A year after his death, SAR Geelani’s children remember him, his life and his lessons

SAR Geelani playing with his son, Atif Geelani, in JNU in 2003. When Atif was seven years old and his sister, Nusrat, was nine, Geelani was in jail facing trial in the Parliament attack case and had expressed his desire that his children grow up to become lawyers. Both of them are now advocates practising in the Delhi High Court. Satheeshan Karicheri / Free press Archive

It has been one full year since a mound of earth situated a few hundred metres away from our ancestral house in Kashmir became the most important site of our lives. We run to it the first thing in happiness and sorrow, in victory and defeat, for peace and strength. The mound of earth marks the grave of Sayed Abdul Rahman Geelani. Lovingly known as SAR among his friends, to us he was Abbu, our beloved father.

Abbu left us at the age of 50, suddenly and much too soon, on 24 October 2019. The shock of his untimely demise is still fresh. It was unimaginable for us because we had always known him as an invincible hero who triumphed death repeatedly in the short span of his adult life. The sentiment, as we in the family came to know later, was shared equally by many of his friends and colleagues whom he had worked with and inspired over the years.

He lived his life as a teacher, an educator and a tireless defender of human rights who cared and spoke fearlessly for the rights of the most oppressed. In particular, it was his awareness of the situation in Kashmir, and his concern for justice and the right to self-determination of his people, that made him the person he was and live the life he did. Even when he moved out of Kashmir to study in the 1990s, a tumultuous period of militancy, he dreamt of returning home, to serve and teach. But the prevailing political situation in Kashmir was not conducive for his return, so he took up a teaching post as a professor of Arabic at the University of Delhi. In the later part of the decade, the family joined him in the city. We were five and nine years old at the time, son and daughter respectively.

Our life in Delhi was going fine until 14 December 2001, when it was upended by a doomsday development. Abbu was arrested by the dreaded special cell of the Delhi Police, falsely accused of involvement in the attack on the Indian parliament. Thus began the darkest period of our lives. But it also made us stronger than ever and taught us important political lessons at a very tender age. While he was locked away, a spiteful media trial villainised him as a terrorist. It seemed that Indian democracy had pronounced its verdict even before the actual trial in its own court was over. Why else would our regular vegetable vendor suddenly refuse to sell to a seven-year-old boy, if not because he saw our father being labelled a terrorist in the news and believed it to be true? Similarly, our local phone booth operator refused to let us make calls to our family in Kashmir. Such events started becoming routine, and we were forced to shift to a Muslim ghetto where our family could live in relative anonymity.

In 2002, a lower court in Delhi sentenced Abbu to death. Our hearts sank in terror and foreboding. But we were lucky. With the support of family and friends, both in Kashmir and Delhi, and a defense campaign organised by members of civil society, we regained our strength and courage. He was acquitted by the Delhi High Court in 2003, which was then upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005.

SAR Geelani poses for a photo in Yousmarg, a tourist spot in Kashmir's Bidgam district, in July 2019. Three months later, at the age of 50, Geelani died unexpectedly following a cardiac arrest. He lived his life as a teacher, an educator and a tireless defender of human rights. Courtesy Sayed Atif Geelani

When Abbu returned to live at home, in 2004, our joy knew no bounds. Little did we know that the ominous clouds had not moved beyond the horizon. On 5 February 2005, an unknown assassin pumped seven bullets into his body, outside his lawyer’s residence in a posh south Delhi locality. While trying to come to terms with this infinitely traumatic attack, we wondered how this kind of an incident could occur in an otherwise safe locality. But by then, experience had taught us not to ask certain questions. What followed was nothing short of a miracle: our hero survived the attack. The doctors successfully removed four bullets from his body, but they let the other three remain because pulling them out might have threatened his life. Every time he passed the security gate at the airport since then, an alarm would ring. We jokingly started calling him Iron Man.

After the attack on his life, the Indian state provided him with a security cover at the orders of the Supreme Court. As much as it allayed some of our fears, it also meant that he was under constant surveillance and we could rarely go out into public spaces together as a family for the fear of garnering unwanted attention. People who visited us had to enter their details in a notebook with the security personnel. Some people stopped visiting us altogether. The security personnel were changed every now and then, and he was cordial with all of them.

The restrictions on his mobility never stopped Abbu from his human-rights work. During his two-year incarceration at a high-risk cell in Delhi’s Tihar jail, he had witnessed first-hand the ever-lonely struggles of prisoners of conscience and their families. After his release, he immediately made efforts to organise for their cause, and worked hard to facilitate avenues for legal assistance to political prisoners. Through such efforts, he not only helped Kashmiri political prisoners languishing in various Indian jails, but many others belonging to different struggles for justice and dignity. He routinely travelled to big cities and small towns across India to raise awareness about the plight of prisoners, the red-tape and blind-spots in India’s judicial system, and urged and inspired people into action.

One of the saddest moments of his life came on 9 February 2013, when the Indian government hanged Afzal Guru, a co-accused in the Parliament attack case. The execution was widely condemned as judicial murder, in which Guru was made a scapegoat to, in the words of the Supreme Court, “satisfy the collective conscience of a nation.” Having spent time with him through the judicial process and in prison, Guru’s death saddened Abbu very deeply. He raised protests in Guru’s name whenever he could. After one such event in 2016, to commemorate Guru’s death anniversary, he was again arrested by the Indian government and imprisoned for 34 days.

 To say that Abbu lived an intense life might be an understatement. What might capture the gist of it is that he worked tirelessly to make the world a better and just place for everyone. At the same time, he never stopped being a doting father, friend, guide, mentor and philosopher to us. He was full of life. He laughed like a child with children. He was respectful to elders. He was humble and immensely kind to everyone. He might no longer be with us physically, but we shall never forget the lessons he taught us without ever saying it in so many words: to smile in the face of adversity and to walk the path of truth with courage, even if one has to do so alone.

SAR Geelani with Afzal Guru's son, Ghalib, at a protest against the death sentence awarded to Guru in the Parliament attack case, in October 2006. Yasbant Negi / The The India Today / Getty Images

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that SAR Geelani was sentenced to death in the Parliament attack case in 2003 and acquitted by the Delhi High Court in 2004. He was sentenced in 2002 and acquitted in 2003. The Caravan regrets the errors.