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A Step at a Time

Kashmir Committee Interaction with Syed Ali Shah Geelani of Hurriyat Conference

All those who think that the Kashmir problem is intractable due to the intransigent stand taken by pro-plebiscite hardliners of the Hurriyat Conference should have witnessed the historic February 3, 2012 interaction organized by the Kashmir Committee with Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He is widely perceived as the most "hawkish" face of the secessionist movement in Kashmir. This image is in large measure due to the fact that Geelani has for years openly supported pro Pakistani militancy in Kashmir. In addition, he refused to enter into a dialogue with the Indian Government unless they first concede that the Indian part of Kashmir is a "disputed" territory and agree to his demand for plebiscite in Kashmir. Many in India also hold him responsible for forcing the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits by supporting terrorist violence that forced them to flee their homes in the Valley and live as refugees in Jammu and other cities of India.

But the Geelani we interacted with was far from the uni-dimensional fundamentalist projected by the Indian media. During our first meeting with Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani in April 2011 in Srinagar, he and his Hurriyat Conference colleagues had given the Kashmir Committee a very warm welcome belying the expectations of political observers that he would refuse a serious engagement with even a non government, civil society initiative for peace due to his hard line position. More importantly, in his conversation with us as well as in the press conference that ensued, he repeatedly talked of the pressing need for "aman" (peace) and a just democratic solution to the Kashmir problem.

Moreover, several Kashmiri Pandits still living in the Valley told us that he played a key role in providing a sense of security to the tiny minority of Pandits who had chosen to stay back. Whenever they felt any threat, instead of counting on security forces they approached Geelani. They reported that he never failed them. We got confirmation of his stand on minorities when he publicly opposed the decision of the Shariat Court of Srinagar to expel Christian missionaries out of Kashmir for their alleged role in seekng conversions. Geelani is the only politician who openly challenged the Shariat Court with the statement that it is the duty of the majority community to protect the minorities instead of threatening them with expulsion.

No matter how much one disagrees with or dislikes the politics of Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, one has to acknowledge the fact that Geelani says what he means and means what he says. Anyone who wants an enduring settlement of the Kashmir problem has to engage with the hardliners like Geelani. Attempts to marginalize him through covert and overt means are bound to boomerang.

A primary purpose of our February 3 meeting was to facilitate a quiet, informal interaction which we hoped tht more facets of Geelani's personality as well as his response to the changing global and South Asian political scenario would emerge. We deliberately kept the media out and invited a select group of 25-30 persons including former ambassadors, retired Army generals who had served in Kashmir, intellectuals, writers, political scientists, former bureaucrats and a few young students.

Geelani sahib began in his usual tenor and style by accusing the Indian Government of widespread human rights abuses and alleging murders and rapes by the security forces. He also reiterated his charge that India has dishonored its promise of holding a plebiscite to allow the right to self determination to the Kashmiri people. But for someone who was once committed to perennial hostility to India and destruction of the Indian state, Geelani's statement that he wishes India and its people prosperity and peace marked was a significant development. Once again, hisfrequent use of the word "aman" and of the need to find a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem was noteworthy. Equally important, Geelani emphasized that war as an option should be altogether ruled out by both India and Pakistan for resolving the Kashmir problem.

During the question hour session Geelani was given a thorough drubbing with people picking holes in his political ideology and the rhetoric of self determination. Aarti Tikoo set the ball rolling by asking if he would be willing to give the same right to self determination and secession to Laddakhis, Dogras and Gujjars of Jammu, or Kashmiri Pandits and others who inhabit diverse regions of the State. When Geelani said he would never compromise the territorial integrity of J&K and never agree to its break up, several persons pointed to the inherent dichotomy in his political vision. Vice Admiral Nayyar, challenged the veracity and the accuracy of the list of killings and rapes Geelani attributed to the security forces. He also told him that in his interactions with Pakistani leaders he found them talking of Kashmiri Muslims with great disdain. General Patankar and Major General Lakhwinder Singh -both of whom had served in Kashmir-shared their widely different perceptions of the Kashmir issue and the role of the Army.

Lata Krishnan asked him to spell out his stand with regard to the return of Kashmiri Pandits. Geelani replied categorically that Kashmiri Pandits must come back and that he supports their right to reclaim their lands and properties.

Hema Khatri asked him why the Amarnath Yatra had become such a security head ache for the government when traditionally Kashmiri Muslims had always played enthusiastic hosts to the Yatra. Geelani said no Kashmiri Muslim had ever raised any objections to the Yatra. In fact, whenever Yatris got stuck due to bad weather, Kashmiri Muslims voluntarily came to their aid and even organized free langars and shelter for the Yatris. But given the fragile ecology of the area where the shrine was located, there had to be some control on the number of pilgrims that go every year. 

Shail Mayaram of CSDS asked him whether in the fast globalizing world where national boundaries were becoming irrelevant he needs to rethink his position and instead move in the direction of open borders between India and Pakistan.

