The Man Who Says No To New Delhi

How defiance made Syed Ali Geelani relevant in Kashmir

Syed Ali Geelani on the grilled-in staircase in his home in south Srinagar. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA
Syed Ali Geelani on the grilled-in staircase in his home in south Srinagar. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA
01 September, 2010

ON THE MORNING OF 12 JUNE 2010, Rubina Mattoo, a 40-year-old housewife, stood outside her two-storey house in Saida Kadal in central Srinagar. The neighbourhood was drowned in deafening wails. A grieving circle of family, relatives, and neighbours filled the lawn. A large procession of men walked in, carrying a wooden coffin. In it, Rubina’s slain son. She had cried through the long night, wailing, beating her chest, pulling her hair, and singing eulogies for her dead child. “Walo maine maharazoo (Come my beloved groom),” she cried, “maenz heath ha chesai payaraan (I am waiting for you with henna).”  On 11 June, her 17-year-old son, Tufail Mattoo, an 11th standard student, was returning home from a private tutor when his head was hit by a tear-gas shell fired by police to quell a protest.

A group of women stood on the Mattoos’ balcony, straining themselves for a glimpse, tears rolling down their faces. Across the lawn men carrying the coffin on their shoulders burst into chants: “We want freedom! Punish the murderers!” A group of Mattoo’s teenage friends stood sullen, silent; others, staring, prepared for the burial. Rubina couldn’t believe her son was dead. She kept repeating that a few days previous her son had chosen a car to buy. Tufail’s father, Muhammad Ashraf, looking dazed on the patio, was chewing his nails. “I was in Bombay,” Ashraf said, “I didn’t know I would come home to bury my son.”

Kashmir exploded in anger. Thousands of young men took to the streets with rage in their steps in condemnation of the killing, shouting slogans of independence. Indian troops and police opened fire on them in response. Protests followed killings and killings followed protests. A curfew was imposed and defied. In the two months since Mattoo’s death, 60 young Kashmiri protesters have been killed by police and paramilitary bullets. As of 19 August, the last one to die was a nine-year-old boy who was shot at Harnag on 10 August in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Doctors confirmed it was a bullet that pierced his skull and damaged his brain. The Jammu and Kashmir government dealt with the uprisings by using even more force. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah sought help from the army, who marched through the streets of Srinagar. But the resentment continued to burn. Kashmir resonated with the old refrain: Azadi!—Freedom. The boys continued to come out into the streets, defiant, with stones in their hands.

Stone pelters chasing Jammu and Kashmir police officers out of Srinagar’s old town in a barrage of projectiles. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA

The government found an unusual benefactor in the tense situation: the separatist hawk, Syed Ali Geelani. The Islamist patriarch is often taken into custody or put under house arrest—the police had arrested Geelani after Mattoo’s death—and on most Fridays, police restrict Geelani from delivering sermons to sizeable and eager gatherings at any mosque in Kashmir. During these detentions, the police seal the entry and exit points of his house in south Srinagar, creating a human fence around the compound. Any time things get tense in Kashmir, and the likelihood of Geelani addressing a rally or making a speech attacking government policies or mentioning the latest tragedy increases, the police show up at his door. The old hawk steps out of his home willingly, to be whisked off to a VIP prison near the banks of Dal Lake.

On 4 August 2010, Geelani was released from another stay in prison. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had sent one of his advisors to meet Geelani in jail and seek his help in calming tempers in Kashmir. Soon after his release, Geelani faced TV cameras outside his house. A slight man with a neatly trimmed white beard, he wore a kurta-pyjama and a light brown lamp-cap. He asked the people not to throw stones at police and army blockades. “I understand the passion for freedom you have,” Geelani said, “I am as passionate as you are, but we will fight peacefully. If they (police) stop you, you sit down and ask them to open fire.” Such a call for peace from a man who has long supported militancy surprised New Delhi.

