Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 91-year-old leader who led and guided the Jammu & Kashmir separatist movement right from its inception, is dead; he passed away on the first day of September 2021. Long before he died, there was many a discussion on the impact his absence would have on the separatist scene in J&K.
Although he was no longer the Chairman of the Hurriyat, having resigned almost 15 months ago, his death was considered important enough to expect it to trigger sub-national sentiment. It was therefore managed under the umbrella of state security. That involved a secret burial as against his willed burial in the martyrs’ graveyard. It also involved a temporary shutdown of internet connectivity to prevent a mass exchange of sentiment and any attempts to raise a banner of revolt. The decision was probably also taken in the light of the rapid progression of events in Afghanistan, which are expected to stoke some embers even in a much improved and stabilised security environment in the Union Territory.
A Chance Meeting at Srinagar Airport
It is appropriate to recall Geelani’s record as the founder member of the Hurriyat Conference. But he broke away and formed his own Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2004. He was steadfast in his radical pro-Pakistan sentiment, resisting any urge for talks with the Indian establishment. He was one of those who also stood for election in 1987 under the Muslim United Front banner (the same as Syed Salahuddin, the Hizbul Mujahideen Chief), but his last term ended abruptly in 1987 itself when militancy erupted in Kashmir.
A strong supporter of the Jamat-e-Islami Kashmir (JeI-K) for most of his political career, Geelani hailed from the Sopore area of North Kashmir.
On a personal level, despite my long years in Kashmir, I had only one chance meeting with Geelani — at the Srinagar airport — in which we only exchanged pleasantries. However, in our minds, we knew each other well. My tryst with him should have commenced in May 2005, when I commanded the Uri brigade and he was to travel to PoK and then to Pakistan by the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus (Karwan-e-Aman) through the Kaman Aman Setu, which we had just set up and inaugurated.
A Turning Point
At the last moment, he cancelled the visit of his Hurriyat faction. I returned as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Dagger Division in 2007. All was quiet and the usual until 24 April, 2008, when two long-standing and fairly notorious local terrorists were gunned down by my troops in an encounter in the town. Tanvir Ahmad and Imtiaz, considered local icons, had wished that their Namaz-e-Janaza (funeral prayer) be led by none other than Geelani. And he did turn up for it. That is the year — and some say that is the occasion — from where Geelani undertook his mission of turbulence, having probably realised the ease with which sentiment could be impassioned.
That year, exploiting an innocuous event involving a takeover of some forest land for setting up some facilities of the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board, Geelani capitalised on the prevailing sentiment to commence a series of street protests, taking both the Army and the police by complete surprise. From his home in Hyderpora, where he was under house detention, he used mobile connectivity to rouse sentiment and commence the infamous ‘Chalo (Let’s Go) Programs’. That's the time I tried to get to know his mind a little more.
My intelligence sources informed me that an English book was under translation for Geelani. I later learnt that it was none other than Gene Sharp’s 1994 book, ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’.
The Epilogue of the book was the famous chapter ‘198 Methods of Nonviolent Action’. We realized in Baramulla that what was happening on the streets was exactly what Sharp had predicted and written about.
As the mobs of Kashmiri youth were instigated and impassioned, they came out throwing stones, which Geelani never discouraged or condemned; even if he did, it was only transactionally. A number of persons were killed in police firing that year. Much of this could have been avoided if he had given a rousing call to abjure violence. Unfortunately, he did not stop at that.
‘Agitational Terror’ That Went Beyond Geelani’s Control
In 2009, he used the Shupiyan rape case of two young women to rouse the same sentiment. In 2010, he tried to make it a hat trick of ‘protest years’, using the unfortunate Machil case and the accidental death of 11-year-old Tufail Mattoo due to a tear gas shell. The street agitation that forced the Army to term it ‘agitational terror’ went beyond Geelani’s control and that of his cohorts such as Masarat Alam and the head of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Asiya Andrabi. As Kashmir burned and more than 117 young Kashmiris were shot dead in police response, Geelani imagined that this would be his moment. He issued a warning to his followers to gherao Army camps. That was the last straw, and the Army’s strong retort that Geelani and only Geelani would be responsible for, made him ultimately see reason and withdraw his threat. He was wary that the Army could not be meddled with.
I had two other encounters with Geelani but both in absentia. In May 2011, a prominent and senior cleric of Baramulla passed away. He had been an advocate of peace and had advised me often on the handling of local sentiment, which is important in Jammu & Kashmir. I got the news in the evening. I knew Geelani would visit the bereaved family the next day but I decided I must beat him to it; at least someone needed to curtail his flying ego, which, by that time, was touching the sky. I flew down to Baramulla by helicopter and went and condoled with the family at 7 a.m. Geelani visited much later and was informed that I had already expressed my condolences in person. He wasn’t too happy.
An Eventful Book Launch
Towards the beginning of 2012, Geelani wrote and published his autobiography in Urdu, ‘Wullar Kinare’. Some operatives attended the book launch and purchased six copies of the book. They were asked the ‘who and why’ of six copies. On learning that these were being taken to the Corps Commander (me), the publisher’s staff got excited and wanted the books to be signed by Geelani.
The next day, the vast Kashmiri media carried a small item on the first page which stated that at Geelani’s book launch, six copies had been purchased by the Corps Commander. I decided to use this development to advantage and spoke to the media on the sidelines of another event the very next day. The inevitable query was why I had bought the book at all and why six copies. I responded immediately and in Urdu, “I thought Geelani Saheb has expressed his thoughts very well. Since he is an elder and a very experienced personality, perhaps reading his book would probably give me and my officers a chance to imbibe some of his thoughts and work culture”. The response was promptly published prominently all over Kashmir’s media the very next morning. A source informed me that Geelani was immensely pleased.
In sub-conventional conflict, pleasing your misguided fellow countrymen is also a way of changing their sentiments. Geelani never changed his stance, nor did I, but our adversity became more pleasant, even in absentia.
Although comparatively irrelevant in comparison to his past iconic status, what the separatists of Jammu & Kashmir, and no doubt many of the handlers in Pakistan, will miss is Geelani’s ability to mix rabble-rousing and pragmatic sense while reserving each for the most opportune moment. Towards the last few years, there was disgruntlement due to his inability to adjust younger and next-generation Kashmiris into his fold. The sentiment started to run out and with Article 370 amended and 35A rescinded, the process towards the end of the road became profound.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. 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.)
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