By Zoya Sham:
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Kashmiri separatist leader, made a statement recently saying, “I am not by birth Indian. It is a compulsion.” Predictably, this sparked a slew of criticism with many people terming the statement as ‘anti-national’. BJP and Congress leaders slammed him publically, and there was much outrage on social media. His supporters even waved the Pakistani flag in approval. So, what does his statement imply and why is it inviting such a strong reaction?
Geelani applied for an Indian passport recently to travel to Saudi Arabia to visit his ailing daughter. In the nationality column of the passport application form, he filled ‘Indian’. Then, outside the regional passport office, he said since his place of birth is not in India, he should not be considered as an Indian. Further, a Hurriyat spokesperson added that, “travelling on the Indian passport is a compulsion of every Kashmiri”. 
Geelani was born in 1929, when Kashmir was a princely state and not part of the Indian administration. However, post-1947 it became a disputed territory under the Union of India. So Geelani is partly right when he says his place of birth is not India (or was not at that time). Today, he is a separatist leader, part of the Kashmiri self-determination movement to establish Kashmir’s ‘azadi’ from India.
India was formed by the unification of several states under the British. This makes it a melting pot of languages, ethnicities and religions. The history of self-determination movements in India goes as far back as the country itself. Movements for independent recognition in the North East, Punjab (Khalistan), and Tamil Nadu have been going on for decades. However, the most prominent of these movements is in Kashmir.
Although for most ‘Indianness’ comes from embracing the diversity that is an integral part of the country, for many it’s difficult to accept being a minority in their own homeland. As the principle of a separatist agenda is secession from a nation that denies you freedom to self-determination, Geelani is justified in saying that he feels ‘Indian by compulsion’. Idris Khan, a Kashmiri businessman says, “Although I am not personally opposed to identifying as Indian, for many Kashmiris, writing their nationality on official documents feels as uncomfortable as one would to write their religion or caste – fearful because they don’t want it to be a criteria on which their character is judged – Still, it is necessary.” Therefore, in their struggle to establish an independent identity, stating their nationality as ‘Indian’ on official documents seems like surrender.
Conversely, another Kashmiri I spoke to said that by identifying as an Indian national, citizens have claim to many rights, liberties and securities provided by the state to all its citizens. So writing ‘Indian’ in the nationality column of your passport application is vital if you’re enjoying the privileges that come with that title. He further iterated that Syed Ali Geelani too enjoys security and rights provided by the state and thus might be anti-Indian in claiming to be Indian by compulsion and not identity.
Like these Kashmiris, many Indians feel detached from their ethnic identity while still appreciating the benefits of being an Indian citizen. Supporters in Kashmir argue that if superpowers like the Soviet Union could secede territory than why can’t India do the same? However, the government is fearful of these movements’ impact on national security and setting precedent for other such movements. Do you think a compromise is in order? If so, what could it be?