Syed Ali Shah Geelani: A life dedicated to Kashmir and its people

‘Oppression does not last,’ my grandfather – now 91 and in ailing health – tells me as police line the roads outside.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, one of the most prominent figures in the Kashmiri resistance movement, has been under house arrest in Indian-administered Kashmir for years [Photo courtesy of Ruwa Shah]

It was a frosty February afternoon in the Turkish city of Kayseri. I had just finished my exams, and was hoping to have a rare moment of respite after submitting all my assignments. But before I could heave a sigh of relief and relax, I got a text: “Just heard about your grandfather. I am so sorry.”

My grandfather, my “Aba”, is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, one of the most prominent figures in the Kashmiri resistance movement and the leader of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. He is 91 years old, and his health is ailing.

I have been away from home, studying towards a masters degree in Turkey, since 2018. Due to the restrictions the central government regularly puts on local communications in Indian-administered Kashmir, I often spend days without talking to my family and getting updates about the health of my grandfather. So that text terrified me.

When I finally managed to get my mother on the phone and ask her about my Aba, she confirmed that his condition was worsening and told me that he wants to be surrounded by family.

At that very moment, I decided to return home.

“So far the cellphones are working. But we do not know when they (the state) will shut it, if anything happens to Geelani,” I overheard a woman say as I made my way towards the next plane to Kashmir at the Delhi airport. Clearly, the rumours about my grandfather’s health were spreading rapidly across the community. When I landed in Srinagar a few hours later, my heart was racing – I had not been home for over 17 months and I was eager to see my family, and especially my “Aba”, as soon as possible.

The writer and her grandfather, Syed Ali Geelani [Photo courtesy of Ruwa Shah]

The weather was very cold in Srinagar, too. But unlike Turkey, everything looked colourless and dusty – like a scene from a dystopian movie. My brother, Anees, was waiting for me at the airport. We quickly got in his car and started driving towards Aba’s house in Hyderpora. The roads leading to his house were lined up with armoured vehicles and I saw men setting up CCTV cameras on electricity poles near his house. Authorities were clearly getting ready for my grandfather’s passing, and the unrest they expect his funeral to cause.

A police vehicle was blocking the entrance of the house, but this did not surprise me. That police vehicle has been a permanent fixture at Aba’s gate since he was put under house arrest for the first time in 2008.

Aba has barely left his home in the past decade. The Indian authorities allowed him to make a few public appearances in 2014, but since then, he only stepped beyond that police vehicle at his gate a couple of times to visit the hospital.

Aba suffers from several medical conditions. He developed renal cancer in a jail in the Indian city of Ranchi in 2003. He had one of his kidneys removed as a result. He has a pacemaker in his heart. He suffers from an acute chest infection that makes it difficult for him to breathe. On the day of my visit, the infection was so bad, Aba was on oxygen support.

I saw Ame, my mother, first as I entered the house. Most of my cousins, aunts and uncles were also there, and everyone was talking in hushed voices.

I wanted to see Aba right away, but there was a team of doctors in his room. Usually, women do not enter Aba’s room when he has male guests there who are not from our immediate family. So I sat near Ame and waited for the doctors to leave.

After almost an hour, I walked inside Aba’s room. He was surrounded by his daughters, his sons, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The man who once roared like a lion and inspired thousands was now struggling to comprehend the most mundane things going on around him. He could not even recognise the faces of his own family members.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani shouts slogans at a rally in Srinagar on April 10, 2009 [File:Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Aba’s health deteriorated rapidly after August 5, 2019 – the day the Indian government scrapped Kashmir’s partial autonomy. He fell into a deep depression, and for good reason – since that day, almost all members of his party are behind bars. He is sad and lonely.

I walked towards Aba. He was barely visible under a pile of blankets. I reached out and held his hand. It felt like a skeleton with his skin hanging loose.

He did not immediately recognise me. I told him I was his granddaughter. “Which one?” he asked. “Are you the one who used to bring me gifts? You went to Turkey, didn’t you?” he said softly.

It made me smile. I was still in his remaining memories.

We managed to speak a little bit that day.

It was heartbreaking to see Aba struggle to speak, to remember things, but even in this condition, he surprised us.

He asked me if I had seen my father, Altaf Ahmad Shah, who along with many other leaders from my grandfather’s party, is imprisoned in New Delhi since 2017. “You should meet the prisoners. Tell them that I pray for them and their sacrifice will not be wasted,” he told me. My father worked with Aba for more than 35 years. He was a student activist when he joined the resistance movement. Aba was so impressed with my father that he eventually arranged for him to marry his daughter, my mother, and become part of his family.

“Do not stop me here. It is time I go,” he said in a hushed voice when we once again gathered around him. “You should not be selfish. I am in pain.” And then he closed his eyes and started reciting verses from the Holy Quran. As he was humming “La Ilaha illhala…” he suddenly stopped, raised his hand, and feebly shouted “Allah-u-Akbar!”

Aba dedicated his life to Islam and Kashmir’s freedom struggle. For him, the two have always been inseparable. This is why, even when he barely had the energy to breathe, he was either reciting from the Quran or talking about Kashmir. “Do not give up on freedom. Zulm chu ne poshaan! Oppression does not last!” Aba kept repeating as I spoon-fed him. He kept reciting it to himself, as if he was trying to etch those words to his memory so that he would not forget what he had stood for all his life.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani speaks at a press conference in Srinagar on January 3, 2004 [File:Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

By the end of my first day at Aba’s house, his condition was getting slightly better.

