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In Geelani, they trust
The Indian state has been loathe to have any truck with Syed Ali Shah Geelani given his stated position on Kashmir - that a plebiscite is the only way forward and that Kashmir's destiny lies with Pakistan. But he might just be a good interlocutor to engage today.
At 81, Syed Ali Shah Geelani still retains the fire that has made people in Jammu and Kashmir acknowledge him as one of the Valley's most charismatic leaders. Soon after his release from his recent spell in jail, he went where mainstream politicians feared to tread. He attended the funeral of one of the youths killed by security forces.
When a stone hit his car, Geelani jumped out and demanded to know which "government agent" had dared attack him. As silence descended on the agitated mob, the firebrand separatist made an impassioned appeal for peaceful protests. Violence must not be allowed to mar our cause, he thundered. The funeral procession proceeded quietly after that. It was the first funeral in two months that did not end with a death after clashes with security forces.
Ever since Geelani asked protestors to make non-violence their strategy, a semblance of calm has descended on the troubled Valley. At a time when mainstream politicians are being rejected as "corrupt" and "puppets of Delhi", Geelani has emerged as the man who best represents the aspirations of the Kashmiris.
The irony is that he stands out not so much because of his pro-Pakistan politics, but because he is seen as a man of principle, someone who has not changed his stand over the years and not sold out to either New Delhi or Islamabad. In fact, according to analysts in Srinagar, his image received a fillip after he took on former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf by rejecting the latter's four-point peace formula that in effect, acknowledged the division of J&K along the Line of Control.
Delhi has always been wary of engaging with him because of his consistent demand for a UNsponsored plebiscite and his avowed conviction that the future of J&K lies with Pakistan, not India. Yet, despite his refusal to accept J&K's accession to the union of India, Geelani has in the past contested elections to the state assembly. He became an MLA first in 1972 and during the tumultuous years between 1987 and 1989, when Kashmir was up in arms against the rigged elections won by Farooq Abdullah's National Conference, he was an influential opposition voice in the state assembly.
A student of Islamic literature and history, Geelani has authored 30 books and writes and speaks fluent Urdu. He has spent around 14 years of his public life in prison at various junctures and is now suffering from renal cancer. With barely half a kidney left after successive operations, Geelani is still the most effective shield against younger, more radical elements in the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which he formed when the All Parties Hurriyat Conference split into moderates and hardliners in 2003. But, as analysts point out, his ability to counter the rise of leaders like Masarat Alam and Asiya Andrabi depends entirely on the amount of political space Delhi is ready to give him in the Valley.
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