The Sunset of Kashmir’s Jihadist Patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani

Praveen Swami

Early one morning in February 1984, Muhammad Maqbool Bhatt showered, dressed and walked to the gallows in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, his death transforming the unsuccessful insurgent into a kind of saint for Kashmiri secessionists. The Jama’at-e-Islami house-magazine 'Azaan', conspicuously omitting the honorific 'shaheed', or martyr, did not mourn: “A person like him, burdened by the overwhelming force of passion, carries on without making any distinction between the bitterness and sweetness of life, losing the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.”

The author of that editorial, Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, authored his own political obituary on Monday with a two-page letter — authenticated to News18 by his grandson Zahoor Geelani and political aide Pir Abdul Rashid — accusing his colleagues in the secessionist movement of treason and resigning from their ranks.

To two generations of Kashmiri jihadists, Geelani has been the prophet of a blood cult, which promised that freedom could be won through the sacrifice of human life. For these young victims, Geelani had words very different from those he used in that 1984 editorial — but their fate, and his, tell us his first instincts were right.

Final collapse?

Geelani’s savage attack on his comrades in the Hurriyat comes amidst signs the project he led is reaching its moment of final collapse. Earlier this year, Hurriyat leaders in Pakistan deposed his chosen nominee, Abdullah Gilani, and elected a new shura, or consultative council. The son of Maulana Abdul Wali — a Baramulla cleric close to Geelani, and to his son, Nayeem Geelani — was sacked and replaced with Mohammad Husain Khateeb, even as both sides traded charges of financial misappropriation and incompetence.

The move was read as a signal from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate that it no longer trusted Geelani’s Hurriyat — and its armed wing, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — to stand at the vanguard of jihad in Kashmir.

In private, Geelani’s new-generation Islamist protégés — among them Masrat Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi — have let it be known that the 91-year-old Islamist politician was uninterested in building a mass movement against India, and was instead seeking accommodation with the government to secure the future of his children.

Geelani’s bourgeois sons and grandsons were contrasted with those of his one-time protege, and now likely successor, Ashraf Sehrai — who lost his son, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen district commander Junaid Sehrai, in a shootout with Indian forces in May.

The palace coup appears to have incensed Geelani. “Last year, India cut the occupied territory into two parts, and made our entire nation hostage so that, so that a Palestine-like genocide could be repeated here. Lawyers, small and big political leaders and students were put into jails outside the state,” his resignation letter reads.

“The leadership that was still free was expected, irrespective of state brutality, to guide our beleaguered nation”, he goes on. “In spite of being imprisoned, I tried to find you, and sent you messages, but you did not respond,” it says.

Late in the 19th century, Kashmir saw the emergence of a new urban bourgeoisie, drawn from the ranks of the first generation of Muslims to acquire an education in British India. In 1899 Srinagar's Mirwaiz Rasul Shah set up the Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam with the objective of combating folk Islam. The neo-fundamentalist Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadih made its appearance at around the same time, led by Sayyed Husain Shah Batku, who preached that popular Islam had invited divine wrath on Kashmir’s Muslims.

Saaduddin Tarabali, a protégé of Jamaat-e-Islami founder and ideologue Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, was a product of this climate. His recruits were the educated children of bourgeois families, dismayed by the secularist politics of the National Conference.

Born in 1929 in the north Kashmir village of Zurimanj, the son of a landless labourer, Geelani had cut his teeth in the National Conference. The influential party leader Muhammad Saeed Masoodi treated him as a son, and he edited the party newspaper.

As a teacher at a government school in Srinagar’s Rainawari though, Geelani encountered Maududi’s work for the first time. Islam, Maududi taught, was not just a system of faith, but the foundations of a political order. His imagination fired by these ideas, Geelani joined the Jama’at. He soon became a core part of its ambitious plans to develop a network of schools that would, as Pakistani scholar Tahir Amin has written, prepare the grounds for a “silent revolution”.

By 1975, when 125 Jama’at-run schools were briefly closed down by the government, they were serving an estimated 25,000 students. The Jama’at believed, writes scholar Yoginder Sikand, taught “that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hindu-ising the school syllabus”.

Political power, the Jama’at hoped, would follow. In 1971, it fought the Lok Sabha elections without success, but won state-level representation the next year. Geelani served in the assembly in 1972, 1977 and 1987.

Even as the Jama’at grew, global Islamist tendencies began to manifest themselves in Kashmir as the United States-backed, Saudi Arabia-funded jihadists in Afghanistan gathered momentum. In 1979, the president of the Jamaat's student wing, the Islami Jamaat-e-Tulaba, declared that Indian forces stationed in Kashmir were an “army of occupation”.

Geelani, however, maintained a studious distance form these trends.

