Denying a respectful burial and public send-off to iconic Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Gilani is another scar on the face of Indian democracy.
The Kashmir Police not only raided his residence but also thrashed out his family members and took away the dead body without a stretcher. It is reported that his aged wife was kicked while they were dragging the dead body. Finally, Gilani was laid to rest in the unprecedented presence of security forces in the dark of night in a neighbourhood graveyard without traditional rituals. The dragging of the prominent leader’s dead body and humiliating the grieving family display the intensity of suppression and recklessness exercised by the Indian authorities.
Ali Gilani (1929-2021) who passed away recently in Srinagar was not an ordinary resistance leader but one who literally ruled Occupied Kashmir during the last three decades without having any official power. He gradually emerged as a linchpin of the freedom movement which erupted in the early 1990s and became a central figure. He used his marvelous oratory and writing skills as the main tool to articulate Kashmiris’ political aspirations and historical affinity with the idea of Pakistan, and also exposed injustices committed by successive Indian governments. His persistent defiance and bravery inspired the young Kashmiris in the 1990s and his legacy was adorably inherited by the contemporary generation who call him Baba-e-Azadi (father of the freedom movement).
Over the past 31 years, Ali Gilani had mostly been either in jail or under house arrest. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure when he got an opportunity for some political activities, Gilani enthusiastically addressed millions of people where the crowd promised to live and die with him. If there is anyone Kashmiris worship after Sheikh Abdullah, it is Ali Gilani. Gilani was a member of the Occupied Kashmir Assembly when the Kashmiri youth started the freedom struggle in the 1990s. During his stint in the Kashmir Assembly, he also earned a reputation as a courageous and shrewd critic of state policies. He would address India as ‘Delhi Sarkar’, reminding it that the Kashmiris were promised to be given the right to decide their future by the architect of Indian democracy, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
I had the opportunity to talk to Gilani three to four times at his residence in Haiderpura, Srinagar and in New Delhi where he used to live during the winter. I always remember these conversations vividly. He told me that all his life he had been prepared to go to jail. With a broad smile on his face, he recalled those days when he used to keep two suitcases ready at his home; one for going back to jail as most of the time, the police used to get back to him after every two to three days with a fresh arrest warrant, and the other one for travelling across Kashmir for public mobilization. He spent almost 18 years in prison altogether and almost 11 years remained under house arrest in the recent past.
The Indian government used every tactic to buy Gilani’s loyalty or make him flexible. But with the increasing pressure, Gilani’s spirit kept getting stronger and stronger. So, the Indian officials concluded that Gilani could never budge and some of them sarcastically called him ‘gone guy’.
Gilani introduced Pakistan as an alternative option for Kashmiris in such a way that the Pakistan flag has frequently been waved at protest rallies. People even prefer to wrap their martyrs in Pakistan’s flag to make a political statement. The failure of the peace process between India and Pakistan and the rapid rise of the Hindutva ideology made Gilani’s task easy and the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ got unprecedented endorsement in Indian-held-Kashmir.
The kind of love people show for Pakistan in the streets of Kashmir is unimaginable. Gilani played an instrumental role in reviving the strength of this historical and religious bond. Despite his ideologically orientated stance and dogmatic differences, a large number of people in Pakistan also fell in love with Gilani. Cutting across the political divide, people always showed respect and devotion to Gilani in Pakistan. Hence, he became part of the socio-political discourse on Kashmir in Pakistan.
Gilani was passionate about Pakistan and Islam but also had a deep understanding of the ground realities, political needs and gravity of the Kashmir situation. Despite religious and political differences, he made collation with like-minded leaders and got engaged in the politics of alliances.
Ironically, India did not take advantage of Gilani’s presence. If Delhi had negotiated with him or others in his presence, it would have been easier to find an acceptable solution to the problem. People had faith in him, and he had the stature and skill to offer a solution acceptable to both India and Pakistan. The conflict resolution process becomes even more complicated when towering leaders leave the scene.
Gilani also had a knack for taking risks. For example, Pervez Musharraf’s formula for resolving the Kashmir issue could not attract Gilani’s support. Gilani and Musharraf had a heated debate about the future of Kashmir at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi which eventually turned hostile. When the news of General Musharraf getting angry with Gilani reached Srinagar, Gilani’s close aides were grieved. However, the stories of Gilani’s bravery spread across the region and he emerged as a youth’s hero.
Gilani left. He could not be buried according to his will at the Martyrs’ Graveyard in Srinagar. Millions of people could not attend his funeral as was expected but the fact remains clear that today, every household of Kashmir is grieving and mourning, and is disgusted at the behaviour of the Indian authorities. Gilani’s story of bravery and perseverance has now become part of folklore. His detention is finally over. He got his freedom.