Will prisoners in Kashmir ever find justice?
It is winter in Kashmir and temperature is as bone-shatteringly cold, as the lives of the people living in this conflict. The disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been on lockdown following the Pulwama attack.
The attack was carried out by a native Kashmiri, Adil Dar, indicating the presence of homegrown militants fighting Indian subjugation of Kashmir. India was quick to blame Pakistan for the attack — yet again brushing aside the issue of Kashmir, which has been at the heart of present and previous tensions between the two countries.
Following the attack, the drums of war were vehemently beaten in Indian newsrooms, screaming for a bloodbath. Pakistan denied any involvement in the attack and the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, offered India cooperation and action if ‘credible evidence’ is provided.
The hysteria that the Indian government stirred up after the incident resulted in innocent Kashmiris being persecuted in Kashmir and across India. And, to make matters worse, India sent in extra battalions to support the already 700,000 Indian occupation forces that litter this deceptively serene winter wonderland.
With the history of animosity between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, a clash was sure to happen, and it did.
Home is just a ton of bricks
The next day, I was nestled on my couch like a fallen leaf of our iconic Chinar –at home but feeling homesick. The news came in that the Pakistani and Indian fighter jets had confronted each other in the disputed border state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan managed to shoot down one of the Indian jets in its territory and an Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken captive. India confirmed that their pilot was "missing in action".
Immediately, his status as a prisoner of war (PoW) under Geneva Convention was mulled over, and if, he was indeed a PoW, India called into question if enough protections were rendered to him by Pakistan.
India demanded that he must be treated well and given apt medical aid and that he should be released immediately.
Upon hearing this, it made me miss my mother. It has been a year since I last saw her. The National Investigation Agency of India arrested her for advocating the secession of Jammu and Kashmir from India. As I saw the video of the captive Indian pilot having tea in the custody of Pakistan army, while affirming that he is being treated with honour, I just wished that India treated our prisoners with respect too.
I am worried about her health. They serve her food in polythene bags. She is asthmatic and has recurring bouts of breathlessness, and when she used to be home, I used to run with the inhaler to her.
Now that she is miles away, I tell myself she does not have the attacks anymore. The medicine she needs has been banned by India. But then there is no Geneva Convention for Kashmiri prisoners, they rot in prison and like in the cases of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, we are denied the right even to bury our dead.
Imagine the state of despair — we don't even have the closure of saying goodbye to our loved ones.
The entire population of India, most of the people in Pakistan and even the suppressed Kashmiris felt for the family of Abhinandan. Imran Khan as a ‘peace gesture’ handed over the captured pilot to Indian authorities at the Wagah border, a move aimed at de-escalating tensions between the South Asian neighbours. He was released just two days after he was captured by Pakistan army after the aerial confrontation between the nuclear-armed rivals.
A life stolen
I, like thousands of kids in Kashmir, have been raised without normalcy. I stare at the white walls of the bedroom of my father. He has not spent a moment in it. The paint has started to peel off, which happens to be the only testament to the passage of time in our home.
He has been imprisoned in India for nothing more than demanding his right to self-determination. Neither violent nor prone to angry outbursts, my father is a prisoner of conscience who is suffering for no other reason than being a dissenting Kashmiri.
As their son, I have few, scattered memories of our life together. Now, as the Indian media is drumming up war hysteria, I’d like to highlight the criminality, torture and abuse that my wrongly imprisoned father endures.
My beloved father, Dr Ashiq Faktoo, has spent 26 years in prison. He is one of Kashmir’s longest-serving political prisoners. He was first arrested in 1993 at the Srinagar airport along with my mother and elder brother, Muhammad, who was an infant at the time.
Since then, and until now, not a single shred of substantial evidence has been presented against my father. He was falsely accused of murder when he had a strong alibi and was not even in Kashmir at that time.
Still, the Indian judicial system, as biased as it is against Kashmiris, refused to recognise that evidence. Instead, my father was moved from one torture chamber to another, in the false hopes that he would break.