Kamal Jaswal, Director Common Cause posed the most pertinent questions. He asked Geelani: "It is very welcome news that you want to facilitate the return of Kashmiri Pandits. But since the society and state you want to create after seceding from India will be based on Islamic principles, what kind of status would Hindus have in your Kashmir?" Geelani's answer surprised many of us: "We should not judge Islam by the conduct of today's Muslims." He quoted a verse from the Koran to say Islam enjoins us not to harm non Muslims and went on to say: "True Islam believes in full religious freedom of non Muslims. We would ensure that Kashmiri Pandits and other non Muslims are absolutely free to practice their religion." Rajeev Bhargava took this issue further by asking Geelani: "But the issue is not just of religious freedom which even India provides in full measure. It is also of minorities having the freedom to shape the overall culture and political agenda of society.

Fateh Mohammad Nadwi, a young Muslim cleric from Delhi, expressed his unhappiness at the emotional divide created by the separatist leaders between Kashmiri Muslims and the rest of the people of India. In his view separatists were doing harm by preventing Kashmiri Muslims from integrating with Indian democracy. Dhirubhai Sheth followed up this issue by commenting that Geelani's valorization of the "sacrifice" and "martyrdom" of Kashmiris overlooked the fact that numerous families had been ruined and ordinary Kashmiris have paid a heavy price for Hurriyat's rigid politics.

No matter how provocative the question, Geelani did not lose his temper nor did he respond with anger or annoyance. However, he simply refused to answer some of the questions which he did not like. Shafi Reshi, a senior Hurriyat leader who spoke after Geelani said even though there were substantial differences in the perceptions and views of the Kashmir Committee and the Hurriyat Conference, it was important to interact with each other because that was the only way to understand each other well. Shanti Bhushan, who spoke last of all, remarked that this interaction was indeed historic because it had proved many people wrong about possibilities for dialogue, and breaks some of the prejudice against each other. At least today we are ready to agree to disagree with each other. He emphasized the need to find ways to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people. He acknowledged that "azadi' was a very emotive issue for the Kashmiri people but we need to ascertain what "azadi" meant to different people. 

In his concluding remarks Ram Jethmalani said he was extremely gratified by the fact that at a personal level Geelani and he shared an amicable relationship and that as an elder brother he could take the liberty to tell Geelani sahib that he will have to become flexible in his approach because a certain amount of give and take is essential for resolving any conflict. He said: "If I was convinced that secession to Pakistan is good for Kashmiris, I would have openly supported Geelani sahib. But I know it for a fact that Pakistan will never give Kashmiris the kind of political space they have in Indian democracy. It has changed the demographic profile of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. But India has allowed Kashmiri Muslims to remain dominant in the Indian part of Kashmir. Pakistan has nothing to offer Kashmiris. It is itself in deep trouble. All this talk of India colonizing Kashmir is total bunkum. Indian government does not get even one rupee in return from Kashmir for all the crores of rupees it sends for Kashmir's development."

We believe that India's Kashmir policy demands a serious course correction. A healthy democracy is one where citizens engage with both momentous and mundane issues and are able to impress upon the ruling establishment the need to be responsive to the legitimate needs and aspirations of diverse groups of citizens. On both sides of the Border there is a large constituency for peaceful coexistence and for putting many contentious issues behind us. It is imperative that we as concerned citizens impress upon our Government the need to respond to the urge for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue without delay or else we will continue witnessing endless cycles of violence and counter violence which will damage the very fabric of Indian democracy.The smiling face of Geelani saheb at Jethmalani assuming the role of an affectionate elder brother was an indicator that the personal rapport between these two mavericks of our politics might actually pave the way for a consensually acceptable solution to this vexed problem.

Finally, I would like to refute the statements attributed to me in sections of Kashmir press that the Kashmir Committee has been "reactivated' as a Government of India sponsored Track II diplomacy to engage with separatist leaders. Nor do we claim a "green signal" from either the Government of India or that of Pakistan. We have made it amply clear from day one that the present Kashmir Committee is an independent initiative which does not take its cues from either of the two governments. But we do hope that it will strengthen the hands of policy makers within the political establishments of India and Pakistan who wish to bring about enduring peace between the two countries.

(For a brief history of the Kashmir Committee and its mandate click: http://manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1579

Chairperson: Ram Jethmalani (MP Rajya Sabha, Former Law Minister) 

Shanti Bhushan ( Eminent lawyer, supreme Court of India and former Law Minister Government of India)
V.K Grover (Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, GOI)
M.J Akbar (Editorial Director, India Today, Editor, Sunday Guardian)
Wahid Ur Rehman (Journalist from Pulwama, Kashmir)
Convenor: Madhu Purnima Kishwar (Founder MANUSHI, Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)


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Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is an Indian academic and writer. She was a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delhi, and the Director of the Indic Studies Project based at CSDS which aims to promote the study of "Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization".