Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the death of the Pakistan Dream

Among the proponents of the Pakistan agenda was a thin, unsmiling Islamist called Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He had worked his way up the ladder of the Islamist organisation Jamaat e Islami (JeI) Kashmir, working ceaselessly for the Islamic cause and eventual accession to Pakistan, which to him was the promised land.

17 July 2020

Syed Ali Shah Geelani
Syed Ali Shah Geelani

The year 1990 was a heady time for separatists in the Kashmir Valley. The dream of Azadi seemed to be round the corner. The Valley was in full revolt, the administration had collapsed, the mainstream leadership had fled and the towns and fields had become open ground for roving bands of young men sporting black bandanas, brandishing Kalashnikovs and shouting "Nara e Takbeer! Allah Ho Akbar!" At that moment, as far as the Kashmir Valley was concerned the Indian state lay dead and buried for all practical purposes.

But even in those tumultuous times, when thousands of Kashmiris believed independence was at hand, hidden forces were at play. History could not be allowed to take its own course, certainly not the course most Kashmiris supporting the armed struggle desired. The notion of independence was romantic, intoxicating and profound. But it could never be allowed to supersede the interests of the group of Kashmiris who had kept the embers of discontent alive over four decades and who had a different dream to fulfil. That dream was accession to Pakistan.

Among the proponents of the Pakistan agenda was a thin, unsmiling Islamist called Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He had worked his way up the ladder of the Islamist organisation Jamaat e Islami (JeI) Kashmir, working ceaselessly for the Islamic cause and eventual accession to Pakistan, which to him was the promised land. Geelani considered himself a Pakistani at heart and made no bones about it. It did not matter that most young Kashmiris who had picked up the gun against India wanted Azadi or independence and not serfdom under Pakistan. Geelani felt it was his moral and religious duty to wrest Kashmir from Indian control and hand it over to Pakistan. Towards this end he was prepared to do anything.

His mentors in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, were in complete consort with Geelani, whom they considered a trusted ideological and political partner in the Kashmir Valley. Delighted with the uprising led by radicalised Kashmiri youth, Pakistan?s generals decided they would intervene as soon as possible to replace the pro-independence leadership of the Kashmir armed struggle with men who swore allegiance to Pakistan.

It was this intent that pushed Geelani to a key role in Kashmir. From a small time Jamaat politician, who had successfully contested the state elections thrice and sworn allegiance to the Indian Constitution on the Koran, Geelani was now the avowed leader of an open conspiracy to bring about Kashmir?s accession to Pakistan. The slogan was: "Kashmir banega Pakistan (Kashmir will be Pakistan)".

Syed Ali Shah Geelani had been sold on the Pakistan idea ever since his youth when he had gone to Lahore's Oriental College to study theology and the Koran. His Islamist tendencies found succour in the ideas of the Jamaat e Islami's founder Maulana Abul A'la Moududi. The irony was that Moududi had originally been despised by the Pakistani establishment which had tried its best to hang or assassinate him. Intervention by the United States saved Moududi, who incidentally spent the last few hours of his life circling the skies above the United States, far from Pakistan, a country whose creation he had opposed.

At any rate, Geelani remained unaffected by the ironies surrounding Moududi's convoluted career and ideology and remained fixated on the view that the Muslim Ummah must unite, particularly that of Kashmir and Pakistan. For this, Geelani was prepared to do anything, be it subversion, hypocrisy or deception. After his return to Kashmir in 1953 after four years in Pakistan, Geelani enrolled in the Kashmir branch of the Jamaat while he got a job as school teacher.

Geelani's deep knowledge of Islamic theology and his oratorial powers soon made him a popular figure in the Sopore area of the Kashmir Valley. At the same time, his open advocacy of a pro-Pakistan line infuriated Kashmir's secular leadership and Geelani found himself behind bars for the first time in 1962. He would go behind bars several times in the course of his career and each time emerge politically stronger. Not surprisingly, he won the state assembly elections thrice from the Sopore constituency (1972,1977 and 1987) standing as a Jamaat candidate. In 1989 he resigned his seat as the armed struggle commenced and swore never to contest elections again. He assumed that the uprising was the moment of truth and soon Kashmir would be Pakistan.

Within the Jamaat, Geelani pressed for the organisation's active role in politics while others opposed this idea insisting that their organisation was meant for purely religious and humanitarian activities. But Geelani prevailed and eventually forced the Jamaat to support the movement for the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people. The Jamaat thus became totally politicised and when the armed struggle began, it also allowed the creation of the Hizbul Mujahideen as its militant arm.