Even, during his detention, in the Papa-II torture centre in Jammu, an officer of the Indian Intelligence Bureau offered my father a clear incentive. Work for them, join electoral politics and the case against him would be withdrawn. He refused and has been in jail ever since. And I have been denied the right of being raised by my father.
War consumed my whole childhood, stirred a war within me. I was a sentimental child — constantly tussling with my naive understanding of why he chose imprisonment over happiness. I selfishly wish he had compromised for me, for our family. He could have played cricket with me then. He could have attended parent-teacher meetings in my school. He would have made a great father, but then he would not become the hero he is now.
He was tortured relentlessly by the interrogation officers. My mother was forced to see everything being done to him. He was stripped, and his nails were uprooted. Salt and spices were applied to his wounds. They dipped him in water that they would run an electric current through. There was no respite. At night, they used to release mice in his cells.
‘It was like seeing him die every day,’ my mother told me one night while telling me the tales of torture which were my bedtime stories. He showed me his back once. There were scars from the torture. When I touched them, I felt like I was reading a horror story in which I was a character.
The prison cell he was kept in had no windows. It is designed in this way, to keep one constantly disoriented. The passage of time is bewildering, and it’s impossible to know even if it is night or day. The only sound he can discern is that of his heartbeat.
In these conditions, one must continuously face humiliation, assault, electrocution and other forms of unspeakable torture. Once, an Indian guard came and told him that his mother had come to visit him. His body froze, unable to comprehend the words, but a huge smile appeared onto his face.
The guard escorted him out, only to take him to a torture chamber where he remained for days.
The thought of seeing his mother had subdued the pain he felt. It was during that sadistic beating that he signed a blank piece of paper that would become the only piece of evidence that the courts had against him. Under such severe torture, a man would literally do anything for one moment of relief.
Imagine, the occupying Indian establishment has failed to provide any credible evidence for his involvement in any crime, after twenty-six years in prison, and he cannot be released.
Back home, my grandmother received his clothes for the first time. She was to wash them and had to send them back to torture centre. There was blood from torture on every shirt she washed.
No justice at the end of the tunnel
India operates in Kashmir with impunity. It kills, jails or maims innocents. Stifles any voice of dissent with ease and ruins the life of every man who denies being a collaborator.
In July of 2001, my father was acquitted of the murder charges by the court, under the following observation: “The prosecution has miserably failed to prove the case against the accused persons.”
The government challenged the said acquittal in the Supreme Court of India, despite no presence of evidence or a witness and the acquittal was overturned in January 2003.
I should have known that justice is the last thing one can expect from the legal system that is at the helm of a criminal occupation. The court sentenced him to life in prison, however, with this addendum: "The accused shall be given the benefit of the period already undergone (Undertrial period) by them."
He was moved to Central Jail, Srinagar. On completing his 14 years in prison in 2008, the High court of Jammu and Kashmir directed the jail authorities to place his case before the Review Board. The Review Board while taking into consideration all aspects of the case recommended his immediate release. The government rejected those recommendations. Instead, it handed him imprisonment until death, making him ineligible for release and making us ineligible of any hope. And like I said, even his death does not guarantee me a glimpse of his face.
My father, my hero, completed his PhD while in prison. He has glaucoma, but he loves reading. After finishing each book, he sends it to me. Today we have a library of over 1,000 books at home.
I read them as if every book he sends carries something that he cannot tell me in person. Not only that, he has authored over 20 books in prison, both in English and Urdu.
People call him a saviour, hero and the lion of Kashmir. I just call him my Abbu (father).
He is not with me, but he did what every father would dream of doing, he became the person I looked up to. Whenever I meet him, our hugs are longer than our conversations. We try to fill in the void, in the moments we have. I look at him, and I wonder if he is more scared of living or dying.
After 26 years of his unlawful imprisonment, there is no court in this world that I can seek justice from. There is no law that compels India to return my imprisoned parents.
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