On September 1, at around 10:30 PM, former Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chairman, Syed Ali Shah Geelani passed away at the age of 92, after a long illness and an 11-year house arrest at his home in Srinagar, Kashmir. Following his demise, the Indian security forces cordoned off his residence, held the bereaved family under duress, and forcibly, took away the mortal remains of the revered leader, only to bury him in an unknown location, in the dark of night, out of public sight.
Also, Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir was placed under lockdown to prevent the Kashmiri masses from expressing their grief and giving their national hero the fitting final farewell that he so deserved.
With the passing of Geelani sahib — a leader par excellence, a symbol of humanity and champion of human rights all over the world — an era has ended. He was an intellectual, a deep thinker, a visionary, a brilliant and an articulate scholar, and above all, an institution unto himself. He was a giant in Kashmir’s turbulent history.
The people of Kashmir have lost an iconic leader. They will never forget Geelani Sahib’s selfless contribution and his tireless efforts. These will forever remain etched into the history of the freedom struggle of Kashmir. And Geelani Sahib’s vision and the unity and sacrifices of the people of Kashmir will undoubtedly lead the Kashmiri freedom struggle to its logical conclusion: freedom from occupation and alien subjugation.
I first met Syed Ali Shah Geelani (1929-2021) in 1963 as a college freshman in Sopore, the famous north-central Kashmiri college town.
Sopore, the bustling centre of the state’s apple industry and regional commerce was then—and has been for decades — the epicentre of the Kashmiri freedom struggle. Sopore has always stood out for its defiance against India’s colonialist occupation.
Geelani’s character, personality, demeanour and, above all, his spectacular oratory in Kashmiri and Urdu made an impression on youth and adults alike. I was no exception. By the time I met him, he was already becoming an iconic political and religious figure among college students. Later, during my medical college years in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), I met him several times.
In 1971, Geelani was elected to the [Indian-occupied] J&K Legislative Assembly on the Jamaat-e-Islami J&K ticket (banned by India in 2019). By then he had matured as a political leader with an increasingly crystallised view of Kashmir’s destiny. He wanted to settle for nothing less than the right to self-determination enshrined in the UN Security Council’s Resolution 47, adopted on April 21, 1948, and on Jan. 5, 1949, which stated that “The question of the accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan will be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite.”
Unfortunately, Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah (1905-1982) essentially abandoned this cause after spending 11 years in Indian prisons. Known as “Sher-e-Kashmir” (the Lion of Kashmir), Abdullah was one of the founding leaders of the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference, which he left. He then founded the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, and then served as the first post-occupation elected Prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir until 1953, when India deposed and imprisoned him. A strong opponent of Hari Singh’s rule and an outspoken advocate of self-rule, he was eventually broken by 11 years of harsh prison treatment. That would be the first act of the decapitation of the political leadership of those Kashmiris living under Indian rule.
Geelani was never a big talker and almost never resorted to public rhetoric and argument. But when he came on the public stage to speak, he was prolific, thoughtful and thunderous. His speeches were a piece of art, a flowery mix of Kashmiri and Urdu —interspersed with Quranic verses, examples from the Hadith and couplets of the great poet-philosophers, Iqbal and Rumi.
His speeches would start softly with his hands humbly folded below his chest. His voice would gradually rise to a crescendo, and then his hands would start moving rhythmically with the cadence of his speech. He was a master of his own solo orchestra, and the audience swayed and sobbed, sometimes audibly, and nearly always with eyes welling up with tears. Then, towards the end of his speech his voice would slowly de-crescendo, as if to gently land his audience, because it would be time to let his admiring audience go home. There would often be calls of “Encore! Encore!” and he would oblige, only because his beloved youth always wanted more.
Geelani was never audacious, pompous, or pungent. Just the opposite. Even at the peak of his political career and vibrancy, he was always gentle and humble. Like many other students, I recall once walking with him for a few hundred yards in Sopore’s busy bazaar. People would often stop him, and he would oblige, He would hug them, and shake their hands. I remember that he would make it a point to walk toward the Hindu and Sikh shopkeepers to greet them. They would rise and rush to hug him and shake hands — as if they were bosom brothers or friends.
Geelani was not a worldly man, but a man of tremendous civility, sophistication and finesse. He was a remarkable blend of resistance, resilience and accommodation. When it came to principles, he was uncompromising, but on matters of personal choice he was accommodating and deferential.
In 1981, some of us had the privilege of hosting him in Ohio when he was invited to address the annual ISNA Convention. We got a chance to see him up close. We found him respectful to all. He treated women with kindness and fatherly affection.
Geelani was a profound scholar, an intellectual, a writer and, above all, a political leader who would not compromise on the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. A fearless warrior for peace, justice and equity he was never intimidated by the force of the Indian tools of terror. He never picked up a gun or promoted wanton violence, even against his tormentors.
He defended the rights of all illegally occupied nations to take every necessary measure allowed within international law and norms, to free themselves from their oppressors.
Everything he ever wrote — his 30 books, including his autobiography, Wular Kinaray (By the Bank of River Wular — Millat Publications, 2012), which he penned during his internment in Indian prisons — give one a deep insight into his view of humanity. He was imprisoned for more than 12 years on aggregate since his first arrest in 1962. He repeatedly addressed his Hindu Indian tormentors with dignity and respect while they repeatedly humiliated him as if he were a hardened criminal.
His political outlook was not one of simply ending the world’s many conflicts — ranging from Kashmir to Palestine and beyond — but also of eliminating their underlying causes. He believed that violence would end only when tyranny ended. But he also believed that the innocent should never be targeted, no matter how sacred the cause.
In the case of Kashmir, Geelani believed that the people of Jammu and Kashmir must be allowed to exercise their UN-mandated right to self-determination. He frequently invoked the solemn pledge of India’s first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), to let the Kashmiris determine their own political future through a free and fair plebiscite.
While he was not against bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, he maintained that dialogue should be a means to set the stage for the rightful representatives of J&K to determine their fate. He believed that neither India nor Pakistan, nor any single political grouping in J&K, should be given the right to decide the divided state’s future.
Changing the course or the narrative of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, 73 years on, does not guarantee any better results. The UNSC resolutions provide a critical international justification for waging the Kashmiri struggle. Although the struggle has been continuing for so long, the cause is now finally attracting attention, and the world is more aware of the cause that Geelani struggled for. Moreover, Geelani’s decision to not give up on the UN has been right all along.
Pro-Indian client politicians like those in the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD; formerly known as the Gupkar Declaration) founded by the dynastic politicians Farooq Abdullah (Jammu & Kashmir National Conference) and Mehbooba Mufti (People’s Democratic Party), have no credibility among the masses. They have always been a sideshow of the real freedom struggle as beneficiaries of the political system imposed or tolerated by the Indian government at the expense of the Kashmiris’ legitimate aspirations.
What made Geelani the bulwark of the Kashmiri resistance was his vision, faith, courage and constancy — his lifelong sacrifice for the cherished cause of Kashmir. He did not entertain a fear of India. Nor did hurdles deter him. Age did not diminish his charisma. Kashmiris around the world are mourning his devastating loss, and his steadfast guidance against the odds.