In a detailed interview SAR Geelani spoke to Imran Muzaffar at his residence in New Delhi on Kashmir, his political beliefs, why the state wants to ‘eliminate’ him, his time in jail and a host of other issues
The Indian state is against me. It has always been against me. It is not just to muzzle any other voice within India. It is a specific voice: that of a Kashmiri, Muslim who demands right to self-determination
To begin on a lighter note, getting into jail has become a habit with you or a custom with the Indian state to put you behind the bars?
Well, it has definitely become a habit of the Indian state in a way that they sort of feel that this is a dissenting voice which needs to be muzzled who they have not been able to silence by any other means. They think to keep me behind the bars is the only option. Basically what happens is that I try to remove the facade of the so-called largest democracy and expose its fascist face. It doesn’t suit them when somebody unveils that fascist disposition so they try to put him behind the bars. They try to sort of eliminate you through lawful or unlawful means. This (imprisoning) is another way of choking that free voice.
Can you recall what it was like when you were first taken to jail in the Parliament attack case in 2001? And how were things different or similar this time around?
The first difference is that in earlier case there was no FIR lodged in my name, but this time they lodged the FIR. However, this time around they sensationalized it by choosing to sort of kidnap me. They didn’t come to home, not even the office, but chose to pick me up from the road. I had security with me. They could have red upon them. The way they came, they looked like a group of robbers who wanted to rob me. And most of them were without uniform. My security were about to retaliate and open re upon them, but I stopped them. This could have resulted in a bloodbath. Some of them could have got killed and if they would have retaliated somebody among us would have got injured. And I was at a petrol pump. It could have resulted in a disaster. In 2001, I was kidnapped like this. They didn’t come with a formal arrest warrant or a call for investigation. So their method of arrest that time too was similar. They haven’t changed their attitude. In my earlier jail period, I have witnessed third degree torture. More than that, actually. When I look back today, I wonder how I survived. But this time it was not like that, apart from one thing that I was deprived of sleep which gave me high blood pressure.
While in jail your family must have been on top of your mind. Tell us about that.
Well, that time in 2001 my children were just kids; the son was not even in school. That time they were not aware of what was happening around. And then they were kidnapped from the home. That was actually when they could not break me by physical torture. So they kidnapped my family to build a psychological pressure on me. They wanted me to confess whatever they wanted and toe their line. I refused. So they found it a weapon to kidnap my family. This time that didn’t happen. And at this moment my children have grown up and I knew that they are strong enough to handle the situation.
Can you give us a picture of what it was inside Tihar where you were lodged?
Was it a sort of déjà vu because you were there in 2001 as well?
Definitely, those memories were there. Where I was recently lodged, I have spent some time there in 2001. Those memories obviously came back to me.
There have been reports that people close to you distanced themselves from you after your arrest. Your colleague Prof. Ali Javed in whose name the hall at the Press Club was booked for the Afzal Guru event said that he had been “misled and betrayed” over the event by you. Your colleagues at the college haven’t shown much interest in your case. The Indian media has ignored you. Your brother Bismillah Geelani had told DNA that the college authorities didn’t even care to check on the family while you were in jail. What reasons do you see for people close to you backing out when they should have supported you?
See, one would expect an academician, a so-called progressive mind to be truthful and honest. Unfortunately that’s not the case. He (Prof. Javed) is general secretary of Progressive Writers Association which was formed in 1936. It was the part of the Communist Party. The association’s basic agenda was to deploy literature for a better, democratic world. The members of this association were people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri. If you see, in Urdu poetry, a poet talks in praise of his Mehbooba (beloved). These persons replaced Mehbooba with Inquilab (revolution) and Vasl (union of lovers) with change. This is how they conceptualized the world. But today when there was time to stand up for freedom of expression and speech, it is unfortunate to see people of the same organisation kneeling before the state. This is called decay. The rise of fascism is not because they have got stronger, it is because there is decay of ideals of a democratic world, of the struggle that talks about democracy.
And this was again in sharp contrast to your arrest in 2001 when you were facing far more serious charges. There were rallies, etc., in your favour. But nothing this time. Why do you think you didn’t get that support this time around though the charge was flimsy and the sedition law itself debatable?
