Is Kashmir’s protest leader gaining popularity?
Separatist militancy has waned over the years in Kashmir, but now a radicalised young generation which has grown up in over two decades of violence and strife is driving the massive anti-India demonstrations across the disputed region.
Who is leading months of freedom demonstrations in Kashmir, a fresh unarmed uprising that is proving a huge political challenge for the Indian government?
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 80-year-old hardline Kashmiri politician who is hated by India and backed by Pakistan, has emerged as the leading face of the present separatist campaign in the region.
Since the crisis started on June 11 when a 17-year-old student died after being hit by a tear gas shell during a protest, Geelani weekly issues a protest calendar that calls for protest marches, strikes and sit-ins.
More than 100 people have now been killed in more than 100 days of protests, the biggest since an armed revolt against New Delhi’s rule broke out in 1989.
The death toll so far includes children, women and teenagers, nearly all killed by police bullets.
Many Kashmiris are not happy with Geelani’s protest plans because the continuing cycle of strikes and government curfews has shut down schools, colleges and offices, made food and medicine scarce and has brought untold misery to the people.
Political separatists in Kashmir have been unsettled ever since hardliners, led by Geelani, walked out years ago of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella alliance of political groups, opposing peace talks with New Delhi.
With moderate separatist politicians in disarray and peace talks with New Delhi stalled, Geelani’s hawkish stance has boosted his popularity among young generation.
The signals have been coming for some time now.
When a Muslim guerrilla is killed by Indian troops, Geelani is often there leading his funeral prayers.
When a Kashmiri hamlet is burned down during fighting between militants and troops or people grieve over relatives killed in violence, Geelani is there to console them.
Recently Geelani laid down five conditions to end protests or enter into dialogue with New Delhi. The conditions include India accepting Kashmir as an international dispute, revoking laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and demilitarising the region. So far New Delhi has not responded.
“Up to my last drop of blood I will not let the sacrifices of martyrs go waste, Inshallah,” says the white-bearded Geelani.
Once a lawmaker in the state legislature of Kashmir, Geelani, unlike most separatist leaders, believes the crisis in the region is a religious issue and not a political dispute between India and Pakistan.
According to him, the only solution to the half-a-century problem is the merger of Kashmir — predominantly Hindu India’s only Muslim-majority state — with Islamic Pakistan.
The Kashmir territorial dispute is at the heart of enmity between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and has triggered two of their three wars.
Indian authorities, and even some Kashmiris, brand Geelani a Pakistani “propaganda machine, who perpetuates violence and anarchy and is not flexible”.
“The entire population of 13 million should decide their future according to the United Nations Security Council. Time and again we have declared that if the majority decides to be with India, we will not be glad to accept this situation but we will,” says Geelani.
“We will accept the decision of the majority and be a part of India.”
Is Geelani, who has only one kidney, suffers from a chronic heart ailment and has spent nearly 14 years in Indian jails, rising as Kashmir’s main separatist voice? Or is he risking his “credibility and leadership” by leading anti-India protests because similar protests in 2008 eventually died down.
India successfully held local elections in Kashmir a few months later and New Delhi showcased the election as an endorsement of its rule over the region.