It is widely believed in Kashmir that Geelani was one of the main leaders who guided the Pakistan inspired Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) outfit to annihilate the original proponents of the armed struggle, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The story of JKLF's demise is a long, sad but poorly documented one. It is well known however that the HM cadre had little hesitation in gunning down the initial heroes of the Kashmiri armed struggle, the inspired fighters of the JKLF.

While JKLF fighters and leaders were systematically eliminated by the HM, other independence minded leaders, ideologues and militants were either silenced, side-lined or assassinated. Soon, the pro-Pakistan militant groups were the undisputed champions of the armed struggle and nobody dared to utter a word against them.

Ultimately, the only JKLF man left standing was Muhammad Yasin Malik, who had secretly surrendered to the Pakistanis. He was co-opted into the separatist amalgam as a figurehead even though eventually he turned Gandhian, which was ironic considering that he is accused of gunning down several unarmed Indian Air Force standing at a Srinagar bus stop during the height of the insurgency. Malik, until his recent incarceration, was given to making strike calls and pompous statements. The dream of Azadi had secretly been sold down the river long time ago.

During the height of the uprising and a time of great violence in the Valley, Geelani wrote a letter to former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif where he declared: "The Jamaat-e Islami of Jammu and Kashmir and its militant wing, the Hizb ul-Mujahidin, are the most appropriate and reliable group [in Kashmir] for the ideological existence ( nazariyati wujud ) of Pakistan as they were committed to Islam, rather than Kashmiri nationalism, and Kashmir's accession to Pakistan, rather than independence."

While the process to eliminate the pro-independence groups was underway, Rawalpindi launched a simultaneous operation to create an over-ground political front for accession to Pakistan. In 1990, Pakistan engineered the formation of the Tehreek e Hurriyat, an amalgam of eleven pro-Pakistan political parties, led by advocate Mian Abdul Qayoom as president and Mohammad Ashraf Sahrai as general secretary. Geelani was among its founders.

This marked a new chapter in Kashmir's separatist movement, which coincided with the Pakistani military establishment?s decision to use the Jamaat to promote a pro-Pakistan agenda and build up the Hizbul Mujahideen as the Jamaat's militant wing. Syed Ali Shah Geelani was arrested under the Public Safety Act shortly after the formation of the Tehreek but released two years later at a time when the JKLF was in steep decline and the Hizbul Mujahideen on the ascendant. This period saw the rise of Syed Ali Shah Geelani as the strongman of Kashmir politics. From an inconsequential malcontent, Geelani was thrust into a position of prominence and power. Soon nobody in the Kashmir Valley dared cross him.

In 1993, when the charismatic young Mirwaiz of Kashmir (then only nineteen years old) decided to form a larger 32-member separatist conglomerate called the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Geelani and his Tehreek e Hurriyat decided to join it. Geelani, however, could never keep his ego under control and routinely clashed with other Hurriyat leaders, including the Mirwaiz.

It is believed that when one of the Hurriyat leaders, the late Abdul Ghani Lone from north Kashmir, who led a political party called the Peoples' Conference, wanted to contest the assembly polls in 2002 by putting up proxy candidates, Geelani was so furious that he could barely contain himself. Whether he secretly ordered Lone's assassination remains a matter of conjecture but a Hizbul Mujahideen hit squad gunned Lone down very soon thereafter.

Several years later in 2007, Geelani famously remarked that the "leaders who are today talking of ending militancy owe their popularity to these militants only". "Jihadist cadre," he added, "took to the armed struggle after the complete failure of democratic institutions in the State and exhaustion of peaceful means to solve the dispute."

Geelani's ideological rigidity and uncompromising nature won him public support but eventually got the better of him. Someone who knew him observed: "He was always a dogged, rigid man with no understanding of political accommodation. He was an out and out ideologue bent on establishing Islamic rule who thought once the armed struggle commenced, he would never have to go back to political representation in a secular democracy. Ultimately his dogma made him weak".

Sure enough, after ten years of acrimony, the APHC split in 2003 with the emergence of a "Moderate" faction - APHC(M) - led by the Mirwaiz, while Geelani resurrected his Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. One of the many reasons for the split was the Mirwaiz's decision to hold political dialogue with the Government of India, a move Geelani opposed tooth and nail.

Over the years, Geelani dominated the separatist Hurriyat conference and projected himself as the sole champion of Kashmiri anti-India resistance. Author Yoginder Sikand in his landmark paper on Geelani wrote: "Unlike other noted Kashmiri Muslim leaders, he is regarded as 'honest', 'committed', to have never compromised his stand on freedom from India, and as having suffered immense privations, including long spells in jail, for daring to oppose Indian rule. His charisma is also based on the perception of him as a pious, committed Muslim - an image that he also strives to project - and as having allegedly dedicated his entire life, including his long and tumultuous political career, simply for the sake of (his version of) Islam."

