A leader has emerged from the chaos that has engulfed Kashmir these past two months. And contrary to expectations, it isn't a young man from among the mobs of twenty-somethings that have confronted security forces these past ten weeks, but the octogenarian hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
His rise to the centrestage of separatist politics, where he has elbowed out not only the pro-India parties but also the 'moderate separatists' is not — as some would love to believe — because of Pakistan's machinations, but New Delhi's repeated blunderings over decades.
Much before the controlled rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab, a dress rehearsal was attempted in Kashmir. In 1972, in an attempt to marginalise Sheikh Abdullah, Indira Gandhi's Congress engineered the fraudulent election of five Jamaat-e-Islami candidates, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
By the time the secessionist guerrilla movement erupted in Kashmir in 1989 and the Jamaat firebrand resigned as a Muslim United Front MLA, he had represented his constituency of Sopore for three terms and contested more elections than any of the state's chief ministers and their family members.
Notwithstanding his influence among the militants, because of the phenomenal rise of the Jamaat's guerrilla arm — the Hizbul Mujahideen — Geelani was never considered the 'sole spokesman' of Kashmiri separatism. In 1995, six years after militancy erupted, the nameplate on his gate still described him as 'Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Ex-MLA'. But all that changed when democracy returned to Kashmir in 1996.
The pioneer counter-insurgent group, the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, that eliminated most of the Hizbul Mujahideen's commanders and their Jamaati patrons, found a quiet supporter in the National Conference (NC). Farooq Abdullah not only conceded one of his safest seats — Sonawari — to the Army-sponsored Ikhwan chief, Kukka Parray, but also inducted his deputy, Javed Shah, as a member of the Legislative Council. As a counterweight, the Jamaat e-Islami made its first investment in mainstream politics by covertly supporting the then Congress candidate, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in the Lok Sabha elections in 1998.
This marriage of convenience was further strengthened when Mufti floated his own People's Democratic Party (PDP) and its much-publicised 'healing touch' campaign, evidently with the blessings of New Delhi.
It was the first time a 'mainstream' political party openly dared to sympathise with Pakistan, militants and the families of militants killed by Indian security forces. Armed with a fresh discourse Mufti managed to marginalise the NC, the Kashmir Valley's most formidable pro-India outfit, within two years and, when elected chief minister, presided over the elimination of almost all of the Valley's counterinsurgent icons, Parray and Shah included, by the Hizbul Mujahideen. Even Hizb commanders who had initiated a dialogue with India in July 2000 were not spared.
Mufti went on to engineer a split in the Hurriyat in 2003 and occupy the 'moderate Hurriyat' space by hijacking their position on the Kashmir dispute. In a recent television interview, his colleague, Pir Hussain, proudly revealed that the Centre sent substantial amounts of money (to neutralise militancy) but Mufti sent it in sealed envelopes to the families of the militants fighting Indian troops. Mufti and his government publicly glorified militants and nurtured the anti-India and pro-Pakistan sentiment. From politicians and media to the Bar and bureaucracy, it became the norm to abuse 'occupier India' and worship 'azadi'.
Nobody in New Delhi raised questions about how marginalised radicals were regenerating their roots and branches under the smokescreen of the 'healing touch' and the 'battle for hearts and minds'. Even disclosures that the perpetrators of the Akshardham fidayeen attack had stayed at a Cabinet minister's house in south Kashmir for about 20 days en route to Ahmedabad raised few eyebrows.
Squeezed by their inability to deliver on 'azadi', the failure of sustained talks with New Delhi, and their rhetoric hijacked by the PDP, the 'moderate separatists,' found themselves getting increasingly irrelevant. Their wane marked the rise of Geelani who, during the ten years of the undivided Hurriyat, had no special status. None of the seven constituents of the executive council took his side when Hurriyat split into 'moderates' and 'hardliners' in 2003. Just a couple of over two dozen outfits in the general council went with him. Both returned to Mirwaiz within months. But after his expulsion from the Jamaat and an infamous reprimand from the Pakistani President, General Musharraf for his inflexibility, Geelani was seen as the only unwavering flame in an increasingly confusing political landscape.
Though Mufti Mohammad's successors did not encourage his legacy they did little to challenge the extremists politically. The police was demoralised, the pro-peace constituency sidelined and the silent majority of Kashmir disempowered, paving the way for Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He launched his own, Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, and projected an umbrella of nondescript right-wing outfits as the 'real' Hurriyat.
This group worked quietly over the years in universities, mosques, madrassas, media and among Kashmiri youth. This paid off during the turbulence of 2008 and 2010 when Geelani and his radical supporters occupied every inch of the political, as well as physical, space — from the Valley's urban streets to social networking domains on the internet — reversing New Delhi's carefully crafted achievements.
Though Geelani is well into his 80s, this is not the autumn of the patriarch. Thanks to the paralysis of mainstream political parties for the last eight years, a whole new generation of Kashmiri youth have a radical old Islamist icon for
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is a political commentator and Srinagar Bureau Chief with the Early Times The views expressed by the author are personal