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Print edition : Sep 24, 2010

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The hard-liner Syed Ali Shah Geelani is calling the shots in the current agitation, assisted by Massarat Alam and Asiya Andrabi.

in Srinagar

THE political unrest in Kashmir has completed three months with no end in sight. It is essentially fuelled by secessionist sentiment, and the command and control is generally with the youth who are not organised at the macro level but surely at the micro level. The protest calendars are framed by the hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads one faction of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Geelani emerged as the strong voice of the current agitation along with Massarat Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi. Massarat Alam has gone underground and Asiya was arrested on August 28.

SYED ALI SHAH GEELANI

The 81-year-old Geelani is seen as an icon of the freedom struggle by most young people in Kashmir. Notwithstanding his hard-line pro-Pakistan views and uncompromising stand on the Kashmir issue, he consolidated the pro-freedom sentiment that was revived after the killing of a teenager, Tufail Mattoo, on June 11. The civilian toll has now gone up to 65. With resentment brewing among a section of Kashmiris over prolonged strikes resulting in closures of businesses and educational institutions, people in general still adhere to Geelani's calendars in letter and spirit. People open and close the markets as he directs. It is Geelani who calls the shots in the Kashmir valley.

The government has lost control over the affairs of the State, and moderates in the separatist camp do not dare challenge Geelani's writ. Insiders say that he might have given a second thought to the strike programme, which has brought life in Kashmir to a grinding halt for three months now. But he is under tremendous pressure from his men, notably Massarat Alam, not to dilute the strong anti-India movement. He was accused of a sell-out in the 2008 agitation, which was called off after the Amarnath land issue was settled.

Geelani is known for his pro-Pakistan stand and has been in the news with his glorification of militant activities. He even took on his parent organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was in favour of toeing a moderate line. He floated the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat after the Hurriyat Conference split in 2003. When the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, entered into a dialogue process with New Delhi in 2004, Geelani dismissed it as a futile exercise, thus further consolidating the anti-India sentiment on the ground.

His stand was vindicated as nothing came out of the talks, mainly owing to the rigidity on New Delhi's part. Meanwhile, in Kashmir, Geelani dominated the secessionist camp, with people hailing him as a leader with consistency. His position was strengthened to the extent that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah sent a close aide to him, while he was in jail, to buy peace during the current phase of the agitation. Even the national TV channels were forced to give prominence to his appeal for peaceful agitation.

In fact, Geelani's political career has been a mixture of everything. After his early, though brief, association with the National Conference (N.C.), he devoted himself to the Jamaat-e-Islami and played an important role in furthering its education agenda. He fought elections and was a member of the State Assembly for three terms. Though he now denounces the Assembly as the meeting place of Indian agents, his party chose the path of electoral politics way back in 1972 when the N.C. was fighting for a plebiscite. Even in 1989, when militancy first erupted in Kashmir, the Jamaat-e-Islami initially distanced itself from the new strategy to throw India out. But it was forced to own it with the floating of Hizbul Mujahideen, which is the only indigenous militant outfit still operating in Kashmir. The Jamaat made the shift under pressure from its cadre for fear of losing political power to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which has a secular orientation.

Now that Geelani has donned the mantle of being the sole arbitrator of the Kashmir's struggle, the onus is on him to give it a productive direction. He has often called the current phase a turning point in Kashmir's struggle for freedom but has so far failed to move it forward towards a resolution. If New Delhi and its allies in Srinagar are waiting for a fizzle out to make him irrelevant, it falls upon him to prove them wrong and avoid adopting a strategy that will tire out the masses.

MASSARAT ALAM

The 37-year-old hard-core Islamist is an ardent follower of Geelani. Educated in a missionary school, he graduated with a degree in science from a local college. Orphaned at the age of 10, he comes from a middle-class family that owned a chain of garment shops in Srinagar. Head of the pro-Pakistan Muslim League, Massarat Alam emerged as the powerful manager of the Geelanised' agitation in Kashmir in 2008. For most of the past two years, he was in jail for organising first the Amarnath land agitation and then the protests against the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian.

He was released from jail on June 8, three days before the killing of Tufail Mattoo, which set off the current agitation. Since then, he has kept the Omar Abdullah government on tenterhooks. He operates with a strong network of highly motivated young people, himself remaining underground. Earlier, he used to implement his programme mostly on mobile phones, but now he is incommunicado, with his statements coming through the Internet. He followed the example of Osama bin Laden when he released a DVD for circulation with his message asking Indian troops to withdraw.

Amid reports that he had lately developed differences with his mentor, the protest calendars are being framed by the two of them in tandem. Carrying a cash reward of Rs.5 lakh on his head, Massarat Alam is today the most wanted separatist figure in Kashmir. Whether arresting him will douse the fires remains to be seen.

ASIYA ANDRABI

Arrested on August 28, Asiya was a force multiplier with Massarat Alam. The two of them are believed to have prevailed on Geelani to stick to the hard line.

Asiya, 47, is the only woman separatist leader in Kashmir to be reckoned with. She minces no words on her strong pro-Pakistan and Islamist leanings. She shot into prominence in the late 1980s when she launched the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, essentially against social vices. She tried to force women to wear veils but did not succeed much. She attacked beauty parlours, restaurants and internet cafes. She also joined the separatist campaign that began with the armed insurgency in 1990. She has been a strong supporter of an Islamic state and the State's merger with Pakistan. She has been jailed several times for glorifying and supporting militant activities. Her infant son spent a year with her in jail. Taking advantage of being on the militant side, she tried her best to force women to follow Islamic ideals.

Asiya Andrabi is married to former militant commander and Islamist separatist leader Aashiq Hussain Faktoo alias Mohammad Qasim, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of noted human rights activist H.N. Wanchoo.

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