What Makes Geelani Tick?15 May 2011
Times of India
Srinagar: 'Yahan Saturday bhi Sunday ki tarah chhutti hoti hai?' asked a tourist, drawing giggles from men at a paan shop. But there was also concurrence, as a flock of Gujaratis wandered around puzzled at the sight of closed shops on the boulevard along the Dal Lake. As the tourist season starts and flowers bloom, Kashmir is shut yet again. Nobody is happy about it, not the stranded Gujaratis, nor the shopowners selling dodgy Pashmina shawls and synthetic carpets for drawing rooms in Surat. But Kashmir's shut nevertheless, because Hurriyat's Syed Ali Shah Geelani thought it was a good idea. Is Geelani the face of the Kashmir cause as his supporters claim? Or is he the biggest obstacle to peace in the Valley as his detractors contend? One thing is clear: when Geelani says hartal, then hartal it is. From being on the margins a few years ago, shunned by Genera Musharraf's Pakistan and New Delhi, Geelani is again on centerstage. The achievement is even more remarkable if one considers the serious difficulties he faces. The single biggest problem is ideological. For a man who was at the vanguard of the 'Kashmir Banega Pakistan' slogan, Geelani now rarely mentions it. The talk now is azadi. This brings him at par with his foes, the Hurriyat moderates. But this transition comes with its problems because, while new-look Geelani might make the right noises, sometimes contradictions come to the fore. While Kashmir didn't exactly rejoice Osama bin Laden's death, nobody was in mourning either. The politicians took the cue and kept quiet, except of course Geelani who proclaimed Osama a great martyr and asked for prayers in his honour. The Kashmiris ignored him; his advisors looked embarrassed. It was the same with panchayat elections. Other separatists kept their counsel, but Geelani called for boycott. Kashmiris came out in record numbers to vote. The biggest somersault, though, came a few weeks ago, when Geelani suddenly proclaimed that stone pelting didn't make sense. This shocked many people as all of last year he had deemed it legitimate. So, how does Geelani still command attention? For one, the average Kashmiri still sees him as honest. 'He's not an IB or ISI stooge. He went against Musharraf, many people remember that,' said a commentator. The other bigfactor is the Omar Abdullah government. For the better part of the last 10 months, Geelani was under house arrest. But he gave press conferences, addressed seminars and held strategy sessions. He successfully stared down the Omar government on the Dogra certificate issue while under arrest. In fact, he even travelled to Delhi for conferences. All this adds to Geelani's mystique, of the principled man suffering hardships while in no way constricting his political activities. Omar seemed to realise this when he used twitter to announce that Geelani was now free to travel in Kashmir: 'I'm done making him a hero in my time.' This was on May 7. Six days later, he stopped Geelani from a public rally in Shopian. The reason he gave was Geelani might incite violence. He retired to his house, safe from searching questions about his flip-flops. The CM looked confused. Another layer was added to his mystique. This mystique gives him power, makes visiting politicians meet him. It's this mystique that makes liberal commentators in Delhi ignore that the latest talking point in Geelani's speeches is how cellphones are destroying the honour of Kashmiri women; and, how the only way to redeem them is by throwing these phones into the Jhelum. It draws mirth in Srinagar but when the same man scares the government, it also gives him credibility.