A very few people that I know have lived such an action-packed and intriguing life as Justice (retired) Syed Manzoor Hussain Gilani. Ten years ago, he retired as the chief justice of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) where he had been in the news for his defiance to pronounce momentous judgments as well as his dedication to provide relief to victims of state high-handedness. This resulted in his continued tussle with the power centres in AJK and beyond – which even saw his seniority being bypassed. But he dug in and fought to win against all odds.
Gilani was born in 1945 in Karnah, now a garrison border town on the other side of Kashmir. In 1947 his family migrated to AJK where he stayed till 1952 when his maternal uncle illegally carried him back to his ancestral town on the insistence of his maternal grandmother. For the next 25 years, he lived without his parents, graduated in law from the Aligarh Muslim University, joined Occupied Kashmir’s civil service as under-secretary, resigned and then took up law practice at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in Srinagar. He married his cousin, had two children before ultimately migrating and settling in Muzaffarabad where he restarted his law practice.
Within a decade he rose to become the advocate general of AJK. Later, he joined the judiciary, first as a judge at the high court and then at the AJK Supreme Court taking retirement after he won elevation as the chief justice following a protracted legal battle. In his quest for justice, he famously took his case to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a first of its kind. This attracted a lot of media attention and criticism including allegations from his opponents that he was working for India.
He justifies his premature retirement for he did not want to complicate the situation that would have caused embarrassment to the system. But this did not stop him from complaining that Kashmiris from the Indian-occupied side of the divide face problems in AJK for want of a clan or biradari that could offer resistance on their behalf. To prove his point, he mentions the case of the former CJ Muhammad Yusuf Saraf who was forced to resign and later sent to prison after General Zia took over.
Syed Manzoor Gilani’s life story is deeply engrossing and captured extremely well in his autobiography in Urdu, ‘Meezan-e-Zeest’ (The sum total of life), Jumhoori Publications, Lahore. Not only has he lived on both sides of the divide but also formally indulged in politics of varied culture and ideology. He started his life as a Jamaat-e-Islami (Jammu and Kashmir) sympathizer and was involved in editing an Urdu weekly, ‘Tarjumanul Haq’, run by the Jamaat’s offshoot, Islamic Study Circle.
When the Jamaat decided to contest the 1972 state assembly elections, he heavily criticised the move using the platform of the weekly that ultimately led to his ouster. The Jamaat surprisingly won five seats but the decision remains controversial to date as it is widely believed that its entry into electoral politics was managed by the Indian intelligence which ensured its shocking victory, motivated by the desire to cause a dent in the popularity of Sheikh Abdullah.
Decades later, in the 2016 elections of AJK, he again criticised the Jamaat-e-Islami (AJK) for “forging different and constituency-wise alliances with various parties that still failed them to register a win”. But the former amir of the Jamaat, Abdur Rashid Turabi managed to finally grab a seat for himself after he cut an underhand deal with the PML-N.
Soon after his expulsion from the weekly ‘Tarjumanul Haq’, Gilani was smitten by the politics bug and he joined the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi at the time. He justifies it by suggesting it was better to join a national party to afford a better chance of striking a deal for and on behalf of his people. However, he failed to earn a nomination for a seat and ultimately gravitated towards a local pro-India party, Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference, led by Abdul Ghani Lone who was murdered in 2002 in Srinagar.
Lone, who often oscillated between political positions, was fiercely pro-Kashmiri and a brave politician who ultimately paid the price through his life. His political heir and son, Sajjad Lone, joined pro-India politics and rose to power under the guidance and influence of Hindutva forces. He famously described Indian Prime Minister Modi as his elder brother as he was offered a ministerial birth in the last government led by Mehbooba Mufti in collaboration with the BJP.
In AJK, Manzoor Gilani first joined the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference because most of his family supported the party and he strongly believed in Kashmir’s destiny within Pakistan. This later earned him the coveted post of advocate general, from which he resigned after he refused to plead for the AJK PM Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan in a case where Khan had disregarded Gilani’s earlier advice.
Soon after his retirement in late 2010, he publicly joined the PML-N in presence of Mian Nawaz Sharif in Muzaffarabad. But he has failed to gain enough support to earn a party mandate for contesting elections. He makes subtle complaints that he has been sidelined by the government of Raja Farooq Haider and is not invited even to meetings concerning party affairs.
The book, published in 2017, makes powerful and valid observations about the future that now bears an eerie resemblance to the current situation: “Hindu culture is being imposed by making a temple at every military cantonment and camp. Signboards in Hindi are installed on all the important government offices and buildings. The Urdu script is being replaced by Devanagari [Hindi]. In the name of industrial development, non-state residents are being offered government land. The federal institutions operating in the state are being filled by Indian non-Kashmiris or Kashmiri Pandits”.