After weeks of unrest, the valley went silent. The protesters seemed to be listening to Geelani. They respect him for standing up to—and not backing down from—the government. A slogan often repeated at Geelani’s rallies goes: “Na Jhukne Wala Geelani! Na Bikne Wala, Geelani! (The one who doesn’t bow, Geelani! The one who can’t be bought, Geelani!)” I spoke to some protesters about Geelani’s call to stop throwing stones. “It was hard to stop,” a 20-year-old stone thrower said over the phone, “but we have to listen to him.”

GEELANI OWES HIS POPULARITY TO ONE WORD: defiance. Many young Kashmiris refer to him as Bab, the father, or toeth, the beloved. His hardline politics have earned him a reputation for being the representative of the masses. Unlike the moderate separatists of Kashmir, Geelani detests the prospects of dialogue with New Delhi. “His inflexible attitude has made him credible,” explained Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst and law professor at Kashmir University. “Because Kashmiris have seen their tallest leaders crumbling before India.” Hussain was referring to Sheikh Abdullah, who after serving around 20 years in various jails, gave up and compromised on questions of Kashmir’s autonomy by signing with Indira Gandhi the Sheikh-Indira accord of 1975. A story often repeated in Kashmir, is that several young men tore down a poster of Sheikh Abdullah in Srinagar after stepping out of a cinema where they had watched a movie about Libyan guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar’s fight against Mussolini’s Italy. Mukhtar didn’t give up until he was hanged. Geelani wants to be Omar Mukhtar, the anti-Sheikh Abdullah. In the past 20 years he has been consistent in refusing any proposal from the Government of India or even Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute. His preferred solution: the United Nations’ guaranteed plebiscite, which doesn’t include the option of independence or Azadi, but a choice to join either India or Pakistan.

Protesters clashing with police has become all too common. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA

Once the British had left the subcontinent, Partition occured and the dispute over Kashmir came into existence, Geelani was 18. He began his political life in the pro-India camp in Kashmir, but soon dedicated his life to spread the philosophy of the Islamist organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami. When militancy intensified in 1989, he became a kind of quasi-spiritual leader to members of the Hizbul Mujahideen (Hizb), the armed wing of Jamaat with pro-Pakistan leanings. Besides Geelani, there are other dissenting voices in Kashmir—those who demand complete statehood, those who advocate autonomy within the Indian Union, and people who only speak out against human rights abuses. Today, the 81-year-old Geelani is the most hardline figure among Kashmiri separatist leaders, who says openly that he would campaign for Kashmir joining Pakistan if ever a plebiscite were to be carried out in the Valley. This makes him the most out of favour Kashmiri in India. His Islamist worldview may not have a large following in secular, Sufi-influenced Kashmir, but his firm political position in matters of Kashmir makes him the most popular among the region’s leadership. How useful his extreme stance can be in solving the Kashmir issue is the real question.

On a Sunday afternoon in late May this year, I met Geelani in his living room. The floor had a red woollen carpet, a five-person sofa set, and a 14-inch TV placed on a foot-long table. The TV looked broken; it didn’t have a cable connection. Moments earlier, I’d heard the door creak and saw Geelani peeping in. “Just give me a few minutes,” he said. It took him about five minutes of talking to broach his signature issue. “Both parties, the oppressor and the oppressed, have to agree on some terms,” he said. “In our case, the oppressor is not ready to accept any term. We are being asked to weaken our stand. They must accept Kashmir as a disputed territory, which they don’t,” he continued. “They must demilitarise this whole region, revoke black laws, and release prisoners.”

“And what do you have to offer?”

“We’ve been telling them that we will help to solve this issue peacefully, according to the UN’s resolution of


IN THE IMAGINATION OF YOUNGER KASHMIRIS, Geelani’s extreme views have always been counterbalanced by his unflinching critiques of Indian human rights violations in Kashmir. But he didn’t always think this way. In fact, Geelani underwent a fascinating evolution before arriving at his present ideology.

