The Kashmiri Pandit Who Saved Geelani's Life11 October 2010
Srinagar: Dr Sameer Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit and Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's personal physician, speaks about the other side of the hardline separatist. Two men at the heart of Kashmiri separatism - hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik, leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front - are alive today thanks to doctors from the Kashmiri Pandit community, which was forced to flee the valley with the onslaught of militancy in 1989. Some years ago, a team of three doctors performed life-saving surgery on Geelani, now 81, in Mumbai after he was diagnosed with cancer. Geelani survives on three-fourth of a kidney, and one of the doctors is now his personal physician. As someone who interacts with Geelani regularly, Dr Sameer Kaul is probably better placed than anyone else to observe the real man behind the stubborn politician we know about. Speaking to Rediff.com's Krishnakumar Padmanabhan, not only does Dr Kaul give us an intimate view of Geelani, he also provides valuable insights into the current unrest, and how Delhi can rectify mistakes of the past. I am quite close to Geelanisaab, as a doctor should be. But my interaction with him is mostly restricted to medical discourse. As a person, he is non-corrupt and upright. He has conviction. He is disciplined and is a very meagre eater. He doesn't follow the philosophy of consumption in life. He is satisfied with the basic things. That must have helped him in becoming incorruptible. I didn't know him personally before the surgery. In my childhood, I used to ask my father who he was. My father used to say he is the man who says 'Kashmir banega Pakistan.' Such a man is anathema for me. But when I saw that even after 20 years he had not changed his stand and said the same thing, I respect that. When we met he started by offering me my fee. I reminded him about this and told him that I respect him for his steadfastness though I did not agree with his philosophy. He just had a smile and kept quiet. He was called for a interview before that for a US visa. When he was asked questions about his political beliefs, he said he is against American policy. He was very forthright. What does that tell you? He didn't lie for the sake of going to the US. He is beyond that. There are very few things you can hide from your doctor. So I can vouch that he lives a spartan life and so does his family. After an operation in Delhi, he was living in a cramped quarters with his daughter in Malviya Nagar. I warned him he might get an infection. But he told me that if he shifted, his daughter might be heartbroken that her house was not good enough for her father and he stayed put. Such a fellow has to be humane. Things like this is why I find a large part of his public image discordant. He is always with a smile. He is not a wimpy patient. I do not concern myself with his political affiliation and ideology, but I find him to be an honest and sincere man to his people, which is a far cry from what we get these days. Eighty per cent of Kashmiris will not agree with his ideology, but they respect him for being non-corrupt. They have seen all their other leaders get corrupted at some point or the other. In these two decades of strife, he is the only guy whose influence and respect among the people has only increased. I have seen all the chief ministers of the state in recent times and interacted with almost every other politician. I think a major reason for that is that he is not concerned with petty politicking and doesn't get down to the nitty-gritty. He keeps reading and writing books, and is busy translating Islamic texts. He lives in a spartan home. A lot of people put up spartan exteriors, but are quite different on the inside. But in his case, having been close to him for two decades, he is nothing like that. And you can't hide those things forever. I think he is a man of convictions who has been forced into a particular situation. I admire him for sticking to it. I don't know too many politicians who stick to their convictions for long. To top that, he is extremely humble and not greedy. He is not into dynastics and does not seek any favours for his children or sons-in-law. Neither is he into shady deals nor does he have any secret benami property. One thing I have always thought is that he was never handled well. He was just labeled as an anti-India hawk and thus, he continues to be called so. In reality he is quite a soft guy. I do not agree with the picture that is being painted about him. I think he has always been put in a reactionary situation - you do something and he has no way else but to react to it. He has always been pushed to a corner, where the only thing that he can do is react in the way he has. He has been demonised throughout. I don't think he had any option. There is also the angle that he is the only one who did not bend and dance to your (New Delhi's) tunes. I have so many patients who have seen him and they can't believe he is the same guy they see and hear about in the news. I am basically a Sufi at heart. Which is not what he adheres to, and I don't mix two things together. We disagreed only once. There was a Sufi saint who died three months ago. They used to call him the naked fakir. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs throng to his place. I visited him often. Once he (Geelani) tried to tell me that it was not right. I told him it was my philosophy and was best left alone. After that, not once did he ever touch that topic. Among his greatest strengths are that he is humble, sober, incorruptible, and a man of principles, convictions and discipline. In the last 18 years, I have been doing a free (medical) camp in Srinagar . I don't think even a Muslim politician can venture out today. If you go on to the roads, you can be pulled out and skinned. For a Kashmiri Pandit to tell you that, it has a big meaning. A part of it is that what you give is what comes back to you. When I conduct my camps - I don't take any security with me as I have never perceived a threat - never do I get the feeling of not being wanted. I think it is because I do not believe Kashmiris are fundamentalists. Only 10 to 15 per cent are. What is actually happening on the ground is that a sustained class war is going on there. Simultaneously, there is also the phenomenon of one kind of Islam trying to overtake another kind of Sufi Islam. In the last 15 days I have heard from many Kashmiri friends that their houses are being targeted. What is happening is that a frustrated section is taking out its anger on a well-off section. He doesn't like what he sees, and so sets out to destroy it. What worries me is that it is now even worse than 1989. Then, a lot of people got into it because there was a romanticism associated with it. Today, what you see is extreme anger. The central political system was in deep slumber. Everything was going on under the surface and nobody woke up to it. Regarding Geelani's role in the current unrest, I am sure a lot of what is happening outside is beyond his control. He wouldn't get children out (on the streets of Kashmir), that is absolutely not on in his book. I can't believe that. I don't think that can be true. He appealed for calm and there was a lot of dissent against that. I can't speak about where is it coming from and who is supporting that. I still maintain my home in Srinagar. I have not moved out. I am part of that society. As to whether he had a role in the persecution of Pandits, when there is a mass exodus, massive things happen on a large scale, you can't single out things. You have to rise above these things. And if he was so anti-Pandit he wouldn't have come to me. I am a neutral Sufi. I believe he probably participated in the movement against the Pandits because his philosophy is fundamentalist. But there is an action-reaction situation also. The Pandits, while they were there, did not exactly have a positive disposition towards him ever. When you get relegated to a corner, you realise there is only one place open. You stay alive and occupy the space. Regarding the way he was treated he speaks about past experiences when he says he was approached, but things never happened. Had he been approached and accommodated, we would not be here today. All the time that the valley was fine, the government did nothing. We are only worried when the house catches fire. And people also realise that to get your attention, they have to burn something. This is the same story in the Maoist belt also if I am not mistaken. When it comes to Kashmir, I believe in soft power, which is the non-political space. It is non-utilised in Kashmir. We have only shown the hard face of India to the Kashmiris. If you realise the way our government functions it is not exactly a straightforward situation. As a nation - this is my personal view - we have never had a comprehensive and continuous policy towards Kashmir. It changes with various desks that handle Kashmir, and has always been discontinuous. If you talk about indoctrination, that starts at the age of 4 in rural schools. But we have never had a comprehensive group of dedicated people whose only motive is to keep Kashmir with the Union. Had that happened, would we be in this situation today after 63 years?