Opinion

Kashmiri bureaucrat Shah Faesal’s story is that of an unwilling poster boy for the Indian state

In the battle of perceptions between Delhi and Kashmir, the IAS officer facing an inquiry for tweeting about rape has long been used as an ideological pawn.

Shah Faesal, the Indian Administrative Service officer designated the “good Kashmiri” in the nationalist pantheon, will be investigated for his remarks made on Twitter.

On Wednesday, Faesal shared a “love letter” from his “boss”, the Centre, telling the Jammu and Kashmir administration to initiate action against him. Shah’s offence: posting about “Rapistan”, a product of illiteracy, population, porn, alcohol, patriarchy, technology, anarchy. Presumably, the Centre feels this violates conduct rules which forbid civil servants from criticising government policy in public, although it is not clear from the tweet exactly which policy is being criticised.

Faesal had posted the supposedly offending tweet after the Kathua case – where an eight-year-old girl was killed after being allegedly raped – hit the national headlines and triggered vicious communal agitations in Jammu early this year. It may have alluded to the hooliganism of saffron groups newly formed in the state but Faesal claims the tweet really referred to a “rape culture” spanning South Asia.

Besides, as Faesal points out, it may be time to upturn colonial notions curtailing a government employee’s freedom of speech. The All India Services Conduct Rules, 1968, conjure up a phalanx of the faithful, barred from questioning even outrageous government policies, their lives devoted to sarkari protocol.

But it is not just a debate about restrictions imposed on the “steel frame” that has drawn attention to this episode. Faesal is no ordinary bureaucrat. In the battle of perceptions between Delhi and Kashmir, he has been turned into an ideological pawn.

‘Good Kashmiri’

Faesal shot to fame in 2009, when he became the first person from Jammu and Kashmir to top the Indian civil service examination. The press feted the bespectacled young man who had overcome conflict and personal tragedy to succeed and to participate in Indian democracy. In a recent piece, Faesal writes movingly about belonging to a family of “fence sitters” who wanted to stay aloof from both militants and security forces, and how his father was shot by “unidentified gunmen” for his pains.

Faesal’s success seemed to break a taboo that had held in Kashmir through the years of conflict. To join the Indian civil services was no longer to be “anti-Kashmir”, and a small industry grew around preparations for civil services. Faesal writes that, for him, joining the services was “part of the larger search to find meaning in the chaos around”. He has also written that Jammu and Kashmir’s political future would be best secured with India. For hundreds of other Kashmiris, the civil services offered an avenue of employment in a Valley that had few to offer, and it did not come in the way of holding on to Kashmiri political ambitions.

Still, like high turnouts for Assembly elections which were counted as votes of confidence in the Indian state, Faesal and the growing interest in civil services fit a convenient script for the establishment. It was a story of successful rehabilitation: aspirational Kashmiris putting the fitful dreams of Azadi behind them and participating in the project of development, which was to bring peace to the Valley.

Poster boys

The fetishisation of what Faesal had come to represent peaked in the summer of 2016, after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani set off mass protests that raged for months.

While the image of the Kashmiri youth was being “reformed” for the national mainstream, other forces were stirring in the Valley. By 2015, Wani and his new crop of fighters had become local celebrities, reviving the militancy that was believed to be a thing of the past and becoming objects of hero worship.

As protestors and stone pelters took to the streets chanting slogans in Wani’s name, sections of the national media forcibly pushed forward the image of Faesal. The contrasts were not explicitly made by government; they featured in the media, which saw itself as speaking for the Indian state. They thrived in an atmosphere of jingoism that emanated from government itself.

TV news channels devoted split screens to Faesal and Wani, cast as the dark alter ego to the bureaucrat. Both were born to relatively affluent families. The first had taken the path prescribed: medicine and then the civil services, casting his lot with Indian democracy. The latter had dropped out of school and taken up arms against the state. These were the two choices open to stone pelters on the street, it was suggested. Faesal, the nationalist consensus ran, was the “real answer to Kashmir’s problems”.

What the split screens hid was a history of state repression in Kashmir. It continued through that summer as nearly 100 civilians were killed and many more maimed in action by security forces. Faesal, caught between the wrath of the Kashmiri street and the savage nationalism of the TV studio, spoke out against the binaries and the “sadistic propaganda machine” of the national media. Spare me, he said, or he would resign his job. He also expressed grief at civilian killings and called himself the “director of shut schools”, as educational institutions remained closed through months of strike and curfew.

It did not matter. If Wani was marked as the adversary of the state, Faesal had to be its acolyte. And acolytes did not speak out. His reasoned protests were drowned that chaotic summer but this time they were heard. Perhaps that is what rankles in certain quarters: the poster boy has spoken out, if not against government then against the vision of a New India that would claim him as its own.

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