Born on 29 September 1929, Geelani came from a poor family in northern Kashmir’s Baramulla District, in a village called Zoori Munz. His father, Syed Peer Shah Geelani, worked as a labourer, maintaining the canals near the village. Geelani attended a government school ten miles away. In 1945, he graduated from high school, and went to Lahore to study the Qur’an. A year later he returned to his village when his father fell ill. He became an imam in a nearby mosque while pursuing a Bachelors degree in Persian literature.

One day in 1949, Maulana Muhammad Syed Masoodi, the General Secretary of the National Conference (NC), Sheikh Abdullah’s party, came to Zoori Munz. Geelani was conducting Friday prayers at the local mosque. Though Geelani was just 20, his oratory skills deeply impressed Masoodi.

Masoodi, a pro-India Muslim, soon became Geelani’s idealogical mentor. He brought Geelani to Srinagar as his assistant and gave the young man a place to sleep at Mujahid Manzil, NC headquarters. For four years, Masoodi groomed him as a secularist. To earn money, Geelani taught in a government-run primary school. He also wrote op-eds for the Daily Khidmat, the mouthpiece of the Indian National Congress in Kashmir. In one editorial, he praised India’s secular democracy. He would also debate with Kashmir’s communists. They would come up with an argument like “there is no God,” and Geelani would counter them by saying, “but Allah!”

“Seeing me punctual in all the religious practices, they [communists] thought I was overdoing it to defy them,” Geelani writes in one of his publications, “but I never took them seriously.”

In 1954, Geelani met Qari Saifuddin. Saifuddin was one of Jamaat-e-Islami’s co-founders in Kashmir, and he introduced Geelani to the work of Maudoodi. Gradually, Maudoodi’s philosophy replaced the secularist teachings of Masoodi in Geelani—who soon offered his life to strengthen Jamaat in Kashmir. The primary objective of Jamaat is to implement global Islamic law. Founded in 1941 by Abul Ala Maudoodi in Lahore, Jamaat advocates Jihad against the ‘enemies’ of Islam. In the 1950s and 60s, Jamaat’s ideology blanketed  the subcontinent.

As a Jamaat foot solidier, Geelani returned to northern Kashmir. He gave sermons on Fridays in local mosques, preached in madrassas, and taught Persian at a local middle school. In those days, it wasn’t easy to be a Jamaat man because secular Sufism dominated the valley. Since the elites were preachers of Sufi Islam, Maudoodi cast Sufism as a philosopy of the privileged. This resonated with the youth of Kashmir’s rural districts, who were entirely dependent on farming, and had already grown disillusioned with the Valley’s feudalism. They took refuge in Jamaat’s ideology.

By the beginning of the 1970s, Geelani decided to enter electoral politics—an audacious gamble, as Jamaat believed in sharia law. Pursuing a state seat meant supporting the Indian Constitution, secular by its very definition. “It was a collective decision taken in Jamaat,” Geelani says, “to get the party recognised.” In 1972 Geelani became an MLA for Sopore. Eighty thousand people voted for him. He served two more terms.

“His morale was always up,” recalled Ghulam Rasool Kar, a 90-year-old Congress leader, whom Geelani defeated in those first elections. “He would often pump up his cadre saying things like ‘we have come close to the people... we have firm contacts with them… and we are keeping pace,’ he was an optimist and things worked for him.” But Geelani also began practicing the politics of division. “While campaigning, I remember he used to describe secularism as un-Islamic,” Kar continued, “in this way he played on people’s secular conscious.”

Over the last 40 years, Geelani has remained faithful to Jamaat–e–Islami. They provide him his home, the large but basic three-storey brick house in a wealthy neighbourhood near the Srinagar airport. For the last 20 years, he has lived there with his 65-year-old second wife. His worldview is shaped by Jamaat, but his idea of implementing Islamic law carries little weight in a heavily Sufi-influenced Kashmir, whose people picked up weapons to fight India in 1989 not for religion, but for their dream of an independent Kashmir.

