Tahir Bhat records Syed Ali Geelani’s journey from the banks of Wullar lake to the streets of Lal chowk coincided as it did with his ideological transition from a mainstream legislator to a die-hard separatist who only saw black or white
The security grid went into a sort of tizzy as the death of Syed Ali Geelani was announced by the family. Bedridden for last more than two years and restricted to his home for almost a decade, he was the last of the Mohicans from an era in Kashmir where the political waters were never still.
Geelani was born to a seasonal labourer, deployed during summers on the maintenance of Zaingeer Canal, on September 29, 1929, at Zori Manz, a satellite habitation of Kehnusa (Bandipore). He was the fourth of six siblings of his unlettered parents who worked hard to come out of poverty. The family was living in abject poverty, consuming the water nut bread as part of the food.
The desperation of his father to get the family out of poverty led him to educate his children. His father admitted him to the state-run primary school at Butengoo where a Kashmiri Pandit from Srinagar Neyanand was the teacher. For most of the primary school period, he would study from the books of a contractor’s son, living in the neighbourhood. This all led him to have the third position in the primary school fetching him a scholarship of three rupees, quite an impressive sum in that era.
For further studies, his father enrolled him in the state-run High School in Sopore. This entailed a daily walk of 18 km, nine km from each side. This continued for a year and was gruelling for a 12-year-old kid. When he was in the seventh standard, the family married one of their daughters in the Dooru area of Sopore, which fetched a young Ali, a shelter not far away from Sopore.
The Dooru sojourn, however, came with its own crisis. One day, Lahore based Kashmir historian, Mohammad Din Fouq saw him and decided to take him along for studies in Lahore. When in Lahore, a major city in undivided India, the historian literally gifted him to his sister as domestic help. This period, Geelani has mentioned in his autobiography, Wullar Kinaray was the worst period of his life as the house where he was pushed into lacked even a book. Somehow he fled and reached home via Jammu.
Back home, the family enrolled him in the Middle School Baba Yousuf, Sopore. He was hardly in school for a year that one of his relatives took him to Lahore for his studies. In that era, the system that was in vogue for Kashmiri students was that they would stay in mosques and enrol in the Maktab type schools run by the Muslim scholars within or around the mosques. Geelani spent four years in Lahore during which he studied the Quran at Masjid Wazir Khan and did his Adeeb Kamil from the Night College. This was around 1940-41. Well before he could join the Adeeb Fazil, a desperate father’s letter literally forced him to rush home.
In a bid to help his family, he desperately tried to get a teaching job but failed. While hunting for a job, he has mentioned sleeping in Khanyar shop-fronts during nights. Eventually, he resorted to selling clothes while going from door to door. Sometimes, he even joined the labourers working in stone quarries.
Given the details, he has mentioned in his autobiography, it can easily be concluded that it was National Conference veteran, Moulana Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi, who shaped his life and career by being his guardian.
Based on somebody’s recommendation letter, Moulana met him at Mujahid Manzil in 1946 and encouraged him to pick up the art of reporting for Khidmat, the newspaper that Masoodi was editing. Geelani would stay at Mujahid Manzil. Then, the NC observed very harshly the century of the Treaty of Amritsar, encouraging Maharaja to crackdown on the party. Geelani was back home.
In 1947, Geelani worked as a labourer on a road link. He had a 10-day chila at Baba Shukruddin also. However, in this period, he got an opportunity to have a “leave chance” at three places as a school teacher. Leave chance, now abandoned, was the practice of hiring an available teacher from within the locality for a specific period when a permanent teacher proceeds on leave. Geelani taught at Drugmulla and Sopore.
By 1947 fall, after the accession, Geelani met Masoodi at Watlab and he asked him to return to Mujahid Manzil. It was this stay that exposed Geelani to the new realities of his life and the politics of Kashmir. Without being an NC worker, his mentor sent Geelani to attend the NC’s 1949 delegate session at Polo View that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru presided. Later that year, Masoodi got him appointed as a school teacher with posting at Pathar Masjid, just at a stone’s throw from Mujahid Manzil. The same year, he got him to prepare for Adeeb Fazil that made Geelani part of the University of Jammu and Kashmir’s first convocation in which he received his degree from Nehru.
At a newly set up Radio Kashmir, Srinagar, Geelani would record his talks in chaste Urdu that impressed his producers. It was there he first saw, Saiduddin Tarbali, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir. After meeting Dina Nath Nadim, Geelani has noted in his autobiography that in that era Communism was being talked about loudly but never understood.
By 1952, Geelani did his Munshi Fazil, again on the insistence of Masoodi. Soon after, Masoodi arranged an English tutor, a Kashmir Pandit, for Geelani that led him to pass matriculation in English.
As a teacher, Geelani was first transferred to Rainwarai and later Chota Bazaar. In this era, he met Qari Saifuddin, a fellow teacher, who got him closer to Jamaat. By early 1953, Geelani’s continued presence in Mujahid Manzil had assumed sort of a political scandal because he was operating from the party headquarters, working as a teacher in the government, without being a party member and openly talked about Jamaat. Instead of punishing him for this, Masoodi silently got him transferred to Bomai in Sopore. By then, his family had migrated to Dooru and a few months later, Sheikh Abdullah was dethroned and arrested.