Path to radicalisation

“Even if the wealth of the whole India is put in my pocket,” Geelani promised at a press conference in 2010, “I will not barter away the sacrifices of our martyrs.”

It isn’t generally known, though, that he was a late, and reluctant, convert to jihadism. Even as late as August 1989, he attended a meeting called by the then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to consider responses to the growing violence. “I was the only a participant in the meeting who suggested resolving issues through dialogue,” he said.

Geelani’s discourse, though, rapidly radicalised. In a 1992 interview, he called on Pakistanis “to stand up determinedly and assist their Kashmiri brethren in their action of jihad”.

In a 1998 book, he suggested that Kashmir's secession for India was essential for the survival of Islam in the region. For Muslims to live among Hindus, he argued, was as difficult as “for a fish to stay alive in a desert”.

From the mid-1990s, as the Kashmir jihad began to disintegrate, Geelani found himself increasingly out of step with the Jama’at rank-and-file. In 1997, the then-Jama’at chief Ghulam Muhammad Bhat called for an end to the “gun culture” — a statement now known to have come about as part of a secret dialogue process between India’s intelligence services and the secessionists.

Three years later, dissident Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire. Though the ceasefire fell apart, the Jama’at itself continued to marginalise Geelani. In May 2003, Jama’at moderates led by Bhat's successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Geelani as their political representative. In January 2004, the Jama’at Majlis-e-Shura, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to a “democratic and constitutional struggle”.

Geelani turned to Islamists outside the Jamaat, like Nayeem Khan’s Kashmir Front and Shakeel Bakshi’s Islamic Students’ League. A new and toxic political alliance was forming — one which would eventually sweep Geelani himself aside.

'A xenophobic Islamism'

“Long live Pakistan,” chanted the young men who demolished Sabina Bulla’s home in May 2006. Targeting an alleged Srinagar brothel-owner who served clients with influence in the political system and security forces, the mobilisation demonstrated the power of Geelani’s new, xenophobic Islamism. Then, in the summer of 2007, the rape-murder of a north Kashmir teenager provided another opportunity to Geelani and his new Islamist allies. At a June 24, 2007, rally at Langate, Geelani claimed “hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris”.

Early in 2008, the Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who they claimed had been dispatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. An Anantnag school teacher was also attacked after a video of a group of his students dancing to pop music was circulated.

For the most part, police stood by: the then-chief minister Mufti Muhammad Saeed and his daughter, later the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, believed they would be able to win over the religious right to their side.

In the summer of 2008, matters came to a head after the state government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. Geelani claimed this was a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region: the authorities were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the state".

“I caution my nation that if we don't wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced,” he warned.

Hundreds of days of strikes ordered by Geelani’s Hurriyat soon escalated into clashes between mobs of young Islamist-led protesters — violence which became a routine part of Kashmir’s political landscape by 2010. Geelani, perhaps realising the violence was serving no strategic political end, sought to call an end to the rioting — only to see his young followers turn on him.

“What he says will not make a difference,” the Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief and long-time Geelani protégé Asiya Andrabi said in 2010. “You have to understand that he is 82. His sentiments would be different from those of an 18-year-old. I tell you firmly, if he says not to throw stones, our children won’t accept it.”

In 2016, when large-scale Islamist protests saw the Indian state’s authority swept aside in swathes of southern Kashmir, Geelani found he was an idol—but like all idols, unable to speak.

Jihadists vs political leadership

Early in the 1990s, Geelani had reflected on these problems in his prison diaries, the Rudad-i-Qafas, lamenting that the jihad had “actually gone out of the control of the political leadership and into the hands of militant youth who, though fired by a passionate sense of zeal, have little understanding of the problem”.

“The youth”, he argued, “ought to have entered the movement under the leadership of a truly Islamic and honest political leadership.”

Instead, Kashmir’s jihadists had acted “sworn not to accept any political leadership at all”.

“They have,” he concluded, “apparently miscalculated the enormity of the demands of the struggle and the strength of the power they are fighting against, fondly imagining that their goal would be achieved in no time.”

Geelani’s Monday letter shows he committed the same errors he had observed among the jihadists in the 1990s: the New Islamist movement he built, degenerated into a kind of nihilist anti-politics, incapable of actual political purpose. Though it succeeded in undermining Kashmir’s political system, it could not secure power—not even the negotiated autonomy secessionists and the Indian state had discussed from 2003 on.

Even as Kashmir’s ailing Islamist patriarch awaits his end though, it is clear the new phase of jihad he helped unleashed is moving forward. For the new generation of jihadists who emerged from the movement he built, hope lies not in organisations like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, but global causes like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Geelani’s letter has disbanded the blood-cult he built — but it is too late to stop the rising tide of blood.