KASHMIR’S INSURGENCY WAS TRIGGERED by elections in March 1987, which were widely believed to be rigged. In one contest, Syed Yousaf Shah, the Muslim United Front’s candidate for MLA in Srinagar’s Amira Kadal constituency, said he won the election and reportedly signed papers certifying the election in the counting station. But later, Radio Kashmir declared the National Conference’s candidate, Ghulam Mohuddin Shah, as the winner. After disputing the results, Syed Yousaf Shah and his polling agents were imprisoned without trial. After his release from prison, Shah crossed over to Pakistani-Occupied-Kashmir (POK). Based in Muzafferabad, POK’s capital, he took on the nom de guerre of Salahuddin. He now heads 23 millitant outfits.  He is still at large.

Geelani was elected an MLA in those same elections. But he resigned on moral grounds in 1989 as the militancy gathered steam.

Thousands of Kashmiri youth crossed over to Pakistan and returned with AK-47s to fight India. The Indian security establishment came down heavily on the citizenry, turning a land often called heaven on earth into the world’s most militarised zone with a ratio of one Indian military man for every ten civilians. By comparison, Iraq, during the height of the US occupation, had a ratio of just one soldier for every 186 civilians.

An armoured Indian military vehicle blocks the road in Sopore, where Geelani served three terms as MLA through the 1970s and 80s. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA

As the troop presence increased, so did human rights abuses. A 2008 Amnesty International letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh listed India’s alleged rights abuses in Kashmir and called for an independent inquiry, claiming that “grave sites are believed to contain the remains of victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses which occurred in the context of armed conflict persisting in the state since 1989.”

Against this backdrop, militants soon became folk heroes to many young boys in Kashmir. Neighbourhoods in Srinagar featured gun-toting militants controlling the streets, becoming as much a part of daily life as the mosque, the butcher shop and the local corner store.

Geelani was, at first, tentative about supporting the militants. “But a few months later, he argued in Jamaat that we cannot disown our men fighting at the front,” said Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, the current head of Jamaat. The men Geelani referred to belonged to Jamaat-e-Islami Tulba, the organisation’s student wing. They leaned towards accession to Pakistan and represented the militant outfit Hizb. To insurgents willing to give their lives for the cause, Geelani was the one man worthy of offering prayers at their funerals. He often did.

“We always loved him,” Zaffer Akbar Bhat, former Divisional Commander of Hizb, said when I met him at his Sanat Nagar residence in Srinagar. “When he was underground, we would often meet him, and ask him to pray for our success.” Zaffer became a militant in 1988 and fought for 12 years. In 2002, he shunned violence and joined the moderate separatists.

Geelani also distrusts India because he has frequently accused the government of targeting him. He says that in the last 20 years, he has survived 12 assassination attempts. Since the back-door diplomacy failed to convince him to come to the bargaining table, he considers the attacks inevitable. In one of his publications, he writes, that on 1 October 1996, the ‘Indian security forces’ fired two rocket launchers at the top storey of his house. “It crashed in, went through the cement wall, and exploded inside the room,” said advocate Altaf Ahmed, Geelani’s son-in-law who witnessed the incident. “Allah saved us.” Altaf was shot by unidentified gunmen in 2005. The bullet pierced his neck, but he survived. “I just heard the sound,” he said.

Such incidents only hardened Geelani’s resolve and he continued questioning India’s legitimacy over Kashmir. He had a haunting history to underscore this view: 80,000 deaths, several thousand disappearances, imprisonments, custodial killings and mass graves. “Our history is cruel,” said Altaf, “I am ready to die a hundred times.”

