He dominated the Valley’s discourse in 2009 but at the turn of the new year the separatist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani continues to loom large over the Valley’s political landscape. His political mantra has been simple: He blends an unbending stand on Kashmir with a deft marshalling of the street resistance. And what is more, he is one of the fewer politicians in the state whose message has carried conviction and resonated with the people.
This is what makes Geelani a bigger challenge for New Delhi among all Kashmiri separatists. It is not his hawkish politics, not even his rehearsed line on Kashmir dispute, or his refusal to hold dialogue with New Delhi but his capacity to bring Kashmir to a standstill, whenever he likes.
Ever since the split of Hurriyat in 2003, Geelani has virtually determined the separatist agenda in Valley, frequently even disrupting the takeover of the pro-India political parties. This is why despite a crowded competition for the title, Geelani has been able to set himself up as the symbol of the Valley’s separatist consciousness. His one-track political line on the resolution of Kashmir has struck an instant chord among a large section of people, most of them youth. What has further set him off is the lacklustre moderation of his moderate counterparts. Their politics despite its tomtommed pragmatic foundations has failed to inspire faith.
But Geelani has had some inherent strengths too. He has been there for the past half a century and is one of the most familiar names in the state if not the most popular. And before his name became identified with the separatist cause, Geelani was synonymous with Jamaat-i-Islami, his parent party for over three decades before the outbreak of militancy in 1989. In fact, Geelani can be duly credited for turning Jamaat into a potent political force in Valley before the onset of militancy. And he was also the one who was instrumental in plunging Jamaat into the separatist struggle in early nineties and accede to a militant role for the party. That is, before Jamaat-i-Islami under Ghulam Muhammad Bhat pulled the party out of the fray and returned it to its essential preaching role.
But while Jamaat has all but slipped into background and all its leadership has embraced obscurity, Geelani has not only outgrown his party but also forged a new strong political identity for himself. And now he has even come to monopolize the separatist discourse. So much so that he has rendered his name and the concept of Azadi interchangeable, thereby creating a new authentic, enduring version of the separatist struggle as against the fluid, evolving concept of the other separatists. Now, we also have a sort of exalted ‘’Geelani-wali Azadi,’’ as against the matter-of-fact freedom propagated by the moderates.
However, Geelani’s achievement goes beyond setting himself up as the overarching symbol of Azadi. His success lies in the fact that his Azadi resonates with a large mass of the people, evokes passions and gets people on the streets. He can single-handedly exploit events to build a Valley-wide groundswell that has often re-invigorated the separatist movement. And, of course, he is one of the fewer separatist politicians who can whip up frenzy even without the aid of the favourable events or the politically explosive incidents lie Shopian.
Shopian is a handy example of what Geelani can do. It was Geelani alone -of course, with some help from a bungling administration – who turned the deaths of two women into a massive upheaval that stretched through summer. It was him that made army’s land grab a powerful street issue. And it is Geelani who poses a formidable challenge to the engagement between New Delhi and Hurriyat moderates and India and Pakistan.
What has made Geelani such a darling of a large section of youth is that he is seen as a dependable trustee of the people’s aspirations against a long history of political betrayal and the prevailing politics of convenience. Geelani is not seen as a deliverer of solution but upholder of an idea, sometimes for the sake of it. Underlying this mindset is a clear public preference in Kashmir for the absoluteness of the demand rather than the compromises of a solution.
But the question that many are asking is whether the popular fascination with Geelani justifies his ideology. And whether his brand of rigid and rejectionist politics is what Kashmir needs under the circumstances? Geelani, it is said, has made the very pursuit of solution and its tortuous twists and turns a hazardous undertaking for the other political actors. In Geelani’s case,