Assessing Syed Ali Geelani

Over the years one has developed the image of Syed Ali Geelani as a resolute, principled and unflinching advocate of the Kashmir Valley’s accession to Pakistan. Recognising that his stance has begun to gravitate more in line with the ‘azaadi’ aspiration as espoused by Kashmir’s burgeoning youth.

One needs to be clear if his motivations remain centred on the two-nation theory and the implicit contention that Kashmir was an unfinished agenda of partition or if he’s genuinely willing to conform to an all-inclusive (taking into account all State subjects, religions, ethnicities and regions) approach to conducting a rights movement. Will the marginality that has emerged from living in a Muslim-majority State within a Muslim-minority country irreparably fuel sentiment for religious separation or will it converge on acceptance of a political system that incorporates the just aspirations of all communities within the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir?

Many of the communal tensions that have erupted in the State (pre and post 1947) have genuine grievances upheld by each and every religious community. Some writers have argued that negative, exclusivist understandings of the religious ‘Other’ were at the very core of the Kashmir conflict. If each community saw either India or Pakistan as it’s saviour or panacea, although one recognises that atrocity based on religious identity has been committed in the past, using that as a basis for a solution is equally un-workable. Irrespective of whether it’s Syed Ali Geelani of his own faction of the Hurriyat Conference or Ashok Khajuria of the BJP.

One also recognises that patriotism and/or nationalism is only healthy if it’s administered with the intention of delivering good governance (by its people and for the larger interest of its people) within a specifically defined territory. The historical as well as current afflictions of either religious community provide a strong urge for them to identify themselves with the neighbouring country whose majority supposedly share their religious convictions. That is where Syed Ali Geelani Sahab’s political strategy, despite it’s honourable and justified stance in most respects, opens up it’s chinks.

Firstly, the Pandit community never loses an opportunity to describe him as communal and allege that he played a part in their ‘enforced migration’. It appears that the Kashmir Valley – at large – has still not agreed on whether the Pandits were chased away by Muslims seeking a ‘pure’ Valley, aided by calls from the loudspeakers of masajid or whether the then Governor Jagmohan enticed them away to fulfill a propoganda ritual, in a move to malign the Muslim majority’s otherwise just struggle. This is an issue that requires closure so that it doesn’t come in the way of a solution. Otherwise, the cycle of accusation and counter-accusation will always threaten to obstruct and even dominate dialogue. The Kashmiri Pandits appear to be in a constant state of furore and deserve meaningful pacification with a patient ear, at the very least. It is unclear as to whether the Hurriyat leader has done enough on that front.

The second chink in Syed Ali Gilani’s armour stems from his seemingly unquestioning stance over Pakistan’s role in the conflict. Although he acknowledges Pakistan’s occupation of one third of the disputed territory, he is incorrect in suggesting that Pakistan supports self-determination whereas India does not. He asserts that to be the fundamental difference between the two countries as well as the fundamental factor in non-resolution of the dispute.

It could be contested that Pakistan only supports self-determination of the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley in correspondence with it’s own self-interest. It clearly has not shown the same level of dedication to the self-determination of the people of ‘Azad Kashmir’ and Gilgit Baltistan, or for that matter the Pandits of the Valley or other communities in Ladakh and Jammu.

When Gilani Sahab talks about the Jammu Muslims (he referred to the Dogra certificate as diluting their Muslim identity in a recent speech in Baramulla) or those of Rajouri, Poonch or Kargil; it quite possibly conjures up the spectre of Muslim majoritarian rule in a future political dispensation that allies itself with the ‘Muslim World’, at the cost of  the culture and heritage of a significant non-Muslim minority. The pull of Pakistan is put in direct competition with the push of India. It gives security relevance and a chauvanistic character to the presence of both armies in the State.

Finally, it is unclear whether he talks primarily for the Valley’s Muslims, the Muslims of Indian-administered Kashmir or everybody who qualifies under the State subject rule of 1927. It may even be a question of whether or not he would want to shrug off the ‘working for Pakistan’ tag. Bearing in mind the contention that the Kashmir issue is one that relates to the self-determination of the people that live throughout that territory, rather than a territorial dispute between two countries and thus a human problem rather than a strategic one; it’s difficult to pinpoint Syed Ali Gilani’s potential influence vis-a-vis a solution of our predicament.

Despite all the above, he’s respected by friend and foe alike for his steadfastness and sincerity to his cause. Gilani Sahab is committed to peaceful democratic protest (which even excludes stone-throwing). He has reiterated on a number of occassions that he’ll defer to the fate of independence if that’s what people want. He’s forthright in his criticism of what he sees as "Indian occupation" as much as he is of the lack of discipline amongst the youth of today. He strives to present a humane angle to the resistance and pledges respect to the needs of other religious communities.

When Syed Ali Gilani says that talks must be purposeful, principled and result-orientated, he possibly has more authority than anybody else to demand so. All his five points incorporate those ideals. The sticking point is on withdrawal of armed forces which would most certainly require reciprocation in at least proportional measure from Pakistan. His concerns about the Indian army taking control of prime land and consequent de-forestation with a commercial purpose can be equally levelled at Pakistan. Despite that, he remains the strongest advocate of not affording to wait for Indian democracy to mature. He believes Kashmiri aptitude for autonomous political behaviour can iron out issues within the State more rapidly and justly, hence local polity should not waste energy and resources in what he perceives as ‘collaboration’ with the ‘occupier’.

Breaking out of the image of a ‘chauvanistic cheerleader’ would be necessary for him to stamp his relevance on a future solution. Syed Ali Geelani certainly appears to have moral clout far more in abundance than any other contemporary Muslim leader in the  South/Central Asian region. He must have or develop the ability to make principled alliances with other marginal communities in the State as a whole and across religious boundaries. In the absence of a religious concensus being possible towards determining Kashmir’s future status, would Gilani Sahab be willing to transform his stance from a religious solution to a human solution for all the people in the disputed territory? That may ensure his religious as well as political success. It could even accompany a lasting solution.

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at

Note: This article was scheduled to appear on April 27, but couldn’t due to some technical problem. Inconvenience is regretted.