The autumn of Kashmir's Islamist patriarch?

Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.  

“Even if the wealth of the whole India is put in my pocket,” Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani promised at a press conference this August, “I will not barter away the sacrifices of our martyrs.”

The Islamist patriarch emerged from jail early this month as part of a deal some hoped would staunch the rising tide of blood on Kashmir's streets. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's key lieutenant, Devinder Rana, offered Mr. Geelani the right to lead the protests in return for calling off rioters who paralysed Kashmir's civic life this summer. In essence, the deal involved ceding control of urban Kashmir to the Islamist movement — in return for peace.

It didn't work — because Mr. Geelani no longer leads that movement. The Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leader counselled peaceful protests, only to see street clashes escalate. At the funeral of a Srinagar resident, protest squads shouted slogans accusing him of political opportunism. Effigies of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah were burned after he backed Mr. Geelani's calls for restraint.

“What he says will not make a difference,” the Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief and long-time Geelani protégé Asiya Andrabi said in a recent interview, “You have to understand that he is 82. His sentiments would be different from those of an 18-year-old. I tell you firmly, if he says not to throw stones, our children won't accept it.”

Kashmir's Jamaat-e-Islami

Late in the Nineteenth Century, Kashmir saw the emergence of a new urban bourgeoisie, drawn from the ranks of the first generation of Muslims to acquire an education in British India. Mr. Geelani's long political career rode the establishmentarian Islamism of that generation — and could now mark its succession by new, dangerous political tendencies.

Srinagar's Mirwaiz Rasul Shah set up the Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam in 1899 with the objective of combating bidaat, or innovation — the folk practices that made up the practice of popular Islam. The Anjuman set up a high school and a college that taught both science and religion. Mirwaiz Rasul Shah's successor, Mirwaiz Muhammad Yusuf Shah, added the ideas of the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband where he had been educated.

The neo-fundamentalist Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadih made its appearance at around the same time. Sayyed Husain Shah Batku, educated at a Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith seminary in Delhi, also began a campaign against popular Islam, which his theological tradition held responsible for the miseries of Muslims.

Saaduddin Tarabali, a protégé of Jamaat-e-Islami founder and ideologue Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, was a product of this climate. His recruits were the educated children of bourgeois families, dismayed by the secularist politics of the National Conference.

Born in 1929 in the north Kashmir village of Zurimanj, Mr. Geelani had cut his teeth in the National Conference: the influential party leader Muhammad Saeed Masoodi treated him as son, and he edited the party newspaper. Geelani's connection with the Left-leaning National Conference was predictable. Though born into a family with high ritual status, his father was a landless labourer who worked on government canal-building projects.

As a teacher at a government school in Rainawari, Mr. Geelani encountered Maududi's work for the first time — and was drawn to the idea that Islam was not just a system of faith, but the foundations of a political order. Post-Independence, he helped the Jamaat develop a network of schools and campaigned on issues ranging from the resettlement of Partition-affected Muslims to official corruption.

By 1975, when the Jamaat's 125 schools were briefly closed down by the government, they were serving an estimated 25,000 students. Pakistani scholar Tahir Amin writes that Jamaat schools were intended to prepare the grounds for a “silent revolution”. The Jamaat believed, writes scholar Yoginder Sikand, “that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hindu-ising the school syllabus”.

The Jamaat fought the 1971 Lok Sabha elections without success, but won the next year. Geelani served in the assembly in 1972, 1977 and 1987 — more terms, commentator Ahmad Ali Fayyaz recently pointed out, than any chief minister of the State.

Younger Jamaat leaders spearheaded the new Islamist tendencies that manifested themselves in Kashmir as the United States-backed, Saudi Arabia-funded jihadists in Afghanistan gathered momentum. In 1979, the president of the Jamaat's student wing, the Islami Jamaat-e-Tulaba, declared that Indian forces stationed in Kashmir were an “army of occupation”.

Mr. Geelani maintained a wary distance from the long jihad which began in 1988. Still a member of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, Geelani participated in an August 19, 1989, meeting called by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to consider responses to the growing violence. “I was the only participant in the meeting,” he said, “who suggested resolving issues through dialogue.” It wasn't until late that winter that Mr. Geelani resigned from the Jammu and Kashmir assembly.

Radicalisation and revolt

But having thrown in his lot with the jihadists, Mr. Geelani's discourse rapidly radicalised. In a 1992 interview, he called on Pakistanis “to stand up determinedly and assist their Kashmiri brethren in their action of jihad.” In a 1998 book, he suggested that Kashmir's secession for India was essential for the survival of Islam in the region. For Muslims to live among Hindus, he argued, was as difficult as “for a fish to stay alive in a desert”.

This polemic was out of step with the Jamaat rank-and-file, who sensed more than a decade ago that the jihad was defeated.

In 1997, the then-Jamaat chief G.M. Bhat called for an end to the “gun culture”. Three years later, dissident Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire. Though the ceasefire fell apart, the Jamaat itself continued to marginalise Geelani. In May 2003, Jamaat moderates led by Bhat's successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Geelani as their political representative. In January 2004, the Jamaat's Majlis-e-Shoora, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to a “democratic and constitutional struggle”.

The Jamaat's volte-face incensed many Islamists. In 2006, commentator Sheikh Showkat Husain wrote: “The fate of Islamic movements cannot be divorced from the fate of the Muslim ummah and its various segments, be they in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya or Kashmir.” The Jamaat, he argued, could not keep aloof from these issues.

But the Jamaat did not relent. Mr. Geelani was now dependent on Islamists outside the Jamaat, like Nayeem Khan's Kashmir Front and Shakeel Bakshi's Islamic Students' League. The period saw the emergence of the New Islamists now spearheading street protests in Kashmir, like Massrat Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi. Most were ideologically linked to the global jihadist movement in ways Mr. Geelani was not. Their first significant mobilisation targeted Sabina Bulla, a Srinagar madam whose brothel is alleged to have served high officials and politicians.

“Long live Pakistan, We want freedom,” chanted the young men who demolished Ms. Bulla's home in May, 2006, as police stood by. In the summer of 2007, the rape-murder of a north Kashmir teenager provided another opportunity to Mr. Geelani and his New Islamist allies. At a June 24, 2007 rally at Langate, Mr. Geelani said claimed “hundreds of thousands of non-State subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.” Early in 2008, the Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. An Anantnag schoolteacher was also attacked after a video of a group of his students dancing to pop music was circulated.

In summer 2008, matters came to a head after the State government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. Mr. Geelani claimed this was a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region: the authorities were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the State.” “I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don't wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”

Despite their inflammatory polemic, New Islamist leaders were neither prosecuted nor their supporters acted against for violence. The National Conference went further. In July last year, it reinstated 440 teachers who lost their jobs when schools linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami were closed down in 1990. Indeed, the sole resistance to Mr. Geelani has come from within the Jamaat-e-Islami, which in April threatened to terminate his membership unless he distanced himself from a biography attacking the party.

The wages of the failure of political parties to confront Mr. Geelani has been the emergence of a movement that could have fateful consequences for Jammu and Kashmir. The New Islamists who have succeeded Mr. Geelani hope to succeed where he failed: to build a movement that will give jihadists the political backbone and legitimacy the lack of which led to defeat a decade ago. Ironically enough, Kashmir's Islamist patriarch seems set to be overwhelmed by the forces he unleashed.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 1:06:44 PM |

Next Story