Late in the night on 25 October, the air in Old Town, Baramullah, was thick with shock and grief. Thousands had gathered in curfewed Kashmir for the funeral of the locality’s most well-known man—Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani. Two tents had been erected for the mourners, in the grounds of a nearby masjid. In one of these, over one hundred and fifty women had gathered. Geelani’s wife, Arifa, sat opposite the entrance to the tent, at the centre of a group of women. The mourners were quiet, somber. They had waited an unusually long time.
Geelani had died early the previous evening, following a cardiac arrest. He was a professor of Arabic at Delhi University and a human-rights activist who campaigned for the rights of political prisoners. His activism was a direct outcome of his own circumstances—Geelani was accused of masterminding the 2001 attack on Parliament. He was arrested and brutally tortured. A special court convicted him of “waging war against the state,” and sentenced him to death. In 2003, after human-rights activists and lawyers spearheaded a nationwide campaign that drew attention to the lack of evidence against Geelani in the case, the Delhi High Court acquitted him. The Supreme Court later upheld the high court’s order.
After he was acquitted, Geelani swore himself to the cause of those who had been wronged by the state. He began campaigning against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, under which he had been convicted. At the time of his death, Geelani was the president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, a civil-society collective.
“I’ve never met a man as interesting, as intelligent and as firm as him,” Abdul Rashid Mir, a neighbor, told me. “His death is a loss not just to his family and his locality, but to all Kashmiri people.”
After Geelani died, his family members in Delhi, which included his son Atif, his daughter Nusrat and his brother Bismillah, had wished to take his body home immediately, but were asked to instead wait until a post-mortem was conducted. A video uploaded online showed Delhi Police officials commandeering an ambulance outside Fortis Hospital in Delhi, where Geelani was first brought and declared dead, even as some young Kashmiri men argued against their actions. Eventually, the professor’s body was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for an autopsy. “We were made to wait for six hours” that evening, Bismillah told me. “Everyone was waiting outside the ambulance … all we wanted to do was take the body home as early as possible, but it did not happen.”