Citizen Geelani

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

Syed Ali Shah Geelani. - REUTERS

Syed Ali Shah Geelani. - REUTERS

IN July 2001, the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi hosted a reception for President General Pervez Musharraf, who was then on his way to Agra for his summit meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. In the middle of the genteel gathering, a venomous argument broke out between Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Imam of the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, perhaps the most visible figure of the Islamist Far Right in Jammu and Kashmir. The debate, which began over Bukhari's claim that the interests of Indian Muslims were at stake in Jammu and Kashmir, ended emphatically. "Kashmir will become a part of Pakistan," Geelani declaimed, "I am a Pakistani."

Not, it seems, when it comes to taking a favour or two from the Indian state. On April 21, Geelani swore out an affidavit before Daljit Singh, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate in charge of the Karol Bagh area of New Delhi, proclaiming that he was a "Senior Citizen of India." The affidavit, which also recorded his date of birth and the address of his home in the upmarket Malviya Nagar area, was filed in order to obtain discounts offered by Indian Airlines Ltd. for senior citizens. The intelligence officials who trail the Jamaat-e-Islami leader were delighted, and promptly leaked copies of the document to journalists in New Delhi.

A cheap shot? The affidavit illustrates, if nothing else, the opportunism of the most hardline figure in the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Geelani has, over the years, repeatedly called for boycotts of elections in Jammu and Kashmir. He, however, continues to draw a pension of Rs.7,100 a month due to him as a two-time member of the State's Legislative Assembly. The veteran politician had, at that time, no qualms about taking office bound by the Indian Constitution. Indeed, Geelani, like other Muslim United Front MLAs elected in 1987, stayed in office until late 1989, hesitant about joining the early armed struggle in the State. None of Geelani's children joined the jehad he energetically advocated all families in Jammu and Kashmir to contribute their sons to.

Geelani's relationship with the Indian state has continued to be ambiguous. After his arrest last year, under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, he was shifted to the Birsa Munda prison in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The prison cell he was housed in was a two-room block custom-built to house former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. The closest thing to a five-star accommodation available in the Indian prison system, Geelani's accommodation was in stark contrast to that given to most other prisoners from Jammu and Kashmir.

Early this year, a tumour in Geelani's kidney was found to be malignant. He was promptly flown to Mumbai from Ranchi, on the Jammu and Kashmir government's official twin-engine Beechcraft. A personal doctor flew on the plane from Srinagar, and was in attendance at the luxury suite made available to Geelani at the Tata Memorial Hospital, a premier cancer-care facility. On his return to Srinagar, however, he complained about poor prison conditions and healthcare, perhaps an effort to shore up his legitimacy with his understandably sceptical constituency.

The circumstances of Geelani's release, like those of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik, remain somewhat opaque. The Public Safety Act order issued on June 9, 2002 specified that Geelani be imprisoned for two years. The Act allows for the parole of prisoners for a specified period and on specific grounds. The order granting Geelani parole cites no specific reasons for his release, nor mandates the conditions that he must adhere to during his parole period. The Jamaat-e-Islami leader has been politically active since his return to the State, a violation of the normal parole conditions. Once again, the state has been inexplicably generous to one of its most hostile enemies.

Meanwhile, Income Tax proceedings initiated against Geelani last year appear to have fallen into limbo. Income Tax officials who raided Geelani's home and those of his immediate family members found Rs.10.25 lakhs in cash, another $10,000, vouchers for recently purchased jewellery and documents relating to the purchase of two new homes in an upmarket neighbourhood in Srinagar. Geelani employed 14 servants at a monthly salary of Rs.2,000 each, an expense which in itself exceeded his disclosed monthly income of Rs.17,100. If the cases collapse, it will just be the last in a long string of hawala and income tax charges brought against the politician, which were subsequently withdrawn for no apparent reason.

Soldiers who fight wars, it is said, best understand the value of peace. Geelani has never fought in the campaign that has cost the lives of thousands of Hizbul Mujahideen cadre, the organisation he patronises. In late April, Hizbul Mujahideen cadre, allied to the recently assassinated pro-peace leader Majid Dar, raided their organisation's head office in Islamabad. Office staff loyal to Geelani's most loyal follower, Hizbul Mujahideen supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah, was driven out. The dissidents briefly took possession of Rs.1.37 crores in cash, along with eight cars, before Pakistani intelligence officials stepped in and sealed the building.

In his own ranks, Geelani seems to have few friends left. That, oddly enough, cannot be said of the state that he so bitterly opposes.

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