The autumn of an Islamist

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Syed Ali Shah Geelani at a press conference in Srinagar. -

Syed Ali Shah Geelani at a press conference in Srinagar. -

The removal of Syed Ali Shah Geelani from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference is the culmination of a process of his marginalisation that has been on for some time. Nevertheless, it is too early to write off the hardline secessionist leader.

... Muslims and Hindus in India, and Kashmir as well, are considered to be members of two different nations despite living in the same territory. This, Geelani says, is `an undeniable truth'. He writes that not just in matters of faith, beliefs and customs do the two differ, but that they are also distinct and sharply set apart from each other in such matters as food, clothing and lifestyles. For Muslims to stay among Hindus or in an environment which is very different from their own is said to be as difficult as it is `for a fish to stay alive in a desert'.

- Yoginder Sikand, "For Islam and Kashmir: The Prison Diaries of Sayyed Ali Geelani of the Jamaat-i-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir", Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Volume 18, No. 2, 1998.

AUTUMN hangs over the high brick walls of Syed Ali Shah Geelani's fortress-like home on the outskirts of Srinagar, enclosing a world that seems to have seceded from the sparkling Kashmir mid-summer outside. Less than five years ago, followers used to reverentially call him the Amir-e-Jihad of the Hizbul Mujahideen more powerful than even the Muzaffarabad-based leaders of Jammu and Kashmir's largest Islamist organisation. Now greying and ravaged by a bitter struggle with cancer, Geelani has been unceremoniously removed from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), the body that claims to represent the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Nobody from the organisation he has served for a lifetime, the Jammu Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami, has spoken in his defence. But, unlike George Byron's Napoleon Bonaparte, Geelani does not seem ready, just yet, to be reduced to a "nameless thing": his last battle is yet to be fought.

On May 24, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami, announced that Geelani would no longer represent the organisation in the 24-party secessionist conglomerate, the APHC. The decision, he claimed, had been made because of Geelani's poor health. "Because he could not attend the Hurriyat meetings," the Amir stated, "we decided to thrust the responsibility on Sheikh Ali Mohammad." Bhat's justification fooled no one. Geelani had stopped attending meetings of the APHC executive last year not because he "could not", but because he did not wish to do so. Shortly after the assassinated People's Conference leader Abdul Gani Lone's party put up proxy candidates in last year's Assembly elections, Geelani had demanded that the organisation be removed from the APHC. Centrists in the organisation, including its chairman Abdul Gani Bhat, refused to do so. And, to add insult to injury, the Jamaat-e-Islami chose not to replace Geelani with his trusted lieutenant, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai.

Pakistan-based terrorist groups responded to the decision with outrage. Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson Salim Hashmi described the action as helping an "Indian plot of derailing the freedom movement". He demanded that the Jamaat-e-Islami and the APHC endorse Geelani's "principled stand" and "save the freedom movement from disintegration at this crucial juncture". Another far-Right organisation, the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen, charged the APHC with promoting an Indian and United States-backed "plan of permanent slavery for the people of Jammu and Kashmir". "Where are your tall claims of bringing about an Islamic revolution through armed jehad from the mosques", Jamait-ul-Mujahideen spokesperson Jameel Ahmad demanded to know of G.M. Bhat and the Hurriyat? Both, he asserted, were "deeply involved in uprooting the jehad in Kashmir". The far-Right women's organisation, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, in turn, described the APHC as "a haven of Indian intelligence agencies" and the People's Conference as the "headquarters of India's Home Department in Kashmir".

Judging by their studied nonchalance, the targets of this venom were well prepared. APHC chairman Bhat refused to be drawn into the debate by saying that the decision to remove Geelani was the business of the Jamaat-e-Islami alone. G.M. Bhat passed the buck back, claiming that his organisation was bound by whatever decisions the APHC took on the issue of the People's Conference. Lone's elder son, Bilal Lone, who now represents the People's Conference in the APHC, also responded with studied indifference. Asked about Geelani's charge that the Jammu and Kashmir Ministry of Forests was run out of his home, a reference to the fact that the Minister for Forests Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi was a long-standing People's Conference worker, Lone responded with quiet humour. "He ought to know more about the Forest Ministry", a reminder that one of Geelani's sons works for the Forest Department.