He was, after all, receiving very good care. A team of doctors sent by the authorities was visiting Aba on a daily basis. The Indian authorities are not normally known for their compassion and care for members of the Kashmiri resistance. However, after their move to revoke Kashmir’s partial autonomy, and the unrest that followed, they are careful to prevent any episode that could trigger a mass gathering. And they know my grandfather’s passing would cause many Kashmiris to take to the streets.

That evening, I went to my parents’ house to spend the night. When I returned to my grandfather’s house the next morning, I saw that the security outside the gate has been beefed up. Now, only close family members were allowed to enter, and people in the house were banned from using their phones. Fearing that I may not be able to return if I ventured out, I decided not to leave the house until things calmed down. That evening, two of the three people working in Aba’s house were also removed by the police. All this was because a video of Aba, depicting his deteriorating state of health, was posted on social media. The video had gone viral, triggering panic among the people and alarming the authorities.

The rumours that my grandfather is on his deathbed reached such levels that day that government officials inquired about my family’s plans for Aba’s burial and last rites. “They will not let us do anything in case anything happens. They want to handle all of it,” my elder uncle, Naim Geelani, said.

Aba wishes to be buried in the Martyr’s Graveyard in Eidgah, Srinagar. How his burial is handled is important for us, because he is the head of our family. It is important for the state, because his death can lead to an outburst of anger. But most importantly, it is important for the Kashmiri people, because they love him, respect him and look up to him.

Between all the discussions about the funeral, the fear of the unknown, and the acute sadness of knowing Aba is unlikely to get better, the health of my uncle, who has a heart condition, started to deteriorate. Just like his brother and my cousins, he was not only trying to come to terms with the looming demise of the head of our household, but also mentally preparing to get arrested. The number of officers outside was constantly increasing, and we all knew any one of us could be taken into custody at any second. We felt practically jailed in our grandfather’s house.

Somehow, I managed to send a message to a few journalists and tell them we had been locked in – it made me feel a bit better to know that people outside, people who know my grandfather, are aware of our plight.

To cope with the tension, we all stayed up, watched some old videos, laughed and talked about how our lives have been shaped by politics.

Aba’s situation improved the next day, and the siege was relaxed. But he was clearly still in pain. As he laid restlessly, his eyes remained open and moved repeatedly from side to side.

Not sure what to do or how to help, we took turns sitting by his bed.

Throughout my life, I only had the opportunity to be alone with Aba a few times. But during these few days in February, I spent more time with him alone than any other member of our family.

I jumped at every opportunity to be in his room because I knew that our time together was limited, and I wanted to talk to him as much as I could while he is still with us. He has always been an important force in my life. A few years ago, in 2013, my parents refused to let me study journalism. It was Aba who finally convinced my father to allow me to follow my passion. Aba is much more progressive than anyone who only knows him as an orthodox leader would assume.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani addresses a protest in Srinagar on August 3, 2007 [File:Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Once he specifically asked for me, and I was overjoyed. I sat by his side for several hours and I keenly listened to him as he tried to speak in bits and pieces.

“Your father was very young and energetic when I saw him for the first time … He was sharp because he was from the old city (in Srinagar),” he said.

Before the house in Hyderpora, Aba lived in Dooru, Sopore, a village in north Kashmir. “It was your father who asked me to move to Srinagar … He always gave good advice,” Aba added after a long pause. “Give him my Salaam when you see him … Do see him before you go back.”

My father is Aba’s only son-in-law, among five others, who is an active part of the freedom struggle. In one of his letters to me from the prison, my father told me how Aba’s character and dedication to the freedom struggle drove him to work with him.

As Aba continued to talk fondly of his memories with my father, I thought of the times Aba, my father and I had spent in that very room across the years. When I was younger, I spent many hours watching Aba read, write, pray, exercise and passionately talk to my father and his other colleagues about Kashmir in that room.

Every move Aba made, every word he uttered was indicative of his strong and disciplined character. In spite of all his illnesses, he followed a strict schedule until the very end. He woke up before morning prayers and exercised for an hour. He also had a very limited diet, and never indulged in “fancy” food. He would have one yolk-less egg in the morning with a glass of milk. For lunch, one piece of chicken, a small bowl of soup without spices, and a small portion of rice. And for dinner, a single piece of flatbread with some vegetables. This was his routine for years.

As I tried to spoon-feed him fluids, I thought of all this, and broke down in tears.

All my life, I thought of him as someone unbreakable – the epitome of strength and conviction in the face of difficulty and strife. But now, he was crumbling.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has spent a life time fighting for Kashmir, and stood tall in the face of endless persecution and abuse, is now fighting physical pain. And, for the first time in his life, he knows he is in a battle he has no way of winning.

I spent three unforgettable days with my grandfather in Kashmir before returning to Turkey. On my way back, as Aba wished, I spent a day in New Delhi and visited my father in the Tihar jail. Now, I am back in Turkey and I do not know when I will get to see my grandfather again.

I am trying to live my life and follow my dreams, because I know that is what Aba would have wanted for me. But I still tremble when I receive a text at an unexpected time, fearing it could be from someone informing me that Aba is no longer with us.

I, of course, know Aba is never really going to leave us. Even when he is no longer physically with us, his devotion to Kashmir and the suffering he endured for our freedom will be remembered and honoured by generations of Kashmiris to come.

I cannot help but think how similar Aba’s life has been to the Kashmiri freedom struggle itself – an honourable journey full of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a battered dream hoping to come true. So, it is no surprise that even today, when he cannot remember much, he remembers Kashmir and the longing its people have for freedom – a dream that he knows will be realised one day.

Source: Al Jazeera