SAR Geelani was persecuted, tortured and vilified. But he never stopped fighting for what’s right

The Delhi University teacher who was accused and then acquitted in the Parliament attack case died on Thursday.

ByMihir Srivastava
SAR Geelani was persecuted, tortured and vilified. But he never stopped fighting for what’s right
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What does not kill you makes you stronger. In that sense, SAR Geelani, the Delhi University professor who was accused and eventually acquitted in the Parliament attack case, was a very strong man. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” 

Geelani derived his strength from the adversities thrown at him by the Indian state — the latest being his suspension from his teaching job on sedition charges for allegedly organising an event in 2016 to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru who was hanged for his alleged role in the Parliament attack of December 2001. His situation seemed to be finally improving when Geelani died of a heart attack on Thursday evening. 

I knew Geelani since 2005. I was working on a series of stories on fake encounters then and ended up doing an article on the Parliament attack case. Geelani, along with Afzal Guru, featured in the story headlined “Guilty of an Unsolved Crime”, published in Tehelka. A conclusion that was not difficult to draw: Geelani was acquitted by the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the decision. 

The Delhi police had claimed, based on “reliable confessions” of Geelani and his fellow accused — but in the glaring absence of collaborative evidence — that one and a half dozen people were involved in the attack. Five of them — identified as Mohammad, Tariq, Hamza, Rana and Raja — who stormed the Parliament House were gunned down within a few minutes. Four were arrested — Afzal Guru, his cousin Shaukat Guru, Shaukat’s wife Afsan, and Geelani. Geelani and Afsan were eventually acquitted by the top court, which deemed their confessions to be unreliable. Ghazi Baba, Masood Azhar and Tariq Ahmed — the Pakistani “masterminds” of the attack as per the police — were never apprehended. 

Baba was shot dead by the security forces in Kashmir three years after the attack. Any guesses who identified his body? Afzal Guru did in his capacity as a former militant. Afzal was made to identify the five terrorists killed at the Parliament House as well after Geelani plainly refused to do so for the simple reason that he didn’t know them. Geelani underwent the worst kind of torture, spent years in jail because, by his own admission, he would not sign blank papers. 

It’s not the loopholes in the case that have bewildered me as much as that the police did not even try to hide them. It would have required reasonable application of mind of a person of average intelligence to do so. Only two of the accused were eventually convicted, Shaukat and Afzal. The former was given 10 years in prision while the latter was sentenced to death to satisfy the “collective conscience of society”, as the Supreme Court put it, after being held guilty of murder and waging war against the state. In its verdict, however, the apex court clarified that neither were being convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and that Afzal did not belong to a terrorist group. 

In February 2013, Afzal was clandestinely executed in Tihar Jail. His body was buried at an undisclosed location within the premises of the jail rather than being handed over to his family. Manmohan Singh, prime minister at the time, and the whole establishment ironically seemed quite apologetic about the hanging of a man convicted of “waging a war against the state”.   

After his acquittal, Geelani was visiting his lawyer Nandita Haksar in February 2005 when he was shot at by unidentified gunmen. He just survived, after a month-long battle with death. When I visited him in hospital his ward was cordoned off for security reasons. Even the family’s access was regulated. His son, Atiq, barely five years old, was waiting anxiously to get a glimpse of his father. Geelani survived and became stronger. His attackers were never found. The case was not pursued nor was a chargesheet filed. Geelani described them as the “mercenaries of intelligence agencies”, and even took names. 

After the attack he was accorded the highest level of Z plus security. Half a dozen Black Cats would huddle on the small veranda at the entrance to his home on the fourth floor of a building in the congested neighbourhood of Batla House, the scene of several police encounters which human rights activists describe as “fake” and “murders in cold blood”. He was always trailed by an armed policeman who would stand by the door as Geelani took classes at Zakir Husain College.  

