Geelani’s Demise: End of an Era for Kashmir, Relief for BJP

With the Hurriyat patriarch's departure, fewer odds are stacked against India’s ruling party now.

5 min read
Geelani’s Demise: End of an Era for Kashmir, Relief for BJP

Top Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani breathed his last at around 10:30 pm on Wednesday, bringing another chapter of Kashmir’s tumultuous history to a sordid close, two years since the Narendra Modi government withdrew the former state’s special status enshrined under Article 370 of the Constitution.

As mobile phones in Kashmir dinged with text messages alerting the public to the demise of the 91-year-old popular leader, police sounded a high alert across the Valley. Deployments were rushed to Hyderpora, the affluent Srinagar neighbourhood where Geelani resided. The road stretches all the way up to the Srinagar airport. Police and paramilitary reinforcements formed a beeline on one side of the street next to the house of the deceased Hurriyat patriarch, turning the whole neighbourhood into an impregnable military fortress.


Heavy Security, Internet Blockades

A few photojournalists who did manage to reach on time took images of the military arrangements and also found their way to the secluded spot at the graveyard nearby where Geelani was later laid to rest during the wee hours of Thursday.

But journalists complained that police pushed them out and sealed the area. In an interview with the press, Geelani’s relatives said the police took custody of the body, conducted the last rites and oversaw the burial process. Only two relatives were allowed to partake in the rites, reports said.

Around midnight, authorities in Jammu & Kashmir snapped mobile Internet and broadband services. By morning, mobile networks were suspended, too. Some broadband services, including the state-run BSNL, did sputter back to life, only to be shut down in the afternoon again. The pendulum of life in Kashmir appears to be swinging between complete communication blockade and fleeting access to broadband.

Given the popularity of Geelani, the news about the demise was expected to churn an adverse law and order situation. Yet, in the morning, the restrictions imposed around parts of the old Srinagar city appeared to be modest. Coils of concertina mesh blocked many key routes but vehicles were allowed to pass after inspection. Residents, sitting on ledges of store-fronts, spent the afternoon discussing the intricacies of regional politics, particularly in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There were a few reports of stone-pelting but The Quint could not independently confirm them given the total communications blockade and tighter restrictions on movement.

Geelani Was a Formidable Leader

With the demise of Geelani, the Modi government at the Centre is likely to heave a sigh of relief. Geelani was a hardline leader who rarely brooked a compromise on the issue of the resolution of the Kashmir dispute via a UN-brokered plebiscite.

His popularity stemmed precisely from the fact that he valued his stony obduracy. In 1975, another towering Kashmiri leader, Sheikh Abdullah, had agreed to capitulate in return for his release from nearly two decades of imprisonment. He put up with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assertion that the clock cannot be turned back, referring to the demands that Kashmir’s political position and the state of maximum autonomy that existed in the year 1953, when Abdullah was unceremoniously deposed, be returned.

The accord had caused shock among the people with independentist persuasions, which was deeply embedded in Kashmir’s political fabric. As a consequence, Abdullah’s political capital went down south. In the resulting vacuum, parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir, of which Geelani was an important cadre, found expression.


From Teaching Persian to Winning Elections

Geelani was 18 when India gained Independence. He was born into an austere family in the Bandipora district of north Kashmir. His fluency in Persian allowed him to teach the language in local schools before he began to be politically groomed by Maulana Masoodi, an influential leader from Sheikh Abdullah’s party. As Masoodi’s protégé, Geelani also wrote in Daily Khidmat, a Congress mouthpiece. In some of his articles, he is said to have praised India for its secular democracy.

However, in 1954, a year after Abdullah’s deposition and creation of the Plebiscite Front, a party that became a political cradle for everyone seeking a resolution to the Kashmir dispute, Geelani experienced disillusionment with India. It was during this time he fraternised with Qari Saifuddin, co-founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the South Asia chapter of Egypt’s Ikhwan al-Muslimun that strove for an Islamic revolution in Muslim societies.

Geelani gorged on manifestoes written by Abul A’la Maududi, an Islamic scholar from the British India period, who became the moving spirit and a fountainhead of Jamaat ideology.

Starting in the 1970s, Geelani decided to dip his toes into the electoral fray. That decision has been ascribed to Jamaat’s attempt to get recognised as a political party. In the 1972 election, he won from Sopore with huge votes.

He also won what became the only seat that the Jamaat bagged in the marathon 1977 elections, which saw Sheikh Abdullah return as a democratically elected but politically ruthless Chief Minister following the much-despised Sheikh-Indira accord.

In the 1987 poll, which was notoriously rigged in the National Conference’s favour and which sparked the first wave of militancy in Kashmir, Geelani once again emerged victorious. However, he resigned as militancy surged.

The Birth of Hurriyat

In 1993, several personages, some of whom had also abjured militancy, banded together to form the Hurriyat Conference. The party would become the emblem of pro-Azadi politics in Kashmir. In 2002, however, the Hurriyat Conference fractured following a controversy over the fielding of proxies in the Assembly election.

Since then, Geelani has steered in a different direction, often looking askance at other leaders such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq for their perceived flexibility towards Indian governments and readiness to enter a dialogue.

When former Pakistani President Parvez Musharraf met Geelani and tried to coax him into accepting the popular four-point formula that would have formalised the LoC (Line of Control) into an international border, Geelani spurned him, saying that while the “situations have changed, stands haven’t”.

During the unrest in 2008’s summer over the transfer of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, Geelani addressed a large crowd near the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar and demanded to know whether the crowd accepted him as the leader. It was an audacious gesture, through which Geelani was attempting to monopolise the control over separatist leadership, canvassing support for accession to Pakistan.

Despite differences, the troika of Kashmiri leaders — Mirwaiz, Yasin Malik and Geelani — converged to form the Joint Resistance Leadership in 2016, when another civil uprising erupted over the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.


But the Hurriyat Is Now in Disarray

After the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, separatist leaders were either arrested or put under house detentions. Their influence in shaping regional politics via strike calendars, which had become a recurring theme of Hurriyat’s brand of political mobilisation, began to wane.

Following a racket involving the allocation of seats to study medicine in Pakistan, Geelani tendered his controversial resignation as the head of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Earlier this year, Ashraf Sehrai, a fellow Hurriyat leader, died due to multiple illnesses while under incarceration at the district jail in Jammu under the Public Safety Act. Sehrai was seen as a natural successor to Geelani.

Hurriyat now invariably finds itself in disarray. Geelani was a redoubtable leader who commanded a peerless authority over the group and also wielded considerable influence among the Kashmiri people on account of his stubborn stand.

Since the abrogation of Article 370, the Modi government has managed to pursue its agenda with remarkable swiftness and ease. But over the last year, new challenges have materialised. Factors like the United States’ Biden administration and its characteristic propensity for valuing human rights, China’s Ladakh intrusion, and the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan have altered the kind of clement geopolitical configuration that first enabled the August 2019 move. Now, with Geelani’s departure, the Modi government can at least heave a sigh of relief, for fewer odds are stacked against India’s ruling party now.

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. 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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