahideen, which is affiliated to the Ahle-Hadith movement, and had supported Islamic State.
Whether or not it was related to this, the decision for Geelani to hand over charge to Sehrai would surely have had the blessing of the group’s patrons in Pakistan. In fact, it may well have been dictated from there.
Now that pan-Islamists associated with Islamic State and Al Qaeda have begun to take over the new militancy which had taken off at the beginning of this decade, its Pakistani patrons must surely feel uneasy.
Those patrons must have been distressed by the open squabbles over which flags, which slogans, and which cultural norms were to be allowed at Fazili’s funeral in Srinagar last week.
Open tussles between supporters of Islamic State and activists of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat and other political groups have occurred at other militants’ funerals too over the past few months. Pakistan’s flag has been rudely cast aside several times.
This must surely have ruffled feathers in Pakistan. It was with some difficulty that Pakistan had pressed the three major Kashmiri secessionist political formations – the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, along with the Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik’s JKLF – to join hands.
They have together called themselves the Joint Resistance Leadership since a few weeks before Burhan Wani was killed in 2016.
Over the past year, they have been squeezed between the investigative pressure of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the increasingly radicalised youth, particularly followers of militant commander Zakir Musa, who is associated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Long-Time Pillar of Support
Geelani’s espousal of the IS-affiliated Fazili may have seemed like a betrayal by some in Pakistan. Geelani had been a bulwark of pro-Pakistan mobilisation in the Valley for almost half a century until 2010, when he began to nuance his positions with such slogans as `azadi barai Islam’ – which sounds suspiciously close to pan-Islamism to some.
Geelani emerged in the limelight during the 1970s as the charismatic node of political mobilisation within the Jamaat-e-Islami. He was one of five Jamaat men elected to the state assembly in 1972, but the only one elected (from Sopore) when elections were held next in 1977.
The Election Commission of India listed the National Conference and the Jamaat-e-Islami as the only `state parties’ that year.
There has been a sharp, albeit covert, contestation within the Jamaat in Kashmir between the Geelani-led and the more moderate group, which has dominated. The Jamaat expelled Geelani a few years ago, but his associates such as Sehrai remained loyal.
Geelani had first established the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in April 1990, but the leaders of this and other secessionist political groups were jailed soon after, and these groups, including the Jamaat, were banned.
Then, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1993. When it split in 2003, mainly over the distress of other executive members at Geelani’s dominance, he established the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat afresh, and remained its fulcrum for 15 years. Sehrai has hitherto been designated its general secretary.
Whether or not the tussle between pro-Pakistan and pro-IS militants is the proximate cause, Geelani’s sudden replacement should put to rest the speculation over more than a decade now about whether one of his sons might succeed him. Others whose names have been in the air include Masarat Alam, who orchestrated mass agitations in 2010.
Alam may not have the requisite political acumen. Sehrai, on the other hand, is dyed in the wool of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s ethos. He has stood firmly by the pro-Pakistan line, at times criticising Geelani’s apparent compromises in recent years.
Among the issues over which Geelani has been criticised is his turning the high-value mansion in which he stays over to a trust, run by his son and his son-in-law.
There were other scandals, over the job Geelani’s grandson was given at the prestigious government-controlled convention centre on the Dal Lake during the post-Burhan unrest, and the statement from Geelani which allowed the state government to get the GST bill passed in the state assembly.
(The writer is a journalist and the Kashmir-based author of ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)