We met many times over the last few years. He became a friend and confidante. He was well-informed about Kashmir’s politics as well as issues related to terror investigations. His growing popularity in Kashmir didn’t go down well with local politicians. He was accused of being “very ambitious”. 

We would often talk about the Parliament attack case. He was represented by such legal luminaries as Haksar and Ram Jethamalani. Afzal was not so lucky. Geelani would often say, “Had I not been represented by good lawyers, I would have met the same fate as Afzal. It is quite possible. And if Afzal had had the benefit of being represented by a good lawyer, especially at the trial stage, he’d be alive.” 

Geelani thought himself blessed to be alive, and believed that he was born to serve a higher purpose. A believer, he resolved to fight for the rights enshrined in our constitution. Suddenly there was a clamour to own his legacy and take credit for his acquittal. The human rights fraternity can get extremely insecure. Geelani, by his own admission, felt that Haksar was rather possessive about him. There were camps within the human rights fraternity. There were those who did the hard work, like Prof Nirmalangshu Mukerjee who attended every court hearing, while others became the face of the movement by writing fine narratives in leading publications. Geelani gravitated towards Arundhati Roy. 

He was fairly measured in what he wanted to tell a journalist. But there were weak moments when he craved to speak his mind, and demanded an honest hearing. He was interested in my art project and would laugh loudly when I’d reaffirm, “Nudity is a great leveller.”  

The last time I met him was a few months ago. I was led into his house after my belongings were checked by the security personnel. I realised some rooms had been added to the house, the terrace was converted into a drawing room, filled with oversized sofas. I was offered water by a young man, tall and thin, with a curly beard on a face that bore resolute expression. He didn’t betray a smile when I thanked him. He left in a hurry after ensuring I was comfortably seated. “Abbu will join you soon,” I heard him say as he walked out of the room. Geelani confirmed with a smile it was his son Atiq, a grown man now. He is studying to be a lawyer. Atiq explained in English that he wanted to be a human rights lawyer to make sure people didn’t suffer like his father. He was young but he remembers the ordeal, he said. 

I suggested doing a story on people accused of terrorism. There are many here in Delhi who were held for years in jail, tortured and tormented before being acquitted one fine day as if nothing had ever happened. In the meantime, their families were pauperised, parents died, and livelihoods were destroyed. Geelani, in that sense, was relatively better off or could take care of things better — he was a teacher. The most admirable thing about him was that he was never bitter. 

I complimented him for putting on weight the last time I met him, “Geelani sahib do you go to the gym every morning?” He forced a smile, he did not take it as a compliment. 

Geelani was candid and thoughtful in his deliberations. When he was cornered, he would become outspoken. In one of the last conversations I had with him, he talked about the deterioration of public life, “Modi has destroyed all institutions — the CBI, the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, even has politicised army operations.” Critical of media that’s subservient to power, he was one of the first people to popularise the term “Modia”. 

“If Pragya Singh Thakur can contest elections, why can’t you?” I asked. “Never. I hate vote bank politics.” 

“Freedom of speech and expression has been sacrificed at the altar of nationalism. Nazis and fascists also claimed to be nationalists,” he said animatedly. 

But he didn’t blame the BJP alone for it. He held the Congress and the Left parties equally responsible for having done little to “challenge the BJP/RSS narrative of nationalism that is communal and against all minorities, not just Muslims”. “They are afraid of losing votes,” he reasoned. He lamented how being liberal and secular was considered to be wrong today. He would talk of how anyone who opposed the establishment was dubbed “Urban Naxal” or “anti-national”.

There was perilous silence outside his building in Batla House on Thursday evening. No one was there. The burial will take place in Kashmir. His family will be back in a few weeks. There were no Black Cat commandos guarding his door. I spoke over the phone with a security personnel who guarded Geelani and whom I know well. He had once bemoaned that his sovereign duty was to protect a “terrorist”. Now, after Geelani’s death, he was in tears: “He was a good man.” 

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