The night that Kashmir’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani died

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Kashmir's tallest pro-freedom leader, addressing a rally in Sopore, in 2013. He was a three-time MLA from the Sopore constituency. Geelani died on 1 September 2021, at the age of 91.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Kashmir's tallest pro-freedom leader, addressing a rally in Sopore, in 2013. He was a three-time MLA from the Sopore constituency. Geelani died on 1 September 2021, at the age of 91.
Photographs and Text by Shahid Tantray
05 September, 2021

It was the evening of the first day of September. A normal day in Kashmir had come to end, and I was having dinner with my family at our home in Srinagar. I received a phone call from a media colleague, informing me that 91-year-old Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the former head of the Hurriyat Conference and the tallest pro-freedom leader in Kashmir, had died. Without finishing my dinner, I left for Geelani’s home in the city’s Hyderpora area. I met a few Jammu & Kashmir Police and paramilitary personnel at the edge of the neighborhood. One police official, in civil dress, confirmed the news of his death to me. He allowed me to head towards Geelani’s home.

Standing outside the walls of his home, I was suddenly reminded of the uprising in the summer of 2016, which followed the death of the militant commander Burhan Wani. Having been in house arrest for years, Geelani had led a slogan campaign against the Indian administration’s crackdown in Kashmir from the confines of his residence. He painted on his wall: “Go India Go Back.”

On the night of his death, the walls were quiet. Street lights had been turned off, shrouding his home in darkness. Personnel from the special-operations group of the police were cordoning off his home with concertina wire. When they saw me, they asked why I had come. I said that I was a journalist, but they asked me to leave, even chasing me towards the main road. Meanwhile, more police vehicles arrived. One policeman took out his baton while insisting that I leave. Soon, the Indian state ensured that sun did not rise in Kashmir before Geelani was buried.

Over the next few hours, Hyderpora became a fortress. As Geelani’s family and relatives remained confined inside his residence with his body, the presence of security forces outside swelled, preventing anyone from leaving or entering the area. The Indian Army, J&K Police, the Central Reserved Police Force and the Border Security Forces—all showed up. One police official told me that around seven hundred personnel had been deployed to only 500 square meters in Hyderpora, around Geelani’s home. When I shot a video of the personnel arriving, a police official asked me to delete the footage. Barricades and concertina were going up across the Valley. By around midnight, Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police in Kashmir, announced strict restrictions, including suspension of mobile and internet services.

In 2016, after the death of the militant commander Burhan Wani, pro-freedom youth in Kashmir began massive protests. Having been under house arrest for years, Geelani led a slogan campaign against the Indian administration’s crackdown on the protestors, from the confines of his residence. He painted on his wall: “Go India Go Back.” APHC

The forces stopped not just journalists but even Geelani’s relatives from reaching his home. “Around 10 pm, when the news of his death broke, a few of our relatives arrived,” Naseem, Geelani’s 52-year-old younger son, told me over the phone. “But due to restrictions, all our relatives couldn’t come.” Naseem described Geelani’s last moments. “His oxygen concentration was low. We tried pumping his heart but couldn’t revive him,” Naseem said. “He was restless during the day. His last conversation was just to ask if everyone was fine—if the children are fine. He only spoke about the family, nothing else.”

A little after midnight, I saw heavy security—including personnel from the 53 Rashtriya Rifles regiment of the Indian Army and the BSF—surrounding a local graveyard, a few minutes from Geelani’s home. I asked a senior police official standing nearby where would Geelani would be buried. He told me: “Inshallah dafnawun yeti”—God willing, here only. Several locals had been taken inside to dig the grave. A local journalist who tried to enter the graveyard told me that he was dragged out. “Police officers told me to cooperate and stated it is a law-and-order situation,” he said.

