The Ordeal of a Kashmiri journalist

Book: Shabistaan-e  Wajood
Author: Maqbool Sahil
Publisher: Meezan Publishers, Srinagar J&K
Year: 2009
Price: Rs 350
Pages: 355

  Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander

Jail is altogether a different world where only the supposedly guilty are confined as a way of punishment. The word punishment seems harsh to the State and Establishment which boasts that jail punishment is only a reformation period in the life of those who have gone astray from the right path, thus posing a threat to the peace, harmony and unity of the society. In any conflict zone, the role of jails becomes indispensable as the numbers of distracted and youths gone astray suddenly shoot up and the prison provides the ideal place to bring these disgruntled youths to the road of salvation as described in the Gospel of State.

Kashmir since the partition of the Subcontinent has remained a thorn in flesh of Indian polity and dissidents, disgruntled and dissatisfied, have always found prisons a home away from home especially but since the last twenty two years when widespread militancy led the state use prisons for imparting the Gospel of State to these distracted souls. As the norm, innocents too are also crushed in this sysem of justice alongwith the guilty because Law is blind.

The book under review is the ordeal of an innocent person who suffered due to rivalries and callous attitude of the Justice system. The author is a well-known journalist, poet and short-story writer of Kashmir Valley who was made to spend more than three and a half years in different prisons and interrogation centres of Jammu and Kashmir. This book brings about various facets of Sahil’s life, from his childhood to education, career and marriage but the subject matter of the book revolves around the issue of his arrest, interrogation, days in prison, trial, freedom alongwith glimpses of his inspiring and dedicated journalistic life.

A large number of Kashmiris have undergone the experience of interrogation and jail life especially the separatist leaders but one of them, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has come out with four tomes of his prison diaries Rudad-e-Qafas (two volumes), Maqtal Say Wapsi (Return from Slaughterhouse) and Bharat Kay Istimari Harbay - Kralagund Say Jodhpur Tak while others have failed to document their experiences. Even Sheikh Abdullah and his compatriots Mirza Afzal Beg and Maulana Masoodi failed on this account. Other lesser known mortals who are mostly illiterate can’t be held guilty, though before Sahil published his prison ordeal, another Kashmiri journalist, Iftikhar Geelani, had published his experiences in Tihar jail titled as My Days in Prison.

Sahil was charged with being an ISI agent who used to acquaint with army using his press cover and allegedly passed on the information to his mentors, i.e., ISI of Pakistan. The description of life in prison and interrogation centres is hair-raising and a reader can’t believe that even in this age of human dignity, respect and honour such inhuman practices are carried out. Though Sahil was well-known to the high echelons of power as well as to Police officials but this acquaintance proved to him of no help in easing his interrogation or reducing the jail term because, as he says, the Centre enjoys supremacy over the state government in case of Kashmir.

To retain one’s mental balance is very crucial yet a difficult task when one is in jail because the moment a person enters its gate the convict, guilty or innocent, becomes target of jail mates and administrators who pressurize him in every manner, while for the outside world he becomes an outcaste and friends, relatives, neighbours and acquaintances start shunning him though these ‘well wishers’ never lose any opportunity to usurp the convict’s property in cash or kind as well as to harass his  family. Sahil is very angry with the conscience-keepers of society, i.e., journalists, the fraternity to which he belongs for not voicing their concern about his unjust arrest and trial. Instead, they meekly accepted the official version as Gospel truth.

The life in jails especially Kathua, Aphala Jail Jammu (where no rules are followed and convicts are kept as cattle) are described as well as the stories of many other convicts who have been falsely implicated, many by renegades who work hand in glove with the army and police or caught in acts of revenge by enemies in which innocents become scapegoats.

The author has thrown ample light on mutual bickering, politics and exploitation in jails. How undue profits are earned exploiting basic necessities required by inmates, how Police and jail officers accept bribes to grant “concessions” and how they cash the helplessness of inmates into profits and how Hindutva goons in collaboration with jail authorities make the life of Kashmiri prisoners a virtual hell, and how these communal elements are nourished and supported by those incharge of the jail system.

The justice process and trial too could not escape the vigilant and critical eye of Sahil who recorded how the Police and other security agencies delay to dispatch the accompanying squad to take the convicts to court proceedings and in this process the court dates get missed and justice delayed. Sahil was slapped with the notorious Public Safety Act (PSA) four times. The PSA was eventually quashed by the court same number of times. He records a contrast in the application of PSA in the two regions of J&K, i.e., Jammu and Kashmir, whereas in Kashmir PSA is mostly quashed in courts but in Jammu any appeal for quashing PSA is routinely rejected and the convict has to spend two or more years in jail.

Whereas Sahil is critical of the jail authorities and justice system, he is not biased so as to not acknowledge the services, good character and humane qualities of some  Police officials, staff and inmates, though he criticises the lack of discipline and self-abnegation among some convicted “freedom fighters” as well as their leaders and torch-bearers of the movement who have forsaken them and let them rot inside the prisons instead of taking care of their families and visiting them in jails and enquiring about their affairs though these ‘leaders’ never let go any opportunity to credit themselves as the inheritors of Martyrs Legacy.

This book is a must read for understanding what went wrong with our justice and prison systems as well as to understand a state’s wrath on a conscience-keeper of society who utilised his time, opportunity and solace which jail offered him so well that he came out with seven books in this brief period of time thus proving a source of inspiration and offering a role model to be emulated by those who think and believe that jail life can’t be productive. Alongwith his own prolific outpourings he helped other separatist Ghulam Ahmad Mir to compile his reminiscences of life from being an army man to a secessionist titled as Meiney Kashmir Jalte Huwe Dekha (I Witnessed Kashmir Burning).

This book also throws light on various turning points, events and personalities related to the armed struggle and offers a political, social and diplomatic insight into various facets of the armed struggle which till now had remained hidden.

The reviewer is a writer-activist based in Srinagar