Many in the Indian security establishment believed he also provided political and strategic direction to the Hizbul Mujahideen insurgent group. National Conference president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah has publicly held Geelani responsible for the militancy in which hundreds of his party workers and leaders have been assassinated. Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, another senior National Conference leader, has openly accused Geelani of being a Pakistani ISI agent.

Geelani, in his 1995 book "Nava-e Hurriyat", argued it was un-Islamic for Kashmiris to aspire for an independent state of their own. "There can be no two opinions on the fact that the entire struggle of the Kashmiri people is for the sake of Islam and for accession to Pakistan," he wrote. He always stressed that the anti-India struggle would continue till Kashmiris attained "complete freedom" or a "referendum in accordance with UN resolutions".

The Indian government, from time to time, accused Geelani of fanning the Kashmiri uprising and working for the Pakistan government, something which he has never denied. "I am a Pakistani", Geelani frequently declared and has put it down in writing as well. Lack of evidence prevented Geelani?s arrest for militancy links and the government of India discouraged any sort of direct action against over-ground political leaders of the secessionist movement. This, Geelani exploited to the hilt.

While Geelani has projected himself as an uncompromising champion of Kashmiri secession from India, there is a lesser known and unsavoury side to his character. People close to him accuse him of being a nepotist, power hungry and financially bent. Geelani and his family members have been accused by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of amassing unaccounted wealth running into crores of rupees and owning benami properties.

In the end, in his 91st year, stricken with his age-old kidney and heart problems, a jaded Geelani decided to finally quit politics. He did so with characteristic bile and bitterness. On 29 June this year, without warning, he announced his resignation, issuing a letter in which he expressed disgust at the Hurriyat leadership, accusing it of inaction and corruption. Even while signing off, he refused to nominate a successor, although it would have been natural to formally anoint his second in command Ashraf Sehrai as the new chief. It was almost as if he wanted the separatist movement to end with him.

The real reasons for Geelani's bitterness lay elsewhere. He had already tried unsuccessfully to side-line Ashraf Sehrai, once his sidekick who had begun to tire of Geelani's uncompromising ways, and the repeated strike calls and boycotts which were hurting the average Kashmiri. Geelani had also effectively downgraded the Hurriyat itself by forming the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) along with Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and proclaiming themselves the sole leaders of the Kashmir movement.

Geelani's resignation marks the end of a long and futile career - one that has also caused much grief and violence in the Kashmir Valley. In 1990 soon after the armed uprising had broken out in the Kashmir Valley, Geelani who had been promptly jailed by the Indian government, had written a letter to Chandrashekhar, the then Indian Prime Minister, warning him of the inevitable defeat of India: "The British tried to use force to quash the Indian freedom struggle?but failed and had to leave India. The same will happen to India (in Kashmir)". As it turned out, India remains where it is, Pakistan has gone into steep decline and Geelani himself has nothing to show for a lifetime of working for the idea of accession to Pakistan.

Syed Hasnain Imam

17 July 2020

Postscript: Geelani Rejects Pakistan's Highest Civilian Award!

Letter by Syed Ali Shah Geelani
Letter by Syed Ali Shah Geelani to Pakistan President

On Pakistan's Indepdence Day, 14 August 2020, SAS Geelani of Kashmir was awadred Pakistan's highest civilian award, Nishan e Pakistan. President Dr Arif Alvi presented the award to Kashmiri Hurriyat leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani for his noteworthy services and sacrifices for the oppressed people of Indian occupied Kashmir. The award was received by the Hurriyat (Azad Jammu Kashmir) AJK leaders on behalf of Syed Ali Geelani during a prestigious flag-hoisting ceremony held on the occasion of Independence Day, at President House in Islamabad on Friday.

However, Geelani's reaction was unexpected: he rejected the award! A letter from him addressed to the Pakistani president is roughly translated from Urdu:

Janab Sadar-e-Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi Sb,
Aslam Alikum wa Rahmatullah wa barkatuh
Since last few days I was trying to contact you but failed. Through this letter i would like to urge you that Pakistan's move to award me the country's highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Pakistan, is certainly the reason of encouragement for all Kashmiris and a reaffirmation to the political, moral and diplomatic support towards the struggle for independence. I am deeply grateful to the government of Pakistan. On this occasion, my heartfelt expectation was that in my absence, this honor would have been given to my colleague, Shafiq/compassionate and my nominated representative, Mr. Abdullah Gilani, because after me he was the rightful recipient of this honor. I feel sorry that those Hurriyat leaders who received this award for me, were the reason for my resignation from the leadership of APHC and I have mentioned the same in my resignation letter in the past. If the government's aim is to support all these people instead of Abdullah Gilani, then I am unable to accept this award and reject it.