Geelani’s family said that security forces forcibly buried his body in the middle of the night. “We were thinking that by 9 am in the morning, all of our relatives will arrive and we will do the burial. But the police didn’t agree and they told us we have to bury him before dawn,” Naseem told me. “We resisted but the police raided our house. They also broke the door and took the body forcibly. They put it in an ambulance around 3.10 am.”

A picture of Geelani on a car heading to a rally in Sopore. He enjoyed a mass popularity among Kashmiris for his defiant pro-freedom stance. During these rallies, he was welcomed by a popular slogan, “Na jhukney wala Geelani, na bikne wala Geelani”—The man who doesn’t bow, the man who doesn’t compromise.

Naseem said that the family asked the police to carry out the funeral per Geelani’s last wishes. “We told an SSP rank official that his last wish was to be buried at Mazar-e Shahudha”—a burial site in Eidgah, whose name translates to “the martyr’s graveyard.” But the police refused. “They told us they had to bury him. So, we told them to do it themselves,” Naseem said. According to him, no one from the close family was present at the burial.

In videos shared widely on social media, security personnel can be seen inside a room where women are gathered, wailing in mourning. Geelani’s body can be seen, wrapped in a Pakistani flag—in accordance with his last wishes. Though politically Geelani advocated for the Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination, his personal choice was the nation of Pakistan. The Indian government always saw him as a major roadblock in its plans for Kashmir. In one of my interactions with Geelani, he had told me, “My wish would be to merge with Pakistan but if people Kashmir choose Independent Kashmir, I would be happy. But if people choose India, I would prefer to leave Kashmir.”

Geelani’s funeral ended by around 4.30 am. The only confirmation of this was that top security officials left the spot in a cavalcade, leaving behind hundreds of troops to guard the piece of land where the leader’s body now rested.

Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Hyderpora who participated in the funeral prayers, told me that around fifty people were present. “Twenty were locals, five were his distant relatives and others were cops in civvies.” Ahmad told me that police performed the ablution—a ritual washing of the body that is to be performed by the family—along with a few locals. In a video shared on social media, police officers could be seen present while the coffin was placed next to the grave.

Born in 1929, Geelani was 18 when India was partitioned. As a young man, he was an imam, and had studied the Quran in Lahore in the mid 1940s. He began his political career as an admirer of Indian secular democracy, under the mentorship of the national conference leader Mohammed Syed Masood. A devout Muslim, Geelani soon became submerged in the Islamist philosophy of the Jama’at-e-Islami, which advocates for governance under Islamic law and autonomy for Kashmir. He was influenced heavily by the works of Abu Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jama’at. In the 1970s and 80s, Geelani was elected to the legislative assembly three times, from Sopore, on a Jama’at ticket. He was elected again in the 1987 assembly election in Kashmir, which the Indian government was accused of rigging and which triggered an armed militancy in the region. As the militancy grew, Geelani resigned his seat, in 1989. He became opposed to any participation in Indian democracy, believing it to be a sham—a stand he maintained until his death.

Geelani at a mosque in Sopore in 2013, prior to performing the ritual ablutions before prayer.
Geelani at a market in the Lal Chowk area, in 2012.

In Kashmir, even the tallest political leaders have eventually lost credibility, after compromising on the demand for autonomy. Even Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the founder of the National Conference who is often referred to as the Lion of Kashmir, fell from Kashmiris’ graces after he signed an agreement with the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Geelani was the only leader whose stance remained unflinching, winning him a steady mass following across the region. He was known for always standing up to both the Indian and Pakistani governments, snubbing anyone who did not support the right to self-determination for Kashmir. (In a 2010 profile of Geelani in this publication, titled “The man who says no to New Delhi,” Mehboob Jeelani reported the account of a meeting between the pro-freedom leader and Pervez Musharraf, when the latter was serving as president of Pakistan. Geelani was apparently so tough on the Pakistani premier that Musharraf never invited him for talks again.)

Geelani consistently demanded an adherence to the plebiscite promised to Kashmiris by the United Nations and by India, in 1948. For the pro-freedom Kashmiri youth, Geelani was the supreme leader. Even the previous generation, much of which once revered Sheikh Abdullah, saw a beacon of hope in Geelani.

