Former Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Photo Supplied

In a surprise move that instantly sparked off speculation, hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani resigned as the head of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH), a constituent party of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

The Hurriyat is the umbrella body of the separatists who have been seeking to end India’s rule in the state. There are suspicions that Geelani, known as a pro-Pakistan separatist, took the decision in the wake of threats from Islamic State (IS) supporters.

The move comes only a week after a handful of IS supporters challenged the Hurriyat leadership during the funeral of a Kashmiri militant. Geelani volunteered to step down from the chair he has held since its inception on August 7, 2004, after a split in the then united Hurriyat. The 88-year-old veteran has been replaced by his longtime friend and aide Muhammad Ashraf Sehraie.

While the separatists rule out any link between the TeH reshuffle and IS, the threat from the global terror group has not being ruled out. However, there are indications that the threat from IS could have been one of the factors in Geelani’s resignation.

On March 12, at the funeral of Eisa Fazili, an engineering student-turned-militant, there was an unusual show of support for IS that disrupted and upset the mourners. Eisa was one of three militants, including one from the southern Indian state of Telengana, who were killed during a gunfight with security forces in south Kashmir.

Mourners beaten

When Eisa’s body reached his family’s house in Soura in the summer capital of Srinagar, a group of 10-15 masked youth, including women, stormed into the house. The family had been known to Geelani for years. Holding IS banners and shouting slogans in support of IS’s Syrian chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdai, as well as Kashmiri militant Zakir Musa, who last year threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders, the group forced their way into the house of the grieving family.

Witnesses said apart from beating some of the mourners including Eisa’s father, the unarmed group snatched the body, saying he had attained martyrdom in the “way of Islam and not for freedom.” According to witnesses, the group wrapped Eisa’s body in an IS flag and started taking selfies with it.

The group then issued a warning, saying “those Kashmiris, including Hurriyat leaders, seeking freedom from India or merger with Pakistan, were enemies of IS.” Witnesses said one of the leaders from Geelani’s Hurriyat, who was present at the funeral, was also beaten.

A senior police official who asked not to be identified confirmed having heard about the incident, including the beating of the Hurriyat leader. “We know about the incident, much like you know. We tried to verify it, but not much could be corroborated. We couldn’t corroborate it fully,” the police official told Asia Times. He added that no complaint had been filed about the IS threat at the funeral.

Shutdown canceled

According to police files, Eisa belonged to Tehreek-Ul-Mujahideen. But after joining the militant group in 2017, one of his photos, which went viral, showed him wearing a T-shirt carrying the ISIS emblem and standing near a banner of the network. The news about IS supporters disrupting the funeral spread like wildfire, with many of the youth who had taken to the streets to protest against the killing silently returning home.

“While other districts often observe a three-day shutdown against militant killings, given the IS link, Srinagar limped back to normal the very next morning because none of us wanted to get linked to any global terror network, which brings a bad name to the political struggle in Kashmir,” said a member of a youth group in Soura.

Observers said the sudden rally of support for IS at the funeral was well-planned as barely one hour after Eisa’s burial, a 14-minute video from IS surfaced on social media. The video message accessed by Asia Times starts with the recitation of Islamic scriptures and tributes to Eisa and the two other slain militants. It also threatened the top Hurriyat leaders including Geelani, accusing them of being “agents” of India or Pakistan and “enemies of IS.”

But according to the official Tehreek-e-Hurriyat statement, Geelani resigned after being worn down by years of house arrest. “I have stood my stand despite testing times of jails, interrogations, domestic hardships, physical and psychological onslaughts, but for the last eight years of continuous house arrest, restrictions on the interactions with my party colleagues has dented the function of the organization,” he said.

Intelligence Bureau visit

Curiously, Geelani also claimed that three days earlier a senior official from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), in charge of all internal intelligence in India, had paid him a visit. He said the IB official tried to convince him to start talks with India and resolve the Kashmir problem. Reports quote Geelani as calling the offer “a futile attempt.”

The party said his resignation was unanimously accepted. “In a unanimous decision taken in an extraordinary meeting of its highest decision making body (Majlis-e-Shoora), Tehreek-e-Hurriyat appointed Mohammad Ashraf Sehraie as interim Chairman, till the organizational elections, to be held later this year,” it said. The development, however, raised questions if the majority of the members endorsed Geelani’s decision.

The TeH supreme body comprises a total of about 20 members, but only half were present at the meeting. The other members are in jail on different charges, including funding a terrorist organization. Those under detention include senior leaders like Geelani’s son-in-law Altaf Ahmed Shah and Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akbar, who were both arrested last year by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). “So can half the Shoora take the decision to accept Geelani’s resignation?” asked a separatist leader.

For the last four years, waving IS flags, particularly after Friday prayers at the historic Jamia Masjid, has been a recurring scene. But the government has been downplaying the activity, labeling it as “mischief.” The union Home Ministry, in charge of internal security, insists there are no IS footprints anywhere in India. Interestingly, Sehraie has replaced Geelani only three days after Sehraie refused to enter into talks with New Delhi.

The Hurriyat remains a key player in Kashmir and Geelani has a dedicated following in the state. His resignation could be the start of a new chapter in Kashmir’s troubled history.

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