Veteran Kashmir leader causes political storm after quitting pro-freedom alliance

Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. (AP)
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Updated 01 July 2020

Veteran Kashmir leader causes political storm after quitting pro-freedom alliance

  • Geelani, 90, accuses Hurriyat Conference members of plotting against him, failing to tackle New Delhi over disputed territory

NEW DELHI: A veteran politician in Indian-administered Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has quit as head of the Hurriyat Conference after accusing members of the pro-freedom alliance of not doing enough to counter New Delhi’s efforts to tighten its grip on the disputed region.

In a two-page resignation letter on Monday, the 90-year-old leader said: “Keeping in view the present situation in Hurriyat Conference, I announce my decision to part ways with it.” He added that several members had conspired against him and “lacked discipline and accountability.”

Geelani’s decision could further weaken the pro-freedom movement in the region which came to a boiling point after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last year.

The move resulted in the scrapping of Article 370, a decades-old constitutional provision which gave the disputed state special rights. In the run-up to the announcement on Aug. 5, hundreds of pro-freedom leaders and activists were arrested and detained in jails throughout the country.

A few, however, were placed under house arrest.

Blaming these leaders in his letter for failing to take a stand against the elimination of Kashmir’s special status, Geelani said: “After Aug. 5, the leaders who were not arrested were expected to lead the people, give them hope. Despite my house detention and government curbs, I searched hard for you, but you were not available. I couldn’t do much because of my ill-health and detention.”

There has so far been no reaction from other constituents of the Hurriyat to the development.

However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed Geelani for “ruining the lives of Kashmiri youth.” In a tweet on Monday, BJP Secretary-General Ram Madhav said: “This man was singularly responsible for ruining the lives of thousands of Kashmiri youths and families; for pushing (the) valley into terror and violence. (He) now resigns from Hurriyat without giving a reason. Does it absolve him of all the past sins?”

Another senior party leader, Avinash Rai Khanna, described Geelani’s resignation as the “biggest benefit of the removal of Article 370.”

Within Kashmir, Geelani was the most prominent face of the pro-freedom movement against the Indian government and has been living under house arrest since 2010 after New Delhi charged him for sedition.

Geelani began his political career in the 1970s after being elected three times to the local assembly.

However, at the height of militancy in the 1980s and 1990s, he left mainstream politics and joined anti-India protests.

That was when he formed a conglomerate of small, political, and religious groups and inaugurated the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in 1993, demanding freedom and a separate state for Kashmir.

Part of his approach included adopting a hardline stance against any talks with India, leading to a schism in his group in 2003 and resulting in Mirwaiz Umar Farooq becoming the leader of a separate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, known as the moderates. After the group split, Geelani became the lifelong president of his conglomeration.

Commenting on his resignation, Geelani’s granddaughter Ruwa Shah tweeted on Monday that, “one cannot resign from an ideology, a political stand, belief, and faith.”

Radha Kumar of the Delhi Policy Group think tank, who also served as a government interlocutor in Kashmir in 2010, on Tuesday told Arab News that Geelani’s resignation at this stage “raises more questions.”

She said: “One impact I feel is going to be the downgrading of the APHC. It could be that Geelani is trying to push himself as the only voice that stands for Kashmiri sentiment. That way he is trying to regain some credibility for himself by trying to say that others in the group failed to take a stand on Kashmir after Aug. 5.”

Prof. Abdul Ghani Bhatt, who has been part of the moderate faction of the Hurriyat, disagreed. Declining to comment on Geelani’s resignation, he told Arab News: “So long as Kashmir is a dispute, no Kashmiri can be rated as irrelevant. Beat of hearts never change, despite the fact that your tongue speaks a different word.”

Bhatt called on India to stop looking at Kashmir “as geography.” He said: “Kashmir as a problem has to be understood with reference to political psychology rather than political geography,” adding that he favored talks with Pakistan.

“I wish both India and Pakistan hear the beat of our collective heart and rise to the occasion and resolve the problem in Kashmir for a brighter tomorrow for the South Asian region.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Ghulam Mohamad Shah of New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia central university, said that the move might be an indication of churning politics in the valley.

“It’s possible that Geelani is trying to position himself as a core nationalist voice of Kashmir who is resisting the designs of the Indian state.

“He might be a rallying point where mainstream political and pro-independence voices come on a single political platform to raise the collective voice against New Delhi which has been trying to alter the political character and special status of Jammu and Kashmir,” he added.

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 54 min 59 sec ago

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.