While reporting in Kashmir over the past decade, I closely covered several of Geelani’s rallies. I saw people express their allegiance and reverence even in front of his images and posters. During these rallies, he was welcomed by a popular slogan, “Na jhukney wala Geelani, na bikne wala Geelani”—The man who doesn’t bow, the man who doesn’t compromise. He himself would say: “Zanjeerein katengi Inshallah!”—the shackles will be broke, god willing. When the funeral prayers for Geelani ended, Kashmir had been silenced. No one was able to raise a slogan for him. Naseem, his son, told me that the family was only able to visit the grave the next morning.

Since 2010, Geelani had been kept under house arrest, with security personnel surrounding his house at all times. He remained absent from the news and the public eye, reaching out to the people only through videos and issued statements. In one video from 2018, Geelani can be seen knocking on the gate of his own house, which was locked from the outside. He is heard saying: “Darwaza kholo, tumhare jamhooriyat ka janaza nikal raha hai”—open the door, the funeral of Indian democracy is underway. “You had said that I am free, and can go anywhere I please,” Geelani then tells the officers on the other side. “At least open the door, I am not going to fly away.” Sheikh Abdul Rasheed, a 40-year-old resident of Srinagar who was close to the Geelani, told me, “India conducted the funeral of its democracy when they buried Geelani in the dark.” He added, “His funeral has created another black spot on India’s democracy.”

Security personnel posted outside Geelani's home ask journalists for their details before allowing entry. In a decade of reporting in Kashmir, the police often questioned Tantray about his visits to the house. 
Geelani lived a modest life in his home in Hyderpora, where he was under house arrest since 2010.

Geelani always shunned the mainstream Indian media—he often said that it demonised Kashmir and Kashmiris. His interactions with mainstream news channels were limited and bitter. In 2012, Geelani walked out of an interview with Arnab Goswami, the editor of the Times Now channel at the time. He accused Arnab of making false claims and speaking “like an activist on behalf of the government.” In an interview regarding the interaction, he heavily criticised Indian media, saying it was “portraying such an image of Kashmiri that every other person thinks [of] us like [a] second Osama Bin Laden.”

On the night of 1 September, as security forces in Hyderpora chased most journalists away from Geelani’s home, some media houses were allowed to stay. I saw senior police officials giving quotes to a cameraperson from Republic TV, the channel that Goswami currently owns and heads.

Until the morning, I was waiting at the Hyderpora flyover with a few colleagues. A Special Operations Group posted there personnel told me, “Now in the coming days, we have to guard the grave so that his body isn’t taken back, because of his respect and popularity among the people.” Another policeman said, “We have reached a time when India is trying to Hinduise Kashmir and desecrating dead Muslims.”

Some officers from the military’s intelligence wing were present as well. I asked one of them for a comment on the situation. “Things will be under control, now that we have successfully managed his funeral,” he said. I asked him what he thought would happen in Kashmir over the next five years. “Are you aware of MRM?” he asked me, referring to the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling BJP. I told him I was. “Kashmiris should join MRM,” he said.

Around 7 am, I left for home. I stopped at a bakery shop on the way. One of the people standing there asked me, “Janab, janaza pourkhaz Geelani sahabs?”—Has Geelani sahab’s funeral ended? I told him it had. He began crying.

“The government proved his credibility by imposing such strict curfew and shutting phones,” Rasheed, who was close to Geelani, told me. “We were not allowed to offer prayers but what people feel for him will remain there. We had promised him that we will be on his path. He stood on the path of truth and didn’t compromise and we are proud of it.”