WHAT actually provoked the showdown in the APHC? The Majlis-e-Shoora, or general council, of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was scheduled to discuss the People's Conference issue in June. It is possible that the India-Pakistan developments provided an opportunity for the Jamaat's Amir to settle the debate in advance. On May 19, Pakistan's Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat announced that activities of the Hizbul Mujahideen had been prohibited from Pakistani soil, including Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Three days earlier, two bodyguards of Hizb supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah were charged with illegally carrying weapons to a Rawalpindi hotel. The announcement came weeks after the U.S. Department of State designated the Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist organisation. Although Hayat quickly backed down, saying the ban applied only to "illegal activities" - which were, presumably, illegal even before the ban - the development created consternation among Jehadi groups. Mohammed Yusuf Shah bravely asserted that no force could stop the Hizbul Mujahideen's operations, but was careful to add that his organisation only had "mobile training camps" on the Indian side of the Line of Control. Geelani went a step further, describing the ban as a "big jolt to the freedom movement".

Pakistan's half-action against the Hizbul Mujahideen was not, of course, the only factor that enabled Geelani's guns to be spiked. For the past several months, an internecine warfare has been going on between Mohammed Yusuf Shah's hardline faction and pro-dialogue cadre grouped around Khurshid Ahmad Zargar, the Hizbul Mujahideen's former south Kashmir commander, a one-time veterinary surgeon who operates under the nom de guerre Asad Yazdani. The latest clashes are believed to have taken place in mid-May, when supporters of the assassinated moderate commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen Abdul Majid Dar raided cadre loyal to Mohammed Yusuf Shah at Jabbar village near Muzaffarabad and looted an estimated 35 rifles and Rs.20 lakhs in cash. Twelve members of both groups were injured in the fighting, which forced the closure of the camp. Two other training camps, Tarbela and Haripur, were also reportedly closed after Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) failed to mediate a truce between the warring groups. Dar's elimination notwithstanding, his legacy evidently lives on - a fact of not inconsiderable importance to the Amir-e-Jamaat, a key facilitator of the Dar-initiated Hizbul Mujahideen ceasefire of July, 2000.

But the roots of the coup against Geelani transcend the Hizbul Mujahideen itself, and go to the core of secessionist politics. Shortly after his release from jail in 1997, G.M. Bhat set the ball rolling, with an interview that distanced the Jamaat-e-Islami from the Hizbul Mujahideen, and called for an end to the "gun culture". Geelani was incensed but could do little to stop others from picking up the theme. Soon after taking office in the spring of 1999, APHC chairman Bhat called for a dialogue between mainstream political parties and secessionists, a marked departure from the organisation's constitutionally mandated demand for a three-way dialogue between itself, India and Pakistan. The Kargil war delayed, but did not derail, sustained dialogue involving the APHC centrists and pro-peace elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen. These efforts were to lead to the Hizbul Mujahideen declaring a unilateral ceasefire in July 2000, an initiative taken up the next month with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declaring a ceasefire to mark the month of Ramzan.

Terrorist groups responded by escalating hostilities. Abdul Gani Lone visited Pakistan in the midst of the ensuing carnage, to attend the marriage of his elder son with the daughter of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Amanullah Khan. During a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, the People's Conference leader made clear his support for the ceasefire and bilateral dialogue with India. In an interview to The Washington Post, he said that "the biggest danger now is from the extremists," who "... will make serious efforts to undermine the ceasefire." To prevent that outcome, the Union government offered the centrists in the APHC the opportunity to visit Pakistan to consult with leaders there. The sole condition was that the team not include Geelani, a demand the APHC rejected. Abdul Gani Lone bitterly criticised Geelani for the fiasco. "On the one hand," Lone said on the Hurriyat's demand for passports to travel to Pakistan, "we ask for a legal right that stands denied to us. But in the same breath we say that allow us to go to Pakistan, and when we will reach there, we will tell the Mujahideen to sharpen their weapons against India. I see no logic in it".

GEELANI responded to his marginalisation in the APHC executive by unleashing the Islamist Right's coercive instruments. Abdul Gani Bhat's enthusiasm for dialogue dulled considerably after a near-successful February 22, 2001 attempt on his life. The General Council of the APHC, in turn, rejected the centrists' calls after a grenade went off during the meeting called to discuss the issue. At the 2001 remembrance of Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq's death, exactly a year before Abdul Gani Lone's assassination, armed men gathered around the rostrum and shouted Abdul Gani Bhat down. "Haath mein haath do, Lashkar ko saath do (walk hand in hand with the Lashkar-e-Toiba)" went the slogans. "Hurriyat mein rahna hoga to Pakistan kehna hoga (all those in the APHC must support Pakistan)." Indiscriminate killing of civilians, legitimised as attacks on suspected informers or individuals alleged to be inadequately Islamic in their conduct, help terrorist groups assert their influence over civil society.

