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Syed Ali Shah Geelani (1929-2021)- a separatist who chased a mirage

Syed Ali Shah Geelani

When at the end of a 17-year-long mass movement Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah replaced Maharaja Hari Singh as Jammu and Kashmir’s ruler, it was not an abrupt transition from autocracy to democracy. The State’s first free and fair elections were witnessed not before the one for Lok Sabha in March 1977 followed by the one for the Legislative Assembly in June 1977.

In between, there was a glimpse of democracy when Sheikh’s Mahaaz-e-Rai Shumari (Plebiscite Front), which boycotted polls from 1953 to 1974, supported an independent candidate, Shamim Ahmad Shamim, in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections only to defeat former ‘Prime Minister’ Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad who had helped Jawahar Lal Nehru to dismiss and cage the man known as Sher-e-Kashmir (The Lion of Kashmir).

Shamim polled 1,28,948 votes against the government’s  candidate Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad who polled just 71,140. That election created a history. Another part of the same history was that when Sheikh had been deposed as PM and he was running from jail a movement for Kashmir’s separation from India, with a call for boycott to Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his Jamaat-e-Islami were part and parcel of the Indian elections—including rigging—in cahoots with the ruling Congress party.

Sheikh functioned as the head of the Emergency Government during the war which ended on 1 January 1948. On 5 January 1948, Sheikh was appointed as the first ‘Prime Minister’ and the head of an eight-member Cabinet. The State’s Election and Franchise Commissioner conducted the elections for the Constituent Assembly in September-October 1948.

Also read:  Geelani will be remembered as the first and the last Ayatollah of Kashmir's separatist movement

Sheikh’s National Conference (NC) nominees were declared elected unopposed in all the 75 constituencies—including all 43 in the valley a week before the date of the polling. Praja Parishad fielded its candidates in 28 of the 30 constituencies in Jammu. As many as 13 of their nominations were nullified which prompted the party to boycott the polls. Consequently, the NC grabbed all the 75 segments without anybody voting at a polling station.

An identical practice marred the credibility of all the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections conducted after Sheikh’s arrest and dismissal as Prime Minister on 9 August 1953. These included the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly elections in 1957, 1962, 1967 and 1972.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s ruling NC presided over the infamous Assembly elections of 1957, grabbing 68 of the 75 seats. However, it left 5 seats to be won by Praja Parishad, one to Harijan Mandal and one to an independent.  In 1962, the ruling NC grabbed 70 seats, leaving 3 to Praja Parishad and 2 to independents.

From 1965 onwards, Congress ruled Jammu and Kashmir directly with Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq as its first Chief Minister. It repeated more or less the same practice of sham elections from 1967 to 1972 in which nomination papers of most of the potential opposition candidates were declared invalid. Many of them were removed from contesting by threats, kidnapping and the bribes of money and prestigious positions in the government.

In the Assembly elections of 1967, Sadiq’s Congress grabbed 60 of the 75 seats. It took as many 22 seats uncontested. As many as 118 opposition candidate’s nomination papers were rejected. The uncontested winners included Mufti Mohammad Sayeed from Bijbehara who was inducted as a Deputy Minister and Abdul Gani Lone from Handwara, who was appointed as a Minister of State. In the same year’s Lok Sabha elections, Congress swept all the 6 seats including Anantnag where Mohammad Shafi Qureshi was declared elected unopposed.

As Congress in J&K developed factionalism between GM Sadiq’s and Syed Mir Qasim’s groups, Jamaat-e-Islami discovered an excellent opportunity to align with one group. In defiance to Sheikh’s boycott call, it fielded candidates in the Panchayat elections of 1969 which were contested on non-party basis.

After an understanding with one faction of Congress, JeI fielded candidates in 22 segments in the Assembly elections of 1971. Congress repeated the rigging of the previous elections and grabbed 58 seats but facilitated the JeI to win 5 segments—Sopore (Syed Ali Geelani (Sopore), Tankipora, now Habbakadal (Ghulam Nabi Nowshehri), Khanyar (Qari Saifuddin), Nandi, now Homeshalibug (Ali Mohammad) and Kulgam (Abdul Razaq Mir. It also left 3 to Bhartiya Jana Sangh.

In the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, JeI fielded none other than its 42-year-old firebrand leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani who lost to the Congress candidate Syed Ahmad Agha in Baramulla. Later, Geelani also tried his luck in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections from Baramulla which he lost to NC’s Abdul Ahad Vakil.

Jamaat’s base was limited to a class of well-educated people and it could not claim to be a victim of rigging till 1987 when alienation in the valley was at its peak and Muslim United Front (MUF) had captured a part of the space vacated by Farooq Abdullah’s NC. Even after winning 5 seats courtesy Congress in 1972, JeI bagged only one seat of Geelani with a thin margin of 33 seats in Sopore in 1977. Geelani polled 16,717 votes against his NC rival Hakim Habibullah’s 16,684. In 1983, JeI did not get a single seat.

Democracy dawned in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in 1977 when history’s cleanest Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were presided over by Governor L.K. Jha and both were swept by Sheikh’s NC.

When, post-Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s Congress lost the Lok Sabha elections to Janata Party and Morarji Desai took over as Prime Minister on 24 March 1977, Congress in J&K withdrew support from Sheikh’s government on 26 March 1977. Before the floor test, Sheikh recommended to Governor Jha the dissolution of Assembly and fresh Assembly elections. After a huge constitutional controversy, Sheikh had the last laugh. President’s rule was imposed and Jha supervised the first clean Assembly elections in J&K in June 1977.

Winning 47 seats out of 76—as many as 39 in Kashmir where JeI’s Geelani got Sopore with 33 votes and Janata Party’s Abdul Gani Lone and Abdul Rashid Kabli were returned from Handwara and Eidgah respectively—Sheikh was inducted as Chief Minister of the first legitimately elected democratic government.

While historic manipulation and established rigging, including invalidation of the opposition candidates’ nominations and tactical victories of proxy candidates, took place at a phenomenal scale in 1951—1972, politicians, commentators and analysts have been selectively and conveniently referring only to the alleged rigging on some seats in the 1987 Assembly elections. It suited a populist sentiment after the eruption of the militancy in 1989.