Geelani had formally joined Jamaat while in Srinagar and his activities in north Kashmir elevated him to the status of tehsil and eventually the head of the Baramulla district. By then, he had rejected the offer of Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad to join his party and become a minister. It was soon after that three teachers including Saaduddin Tarbali, Qari Saifuddin and Syed Ali Geelani resigned as teachers and started working for Jamaat on a full-time basis.
Soon after heading north Kashmir, Geelani was elevated to be the party secretary-general (1964) that led him to operate from Srinagar and move across Jammu and Kashmir. Between 1964 and 1970, he also edited Azaan, the party’s mouthpiece, a weekly newspaper. In March 1985, he was appointed as acting President of the party but most of his presidency was spent in jail and the hospitals.
In Electoral Politics
In the Panchayat elections in 1969, it was Plebiscite Front versus Congress and Jamaat also jumped in. While the Front swept the polls, Congress candidates were declared successful by the officials. Jamaat also was given many berths but the party made them to resign.
Subsequently, in anticipation of the 1971 Lok Sabha polls, Plebiscite Front was banned thus managing the challenge for Congress became a challenge. Geelani, in his autobiography, has insisted that this was the key factor why the Jamaat jumped into polls and decided to challenge Congress in Kashmir. After Qari Saifuddin’s nomination form was rejected, Jamaat supported Shameem Ahmad Shameem. In South Kashmir, Hakeem Ghulam Nabi lost because what Geelani said a “conspiracy” and Geelani personally lost to Ghulam Rasool Kar, who admitted openly while being declared successful that “we are taking this seat by blackening our face”. However, this was Geelani’s debut in electoral politics.
In the 1972 assembly elections, Jamaat won five berths including Sopore that Geelani represented. Jamaat was banned in 1975 emergency and all its lawmakers were jailed. This led the Jamaat to contest independently the 1977 Lok Sabha polls. Geelani filed his nomination from jail and was released after he was declared a loser in the polls. In the assembly polls in June 1977, Geelani, however, won with 33 votes and emerged as the lone opposition member in a house that NC dominated by a two-thirds majority.
Jamaat failed to get even a single berth in 1983 polls that Dr Farooq Abdullah won with landslide mandate, apparently on a sympathy wave.
In the election held on March 23, 1987, when Muslim United Front emerged as the main opposition against the NC-Congress alliance, Geelani was one of the four contestants who were elected. The mass rigging led to massive tensions as the MUF activists started courting arrests on Fridays in protest. Three of the four MUF lawmakers including Geelani resigned on August 29, 1989.
After militancy broke out, the routine politics was decimated literally. In 1992, when Hurriyat Conference emerged as an amalgam of around 23 political parties with every party having some linkage, direct or indirect, with a militant outfit, Geelani represented Jamaat in the fold.
The real challenge, however, emerged when the government announced the Lok Sabha elections in 1995, soon after the Chrar-e-Sharief town along with the shrine went up in a conflagration during a protracted standoff between militants and the army. A year later, state assembly elections were announced. The Hurriyat campaigned for the boycott of the polls. In 1998, he became chairman of the alliance through a draw of lots and nobody, by his own admission, in the alliance was happy.
In 2002 polls, some “proxy” candidates contested elections and the Hurriyat skipped the boycott campaign. Geelani was in jail. Once freed, he took a serious note of it and that marked the beginning of a vertical split in Hurriyat. He founded a parallel Hurriyat in September of which he became the Chairman on December 7, 2003.
There was a lot of controversy between Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat-e-Kashmir and the Jamaat. It eventually led to his formal expulsion from Jamaat in April 2010.
Despite being a lawmaker thrice, Geelani was always a staunch pro-Pakistan politician. After militancy erupted, he would emerge as the extreme reference on Kashmir, inflexible and unwavering. In Hurriayt he was a hawk. Never was he supportive of any bilateralism between Srinagar and Delhi or Islamabad and Delhi. He picked a huge quarrel with Parvez Musharraf when the two met in Delhi on April 17, 2005. He accused Musharraf of “collaborating” with the US in “killing your own people”. His only condition for engagement with Delhi was that first they must admit a dispute.
Unlike traditional politics, where accommodation, adjustment and compromise are normal, Geelani’s politics never moved beyond the two-nation theory. This could have been key reasons for his love-hate relationship with Islamabad, Jamaat and even the undivided Hurriyat. Off late, however, he had agreed to certain common basics with Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik but those tactical relations did not move beyond the unrests in 2016. During the 2016 unrest, he shut doors on the members of some members of the All-Party Delegation that visited Kashmir.
At the personal level he was a classist, an impressive orator, a rabble-rouser, a huge Iqbal expert and a prolific writer. His three-volume autobiography, Wullar Kinaray is being said to be the most sold book in Kashmir in the last decade. He knew Urdu, Kashmiri, English, Persian and Arabic.
