Sampat Prakash passed away on July 1, at the age of 84. He was a voice of reason and justice. With his death that voice has been lost. It is a loss for Kashmir and the rest of the country.
Who was Sampat Prakash?
He was a Kashmiri Pandit, a veteran trade union member representing the Jammu and Kashmir trade union movement in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and a communist.
However, he came to prominence in recent years because of the spate of interviews he gave in Urdu and Kashmiri on subjects which have been centre of political controversies such as the repeal of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 and the film, The Kashmir Files.
Prakash pointed out in interview after interview, with the same passion and conviction, that while Kashmiri Pandits suffered under the insurgency, the number of Kashmiri Muslims killed by the militants was by far the greater.
One journalist described him in these words: “He shouts into the phone believing that it is his due diligence to perform such antics for the person on the other side to hear him. He also gesticulates and sensationalises his speech with tone modulations – quintessential of a leader and mass mobiliser. Speaking with fervour, passion, and a high sense of emotions, he may change the perception of what a Kashmiri Pandit is typically imagined to be.”
One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was knowing Prakash. He was a living encyclopaedia on the history, culture and politics in Kashmir. With him, there was no small talk or any niceties. He would plunge into a long monologue on the political situation in Kashmir and his insights would get sharper over a glass of whiskey. He peppered his talk with slogans, poetry, and sometimes after the second glass, with some choice expletives.
It was my privilege to write his biography, The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism From the Cold War to the Present day (2015, reprint 2020), and the story of the trade union movement and to travel across Kashmir to interview his comrades and colleagues in villages and small towns in the Valley. It was an insight into another politics which seldom, if ever formed a part of the narratives on Kashmir’s history.
Prakash described himself as a “humble student of Marx and Lenin”. He was not a theoretician but an organiser. In the course of the 1960s to 1970s, he organised trade unions in every government department. With a series of militant strikes, which were never violent, he improved the working and living conditions of the government employees and later the unorganised workers.
In the process, he had to face time in prison and there too he had unique experiences. One time he found himself with India’s foremost conman, Natwarlal, who gave him sound legal advice and managed to set a precedent in the law of preventive detention in the Sampat Prakash vs Jammu and Kashmir case when the Supreme Court gave its judgement in 1969.
With the insurgency in the Valley starting, Prakash still managed to bring out processions with employees carrying red flags and shouting slogans such as “Red Flag Up, Up” while on the other side the militants took out processions with green flags.
When the circumstances made it impossible for him to live in the Valley and he moved to Jammu, Prakash still continued to fight for the human rights of Kashmiris, refusing to fall into the communal trap that has engulfed many Kashmiris, both Hindu and Muslims. This did not make him popular with his own community but he was never cut off from his roots in the Pandit samaj.
He returned to the Valley the moment the circumstances allowed and was fighting for the rights of people again.
I got to know Prakash when he agreed to be an expert witness in the 2001 Parliament attack case. It was largely his testimony that led to the acquittal of SAR Geelani, the Delhi University lecturer framed in the case. Prakash knew Geelani and his family were affiliated to the Jammat-e-Islami, an ideology and organisation he bitterly opposed and had fought against. But that did not stop him from standing witness to save a fellow Kashmiri who had been framed and would certainly been given a death penalty.
Later, after he retired, Prakash organised senior citizens and took up their cause. At the same time, he brought senior civil servants on a platform to articulate secular politics.
Prakash opposed the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitituion that granted special status to the former state of Jammuand Kashmir in August 2019 and did not mince his words. He also said that the provisions of Article 35A protected the land from transnational corporations. He opposed the attempt by these corporations to take over Gulmarg.
More recently, he decided to organise the unemployed youth in Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir has now secured the third spot on the list of highest unemployment rates in India, at an alarming 23.1%. This marks a significant jump of 6 percentage points from the previous month’s rate of 17.1, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Prakash had invited me for the inauguration of the new trade union. But the inauguration was postponed twice – because of the G20 Summit in Kashmir and later because of the Amarnath Yatra. Now, he has passed away. Will Kashmiri youth find another leader who can direct their anger and grievances into a politics that addresses the real problems people face?
Prakash has spoken of his work as a trade union leader in a long interview given to the Workers Unity YouTube channel.
I have been hearing his interview again and again ever since I heard of his passing. I cannot imagine he is dead. Listening to him speak with passion and conviction of his ideals and values of socialism and secularism; listening to him I am convinced that his ideals and values will inspire another generation of Kashmiri youth as and when they discover the history that Sampat Prakash and the trade union movement represents.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.