GEELANI’S PRINCIPLED STANDS have earned him ideological enemies. As a member of the Hurriyat Conference—a conglomerate of 26 separatist groups formed to realise the plebiscite—he was always at loggerheads with Hurriyat decision makers. During the 2002 state elections, he accused leader Sajjad Gani Lone of participating in the elections indirectly and lobbied to get him expelled from the Hurriyat. Differences grew and culminated in the group’s split. Geelani became the chairman of what he called Hurriyat (G) and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s head cleric, helmed his faction, Hurriyat (M).

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, head cleric of Kashmir and chairman of Hurriyat (M) addressing his congregation in Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA

Sajjad proved Geelani’s accusation right when he contested the Indian parliamentary elections in 2009. Before expressing his wish to participate in the elections, he spewed venom at Geelani. “While Geelani is alive,” Sajjad said at a press conference in November 2008, “Kashmir will never achieve freedom.”

Like Geelani, Sajjad is also counted among the best orators of the Kashmiri leadership. On the morning of 18 May 2010, I met Sajjad at his residence in Sanat Nagar, a posh Srinagar neighbourhood. “I have no issues with Geelani,” said Sajjad, “but let me tell you something, the problem is that for the failures of separatist leadership, whether it was my father or Geelani sahib, they don’t have to pay, it is the people who pay.”

Sajjad said that his father, the murdered separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone, was Geelani’s best friend. “My father and Geelani together tried to move the internal autonomy resolution in the state assembly,” said Sajjad, sitting in his study. “If he was not old, he would have fought the elections again… I know him very well.”

Sajjad is a big man, and his frame is dominated by a bulky-shouldered trunk perched on long, plump legs. He has studied in Britain and has a degree in Psychology. He also has business interests in Dubai. He is married to Asma, the daughter of Amanullah Khan, who heads the separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in POK.

“I want to see Geelani go down in history with some achievement,” said Sajjad. “The minimum the people of Kashmir deserve is reality. He should tell them what the truth was, why did he fail? Who helped us, who didn’t, and he knows it all.” He was referring to Pakistan’s role in Kashmir. He believes that Pakistan has harmed the freedom struggle of the Kashmiri people.

“He just wants to die a martyr’s death,” Sajjad concluded.

BUT GEELANI HAS BEEN EQUALLY TOUGH on Pakistan whenever he thought their leaders spoke short of plebiscite. Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, was keen to resolve the Kashmir issue through dialogue. On 7 April 2005, both the Indian and Pakistani government agreed to open the first passenger bus service since the 1947 invasion, between Indian controlled Kashmir and Muzafferabad—the mountainous region administered by Pakistan. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq welcomed the initiative. Geelani denounced it. “These measures are cosmetic,” he said in the press. Nine days later, on 16 April, Pervez Musharraf visited India. On 18 April, he met Geelani at Pakistan House in New Delhi. A close aide of Geelani, privy to the meeting, said, “(Geelani) was on the offensive, right from the beginning.”

He offered this account of their conversation:

“The situation has changed, Geelani sahib,” Musharraf said.

“Yes, situations keep changing, but the stand doesn’t change,” Geelani replied.

“We want you to be a part of the peace building measures. Without your support, nothing will happen.”

“What do you think will happen?” Geelani asked.

“There is a need to build a consensus.”

“Let India accept Kashmir as a disputed territory, demilitarise the region, release all the detainees, and revoke black laws, only then can we think over talking, and yes, talking shall be trilateral where you, me, and them (India) will be sitting at one table.”

The source said that Malik Noor Fayaz, the General Secretary of Jamaat in Kashmir’s Doda district, walked in to greet Musharraf. Fayaz offered Musharraf a handshake, but was reportedly ignored.

“General Sahib, this gentleman is a graduate, he is not Taliban,” Geelani told Musharraf.

The meeting ended without any real progress. Geelani also questioned Musharraf over his pro-American policies. This reportedly unnerved Musharraf. He told Geelani not to be bothered about the internal issues of Pakistan. After this, the aide said, Musharraf snubbed Geelani. Mirwaiz was now Musharraf’s man in Kashmir.