See, the problem in the mainland India is that the concept of freedom of speech is not clear. There are voices which have supported me throughout. But the concept of freedom of speech has also shrunk. People want to remain within their comfort zones. I think they have a difficulty to raise their voices for a person, who is a Muslim, a Kashmiri and talks about the right to self-determination for Kashmir. The second issue is that of hyper-nationalism which forces them to act the way they do. They want to remain in safe zones and want to be seen democratic while owing allegiance to the state.
Talking about Kashmir’s azadi in India is different because the Indian state has been deceiving its own people for the past 69 years. The state has not been telling truth to its people. It has never told them what the Kashmir problem is
Do you think your arrest is part of a concerted effort by the state to shut down debate and discussion on crucial and controversial matters?
Yes, the Indian state is against me. It has always been against me. It is not just to muzzle any other voice within India. It is a specific voice: that of a Kashmiri, Muslim who demands right to self-determination. The problem for the Indian state arises when I talk about the right to self-determination in mainland India, across its length and breadth. I have done programmes and rallies and have talked about freedom of Kashmir. Talking about Kashmir’s azadi in India is different because the Indian state has been deceiving its own people for the last 69 years. The state has not been telling truth to its people. It has never told them what the Kashmir problem is. When I talk with people, I tell them how important is to solve Kashmir issue. That’s why I become an open target for them.
How does the Indian media come across to you as far as this event and your arrest are concerned?
In 2001, the Indian media acted as a spokesperson of the state. It didn’t act as the fourth estate as it is called. That time the most progressive newspapers published the headline, ‘The university don guided Fidayeen to the Parliament.’ For the first sixth months, there was partial reporting and information about the case was published solely based on what the state said. The media didn’t bother to consider the other side. After eight months, however, there was some change. Some sections of the media started carrying the other side because of some individuals in media. Because when these persons saw proceedings in the court, they realised what they were writing. But not all of them were like that. Majority acted as the agents of the state. This time again, media played in the hands of the state, muzzling voice, giving a wrong picture and being part of a witch-hunt. However there were exceptions.
After BJP’s ascendancy to power, there obviously has been an all round atmosphere of intolerance. How do you see this atmosphere of fear and what consequences can it have?
You can’t expect the Indian state to tolerate me. It hasn’t even tolerated its own citizens. See how Prof. M.M. Kalburgi was murdered, how Aamir Khan was targeted. These people were not asking for self-determination. They too were not spared. This government has come up with an agenda. Again I say that it is not fascism that has grown stronger but remnants that talk about democratic values have gotten weak. Democracy is not mere elections and ascendancy to power. That’s not democracy. If that was democracy, this Indian government has come to power with a minority vote. In comparison if we look at Hitler, he came to power with full backing. If he was fascist, what do we call the Indian government? Democracy is in vibrancy of institutions of the state and that’s what determines a democracy. The agenda of this government is Hindutva and it is a total fascist dispensation.
Some people have been saying you invited it upon yourself knowing that you were in the cross hairs of the state in 2001 and that you should have been cautious. How do you respond to that?
See, this isn’t my first time. When they hanged Afzal, I did a programme in 2014 and 2015. In 2013, I not only held a programme, we did a protest march in front of the Supreme Court. Now the people who talk about the right to self-determination should not stay in a comfort zone. They should not expect a red carpet. That thinking needs to change. I think our failure of not attaining the right to self-determination is because our leadership has been very cautious about not going an extra-mile which is required. You won’t be gifted roses. We have to chase.
Do you mean to say that the leadership is being more diplomatic?
There is a difference between electoral politics and the revolutionary politics. I think the leadership is in the mode of electoral politics not revolutionary politics.
Can you elaborate?
See, electoral politics is playing to the gallery, staying in the comfort zone. In revolutionary politics your aim is not to attain power; revolutionary politics is swimming against the tide. And it is not possible to do both at the same time: swimming against the tide and being in the comfort zone.
Do you intend to say that leadership is after power?
No, I am not saying they are after power. I am saying that revolutionary politics requires something extra…
And what is that extra?
Something extra is that you don’t have to see that this or that might hit the state at the wrong place. You don’t have to be very cautious about that. You have to do something that gives you mileage towards achieving your goal.
You haven’t generated any sympathy among Indians and the media for your release which is in sharp contrast to what we saw in favour of the JNU leaders who were arrested for exactly the same charges? What do you attribute this lack of sympathy to? Does it have something to do with your being a Kashmiri Muslim?
As I already mentioned, the basic difference is my being a Muslim, a Kashmiri and one who calls for freedom of his homeland. It makes the difference. It is problematic for the Indian state.
