Sehrai’s succession

Resistance leader Syed Ali Geelani steps down in Kashmir

Sehrai’s succession
Who after Geelani? This has been a persistent question in the political circles of Kashmir for many years. Given the health of Syed Ali Geelani, the octogenarian leader of the resistance camp, the “worry” has been who could succeed him. Obviously, the concern is who has his aura as a leader. Today Geelani is a symbol of defiance and resistance to the Indian state, so whoever will fill his shoes becomes an important point in the discussion around succession.

On Monday, March 19, Geelani decided to take the first step towards this transition. He stepped aside as the chairman of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a constituent of the All Party Hurriyat Conference’s (APHC) faction Geelani himself leads. He nominated his long-time associate Ashraf Sehrai as the new chairman but will continue to head the Hurriyat Conference as a conglomerate.

Though three leaders representing the struggle for the “right of self determination”—Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik—have been together for nearly two years under a new banner of the Joint Resistance Leadership, Mirwaiz leads another faction of the APHC.

The conglomerate that survived all the “conspiracies” since its inception in 1994 finally split in September 2003. It was Geelani who led the revolt against the People’s Conference that had fielded proxy candidates for the assembly elections in 2002. The People’s Conference, founded by the late Abdul Gani Lone, was represented by his two sons, Bilal and Sajjad, and the latter was instrumental in fielding the candidates. As the Hurriyat could not take definite action against Sajjad, the forum fell apart along with the People’s Conference.
Sehrai was also seen as a natural successor given their unbending companionship of nearly six decades. Sehrai never failed Geelani like the others in the Jamaat-e-Islami and remained with him through thick and thin

This became the reason for the birth of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which Geelani founded in defiance of his parent organization, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Having developed serious differences with the Jamaat over the approach towards the Kashmir issue, he brought into the fold like-minded parties as the main constituent of his faction of the APHC. They took a hard line on dialogue and outright rejected any overtures towards Delhi. Geelani’s relevance went up in stock. He became increasingly popular among young people and his word worked like a command. New Delhi was continuously in denial that Kashmir is a political issue and preferred a military approach as a way to “restore normalcy”. This all meant that Geelani’s politics has resonated with the people in the past few years.

He could even shed the baggage of being someone who fought the elections under the Indian constitution and became a Member of the Legislative Assembly thrice. He was a hardcore advocate of Jammu and Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan but this did not come in his way to emerge as a leader of sentiment in a place which was once seen as overwhelmingly in favour of a state “independent of India and Pakistan”.

Since he emerged as a leader to whom even mainstream leaders, including ministers, would turn to for advice on a “better word”, the buzz on his successor has gained momentum. At one point of time it was learnt that there was a battle within the family. His long-time associate and son-in-law Mohammad Altaf Shah (Fantoosh) was seen as a contender pitted against his elder son, Naeem Geelani. Naeem is unassuming and suave and someone who has never made his intentions public.

His second son, Naseem Geelani, did not make any such intentions public but his social engagements and being seen with his father sometimes would point towards such an ambition. The choice being talked about was the firebrand Masarat Alam who led the 2010 agitation and was briefly released in 2015 when Mufti Sayeed came to power. Many people believe that he was the “natural” successor since he admired Geelani, was young and educated and represented the sentiment the way the aging leader would like it to be. However, his incarceration kept him away from the spotlight.

Now Geelani, in agreement with the Majlis-e-Shoora or general council of his party, has made the choice. Sehrai was also seen as a natural successor given their unbending companionship of nearly six decades. Sehrai never failed him like the others in the Jamaat-e-Islami and remained with him through thick and thin. He may not match his charisma but he is very close to him ideologically and intellectually. Insiders say that Sehrai is also a hardliner when it comes to Kashmir as a dispute so he will continue the legacy. Age may not be on his side but he certainly is in better health than Geelani and can run affairs on a day-to-day basis.

Geelani gave a reason for stepping down. “For the last eight years of continuous house arrest, restrictions on the interactions with my party colleagues has dented the function of the organisation. Merely holding a position without practical contribution is injustice not only with the post, but the conscience as well. So today I willfully step down from the chairmanship.” Not only has he faced house arrest for so long but the noose tightened around him last year when the National Investigation Agency (NIA) picked up his entire middle tier, including his son-in-law Fantoosh and put them in jail. There was tremendous pressure on Geelani and this must have played a role in affecting his health.

The next step would be to take Sehrai to the “hot seat” or the chairmanship of the Hurriyat Conference. The indications are clear that in the next year or so Sehrai would take the mantle. Will this step make others in the camp irrelevant remains to be seen but the challenge for Sehrai would be to match his friend in every respect. The other challenge for him is whether he can reunite the resistance leadership as it existed before September 2003.