Although Abdul Gani Lone and Umar Farooq were the only committed pro-dialogue elements in the Hurriyat executive, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. transformed the landscape substantially. Armed violence seemed, almost overnight, to have become unacceptable. In mid-April 2002, both leaders were quietly granted permission to travel to Sharjah by the Indian government for a meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, the head of the Kashmir Committee set up by Musharraf. The meeting was the first in several years between major political figures from both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan's intelligence chief, Ehtaz-ul-Haq, is also believed to have been present at the sidelines of that meeting. Lone subsequently gave some insight into what may have transpired in the closed-door meeting, when he demanded that Jehadi groups "leave us alone", as they were "defaming" the "freedom movement". Meanwhile, Geelani again came under fire from within his own party, which passed a resolution supporting the "conciliatory stance adopted by Umar Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone".

Abdul Gani Lone's assassination - for which Sajjad Lone publicly held Geelani responsible - seemed to have terminated the activities of the moderates, at least for a time. Yet, it is now clear, a good deal was going on behind the scenes. Abdul Majid Dar's aide Ahmed Zargar, who in November 2001 had demanded that the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad subordinate their activities to the command of ethnic Kashmiri leaders, played a key role in the assault on Shah's supremacy within the organisation. Behind the scenes, Jamaat Amir Bhat also worked quietly to strengthen the Hizbul Mujahideen dissidents.

Shortly before his arrest in the build-up to the 2002 Assembly elections, Geelani found himself increasingly forced to turn to fringe extreme-Right organisations outside the Jamaat-e-Islami, like Nayeem Khan's Kashmir Front and Shakeel Bakshi's Islamic Students League. His key aides were, however, arrested one by one, rendering Geelani a general without commanders. No mass protests were witnessed when he was flown to the Birsa Munda jail in Jharkhand last year. It is now clear that the ground has slipped from under his feet. Even while the Islamist Right was planning a revival, the moderates took control.

Geelani, of course, still cannot be written off. He has two powerful friends. The first, predictably enough, are the armies of the jehad, which have rushed to his support. Their support is unsurprising; Geelani was, after all, the first politician in Jammu and Kashmir to call for a pan-Islamic struggle for its "liberation" from India. "It has now become incumbent," he told a Lahore-based journalist in 1992, "in the light of the teachings of the Holy Quran, upon all the people of Pakistan to participate in the (Kashmir) jehad. They should now stand up determinedly and assist their Kashmiri brethren in the jehad of action. This jehad is a religious duty binding not only on the people of Pakistan, but, in fact, on the entire Muslim community." But the second ally is more inexplicable. In February 2003, the Jammu and Kashmir government released Geelani on parole from jail, ostensibly to allow him to seek treatment for his ailment. His treatment completed, Geelani has returned to Srinagar - where, for reasons the State government best understands, his parole has been extended in violation of conditions the government itself imposed.

Indeed, many of the ideas that Geelani has espoused have acquired renewed life, even as his political career has waned. The Hizbul Mujahideen's Shah recently characterised secessionist activity in Jammu and Kashmir as a fight against "Hindu culture and civilisation", which is "premised on the two-nation theory". And, picking up from ideas advocated by Geelani in 1998, Pakistan-administered Kashmir's Prime Minister Sikandar Hayat Khan recently endorsed a final settlement based on a division of Jammu and Kashmir along communal lines, between Muslim-Hindu- and Buddhist-majority areas. Yet, it is also true that the many hypocrisies that have marked Geelani's political career have, in recent months, come to haunt him. He continues, for example, to draw a pension from the Indian state he condemns, an income derived as a two-term member of the Legislative Assembly he now urges others to boycott. Like the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Shah, Geelani has sent none of his children to join the jehad in which thousands have lost their lives. And, unlike the families of those killed, Geelani lives in considerable personal comfort. But it is still just the autumn of the Islamist - and winter might just prove to be a good few years away.

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