Between the arrival and the beginning of the youthful defiance of Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai is the trajectory of the man who always chose workmanship over leadership.
In a stockpile of intelligence files, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai remains a revered rival. The ruthless state managers respect the man for his unflinching and razor-sharp intellect. There’s a name for him in those files—“Bullet Brain”—given for his ability to make instant decisions without fearing for consequences.
That man is now Syed Ali Geelani’s successor and Tehreek-e-Hurriyat’s new boss.
The ‘Sehrai moment’—given his textbook toil—has come a bit late, argue his admirers, who term him “an ideal follower of an ideal leader”. The Lolab man—“hardly having any pretensions about him”—is known to keep a low-key profile and has been a shadow of Geelani since 1959 when as class 10 student, he met the young Geelani and was left fascinated with his Islamic speeches and scholarly bent of mind.
“Throughout his life,” says a senior Hurriyat leader, “Sehrai lived by his name.” Originally born as Ashraf Ali in 1944 to the family of Khans—who had migrated to Tikki Pora Lolab from West Province in Pakistan before the Partition—he chose a name Sehrai implying ‘floater’ in a prison in company of Geelani. Since then, he is known to float between prisons and interrogation centres.
But as a defiant youth, he first landed in jail in 1965 and continued facing incarcerations. In the sixties itself, Sehrai returned from the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University with BA (Hons) in Urdu—before adding Aadeb-e-Mahir and Aadeb-e-Kamil degrees to his name. He is being credited for launching JeI’s student wing, Shooba-i-Talaba, which was later renamed as Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba.
Sehrai had freshly stepped out of the Central Jail Jammu in 1986 when Jama’at fielded him as Muslim United Front (MUF) candidate from Kupwara. Previously, JeI had fielded him against Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from Ganderbal. Standing against “the lion of Kashmir”—apparently devoid of opposition—was itself a display of Sehrai’s fearless conduct.
“Apart from then odd campaigning gimmicks of MUF, including dressing their candidates in shrouds, flaunting firearms or invoking djinns to woo voters in their rallies,” says a senior scribe, “it was Sehrai, whose fiery speeches—conveniently mixing religion and politics—were getting noticed in a local press. His oratory skills would simply turn you into his captive audience.”
After 1987 elections were rigged, with most MUF leadership and their polling agents dragged to dungeons, Sehrai assumed the role of a captain whose immediate challenge was to steer clear the ship caught in the political tempest.
As a caretaker of Jama’at’s Batmaloo office, Sehrai would talk less like a romantic and more of a realistic, rubbishing the claims that “rigging prevented massive mandate to MUF”. In case of fair polls, he believed that MUF could’ve emerged as the reckoning opposition with around 20 seats only.
Once left battered in a crackdown by the Farooq Abdullah government, Sehrai strongly resisted the post-1987 poll events in Kashmir. His criticism to Shimla Agreement finally sent him back to jail.
Even among the insurgents of yore, Sehrai commands respect for lifting the prison mood with his scholarly take and authority on Iqbaliyat.
“I remember when we were rounded off after MUF elections,” says a former Al Jihad commander, now a low-key trader, “we were badly tortured and had reached to a point of break down. It was then, most of us found Sehrai Sahab around us, who would quote the Prophet’s (PBUH) life example. His words helped us sustain and brave that harsh jail period.”
Sehrai was one of the first Jama’at leaders to endorse the armed uprising as a means of struggle against the Indian control in Kashmir, the former rebel says. “And the man did suffer for his unbending conviction.”
With Geelani, he floated TeH in August 2004, following a split in Hurriyat Conference with JeI’s support. While Geelani became its chairman, Sehrai was its Secretary General — until he succeeded 88-year-old rehbar on March 19, 2018.
But as speculations and timing of his succession continue to set the rumour mills on fire in Srinagar, it would be interesting to see how the ideal worker—known for his open insurgent support—will play as headman.
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