Death of a Political Prisoner

The unscathed humanity of SAR Geelani

The professor Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani at a press conference in 2005. Geelani was sentenced to death for his alleged role in the 2001 Parliament attack. In 2003, the Delhi High Court acquitted him of all charges, a verdict that the Supreme Court later upheld. Geelani, who began campaigning for the rights of political prisoners after his acquittal, died in Delhi on 24 October 2019, following a cardiac arrest. Gurinder Osan/AP Photo
28 October, 2019

ABOUT ELEVEN YEARS AGO, in November 2008, students of Delhi University organised a seminar titled “Communalism, Fascism, Democracy Rhetoric and Reality” in Room Number 22 of the Faculty of Arts building. The talk was to be headed by Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, a Kashmiri Muslim professor who taught Arabic in the university.

There were few people in the country more suited to speak on the topic. Geelani had been sentenced to death in December 2002 by a court for his alleged role in the attack on the Indian parliament the previous year. A sordid media trial had declared him a terrorist even before the court’s verdict. But, in the course of the next three years, the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court acquitted him of all charges. At the event, Geelani was going to relate his persecution at the hands of a repressive state machinery and its communalist rhetoric.

On a raised platform, behind a large desk sat the speakers—seated next to Geelani was a 21-year-old Umar Khalid, who would later come into limelight after he was charged with sedition during the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy, and the journalist Rajesh Ramachandran, currently the editor of The Tribune.

Minutes after Geelani took his place at the dais, a student walked up to the desk and leaned in, as if he was trying speak to Geelani. As Geelani too leaned in, the student, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s youth wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, spat twice on Geelani. The professor flinched, but then slowly moved back in his chair.