Syed Ali Geelani was born on September 29, 1929, to Syed Peer Shah Geelani of Zoori Munz village in Tehsil Bandipora which then formed a part of Baramulla district.
Geelani received his preliminary education at Sopore, and finished his studies at the Oriental College, Lahore (Pakistan).
Geelani spent his boyhood in the headquarters of Plebiscite Front at Mujahid Manzil where Moulana Syed Masoodi patronised him. Geelani was all praise for Masoodi. “I owe him a lot. He has helped me through thick and thin,” Geelani once said in an informal chat at his Hyderpora residence.
It was perhaps Masoodi’s influence that made him (Geelani) join the National Conference for a while. In 1953, Jama’t Islami Jammu Kashmir was part of Jama’t-e-Islami Hind. Since the local mood was against India then, Jammu Kashmir got his own unit of Jama’t-e-Islami. Geelani joined it and never looked back, at least not until 1997 when severe differences with then Jama’t chief, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat won him the ire of Jama’t-e-Islami.
Meanwhile, Dr Shafi Shariti published Geelani’s biography Quaid-e-Inqilaab: Eak Tehreekh Eak Tareekh (Leader of revolution: A movement, A history). The book shook the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The Jama’t accused the author of maligning the image of the organisation. “The author has tried to project Jama’t-e-Islami as a pro-Indian political party. He has further mentioned that Jama’t was fed by Indian intelligence agencies. This is intolerable. The book has blown a particular person out of proportion. However, the organisation that groomed that person has been ridiculed and condemned,” he said.
The spokesman also condemned what he called ‘criminal and shameful silence’ of Geelani. “He should have set the records rights and given the author a befitting reply,” he said. The Jama’t even considered expelling Geelani from the organisation.
Syed Ali Geelani responded by issuing a disclaimer. “The views expressed are the author’s own. I do not subscribe to it.” The book shook Jama’t–e-Islami forcing it to boycott future meetings of the separatist conglomerate of which it is an important constituent. Jama’t did not react to the disclaimer.
Geelani also said that he did not subscribe to the author’s views. “But I uphold the freedom of speech and expression. We cannot curb a writer’s freedom.”
Geelani accused Bhat of dancing to the tune of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). He also took Bhat to task for burying literature produced by the Institute of Kashmir Studies (IKS) which was an extension of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Geelani contested elections several times and made it to the legislative assembly three times. He contested controversial elections in 1972 when Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah had called for election boycott.
Justifying his joining the fray, he once said: “The Plebiscite Front had deviated from the basic stand way back in 1969 when it decided to contest municipal elections. Some Plebiscite Front leaders also informed the people of Sheikh Abdullah’s wavering stand but people did not take note. The Plebiscite Front, therefore, had no valid reason to call for election boycott. Further, the decision to contest the elections was taken by Jama’t-e-Islami not Geelani.”
A close aide of Geelani once said: “Geelani Sahib was never trying to make a point in the assembly. Whenever he stood up to make a point, the National Conference members would distract him by screaming or thumping the benches,” he said.
Geelani was an important member of Hurriyat Conference and succeeded Dr Umer Farooq as its chairman in 1997. However, he parted ways in 2003 to make his own version of the amalgam.
Geeelani severely criticised Pakistan President General Parvez Musharraf for his Four Point Formula. His stand against what he called ‘sellout’ won him widespread appreciation and support. Geelani was now the leader of masses, a crowd puller, a leader who would never budge from his stand.
Around this time Geelani severely opposed dialogue. In an interview he said: “Dialogue is no solution at this point in time because that would mean negotiations which imply give and take. Talks on Kashmir issue started on March 23, 1952 and since then 130 dialogues and conferences have taken place. But no one can claim that a single step towards the resolution of the Kashmir issue was tread. You can ask our leaders who started dialogue process from 2002 what they have achieved? You must be aware about the recent statement of Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh; he said that moderate Hurriyat failed to come up with the specific proposals which means he has again thrown the ball in their court.
General Parvez Musharaf also started dialogue process from January 2004 but nothing came to fruition.
“With the experience of 62 years of dialogue, talks at this crucial juncture of history seem to be an immature decision.
“We have to be strict in our approach. We have seen that India is not taking notice of the issue even when millions of people came out on streets demanding Right to Self Determination. Dialogue with such an arrogant power at this juncture is absolutely mockery.”
Geelani believed in merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. However, he did not shy away from criticising Islamabad’s policies at times. He was particularly critical of the Kargil episode, saying that while Pakistan had been supporting “the indigenous struggle of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, morally, diplomatically and politically … this does not mean Pakistan can take a decision on our behalf”.
Geelani began his political career in 1950, and spent more than a decade in jail. He was first imprisoned in 1962, but spent several spells in jail (ranging from days at a time to just over a year) from then onwards.
The JI leader was diagnosed with renal cancer in 2007. In 2008, he was put under house arrest during the Amarnath Land Row and the house detention continued till his death.
Geelani never encouraged stone pelting. He always urged the youth not to resort to stone pelting as, according to him, it served no purpose.
Contrary to common belief, he was not in favour of indefinite strikes. “I am not in favour of indefinite and continued strikes. But we have been left with no alternative by New Delhi. This is our only mode of registering protest,” he said during a seminar.
Immediately after the Pulwama attack in 2019, Geelani was booked under Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). The Enforcement Directorate levied a penalty of Rs 14.40 lakh and ordered confiscation of nearly Rs 6.8 lakh in connection with a FEMA case against him for illegal possession of foreign exchange.
On 29 November 2010, Geelani, along with writer Arundhati Roy, Varvara Rao, Sheikh Showkat and others was charged under “sections 124A (Sedition) 153A (promoting enmity between classes), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 504 (insult intended to provoke breach of peace) and 505 (false statement, rumour circulated with intent to cause mutiny or offence against public peace…) to be read with Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967”.
Geelani is survived by his widow Jawahira Begum. His son Dr Nayeem and his daughter-in-law are doctors in Pakistan. They returned to Kashmir in 2010. His second son, Zahoor, lives in New Delhi. Izhaar, his grandson, is a crew member of a private airliner in India, while his daughter Farhat is a teacher in Jeddah.
His son-in-law Alataf Shah alais Fantosh is presently under detention in a terror funding case. Another son-in-law Iftikar Geelani is in Turkey.
Geelani shall always be remembered for his boldness, fair play, straightforwardness and his oratory skills.
Geelani loved Urdu and spoke it fairly well. He would urge people to learn Urdu. He also knew Persian.
With his death an era has ended. “To Him we belong and to Him we shall return” –Al Quran.