On August 5, as the Centre announced it was scrapping special status for Jammu and Kashmir and dividing the state into two Union Territories, leaders across the Kashmir Valley were being rounded up.
That included most leaders of parties which contest elections and are dubbed the political mainstream in the Valley. The only exception seems to have been members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Police sources estimate the number of mainstream political leaders under detention is more than 200. About 50 leaders have been detained at the Centaur Hotel on the banks of the Dal Lake, now turned into a subsidiary jail.
This reporter travelled to Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district to meet Nuzhat Ashfaq. She is the wife of Sheikh Ishfaq Jabbar, a police officer-turned-politician who won assembly elections from Ganderbal on a National Conference ticket in 2014. Ashfaq’s father, Syed Akhoon, is a veteran National Conference leader and former legislator from Srinagar’s Hazratbal area. Both Jabbar and Akhoon are currently detained the Centaur hotel.
Excerpts from the interview:
Could you describe what happened on August 5?
Ishfaq Sahab was in Jammu on Sunday [August 4] and he returned home late on Sunday evening. The next day, he was put under house arrest in the afternoon, when the abrogation of Article 370 was announced. On August 7, the station house officer of our local police station came to our house and asked him to pack his clothes and some essential items.
My father lives in Srinagar. Since communication lines were not working, I don’t exactly know what happened. He was arrested on August 6. I came to know about my father’s detention only when I went to my maternal home days later.
We thought, maybe they will be detained for a day or two but now it has been close to three weeks.
When did you first get to meet them after their detention?
It was on the day before Eid [August 11]. It took a lot of argument with the security officials at the gate.
The local policemen deployed there said they are helpless and it’s not in their hands to allow or disallow anyone’s entry to the hotel.
I had also taken along my two sons. We cried a lot but it didn’t move them [the security officials]. They made us wait for one and a half hours on the road. Finally, we were allowed to meet for just five minutes. My sons were worried that their father was in some cell but Ishfaq Sahab showed them his room inside the hotel. After that, they were relieved.
The next meeting took place on August 24. That day, they allowed us in without any argument. However, there was strict checking. They asked me to deposit my wallet at the gate and they also made me unpack the box of grapes I had taken for my husband.
Earlier, we were counted as VIPs, now even we are being checked and frisked. And for what? It’s saddening. They have withdrawn Ishfaq Sahab’s personal security guards and his vehicle.
Should the government release the mainstream political leaders of Kashmir?
Did you ever imagine that the state which leaders like your husband and father served and believed in would jail them one day?
Does this change your perception of India?
I can’t say anything about India but I can talk about leaders. It’s the first time the BJP has done this. We are all Indians but this happened because of a party.
People ask me are you still Indian? I tell them it’s a party in India which has done it. It’s not India which has done it.
Are you the only individual whose father as well as husband are bearing the brunt of the government crackdown?
You are right. This is the price we have paid for being Indians in a place like Kashmir.
My husband’s father, Abdul Jabbar Sheikh, was killed by militants in the 1990s because he belonged to the National Conference, a party which believed Kashmir’s future was secure with India as it recognised the special identity of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian union. His life is an open book. My father-in-law spent 11 years in jail along with Sheikh Abdullah.
My father and his family fled Kashmir for years after militancy broke out in the valley. He’s one of the few National Conference leaders who kept the party alive during those turbulent years. He sacrificed a lot for the party. When my grandfather died in Kashmir during those years, the government didn’t allow him [Syed Akhoon] to come home and attend his last rites as his life was under danger.
What is your individual stand on the hollowing out of Article 370?
It’s a huge loss for Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah had given land to the tiller in Kashmir after 1947. Those land reforms had protected Kashmiri people. Now, people from outside will come to the Valley and settle here. We don’t know what’s in store for us. This is a loss for Kashmiriyat.
At this juncture, all Kashmiris should put aside their differences and join hands. This is a matter of Kashmir’s identity.
What is the feeling among party workers and supporters?
They drop by every day. They are worried. They think, if their leader has been treated this way, who knows what will happen to them tomorrow. All of them are disturbed.
On Eid, many of them visited and asked if we needed anything. In fact, we didn’t buy anything, the workers brought every necessary item to ensure that we celebrated Eid.
Many say the scrapping of special status has decimated mainstream politics in the state. Do you, as a member of a political family that belonged to this mainstream, feel vulnerable?
I don’t know what will happen now but whatever Allah wishes will be good. People know my family and their sacrifices very well. All of them have been supportive during these times. That way, we feel safe.
How is your father, Syed Akhoon?
The detention has affected him a lot. My father is 67 and he’s diabetic. He needs insulin three to four times every day. At least, he should be let go. He’s very old.
My mother is wheelchair bound. She can’t go to meet him.
How has your family been affected by these detentions?
We don’t have any male member in the family now. It’s me who has to handle all the responsibilities in the absence of Ishfaq Sahab.
I sent my sons – Saaliq and Sabraan – to Jammu last week. They go to a school there. They were here after their father’s detention and were very disturbed. I spoke to them yesterday on the phone and assured them me and “Baba” (Ishfaq Jabbar) will be there with them in a few days.
Leaders like Ishfaq Sahab were elected by the people. If this is how they treated elected leaders, we can imagine what will happen to the common man.