After Geelani, who?
Many consider Ashraf Sehrai to be the likely successor.
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The thorn in India's side in Kashmir has been Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the de facto leader of young Kashmir. Geelani has not been keeping well for two years, and talks of his succession are in the air. To fit his shoes would be a tough job. The riddle for his party is: After Geelani, who?
Some of the men in Geelani's inner circle have been in the limelight. Some are little known to the outside world. Among them is his trusted aide, Mohammad Ashraf Ali, whose nom de plume is Ashraf Sehrai. His significance can be judged from the fact that many consider him the likely successor of Geelani.
Sehrai, the son of Shamas-ud-din Khan, was born in 1944 in Tickipora Lolab, Kupwara. His forefathers had migrated to this part of Kashmir much before Partition. Sehrai's family is linked to the Khans of Pakistan.
Sehrai studied in Tickipora till primary level, before moving on to Sogam High school for further studies. He passed his matriculation examination in 1959.
Sehrai recalls that he was a bright, intelligent but shy student who took great interest in debates and discussions on religious and political discourses. He was given wazifa (scholarship) in class ten given his intellect and command over Persian, Arabic and Urdu languages.
He did BA (Hons) in Urdu from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Sehrai also has the prestigious Urdu degrees of Aadebe Mahir and Aadebe Kamil.
Like many other Kashmiris, Sehrai fondly recalls that he was taught by Kashmiri pandit teachers. One of his childhood teachers was Gopi Nath Kaul, who taught him English. Sehrai holds him in high regard and still remembers how he taught him like his own child.
His two brothers, who were politically and religiously active, were one of the early Rukuns (basic member) of the Jamaat. To be a Rukun of the Jamaat is not easy, as one has to go through various levels of Islamic ritual.By now, the Jamaat had made a base in Tickipora. The man who took the Jamaat to far-flung areas was the old-school Geelani.
Young Geelani was made the Jamaat's Baramulla district president. He used to visit Tickipora frequently, and it was during these visits that he met Sehrai. Sehrai was impressed by Geelani's hold on the Quran and Hadees (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). Sehrai was also impressed by Geelani's command on Maulana Abul Ala Maududi's literature. He was also enthused by Geelani's sinewy speeches.
Sehrai now fondly recalls that Geelani used to lovingly call him Ashlala.
Sehrai finished class ten when he was 17. By this time, Geelani was 30-years-old, and Halqiy-e-Sopore (Sopore's base of the Jamaat). He was in dire need of young blood for the party. Sehrai's elder brother motivated him to join Geelani.
By this time, Sehrai had developed a keen interest in the writings of Maududi. For understanding Maududi better, Geelani was the best teacher Sehrai could have asked for.
He joined Geelani in 1959 – and has stayed with him since. He says now, "I am a shadow of Geelani right from 1959. I have never gone to my home with the intention of not coming back. He is my Rehbar (leader) and I am his follower."
Sehrai continues to be a lover of literature and poetry, but is not engaged in writing anymore because of his political engagements. Most of his writings and poems were published by Jamaat's Azaan andTulu magazines.
In 1965, when he was 22-years-old, Sehrai was jailed for the first time for "anti-government activities". He was imprisoned in Srinagar Central Jail for about six months.
In jail, he started reading Kounsar Niyazi's work Zaree Gul. He narrates an interesting story about how his name changed from Ashraf Ali to Ashraf Sehrai. He says laughing, "Geelani Sahab, Shah Wali Mohammad of Seelu, Sopore and I were lodged in Srinagar Central Jail. After reading Niyazi's work, I wrote 'Sehrai' (floater). At this (sic) young age, I was thinking that what I am doing in a jail. I was also missing my parents and my home. That is why the word 'Sehrai' came to my mind. Shah Wali saw the name and exclaimed 'Sehrai' and showed it to Geelani Sahab. From then onwards I became Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai."
Sehrai calls Geelani his Rehbar and also his brother. "I have never tried to compete with him. I cannot even think of competing with him," he says.
Their strongest bond is the Kashmir movement. It has kept them together for 56 years. Their ideological bond continues to thrive and attracts the youth of Kashmir to both of them. Sehrai says ideology is the base of any movement.
In his views, the recent failure of talks between the two nuclear states - India and Pakistan - happened because the Kashmiris (the primary party to the dispute) were not included in the dialogue process. He also is a firm believer of intervention by a third party, like the United Nations or a neutral country - in the Kashmir dispute.
Sehrai was one of the key Hurriyat leaders during the 2010 unrest in Kashmir. Many in Kashmir now think that the agitation in 2010 gave them nothing. But Sehrai views the failure of 2010 differently. He says, "There were some strategic mistakes on the part of the leadership like (sic) we gave long strike calls which disillusioned certain sections of Kashmir. I must say that 2010 was a collective failure for Kashmir."
The other two main contenders in the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat to succeed Geelani are the hardcore Mohammad Qasim Faktoo (Asiya Andrabi's husband) and the showstopper Masarat Alam Bhat. Both of them are in jail, and may not be released soon. Many activists and cadre in the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat believe that Sehrai is a capable man, holds command and has a say among the masses. Since the other leaders are languishing in jail, he may be the likely successor of Geelani.But Sehrai says that if he ever has to succeed Geelani, it will be Gunah-e-Be' lazath (Sin without a benefit) for him.
As a shy man, Sehrai has always avoided the limelight. This is why he is largely unknown in the glaring eye of the media and the public.