The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

To some, Syed Ali Shah Geelani was a man who loved his homeland. To others, he was a terrorist.

In the awe-inspiring valleys and snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, a region celebrated for its stunning natural beauty lies a complex tale of struggle and tenacity that knows no borders. This story reverberates with the indefatigable spirit of the Kashmiri people. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose life unfolded against this dramatic backdrop, emerged as an enduring symbol of unyielding dedication to the cause of Kashmiri self-determination. His extraordinary journey, spanning nine decades, stands as a testament to the resilience and indomitable will of a man who became a foundational figure in Kashmir’s indigenous freedom movement.

Born on September 29, 1929, amidst the captivating landscapes of Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani entered this world at a time when the region, renowned for its breathtaking natural grandeur, was also entangled in history as intricate as it is enchanting. As he matured, so did the political fervor in the region. Geelani’s formal political trajectory commenced in 1952 when he aligned himself with the Jamaat-e-Islami. This marked the initiation of a journey that would not only elevate him as a pivotal figure within Kashmir but would also extend his global influence.

Geelani’s rapid rise within the ranks led to his appointments as district chief of Kupwara and Baramulla. Nevertheless, his ascent to leadership was anything but effortless. His unflinching devotion to the Kashmiri cause necessitated more than a dozen years of imprisonment. His first arrest in 1962, prompted by charges of “raising the Kashmir issue,” heralded the myriad challenges that lay ahead in his relentless pursuit of justice.

Initially, Geelani navigated the labyrinthine world of mainstream politics. However, it became glaringly evident that the Indian government harbored no genuine commitment to resolving the Kashmir issue. It was during this pivotal period that he vehemently opposed the draconian Public Safety Act, legislation ostensibly designed to combat timber smuggling but subsequently exploited to suppress political voices. His ardent resistance against the Public Safety Act underscored his role as an unapologetic advocate for human rights.

In 1987, Geelani played a seminal role in the formation of the Muslim United Front. This coalition united all Muslim parties in opposition to pro-India factions, including the National Conference. Despite allegations of electoral malfeasance that hindered many victories, Geelani and a select few persevered. Tragically, their triumph was ephemeral; the government dissolved their administration, proscribed political activities, and thus catalyzed the onset of an armed insurgency.

This turning point marked the inception of a homegrown armed resistance against what was perceived as the “unlawful Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir.” Although the National Conference-Congress alliance initially formed a government, it dissolved in the early 1990s as the armed insurgency gained traction. Prominent lawyers and activists found themselves imprisoned, and political activities were banned. Geelani, alongside his comrades, took the audacious step of resignation in protest.

In 1993, Geelani was instrumental in forming the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an alliance representing over 30 pro-freedom parties dedicated to Kashmir’s right to self-determination. This alliance included representation from the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Geelani’s uncompromising stance further augmented his popularity, especially among younger Kashmiris. He often stood alongside the caskets of fallen freedom fighters, extolling the virtues of the resistance movement in his public addresses.

August 2004 saw Geelani, along with Ashraf Sehrai, launching Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Geelani became a prominent figure during the mass civil uprisings that erupted in the aftermath of 2008. His unwavering leadership and unassailable commitment to the cause remained constant.

In 2009, he spearheaded the “demilitarization movement,” and in 2010, following the killing of three civilians by Indian security forces, a mass uprising was ignited. Geelani was at the forefront, orchestrating protests against the egregious acts perpetrated by Indian security forces.

Even when faced with the most severe adversities, Geelani’s resolve remained unshaken. After the Indian government revoked Articles 370 and 35A, effectively dismantling Kashmir’s autonomy, he persisted in his advocacy for the region’s unique status. However, the latter phase of his life was dominated by house arrest, initiated on August 5, 2019. The Indian government’s apprehension of his considerable influence became palpable when they denied him a dignified burial, an act that garnered international denunciation. His intellectual contributions extended beyond politics encapsulated in over 30 books, including his autobiography, Wular Kinare.

The refusal by the Indian government to accord Syed Ali Shah Geelani a respectful burial constitutes a grave violation of human rights. His family was prohibited from performing his final rites, and his remains were confiscated by Indian authorities. The entire area was cordoned off, and a curfew was imposed—an unambiguous display of India’s unyielding intent to stifle his enduring legacy.

International condemnation swiftly followed, including censure from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and mainstream media outlets like Reuters, the Washington Post, and France 24. Pakistan also decried India’s actions as ‘barbaric.’

As we reflect upon Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s legacy, he emerges not merely as an individual but as a symbol of hope and resistance in the face of formidable challenges. His steadfast commitment to Kashmiri freedom has bequeathed an indomitable legacy that continues to inspire. His life reminds us that the quest for justice and the struggle for self-determination are endeavors that merit our utmost sacrifice, regardless of the adversities that may arise along the journey.

Humma Rehman Qureshi is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.