In 2001 the Delhi police had described you as the “mastermind” of the Parliament attack. In this current case they say the event you organised at the Press Club was “an attack on the soul of India.” In the first case there was no evidence. This case also seems to have no evidence. How does it affect you when such strong and insinuating allegations by the police are made against you when they have no hardcore evidence to prove the case?
I won’t say it doesn’t affect me. It affects me very much. After all I too am a human being. All this treatment had the potential to create negative emotions and weaken me as a person. But then I channelize this energy into something positive. I won’t compromise with my principles, my politics. And I have the conviction towards my goal.
And what’s that goal?
In terms of politics, it is the freedom of Kashmir. And in terms of other things, I want to be a good human being. You see, I treat my security guards very well. Most of them love me. Those who were with me 10 years back still wish me well. They know that I am a hardcore Kashmiri and yearn for Kashmir’s azadi. But at the end of the day I don’t compromise on my principles. One has to be truthful. That’s what gives you strength. It’s not something that I do for convenience, it is a conviction.
You were shot at in 2005 but the police never traced your would-be murderers. Are there double standards at play?
The Indian state knew about it. In fact it was the state that had hired the killers.
Few bullets are still inside your body?
Electoral politics is playing to the gallery, staying in the comfort zone. In revolutionary politics your aim is not to attain power; revolutionary politics is swimming against the tide. And it is not possible to do both at the same time
Yes, I do (laughs out loud).
A lot many times. Sometimes they make me very uncomfortable.
Did you try to have these bullets removed because it must be a burden for you both physical as well as ideological?
Yes, one bullet can be removed, but the others can’t because they are very close to the heart.
It seems very ideological: bullets of the state close to the heart of a freedom lover?
Yes, obviously, it is (laughing).
How is it like being back in the family?
I feel very happy and it is beyond measure and description. I have had full faith in Allah. I knew I will be back. I knew it in 2001 too.
And how was missing your family like when you were in jail?
It’s very simple. One has to sacrifice personal emotions when you know you are serving a greater cause. By holding a programme might not have received much attention, but with the Indian state’s clampdown it became more popular. That’s why I say my incarceration has served a better cause.
Your children have bravely stood up to these tough times. Anything you would like to share on that?
Last time my children didn’t have the sense of what is happening and now they are grown-ups. I don’t impose my opinions on them. They have their own understanding with which they see the world. Of course, they have struggled a lot in my absence. But then they understand. They are enough strong to realize the result of speaking the truth.
How did 22 months in jail in 2001 and the torture you went through change you?
I can’t visualize a man, a human being, treating another person in such a manner as I witnessed in the Tihar. One feels it as the pinnacle of degradation of humanity. When they would torture me, one day I looked into the eyes of the interrogator and asked him, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed to do all this?’ The other time he couldn’t face me. He would lower his gaze and look away. There is nothing of humanity in there. The torture is beyond barbarism. When I was taken to the judge, my wounds were bleeding and judge could see that. I told her, ‘Don’t you see my wounds. I want to have access to my lawyer.’ The judge heard it and said nothing. Such are the levels of barbarism. It’s beyond imagination. Sometimes I think survival is a miracle.
Any incident that happened during your time in jail in 2001 that you found particularly unsettling?
Yes, there were attempts on my life when I was in jail in 2001. Even though I was in high security zone, the murderers would find their way to the ward where I was held. These murderers would be intoxicated.
How many attempts were made?
Many, lot many.
What did they attack you with? Weapons or daggers?
Yes, they would carry daggers. The high security ward is a jail within the jail. Even a superintendent is frisked on entering the ward. Even then the murderers would carry knives and surgical blades.
How did you fend off those attacks?
Many times I was lucky enough to be supported by other inmates. They have stopped many bids on my life. But one day a murderer came near to me and said ‘I have come to kill you. I don’t want to kill you, but I have been told to do so.’ He tried and I stopped him with the help of other inmates. The state also tried to poison me but I was lucky to survive.
Are you going to take some sort of sabbatical from all these activities that are repeatedly getting you into trouble or has this experience galvanised your resolve as an activist?
I believe I got many lives. Normally a person gets only one. Allah gave me many chances. Given these many chances and life being short, I can’t afford to take rest. The Hereafter is for rest. Allah may never ask me whether I got azadi for Kashmir, but I will be asked whether I put in my efforts or not when I had life. So my work continues.