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Syed Ali Shah Geelani: the man between India and Hurriyat engagement

One man is preventing the Hurriyat Conference from engaging, if not compromising, with India. He is of course Syed Ali Shah Geelani, from the Jamaat e Islami, a group founded in undivided India by the great intellectual from Maharashtra, Abu'l Ala Maududi.

Maududi opposed Partition, saying that Muslims could not be defined through territorial nationalism but only through faith. He also opposed the first raid into Kashmir, launched under Governor General Jinnah, arguing that jihad could only be declared officially by the state using its army, not through freelancers. He was born in Aurangabad but moved to Lahore in 1940, remaining there and setting up the Jamaat, which is today more powerful and larger in Pakistan than in India. Maududi reconciled with the idea of Pakistan and was on the side of President Zia ul Haq when he moved the laws that Islamised certain punishments in the Pakistan Penal Code.

Archive image of Indian policemen standing guard along an empty shopping arcade. Reuters

Archive image of Indian policemen standing guard along an empty shopping arcade. Reuters

Geelani is associated with the Jamaat only in Kashmir. The Indian side of the body has declared itself apolitical, does not contest elections and has only a loose affiliation with Geelani's unit ("friendly relations" as they told me some years ago).
What Geelani wants is clear and uncomplicated. He wants Kashmir to merge with Pakistan. And he wants this because it is a Muslim state, and therefore should be governed under Sharia. He does not compromise on this demand, and because of this perceived lack of flexibility, he had to be removed from the Hurriyat Conference. That group of Kashmiri separatists is more flexible, and willing to negotiate with the Indian state.

Geelani on the other hand is so uncompromising that even Pakistan's conduct does not meet with his approval. He declined to visit Pakistan a couple of months ago, upset by its normalisation move with India. He dismisses the idea that trade over the Line of Control is important. "Kashmir is not an economic issue or an issue of trade ties but an issue linked to the death and survival of a nation," he said, "Trade ties cannot change the ground reality which is that this bloody line has consumed thousands of lives."

Geelani remains, along with Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Kashmir's most popular leader. However Farooq does not, or perhaps cannot, offer to his constituents what Geelani does -- a full-throated denounciation of India's secular constitution. This has left the field to Geelani, who best represents the anger and resentment that Kashmiri-speaking Muslims feel towards India.

Other leaders of the Hurriyat have all softened. Abdul Gani Lone did it first and died for it. The otherwise pro-Pakistan Abdul Gani Bhat (he told me in 2001 that Pakistan's economy was superior to India's) said last year that the United Nations resolutions in Kashmir were no longer enforceable. For saying this he was suspended from the Hurriyat Conference.

Officially, the group's position remains that the resolutions be implemented, with some saying that the plebiscite vote should include an independence option. The Mirwaiz says he accepts India is secular and democratic but even so Kashmiris should be allowed to determine whether they want any part of it. Unofficially, the Hurriyat leaders want to engage India and take a share of power. They cannot do so for fear of Geelani.

Geelani is unafraid of saying things that would hurt people. Fifteen or so years ago, I interviewed him from Hyderabad, when India and Pakistan were shelling each other, just as Kargil had begun. He told me of his beliefs about the bravery of the mujahideen and the cowardice of the Indian army. I took it down as a reporter should, and the editor chose not to carry the piece, saying it was too acidic for the readers.

Geelani did not fully apreciate the Indian, or perhaps subcontinental, ability to absorb great pain in the cause of its territory.

The deadlock in Kashmir awaits an event, the exit of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is 83 and the last true Maududist in India.
The moment he leaves the stage, a senior Kashmiri reporter told me this week, the whole of the Hurriyat will queue up for talks on how to settle this thing.

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