At 10:30 pm last night, Kashmir’s staunchest and unarguably most popular pro-freedom leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, breathed his last at his residence in Srinagar. He was 92. He had been under house arrest for almost a decade. He was asthmatic, had just one functional kidney, and had been struggling with dementia for the past few years. Even so, in order to preclude any chance of physical movement, a rusting police vehicle, mounted with cameras, was always stationed outside his residence. As the news of his death spread, police and paramilitary forces sealed off the roads to his residence, announced restrictions across Kashmir, and also snapped internet and mobile phone networks. The family of the deceased also allege that his body was snatched from them by the police and his last rites were performed before the break of dawn amid the heavy presence of security forces.
In fact, a lot of what took place since last evening in Kashmir had already been rehearsed by the security forces a number of times. Last year, when rumours of his death spread a number of times, Jammu & Kashmir Police discussed what was informally referred to as the ‘G-Plan’.
“His health, his funeral and the after-effects of his death have remained a talking point within the administration for a few years now. For example, in 2018, when he fell acutely ill, the government actively discussed the issue at many meetings,” a senior government official told The Economic Times in January 2020. Not surprising at all that an air of almost military-level strategising was devoted to the man: he was, after all, universally seen as the strongest impediment to India’s designs in Kashmir.
Indeed, the life and times of Geelani best capture Kashmir’s historically contested relationship with the Indian state.
Since 1947, a number of social and political formations have both contested and challenged the relationship the Indian state cobbled up with the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir following the decolonisation of the subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan and India as new nation-states. The political formations that willingly affirmed the relationship were limited in number. History is replete with examples of various formations using a number of means for renegotiation from the repertoire of collective political action. It has involved peaceful means, such as dialogue, participation in elections, and also violent means. In his political career of over five decades, Geelani traversed the entire spectrum of collective action available with the people of Kashmir.
Even as a member of the J&K Legislative Assembly in the 1970s (and once later)—that is, as a participant within the formal Indian system—Geelani fiercely argued for Kashmir’s inalienable right to self-determination. His party, Jama’at-e-Islami, not only challenged the social dominance of the National Conference locally but also provided an ideological counter to the Indian state. When the means of peaceful advocacy were repressed through various interventions of the Indian state, Geelani threw his weight behind the popular insurgency against India. It is therefore no surprise that when people in Kashmir raise slogans in his praise—say, for example, Na bikne wala, Geelani / Na jhukne wala, Geelani (Geelani, the one who does not bow, or sell out)—they are only reaffirming his position as the representative of a collective will. In the Indian narration of this history, however, Geelani has always been pejoratively called a jehadi ideologue, a ‘hawk’ and a ‘hardliner’, even within the Hurriyat spectrum.