'You Realise What You're Missing': Fahad Shah Talks About How Prison Changed Him

Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah returned home in November 2023 after 21 months of captivity across different lockups.

5 min read

Video Editor: Kriti Saxena

On the evening of 4 February 2022, Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah would have gone out for a coffee. Instead, he found himself in a lockup at the Pulwama police station.

Thus began his saga of revolving door arrests, in which he would find himself incarcerated for a prolonged spell, under an array of pretexts.

Moments before, or shortly after, Shah got bail in one case, he would be whisked off in another. This happened repeatedly.

The Kashmir Walla founder was packed and parceled across many different lockups, until he finally ended up in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal Jail.  When he returned home in November 2023, after 21 months of captivity, he found himself a changed man, he shares.

“I think prison really changes you,” Shah tells this reporter over a Zoom call. It is early afternoon, and Shah, clad in a white shirt, looks different from how he had looked – emaciated, with overgrown hair and beard – in the images that had done the rounds shortly after his release. Easy to imagine that he has at least had a few haircuts since getting out.

“When you’re outside, when you’re living free, you have a lot of things around you that you take for granted.”
Fahad Shah

Like what? “Little things”, like friends, family and flowers.

“For instance, if you see a nice garden, and there is green grass and flowers, you won't even look at it a second time because you know it is there. But when all of this is taken away from you, then you start realising what you are missing. They are little things, like nature, flowers, streets (that you don’t find in a prison). And in the prison that I was (in Jammu), the weather was really hot and bad, as well.”

Now, Shah explains, he values everything and everybody around him a little better.

Too Many Cases, Too Long a Wait

When Shah was first incarcerated, neither did he nor his family know how long his ordeal would stretch on for.

“Well, I think the moment I was arrested on 4 February 2022, in the evening, around 9 pm, I was told to sign the arrest memo. And I did, and I spoke to my mother and told her that I'm not coming back. And at that time, I thought that it was just this one case.”

Except, it wasn’t. Shah was subsequently booked and arrested in a total of four cases – three under India’s stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). He was also held in preventive detention under the J&K Public Safety Act (PSA), a provision that allows the authorities to detain an individual, without a conviction, for as long as two years.

“At a later point, I think, I figured I'll be taken in other cases, as well. So, I'll get bail in this one, and then I will be taken into another one and then another one. Three cases were mentioned (at the time). So, I thought after that, after finishing those three, I'll probably be out. But then, there was the PSA, under which I was detained.”

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court, which had eventually canceled the PSA order against him, found that “the case at hand” was “a clear example of non-application of mind…” It also noted that the ground cited to enable Shah’s detention had “no basis in fact”.

But the journalist remained behind bars in connection with a UAPA case, until the High Court finally reminded the State that mere criticism of the government does not equal a terrorist act. The court, thus, set aside the charge of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act (Section 18, UAPA), and granted him bail.

Could His Parents At Least Visit?

Shah’s parents, meanwhile, did not know what to expect. At every hearing, he shares, they thought he was going to get out. “But they just didn't know the procedure.”

Were they at least able to see him frequently, while he was in prison? No. Because Shah did not want them to.

“They (my parents) told me multiple times when I was in prison that 'we want to meet you, can we come there?' and I continuously told them 'No, I don't want to meet you here'.”

His reason is simple. He did not want them to remember their son as a prisoner. “I didn't want them to have that memory in mind of me (being) behind that net and the glass and (they) talking to me on the phone. I did not want my parents to see me behind those iron bars and in a lock up or in handcuffs or something like that.”

But Shah remains grateful to them, even as he laments the pain they suffered.


Gratitude and Grief

Shah expresses this amalgamation of gratitude and grief for his friends, and his team at The Kashmir Walla, as well – who continued to run the news website he had created, even after he was locked up.

But the website’s functioning came to a grinding halt in August 2023, after it was reportedly blocked by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. As per a statement by The Kashmir Walla, their social media accounts were also taken down and the team evicted from their Srinagar office.

However, since his return from jail, Shah has resumed writing for the US-based CS Monitor. He remains grateful to them for having stood by him during his entire period of incarceration. He also expresses thanks for other members of the international press, as well as some sections of Indian media, for their support and solidarity.

On being asked if the ordeal that uncoiled over those 21 months has impacted his work in any manner, Shah says:

“I think, if you're truly a journalist, if there is a story and you have everything that qualifies as a proper piece in journalism, you’d still report it.”

The only difference, he claims, the imprisonment has made to his journalistic work is that he is now, perhaps, more careful.

A court order, meanwhile, continues to bar the journalist from social media use. This is even though the topmost court of the country has noted in the past that asking a journalist to not tweet is akin to asking a lawyer to not argue.

Shah shares that he is writing a book about his imprisonment – “You know, in the prison, I was making notes and I have some thoughts. Because it was a long experience. I may not have written about it, if it was shorter.”

It was a long experience, indeed. The writing of the book might take some time too. One can only hope, though, that when he does write that book, he is able to post about it on social media as well.

India, meanwhile, ranks 159 out of 180 on World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Watch the full interview for more.

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