Jails have remained second home for Geelani. He in fact died while being under house arrest. Barring a few days when he would be permitted to visit hospitals or family mourning’s, he was mostly restricted to his Hyderpora residence.
The first arrest of his career was on August 29, 1962, when he was arrested in Sopore and retained for 13 months. His father died while he was in custody. He moved out on October 1, 1963.
After performing Haj when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah met the Chinese leader in Algeria, a serious crisis triggered in India. While Sheikh was arrested on May 7, 1965, at Delhi airport, hundreds of workers of Plebiscite Front and Jamaat workers were arrested. Geelani was arrested for 22 months and freed in March 1967.
Geelani holds the distinction of having been imprisoned while being an active lawmaker. While his one arrest came for his protest against a liquor shop, he and his four colleagues were arrested twice, while being in assembly, first after Jamaat was banned and later for their speeches. It was during one of these stints in jail that Geelani learnt Hindi from a fellow Hindu prisoner.
On January 28, 1984, Geelani was arrested for an interview with Kashmir Times. He was in jail while Maqbool Bhat was hanged on February 11, 1984. He moved out on December 7, 1984.
In March 1985, Saiduddin proceeded on health leave and appointed Geelani as his acting President. A day later, Geelani was arrested. The court set him free six times but he was always re-arrested and held as an IPD patient in SKIMS for around 10 months. By August 1985, Jamaat had elected a new president by resorting to an amendment in the election process of the party.
On April 10, 1990, Geelani and most of the Kashmir politicians were arrested. This was in the wake of militancy that emerged in the state. It was long detention from which he and many others were set free on March 31, 1992. He was arrested in anticipation of the 2002 assembly elections also.
Geelani was always facing a health issue but it became sort of global news in March 2007 when he started demanding a passport. Admitted to the Apollo Hospital, his only kidney was proved malignant but he refused a transplant. The hospital issued him a certificate saying he would require flying to Cleveland (USA) for laser treatment for nephron conservation. New Delhi issued him a passport on humanitarian grounds.
At 77, Geelani had undergone open-heart surgery in 1999. While in jail in Ranchi in 2002, he developed cancer in one kidney which was removed at TATA Cancer Institute in Mumbai, in February 2003. Problems erupted in his only kidney in early 2007. However, the US refused him a visa for he supported violence in Kashmir.
By then, Imran Khan, Pakistan cricketer turned politician, who was running Showkat Khanam Cancer Hospital rang up Geelani and offered him an operation at Lahore but Geelani refused. Eventually, the family opted for surgical intervention in Mumbai. The successful operation helped the kidney survive 17 years.
Geelani, however, continued fighting other health issues. He was diagnosed with increased palpitations in 1972. Later in the late eighties, he took a recommendation letter from Chief Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to PGI Chandigarh where Dr Chaturvedi admitted him for a week and later sent him home with the comment that “you will live longer than Sheikh Abdullah”. His gallbladder was removed at Ganga Ram Hospital in December 2004. Dr U Koul conducted angiography on him on April 25, 1997. The same year, he got a pacemaker implant at Escorts that was replaced in 2008.
Suffering from bleeding gums, the O-negative separatist had most of his teeth replaced between 2007 and 2010. He was a chronic case of spondylitis since 1975. He had surgical intervention in both his eyes. Since 1997, he was suffering from prostate. Perhaps he was the only politician who claimed to have never tasted wazwaan, had plenty of water and had a tight workout schedule.
In May 1981, he visited the United States of America via London. Later that year, he performed Hajj. In 1995, he again proceeded on Haj. In 2006, he was also permitted to proceed on Haj but he returned a lonely man from the promised land as Pakistan ensured its officials and the Kashmiri activists do not meet him. Those who could meet him suggested that he must support the peace process between India and Pakistan (Mushraf Formula) and allow reuniting of the Hurriyat. He refused all these suggestions.
Before militancy broke out in Kashmir, Geelani visited most of the country for one or the other reason. Earlier, in 1969, he led a delegation to the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi over the mysterious fires that consumed hundreds of households in the Kashmir periphery.
Geelani’s first wife had died on February 27, 1970, leaving behind three daughters and two sons. He remarried on June 22, 1970, and had three more daughters. One of his daughters died young. His elder son is a medical doctor who runs his private clinic and the younger one teaches forestry at the SKUAST-K.
Last Two Years
For the last more than two years, Geelani was completely bed-ridden. On June 29, 2020, he resigned from his own amalgam citing a crisis of indiscipline within the alliance. Family sources suggest that he had grown hugely frail and was not in a position to communicate or identify people. The end came around 10:35 pm, on September 1, 2021. The family said they were planning his burial as per his will but the security set-up took his body and did the last rites without the family. A video that has gone viral shows Geelani draped in the Pakistani national flag. Police said they facilitated his funeral. Authorities imposed restrictions on movement and snapped internet and mobile telephony in Kashmir.