“At that juncture, he (Geelani) safeguarded the Kashmiri movement,” said analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain. “He proved that he is not a stooge of Pakistan.”

Mirwaiz began to pursue Musharraf’s Four Point Formulae. The formulae suggested that there should be self-governance in Kashmir, India and Pakistan should make the borders irrelevant and encourage trade and people to people contact.

AMONG THE YOUNG LEADERS, Mirwaiz is the most recognisable. In the first week of June, I met Mirwaiz at his Nigeen residence, a pristine neighbourhood famous for its eponymous freshwater lake. An Indian paramilitary guard was positioned in the picket atop the gateway, and some plainclothes inside the compound were waiting on the road leading to the garden. Mirwaiz was sitting on a chair on the patio, receiving his supporters. A skull-capped, clean-shaven man wanted him to deliver a sermon in his village. Mirwaiz asked his secretary to find out whether he was free that day. “We cannot assure [that he can make it], but we can try,”  the secretary told the man.

Mirwaiz signed some documents, handed over the papers to his secretary and turned towards me.  “I don’t understand why New Delhi has no policy vis-à-vis the Kashmir dispute,” Mirwaiz said, sounding agitated.  In 2004, Mirwaiz went to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This was the first high-profile contact between the Kashmiri separatist and India since the beginning of the 1987 armed rebellion. But the talks failed to deliver any results. “Geelani sahib has taken a position where from he could not come down,” said Mirwaiz. “Let New Delhi prove him wrong. When New Delhi doesn’t move forward then he is proven right and he becomes stronger day by day.”

Many times Mirwaiz has insisted Geelani to speak with politicians in New Delhi. During a serious agitation in 2008, according to Mirwaiz, it nearly happened. “I told him [Geelani] let’s do it, we are strong this time,”  Mirwaiz said, “but he said ‘No, [we want] complete freedom, India has to leave.’” Geelani has often accused Mirwaiz of ‘selling out,’  on the issue of the plebiscite.

That was also the time Islamabad (with Pervez Musharraf in power), and New Delhi came closer in their discussions about Kashmir, and Mirwaiz was seen as their choice contact from the separatist camp. But Geelani would not let that happen.

In summer 2008, thousands of Kashmiri people poured into the streets of Srinagar. A joint separatist rally took place at the Tourist Reception Centre, and the newspapers estimated the audience at half a million. Aside from Geelani, speakers included Mirwaiz and other moderate separatists. Geelani was blunt and attempted to make Mirwaiz and other moderates irrelevant in separatist politics. He began the speech: “I’ve got good news for you.” The crowd went silent. After a brief pause, he went on, “Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani general, has been removed from the presidential seat.” This was not what the people had gathered for. Some clapped, some remained silent. Mirwaiz and other separatists were embarrassed. Geelani was resolute, however, and asked the crowd: “Do you accept me as your leader?” Slowly, a large number of attendees raised hands with their index fingers pointed toward the sky—a symbolic gesture in Islam to bear witness.

Ashok Bhan,  a diplomat who conducted secret meetings with Geelani, told me Mirwaiz had agreed not to provide any room to ‘extreme political rhetoric’  in Kashmir. (This presumably means sidelining Geelani.) Bhan, a soft-faced Kashmiri pandit, met Geelani in 2002 at New Delhi’s Jammu and Kashmir House. The Hurriyat was about to split. “We told him Jamaat in Pakistan, his shrine, hasn’t even won a single seat in the national elections.”  Bhan said. “We told him ‘don’t die as an obscurant force, die as a living example in history, we will provide you an opportunity, solve this issue through negotiations.’  But he doesn’t have that strength. Where can a person get such a historical opportunity?”