“We use to call him Bab,” Rasheed said—the father, or the beloved. “We have lost a father of Kashmir.” He continued, “Kashmir did not see any brave and staunch person like him. He was not communal. His hold on Islamic values was the reason that he is popular among us.” He added, “We consider him a martyr, because he died in custody. He died under siege—his house was turned into a jail. For us, it’s an unbearable loss.” The day after Geelani’s death, a resident of Hyderpora said that the local graveyard would turn into a shrine to Geelani, and be marked as a “sacred spot.” On Friday, 3 September, mosques across the Valley held prayers for the departed leader.

Geelani maintained a daily ritual of writing in his diary, recording the day's events, before reading his evening namaz.
Geelani releasing an online campaign for political prisoners in 2012. After being put under house arrest in 2010, he gradually moulded his resistance movement, believing that every mode of media should be used to reach people.

In a statement released on the evening of 2 September, the J&K police denied that it had forcibly buried the Kashmiri leader. “Some vested interests tried to spread baseless rumours about forcible burial of SAS Geelani by Police. Such baseless reports which are as a part of false propaganda to incite violence are totally refuted by the Police,” the statement said. “As a matter of fact, Police instead facilitated in bringing the dead-body from house to graveyard as there were apprehensions of miscreants taking undue advantage of the situation. The relatives of the deceased participated in the burial.” Vijay Kumar, the IG police, did not respond to my queries regarding the burial.

On 2 September, the J&K police registered a first-information report against Geelani’s family members and relatives under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for draping his body in a Pakistani flag and for allegedly raising “anti-national” slogans.

Geelani addressing a rally in Sopore 2012. In Kashmir, even the tallest political leaders have eventually fallen from grace, after compromising on the demand for autonomy. Geelani's unflinching stance won him a steady mass following across the region, across generations.

In the three days since Geelani’s death, restrictions on communications and movement continued in the Valley. Mobile services were restored on the night of 3 September. The police said in a statement that internet services will remain suspended until the afternoon of 5 September. Sofi Sajad, a resident of Kralpora town in the Budgam district, told me how an octogenarian neighbour of his died of natural causes on 2 September. “They have relatives in Nishat and Shalimar, they were wondering how to inform them. They were not sure of how to go anywhere because of the deployment,” he said. Sajad and a few other friends then decided to risk travelling through the restrictions to these areas, to inform the family members. Then, unable to reach any other relatives outside Kashmir or in far-away areas, the family went ahead with the burial. “See how much trouble a communication blockade has caused,” Sajad said. “We had to make an announcement from the mosque to let people know that they had to collect for the service.”

Meanwhile, angered at having been kept from Geelani’s funeral and with the imposed restrictions, protestors gathered in various areas in in the city, such as in downtown Srinagar in the Nawa Bazaar area in old Srinagar. Some pelted stones. The security forces fired teargas shells and pellet guns at the protesting civilians. On the evening of 3 September, a teenager sustained pellet injuries across his face and body after security forces opened fire at protestors in downtown Srinagar. He was admitted to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in the city.  

A little after midnight on the intervening night of 1 and 2 September, security forces gathered locals at a graveyard in Hyderpora, a few minutes from Geelani's home, to dig a grave for him. Geelani's son Naseem said that the police forcefully buried Geelani here, against his final wishes. He said the police broke down the door of Geelani's home and forced the family to hand over the body. The police later denied forcibly burying him.
Within hours of Geelani's death, the Indian administration and security forces announced strict restrictions across Kashmir, including the suspension of mobile and internet services.

Security personnel appeared unwilling to let journalists report on the restrictions and clashes in the Valley. While I was covering protests at Srinagar’s Zaldagar bridge area with my colleagues on 3 September, one police official verbally abused us. We met the senior police superintendent of Srinagar, Sandeep Chaudhary, who said, “Bina ijazat koi photo nahi lena”—No one take pictures without permission.

I sent the Srinagar SSP queries about restrictions on the media, the clashes in Srinagar and the use of pellet guns, but he did not respond. The police stated in its evening statements on 2 and 3 September that “no untoward incident” had taken place in Kashmir.