Srinagar: Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 91-year-old Hurriyat patriarch, was under house arrest at his residence in Srinagar when he passed away on Wednesday evening after a prolonged illness.
In anticipation of mass protests, authorities in Kashmir snapped landline phones and all other telecom services last night, while a team of security personnel was rushed to Geelani’s residence when the news of his death came in, sources said. “They asked us to bury him immediately. We requested them to let our other family members come and see his face. But they snatched the body,” a family member told The Wire, adding that he was buried in a local graveyard near their residence.
Naseem Geelani, his son, told a news agency that nobody from the family was present for the burial. “We tried to resist (when the body was taken away) but they overpowered us and even scuffled with women,” Naseem, a scientist at an agricultural university, said.
Police sources said there are apprehensions of protests breaking out in the Valley, prompting a security clampdown that has revived the memories of August 5, 2019, when Article 370 was read down and Kashmir was pushed into an information black hole.
“We have reports that Pakistan will try to use the death (of Geelani) to disturb peace in Kashmir, because of which restrictions have been imposed in some areas of Srinagar and other Valley parts,” police sources said.
The fears of law and order breakdown were prompted largely by the stature that Geelani had come to acquire in Kashmir over the years, due to his consistent stand that the Kashmir dispute needs to be resolved as per the United Nations Security Council resolutions.
A proponent of armed resistance against Indian rule of J&K and its merger with Pakistan, Geelani often faced accusations of inciting violence and putting the ‘poor man’s son’ in harm’s way for his political interests, while his own family continued to prosper.
Geelani had rejected these allegations, terming them as an attempt by agencies to malign the Hurriyat and its politics of separatism.
The Hurriyat hawk was born on September 29, 1929 at Zurmanz, a small village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. After completing his school education locally, he went to study at Oriental College in Lahore, Pakistan.
He was groomed in politics by Maulana Mohammad Syed Masoodi, a National Conference leader, but soon parted ways to join Jamaat-e-Islami. He admired Jamaat founder Abul A’la Maududi and Pakistani philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Geelani has authored several books, mostly in Urdu, on Kashmir and politics in the subcontinent.
Before becoming the face of anti-India politics in Kashmir, Geelani contested assembly elections and represented north Kashmir’s Sopore constituency thrice in the J&K assembly.
But his defining moment came in the early 1990s, when an armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir. A strong orator, Geelani became one of the founding members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a conglomerate of separatist parties opposing New Delhi’s rule in J&K. Geelani, however, parted ways from APHC and floated his own chapter of the Hurriyat Conference after accusing the moderate Sajad Lone of fielding proxy candidates in the 2002 assembly elections. He formed Tehreek-e-Hurriyat after Jamaat-e-Islami disowned Hizbul Mujahideen, its purported armed wing.
At the start of the 21st century, when India and Pakistan had come close to a breakthrough in Kashmir, Geelani caused discomfiture in Islamabad when he bluntly opposed then President Pervez Musharraf for attempting a climbdown on the Kashmir issue by proposing a four-point formula instead of sticking to the UN resolutions.
This open defiance of a powerful military leader of the country that groomed and supported his politics made Geelani a staunch Kashmiri nationalist, even in the eyes of those who previously saw him as a Pakistani stooge.
The Hurriyat patriarch was a witness to the political strife in J&K, beginning with the accession in 1947, the incarceration of the then prime minister Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, rigging of the assembly elections in 1987 and the subsequent eruption of armed insurgency, the breakthrough Indo-Pak talks at the turn of the 21st century and the waves of mass unrest that followed, and finally, the reading down of Article 370 in 2019.
Geelani, who spent more than two decades of his life in jail, became the face of mass protests Kashmir during 2008, 2009 and 2010, when he led several public rallies and exhorted people to participate in protests, earning him many admirers who saw him as a symbol of their own defiance against New Delhi.
Geelani’s popularity, however, took a hit when, during one such public rally in Srinagar in 2010, with moderate Hurriyat president Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and JKLF chief Yasin Malik by his side, he asked people to declare him as their undisputed leader, causing fissures among the separatists.
At the peak of the 2016 agitation after the killing of Burhan Wani, Geelani refused to meet the 17-member delegation of parliamentarians which included his friend Sitaram Yechury, making him an eyesore for Kashmir in New Delhi.
Over the last two years, Geelani, surviving on half a kidney and with a pacemaker, and with major pulmonary issues, was rendered incommunicado. As his health began to deteriorate seriously, he stepped down and handed over the baton of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat to his longtime associate Ashraf Sehrai in 2020. His resignation was interpreted by many as a sign of anger against Pakistan. The Hurriyat hawk was also unhappy with the “inaction by the Hurriyat members post the abrogation of J&K’s special status and its division into two union territories”.
Sehrai, whose son Junaid Sehrai, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, was killed in an encounter, was arrested. He passed in a Jammu jail earlier this year, leaving Geelani’s Hurriyat a rudderless ship without a captain.
While Geelani’s health condition rendered him ineffective from participating in political activities, the mere fact that he was breathing made him a threat in the eyes of security agencies. His death, and the security clampdown that has followed, only demonstrate Geelani’s ability to galvanise masses in Kashmir, even when he is no more.