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With chief ideologue Ashraf Sehrai’s death, Hurriyat’s pro-Pakistan faction in Kashmir turns headless

With the death of Mohammad Ashraf Khan Hurriyat Conference’s pro-Pakistan faction has become virtually headless (Pic: Courtesy thekashmirimages.com)

Hurriyat Conference’s pro-Pakistan faction has become virtually headless with the death of the 77-year-old Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) ideologue Mohammad Ashraf Khan aka Ashraf Sehrai at Jammu’s Government Medical College Hospital on Wednesday, 5 May 2021.

Separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Sehrai were bosom friends who worked with Jamaat-e-Islami continuously from 1959 to 2003. Both contested elections on JeI’s ticket but Geelani alone became a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, three times—in 1972, 1977 and 1987.

With the outbreak of militancy in Kashmir, Geelani was among the four Muslim United Front (MUF) MLAs who resigned in 1989. He was among a number of the pro-militant politicians who were arrested and released in three years. In 1993, he was among the Pakistan-backed leaders who formed the first separatist conglomerate in Jammu and Kashmir under the umbrella of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

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The APHC remained monolithic for 10 years but fragmented in 2003 over the issue of the Peoples Conference’s “proxy participation” in the Assembly elections of 2002 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Geelani, representing JeI in the APHC, demanded “action” against the PC while alleging that the party had played infidel to the constitution and fielded ‘proxy candidates’ in the Assembly elections after its founder chairman Abdul Gani Lone’s assassination in a terror strike at Eidgah, Srinagar. In the APHC, Lone was succeeded by his elder son Bilal Lone. As the APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq declined to proceed against the PC, Geelani announced his separation. He alongwith Sehrai broke away from Jamaat and subsequently floated his own organisation, Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH). With this development, Geelani launched his own faction of the Hurriyat Conference, commonly known as Hurriyat (G).

While Mirwaiz was elected as the chairman of his faction of the Hurriyat Conference and Geelani headed Hurriyat’s pro-Pakistan ensemble, the erstwhile APHC’s key constituents, including Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the JeI and the High Court Bar Association (HCBA) did not join either faction. For 15 years, Geelani operated as the head of the TeH as well the chairman of the Hurriyat (G).

Even after Geelani and Sehrai quit the JeI, they continued to draw a many cadres from their old organisation. They drew unflinching support from all the militant outfits, including the JeI’s guerrilla arm, Hizbul Mujahideen. Over the years, Geelani grew as an undisputed darling of almost all the militant organisations and the Pakistani establishment. His followers boycotted elections but wherever they voted after 1999, they favoured Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

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In March 2018, Geelani announced his resignation from the TeH but continued to operate as chairman of the Hurriyat (G). Sehrai was elected as Geelani’s successor in TeH. Finally, a dramatic development occurred on 28 June 2020 when Geelani announced his resignation from the Hurriyat (G) and released a statement leveling serious charges on the “Pakistan-based Kashmiri leadership”. He declared the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir based Kashmiri activist Syed Abdullah Gilani as his “representative in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan”.

It was around this time that the Pakistani establishment isolated not only its most trusted ace Geelani but also his nominated representative Abdullah Gilani, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Salahuddin, PoK’s ‘Prime Minister’ Raja Farooq Haider and other Kashmiri activists. The Pakistani establishment managed to install Sehrai as chairman of the Hurriyat (G), over a month after his militant son Junaid Sehrai was killed along with two other militants in an encounter at Nawakadal, Srinagar, in May 2020.

The authorities in Srinagar got Sehrai arrested under Public Safety Act (PSA). He was lodged in District Jail Udhampur where he developed medical complications and finally died at GMC Hospital Jammu. Officials maintained that his posthumous RT PCR test showed him as positive in Covid. His last rites were conducted silently in his ancestral village of Tekipora in Kupwara’s Lolab valley.

In the last two years, 92-year-old Geelani has been completely deactivated to the extent that he has never interacted with media. Even the two-odd statements on his behalf are believed to have been issued by his family under pressure from unknown quarters. Sources close to his family insist that Geelani has been suffering dementia. Political analysts view it all as the end of an era. It is for the first time since 1989, that the pro-Pakistan political camp has become headless. After Geelani and Sehrai, the only possible contenders for this position were Massarat Alam, former HCBA chief Mian Abdul Qayoom and the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Salahuddin.

While Salahuddin has been in Pakistan continuously since 1993 and Massarat Alam in jail since May 2015—with no prospects of his release in the near future—Qayoom has completely disassociated from political activity after his release by the Supreme Court of India over an undertaking in August 2020.

“With Sehrai’s death and Geelani’s ailment, Hurriyat (G) has become completely defunct. The Pak establishment may install either a senior Jamaat leader or someone based in PoK as the amalgam’s new chairman but none of them has Geelani’s or Sehrai’s stature”, said a professor at the Political Science department of the University of Kashmir.