The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

What Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Resignation Means for Separatism in Kashmir

While symbolizing the beginning of the end of radical separatism, the development presents an opportunity for New Delhi to restart its local engagement.

By Tarun Nair for
What Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Resignation Means for Separatism in Kashmir

Syed Ali Shah Geelani waves to his supporters outside his house as he arrives to participate in a march toward an army base in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 27, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

On June 29, the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) received the news that Syed Ali Shah Geelani had resigned from the chairmanship of his radical All Parties Hurriyat Conference faction. Geelani, in his parting letter, accused fellow leaders of his camp of abandoning Kashmiri citizens following the central government’s August 2019 decision to strip J&K of its special rights and divide the region into two federally administered territories. He also condemned the Pakistan branch of his Hurriyat Conference group over their alleged attempts to stir up a revolt against him and referenced allegations of financial irregularities and nepotism against them. At the moment, it appears that Geelani will continue to remain a part of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party, a constituent group of his Hurriyat (G) camp. His local successor is yet to be appointed, although the faction is now under the charge of the Pakistan-based Abdullah Gilani.

Meanwhile, the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, or Hurriyat (M), met on July 1 under the leadership of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and reiterated the need for dialogue between India, Pakistan, and Kashmiri stakeholders to peacefully solve the conflict in the region. The Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of outfits calling for Kashmir’s secession from India, split into two groups in 2003. Hardliners demanding J&K’s accession to Pakistan rallied behind Geelani and others backing the right to self-determination joined Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Geelani, in close to two decades at the helm of the Hurriyat (G), pressed for the implementation of the UN resolutions of 1948 and 1949 and talks involving Pakistan, while implicitly supporting the armed struggle against India.

Arguably one of the most prominent separatist voices, Geelani’s preeminence solidified as a result of his leadership of Hurriyat (G) during multiple large-scale agitations against the state, including the unrest over the Amarnath land transfer decision in 2008, the 2010 summer of discontent, as well as the 2016 violence following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Against this backdrop, Geelani’s decision to take a back seat may presage the death of radical separatist politics in J&K. While part of this is due to the crackdown on the Hurriyat Conference since August 2019, including raids on separatist leaders’ homes and the government’s targeting of funding channels, a bigger factor is the limited options for a successor with Geelani’s popularity and political acumen.

Masarat Alam, the firebrand Hurriyat general secretary with a similar bent of mind as Geelani, remains incarcerated. Ashraf Sehrai, who has walked in Geelani’s footsteps since both joined the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) organization in the 1950s, seems like the next best alternative for ideological continuity, especially considering his stewardship of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat since 2018. However, his relationship with Geelani has reportedly soured over the past months due to his proximity to the Pakistan branch of the Hurriyat (G) and his support for its convenor, JeI leader Ghulam Mohamad Safi, amid power tussles between Geelani and Safi.

If Sehrai is elected as the chairman of Hurriyat (G), he is likely to be viewed by pro-Geelani insiders as a pawn of the group’s Pakistan branch, eroding his credibility. This, when taken alongside the government’s strict curbs on the Hurriyat Conference, suggests that the transition of power will be a messy affair. Geelani’s continued involvement with the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat is further expected to complicate matters, despite this only being symbolic in view of his advanced age and existing health ailments. That said, none of this should be seen as a sign of the broader separatist machinery’s imminent collapse; separatist groups continue to provide an outlet for grassroots disaffection as long as the government of the day refuses to address the root issues of the Kashmir conflict, such as the consequences of unchecked securitization on local communities.

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In terms of militant trends, matters have gone from bad to worse in the last decade, with Islamist ideologies gaining currency in hotbeds across South Kashmir and more local youth taking up arms in each year since 2013. Per reports from June, most of those killed in encounters in the first half of 2020 were local Kashmiris. Over the long term, factors like Geelani’s departure may contribute to the growing sense of disillusionment with the Pakistan-backed separatist machinery among some sections, a sentiment that notably led to the rise of militants such as Zakir Musa of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH) outfit. This may have an incremental effect in giving Islamist groups like AGH and the self-avowed Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) greater access to the Sopore-Baramulla belt, an area where Geelani still commands a great degree of influence.

For the central government, Geelani’s resignation provides an opportunity to restart dialogue with Kashmiri stakeholders. Barring the occasional clumsy attempt at engagement through moves such as the 2017 appointment of an interlocutor for J&K, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government has largely followed a unidimensional approach to the Kashmir issue based on tightening the security grid. Apart from dealing a blow to militants’ logistics conduits and funding channels, this strategy has also widened the trust deficit between New Delhi and the average Kashmiri. This has been seemingly exacerbated by the 2019 change to J&K’s status and the fact that most Kashmiri politicians and separatist leaders are either under house arrest or in jail since the watershed moment, effectively bringing local political discourse to a standstill.

Notwithstanding the immediate gains from a strong counterinsurgency approach, long-term solutions to Kashmir’s problems will undoubtedly require elevated levels of local engagement. With Geelani moving to the sidelines, the government is in a better position to take advantage of the confusion within Hurriyat (G) and open up channels of communication with moderate leaders such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the Muslim Conference’s Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat. The ruling BJP can afford to experiment with relaxing its hawkish strategy vis-a-vis Kashmir given they have years before the next general elections, which would necessitate increased rhetoric by the right-wing nationalist government on such popular issues. Moreover, with the local body elections likely to be held once the COVID-19 situation ameliorates, there is also the lure of electoral gains. However, restarting engagement is unlikely to be an easy task considering the expected resistance from these quarters to the government’s ongoing push to grant residency in Kashmir to non-locals.

Tarun Nair is an intelligence analyst from Mumbai, India with an interest in security and geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region.