Secular-nationalist Muslims like journalist Bashir Manzar, the editor of the daily newspaper, Kashmir Images, also feel that Geelani is out of step with reality. Manzar has been vehemently criticising Geelani since 1998. “The problem with Geelani is [his] I, me, and myself [attitude],”  said Manzar when I met him at his office in Srinagar. Manzar had acted as Publicity Chief for Muslim Janbaaz Force (MJF), a pro-independence militant outfit, from 1989 to 90 in Tangmarg, northern Kashmir. For his involvement with MJF he was imprisoned for eight months before being released and becoming a journalist. “By using beautiful phraseology, no one becomes a leader. Above all, I think age is not on his side otherwise no resistance leader can be so unrealistic, unimaginative that he would continue supporting the UN’s plebiscite.”

Today, Geelani has a long line of critics: the Indian government, Kashmiri pandits, secular-nationalist Kashmiri Muslims, Pakistani secularists, moderate separatists, pro-India Kashmiri politicians, and even members of Jamaat.

After the book Qaid-e-Inquilaab (Leader of the Revolution) reported that Jamaat forced Geelani to join electoral politics in the 1970s, the organisation expected him to refute this assertion. But he didn’t react. Jamaat suspended Geelani in early April 2010.

“He knows the fact that the message of Jamaat is much bigger than its messenger,” Advocate Zahid Ali, the spokesman of Jamaat, said when we met at his party headquarters in Batamaloo. “The author of the book is wrong, we take collective decisions in Jamaat, he knows it, he should have clarified in the press.”

But Ali still holds him in high regard. When Geelani was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the late 1980s, Ali was his personal assistant. Since Geelani was struggling with heart disease, Mir Mustafa, an independent MLA, would often mock him saying, “Are you sure you are carrying your medicine?” Geelani would never react; instead he would walk past him quietly.   “He never bitched about people,” Ali said.

SPEND SOME TIME WITH GEELANI and it’s obvious how much his dedication to his struggle has cost him. When he was imprisoned for the first time in 1962, his wife Fatima developed heart disease. The schooling of his children—six daughters and two sons—has suffered. Shafeeqa, Geelani’s oldest daughter who was in eighth grade when her father was arrested, left her studies to help her ailing mother. “I didn’t get to know my father, but I know his cause,” Shafeeqa told me when I met her at her Sopore residence in northern Kashmir. “Whenever we needed him, he was either in jail or working for Jamaat.” In February 1970, Fatima passed away, leaving behind her ten-month-old son, Naseem.

Geelani takes his morning dose of medication in the study of his Srinagar home. His health has been failing him for the last four years. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA

Naseem was adopted by a childless couple in Bandipora—a district close to Sopore. He is now 41 years old. He is clean-shaven, wears a well-trimmed moustache, and dresses similarly to his father: a white kurta-pyjama and a collarless waistcoat. He hasn’t inherited Geelani’s politics, however, or even his second name.

Geelani never told Naseem that he was his father. One day, Naseem overheard his aunt telling her neighbours that he was Geelani’s son. Since then, he has tried to build a relationship with his father. In 1991, he was admitted to the Kashmir University and visited Geelani on weekends. This way he tried to create a space for himself in a family where he had a stepmother.  “He (Geelani) never ever explained the reason for leaving me,”  said Naseem.

Naseem has been alienated on account of his father. After the outbreak of armed rebellion in 1989,  Naseem has faced many hurdles. He has been attacked by unidentified gunmen several times and has had trouble getting a job. He prefers to hide his father’s identity, and his last name. Instead of Naseem Geelani, he is Naseem Zaffar. An assistant professor at the Agricultural University, he has a wife, a daughter and a son. Both children study at Christian missionary schools. Naseem’s family lives just five kilometres away from his father.

I asked Naseem if he favours accession to Pakistan like his father. “I just want peace,” he said.

AN HOUR BEFORE DAWN ON 7 JUNE 2010, the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled to visit Kashmir, I drove to Geelani’s home to meet him again. It was 4 am and Geelani was about to begin his morning prayers. A white-bearded man opened the gate and led me to a mosque just inside Geelani’s compound. Inside, there was a small gathering of bearded men, some old, some young, waiting for Geelani to lead their prayers. I heard some tentative footsteps approaching the mosque. It was Geelani. His nicely trimmed beard, not the kind attributed to fundamentalists, complimented his subtle expression and appearance.  He looked extraordinarily fresh when he gazed at me through his moist green eyes.

Geelani finished his prayers and led me inside his study room. He took down the Qur’an from the bookshelf, sat down cross-legged, and began reading the Arabic text until the morning sun breached the edge of the white curtains. He slowly guided his index finger along the written verses.

“Each time you study the Qur’an, you find new things, new inspirations.” Geelani said. “This book guides you on how you walk, how you treat your neighbours, your friends, your parents, your brothers, your sisters.”

“Is there any important political decision the Qur’an has helped you to make?” I asked.

“Yes, in every aspect,” he said. “It says sovreignty lies with almighty Allah. Sovreignty is not for the people, not for any dignity, or any family. It only lies in the hands of Allah.”

For a moment, the fiery old man seemed like an obedient student. Then the conversation turned back to politics. His demeanour changed. His body stiffened. “Just recently, I heard the news that some 12 years ago, two persons were arrested and put inside the Tihar jail,” Geelani said. “Now they have been proven innocent. Is this a law? Is this justice? It is very unfortunate that Islam is not seen as a complete way of life.” He was advocating sharia law.

“How do you see the Taliban?” I countered. “They say that they also follow Islam.”

“No, no, no... not at all,” Geelani said. “The Taliban does not represent Islam. Their actions are based on revenge.” He took a deep breath. “Islam doesn’t allow the killing of innocent people.”

He raised his arm toward the ridge of the wall and grabbed a portable radio set. It was now 7:30, and he tuned into a news bulletin from Pakistan. With his head down, he listened intently. As in India, the stories covered shortages of electricity, a water crisis, unemployment, etc. He turned off the radio.

He paused for a moment to finish his breakfast, two boiled eggs and milk custard. He has a history of chronic illnesses—kidney cancer, heart disease and bronchitis. He often wears a surgical mask to avoid the dust. He began reading a newspaper before I again interrupted him.

“What is your stand on militancy?”   I asked.

He paused for a few minutes, seated in his centrally heated room, facing his bookshelves. He finally spoke. “India denied Kashmiris their right to self-determination by using their military power,”  he said. “Our peaceful efforts were rejected. What alternative is there apart from fighting with guns?”

I asked him about the many foreign militants active in Kashmir. He invoked Bangladesh’s war of independence: “You know, once upon a time there was East Pakistan, do you remember? They raised the voice for Independence from West Pakistan, and India sent a regular army to help them. What is the justification? When we people do it, how is Pakistan wrong?”

Then the conversation turned to Pakistan’s covert actions in Kashmir and the idea that the UN’s plebiscite had become irrelevant. “What else do we have without the UN’s promise?” he asked, “and Pakistan is in that promise…”  He looked angry as he stood up and asked me to excuse him for a while. Soon he re-entered: “Those people [who have given up on the plebiscite] are tired, it’s not their fault. Such things happen in a freedom struggle, that doesn’t mean we alter our history.”

A group of young men entered the room. They shook hands with Geelani. A short-bearded man began to speak, but Geelani cut him short. “Last Friday, you misbehaved in the gathering, you chanted slogans despite the fact I was speaking at the microphone. You actually disrupted my speech.”  In a few moments, Geelani seemed happy again, as if nothing had happened. His back was touching the wall. Behind him hung a calendar inscribed with a promise from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to the people of Kashmir. It affirmed their right to the plebiscite.

I LEFT KASHMIR IN THE MIDDLE of yet another cycle of unrest and followed the news from New Delhi. On 6 August, two days after Geelani asked Kashmiri youth to refrain from stone pelting, Home Minister P Chidambaram offered Geelani a meeting. On 9 August, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did the same—the third invitation from New Delhi in the past two months. As usual, Geelani snubbed both offers.