Syed Ali Shah Geelani: Why is India afraid of this 83 year-old man?

He has long been considered a hard-liner in Kashmiri politics and has never shifted from his demands for a referendum to decide the future of Kashmir

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It was not the first time that Syed Ali Shah Geelani found himself under house arrest.

At around 9am on the morning of February 9, just an hour after the television channels broke the news that authorities had hanged Afzal Guru, a man convicted over the 2011 attack on the Indian parliament that left more than half-a-dozen people dead, police arrived at the flat where Mr Geelani was staying in Delhi.

For two weeks, the Kashmiri separatist leader was confined to his second floor apartment, unable to offer Friday prayers at a local mosque or to receive a visiting MP. At 7pm on Wednesday the police officers left and the following afternoon Mr Geelani could be found hurriedly packing up his belongings, receiving phone calls and dispensing Kashmiri kahwa tea.

His first priority upon returning to Kashmir, he said, would be to press the authorities to allow Mr Guru’s body to be exhumed from a plot in Delhi’s Tihar jail where it currently lies and returned to his family in Sopore, about 30 miles from Srinagar.

“He was hanged in secrecy. There was not any information given to his family members. A letter was sent to his wife two days after the hanging. It’s illegal and immoral,” he said. “He is buried in Tihar jail. The body of Afzal Guru should he handed over to the kith and kin, his wife and son.”

The decision by the Indian authorities to proceed with the hanging of Mr Guru and the secretive way in which it was carried out drew widespread criticism from human rights groups. Not withstanding serious questions about the fairness of Mr Guru’s trial, they said that at the very least his family should have had the opportunity to say goodbye to him. The tardy dispatch of a letter, in which in his name was spelled incorrectly, appeared to add insult to what had happened.

The family of Mr Guru say they have appealed to the home ministry, via the local magistrate, for the body to be returned. His younger brother, Yasin Guru, said: “They hanged my brother without informing us. Now they are keeping the body themselves and preventing us from carrying out the final rites according to our religion. This adds to our pain.”

Mr Geelani, who is 83 and who has recently struggled with health problems, has long been considered a hard-liner in Kashmiri politics and has never shifted from his demands for a referendum to decide the future of Kashmir.

The leader of his own faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of organisations seeking self determination, he has often been accused of having links to armed militants funded and trained by Pakistan. He insists he is only involved in non-violent protests.

It is Mr Geelani, or one of his colleagues, who are invariably behind the strikes or ‘hartals’ that shut down the Kashmir valley. While few choose to speak out publicly against them, traders and businesses resent them for choking off economic life.

“This is the only weapon we have available,” said Mr Geelani, defending the use of the strikes. “The government does not allow the people to come onto the street to protest. You saw that the curfew was imposed...the hartal is the only weapon.”

This time, Mr Geelani has found himself in the unusual position of being in the same position as Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, including the chief minister, Omar Abdullah, and the leader of the opposition, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

“I had written to the PM on the 19th of this month asking for the return of the bodies of both Afzal Guru & Maqbool Bhatt [a separatist militant leader who was hanged in 1984] to their families,” Mr Abdullah said last week on Twitter.

Mr Geelani dismissed the chief minister’s comments. “It’s a common point but there is not agreement or unity on this. They are taking a political advantage from this, playing political games,” he claimed.

He said that since Mr Abdullah had admitted that he had advised the government not to go ahead with the hanging, he ought to have stood down. “When his advice was ignored, his moral obligation was to have resigned if he was sincere and had sympathy with the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” he added.

In the days following the hanging of Mr Guru, who had a teenage son, security forces spread out across Kashmir in anticipation of widespread protests, which by and large did not emerge. Internet, phones and newspapers were disrupted and a curfew was enforced in major towns.

As to the matter of the hanging being carried out in secret, India’s home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters: “Everything cannot be open and transparent. If that is done, the country will not run.”

A spokesman for India’s ministry of home affairs suggested that a decision on whether to return Mr Guru’s body had not yet been reached. Asked about Mr Geelani’s house arrest, Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for Delhi police, said “no comment” before putting down the phone.

Meanwhile, Mr Geelani said he expected to return to Kashmir in the coming days. He said: “When I get to Srinagar we will see what has been done. At this point, I cannot say because I am not fully aware.”

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