As Islamabad goes into overdrive to improve relations with New Delhi, Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is opening communication lines with civil society. Baba Umar reports
THE VOICE of Syed Ali Shah Geelani has become tremulous over the years but it remains defiant. “Whether Pakistan supports our cause or not, I have unshakeable faith in Allah, who will help Kashmiris. But the only condition is that we must correct ourselves,” says the Hurriyat (G) supremo at his daughter’s residence in New Delhi.
These comments are a thinly veiled reference to the high turnout during the 2008 Assembly election, which many in Kashmir saw as a major confidence-building measure from across the border as no militant interference was apparent, and also Islamabad’s latest political overtures towards New Delhi.
But there is a palpable change in the 82-year-old separatist leader’s strategy as he reaches out to civil society in a bid to solve the vexed Kashmir issue. “I’m talking to the people. I can talk to anyone provided they aren’t associated with the Indian government,” he says. “I’m meeting diplomats of many countries and Indian civil society members who I feel need to shun nationalism and accept the ground realities in Kashmir.”
Ever since then Pakistan ruler Gen Parvez Musharraf offered “out-of-the-box” solutions to the Kashmir issue, all of them outside the ambit of the UN resolutions, Geelani has undergone an interesting evolution. He seems uneasy once again after talks on improving trade relations between New Delhi and Islamabad and the latter’s promise to grant Most Favoured Nation status to India. All this is pushing him to single-handedly pursue a policy of reaching out to the people of India.
“Pakistan is putting the Kashmir issue in the second rung,” says Geelani, adding that over the years, Islamabad has lost its assertiveness when it comes to discussions with New Delhi on the Kashmir issue.
So far, Geelani’s political activities in New Delhi have included a meeting with Kashmir Committee chief Ram Jethmalani at the latter’s residence, in which former diplomats and members of civil society groups took part.
Jethmalani took a lead role by not only managing to persuade Geelani to meet former diplomats, army officers and politicians at his Akbar Road residence but also managed a chat between the separatist leader and BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha.
Sources say that Jethmalani has agreed to take up seven high-profile Kashmiri political cases in the Supreme Court. Prominent among them are Dr Qasim Faktoo (husband of Hurriyat G leader Asiya Andrabi, who has been imprisoned for the past 18 years for his alleged role in the killing of human rights activist HN Wanchoo) and Ghulam Mohammad Bhat (a lawyer accused of being involved in hawala transactions).
Geelani also met Church of North India head Father P Samuel to dispel the fears of the prevailing security risk among Christians in Kashmir. Geelani, who has denounced the Grand Mufti for his fatwa against missionaries in the Valley, also discussed the Kashmir issue with Fr Samuel.
‘Whether Pakistan supports our cause or not, I’ve unshakeable faith in Allah, who will help us,’ says Geelani
In the past, Geelani has been critical of similar meetings by other separatist leaders, who may now be thinking that Geelani is imitating their strategy after years of being sidelined by New Delhi and now by Pakistan. But he dispels such thoughts. “This is what I’m mostly talking to people about,” he says, showing documents from which he quotes numbers on killings, rapes, disappearances, tortures, orphans, widows and land acquired by the army in Jammu & Kashmir.
However, Geelani’s moves have created fissures in the Hurriyat faction. Muslim League, a key constituent of Hurriyat G, has distanced itself from Geelani’s political activities in New Delhi. “The members decided that the League would neither succumb to any pressure nor would it show any flexibility in its stand on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. We won’t allow any individual or organisation to do so,” the party said in a press release.
“Pakistan has always been extending political, diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle for which we are very much indebted. The people of Kashmir are always praying for Pakistan’s stability, progress and prosperity,” it added.
So far, the moderate Hurriyat faction led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) have kept mum on Geelani’s moves. But one JKLF member told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity that the party isn’t surprised by the news. “No one is averse to Geelani meeting anyone in Delhi,” he says, but adds that the same Geelani went ballistic in 2002 when moderate members of the Hurriyat met Jethmalani, which later led to the break-up of the Hurriyat.
“JKLF feels that talks should have taken place in 2010 when the movement was strong and when India had sent interlocutors. That time, Geelani was critical of the talks despite the fact that all Hurriyat and JKLF leaders would have spoken and negotiated from a powerful position.”
However, Geelani has the backing of the United Jehad Council, a conglomerate of 14 militant outfits fighting in J&K. It has officially endorsed his decision to reach out to a wider audience in India.
GEELANI, WHO survives on a single kidney, has chronic heart ailment and has spent nearly 14 years in Indian jails. But he says his moves shouldn’t be seen as a last-ditch effort. “I know I’m growing old, but this isn’t the last time that I’m promoting plebiscite as a solution to the dispute,” he says. “If there is free and fair plebiscite, the majority decision will prevail. Even if people choose India. But I’m sure that the people have seen the real face of India and no one will like to go with India.”
But not everybody is convinced that Geelani is going soft. Ved Prakash Marwah, former adviser to the J&K governor, who recently met Geelani at an event, says he is still a hawk. “I didn’t see any change. Whatever he has been saying for the past 22 years, he is sticking to it.”
However, the Kashmir Committee report on the 3 February meeting with Geelani says that no matter how much one disagrees with or dislikes the politics of Geelani, one has to acknowledge that he says what he means and means what he says. “Anyone who wants an enduring settlement on the Kashmir issue has to engage with Geelani. Attempts to marginalise him through covert and overt means are bound to boomerang,” the report says.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.