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Syed Ali Shah Geelani: Axis of Kashmir Resistance

24th Sep 2021
Syed Ali Shah Geelani: Axis of Kashmir Resistance

The late Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arrested by Indian police in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, on November 7, 2015. (Credit: Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency)


September 29, 1929 – September 1, 2021

Inspired by the success of the Afghans against the Soviet Union and the tough resistance posed by Sikhs in Punjab, Kashmiris too initiated an armed struggle in 1990. Unlike most of his peers and colleagues in Jamaat-i-Islami of Jammu & Kashmir, his parent organisation, Syed Ali Shah Geelani openly supported the armed resistance, leading to his detention for almost two decades. He was implicated in 95 criminal cases and tortured in incarceration. His resilience earned him admirers from every segment of society.

Despite group rivalries and ideological differences, the insurgency led to the erosion of Indian authority over vast chunks of Kashmir territory.

Geelani has continuously rejected any compromise on the right to self-determination for Kashmir. Since it was almost impossible to sustain armed resistance, the only choice left for the resistance leaders was mass mobilisation.

Adventurism by the rulers in New Delhi created a conducive atmosphere for such a mobilisation. They allocated land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, and this allocation triggered a massive agitation. Though the primary foot soldiers of this agitation were Sheikh Abdul Aziz, Shabir Shah and Naeem Khan, Syed Ali Shah Geelani facilitated the involvement of the masses through the endorsement of protest.

He owned it and staked claim to its leadership. His claim invoked a lot of criticism.

In a write-up in the middle of this agitation, I described him as the embodiment of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ because he was determined to pursue his goal against heavy odds. I mentioned his role as that of Krishna in Mahabharat on account of his motivating power for war fatigued youth to continue their just struggle. I perceived him as the only young man among our resistance leaders for his enthusiasm to stand up against oppression.

Today, he is no more, but continues to live as an inspiration for the masses in occupied lands across the globe. He has the distinction of successfully fusing an Islamic movement and Kashmir’s liberation struggle with a strong following among ultra-left youth fighting for the downtrodden across India.

In 2009, Kashmir experienced one more mobilisation triggered by the Shopian rape and murder case of Aasia & Neelofar. Geelani issued calendars of agitation and people followed them with utmost devotion. The leaders had no choice but to fall in line.

This way implied that even moderates conceded to the centrality of his leadership, which they disputed a year before.
Once the Tufail Mattoo and Machil killings in fake encounters triggered another ragda (agitation) in 2010, led by Syed Geelani. Masarat Alam Bhat, who was the Secretary-General of the Hurriyat, articulated the modus operandi of the mobilisation led by Geelani, while other leaders maintained a distance. Some even nicknamed Masarat Robin Hood. T

he State cracked down upon the agitation with a heavy hand, arresting Masarat Alam and putting Geelani under house arrest. Apart from a few days, none of them has been released ever since. In addition to recognition of grievances, demilitarisation (under international supervision), and repeal of the Draconian laws, he sought dismissal of cases against young people as prerequisites to dialogue.

Geelani directed the six-month post-Burhan agitation while he was under house arrest in 2016. New Delhi responded to the moderates’ aloofness by scrapping the state’s autonomy and putting them behind bars.

Ban on political outfits Jamaat-e-Islami and JKLF subsequent crackdown of 2019 vindicated Geelani’s views that any engagement with New Delhi is a futile exercise unless Kashmir is acknowledged as a disputed territory.

While his colleagues tried to convince him about the “bleak future of resistance” against a formidable adversary and hostile international environment, he, insisted that success was waiting for those who remained resilient. This made him fit for leading the masses in adverse situations and unfit for going along with his pessimistic colleagues.

Each of us is born with an assignment and leaves the world once it is accomplished. The timing of Geelani’s ascendance and departure suggests that his mission was to sustain Kashmir resistance through the difficult times.

Born in the remote village of Sopore, he spent some time of his childhood in Lahore. Like Moses, he had the earliest exposure to politics in the den of his ideological rivals at Mujahid Manzil. He served as assistant to the General Secretary of the National Conference, Maulana Masoodi. He joined Jammat-e Islami in the early fifties and became the chief propagator of Islamic ideological thought of Maulana Maudoodi and Allama Iqbal in the valley.

He shot into prominence in the early seventies and became the chief critic of Sheikh Abdullah after the 1975 Indra-Abdullah accord. Abdullah abandoned the freedom struggle of Kashmir and resumed his office as Chief Minister.

Geelani projected this compromise of Abdullah as a sellout and motivated the people to rise in revolt against subjugation. He persuaded them to defend themselves even if it demanded selling luxurious items for purchasing arms.

In the departure of Geelani, Kashmiris will miss a rallying point who otherwise on account of his ill health had already distanced himself from the activities of the Hurriyat.

Geelani’s funeral was the funeral of a resistance leader, a rebel of whom the state was scared, even after his death, thus associated with imposing restrictions, communication blockades and no permission for people to participate in it.

The inhuman approach of the Indian state towards his burial has elevated his stature manifold in the estimation of the Kashmiri people.

Pakistan observed one-day state mourning with its national flag flying half-mast. The Organisation of Islamic Conference described the denial of burial violation of a basic human right. He got elevated to the status of an icon who will continue to inspire generations.

Police guard the grave of Sheikh Abdullah to prevent desecration, whereas security guards surround the grave of Geelani to prevent it from becoming a shrine of freedom and an epicentre of another uprising.

The positive side of Syed Geelani’s presence was the inability of resistance leaders to go for a compromise. On the negative side, he remained an impediment in the emergence of new leadership. Like a huge Chinar, he overshadowed everyone, making it impossible for anyone to emerge.

Geelani had the guts plus credibility to trigger agitations and roll these back once he felt expedient. In absence of an iconic leader, it may be more problematic to contain future mobilisations. Afghanistan’s victory over the Soviet Union was a prelude to the Kashmir revolt of the early nineties – a fact that cannot be ignored.

Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain

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