(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
On 26 May, Shoaib, a postgraduate student of psychology, texted his childhood friend, Mohammad Abbas, to tell anyone looking for him that he was in a neighbour’s orchard in a south Kashmir village.
“I tried to call him but he disconnected the phone,” said Abbas, unaware that Shoaib was making a short video at that precise moment, recording his last, poignant message before consuming poison.
Two days later, the 24-year-old student of Indira Gandhi National Open University, passed away at a hospital in Srinagar, on 28 May.
“There is only one motive behind my suicide,” he says in the video, which was recovered from his phone.
“For two and half years, my father hasn’t been paid. Our life has become miserable. I want my suicide to end the miseries of all the teachers who haven’t been paid,” he says in a muffled voice.
The video, which has gone viral on social media platforms, has sent shock waves across Kashmir, highlighting the difficulties faced by the employees after the BJP’s central government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Since the erstwhile state was bifurcated and downgraded into two Union Territories, the administration, run by New Delhi, has ‘disposed’ the service of hundreds of employees who had made their way into the government service on merit.
The five-lakh plus employees have also been warned in recent months against the use of social media.
Some have been expelled without inquiry. The administration has also invoked several laws and rules which have been denounced by free speech activists.
Economic Woes Hit Family
Shoaib’s father Bashir, a former militant, was arrested in 1996 under the Public Safety Act. However, a court acquitted him in 1999. He was appointed by the J&K government in 2005, initially under a centrally-sponsored scheme.
In 2013, his service was regularised after the mandatory secret police verification gave him a green signal.
When the special status was revoked in 2019, the administration put a brake on the salaries of around 300 teachers, including Bashir, without any official order. This marked the beginning of their troubles.
However, like Bashir, all of them were asked to carry out duties regularly. “I worked at a quarantine centre (for COVID-19 patients) in the neighbouring village,” Bashir said, flashing a curfew pass issued by the district magistrate.
Bashir, who sports a flowing white beard dyed in henna, said his first place of posting after appointment in J&K’s education department was a school for Gujjar children in the upper reaches of Kulgam district, on the lap of Pir Panjal mountains.
“I have been attacked many times by wild animals while going there. Since the lockdown, I visited students individually at their homes because they can’t afford smartphones.”Bashir
Bashir’s personal life, however, was in great turmoil. As his regular salary was stopped by the government and his savings depleted, his family kept sinking in debt and poverty.
In good days, he had turned to banks for help to continue the education of his three children, including another son who has done BTech, and a daughter who is in Class 12.
With bank accounts dry and no money to pay EMIs, the bank officials were making threatening phone calls and sometimes insulting the family by paying them visits, which made them a laughing stock for other villagers.
“They called up last month and asked to pay the EMIs. I am ashamed of asking my relatives for money again and again. I had to seek the help of village committee.”Bashir
‘Difficult’ Last Few Months
His son Shoaib was watching and suffering in silence. The financial crunch had raised questions on the continuation of his education. He was alternately pursuing BEd and had also signed up for a short course in stenography.
But the last few months were particularly difficult. The stenography course to make some quick bucks by helping aspirants in applying for jobs and his scholarship didn’t work out because of lockdown. Turning to relatives for financial assistance was becoming the new norm.
“He had to pay his semester fee recently but I had no money. He was a sensitive child. He took these things to heart but didn’t make them visible on his face.”Bashir
For last two months, Shoaib was working as a manual labourer but, with his father penniless, it was not enough to both support his family while continuing his education,
“He would ask me the same question every evening when he returned from work: Has father got the salary?”Jamila, Shoaib’s Mother
Bashir is also an orchardist. But due to heavy hail storms and unusual weather conditions in Kashmir since past two years, the returns from his apple orchard didn’t do much to change his sinking fortunes.
“I can’t plant anything else there. The soil is not of good quality,” he said.
“He took me along recently to buy fertilisers for their orchard but we returned empty handed. It was very costly. He didn’t have the money,” Abbas, Shoaib’s friend, said.
A Meticulously Planned End
Shoaib planned his end meticulously. He got a poison which has no antidote. He texted Abbas, his friend, to upload the video, because he had no money to buy a data pack.
When the poison didn’t work, as he had hoped it would, he returned home. During the journey, he modified the settings of his phone by removing the security lock.
“He hugged me,” said Jamila, wiping tears from her cheeks. “He was pale. I asked him what was wrong. He replied, ‘Why we are poor, mother?’”
Jamila then heard her son speak his last words, “Mother, I have consumed poison.”
Having uttered these words, Shoaib collapsed. He was first taken to a local healthcare centre and finally arrived in Srinagar after nearly six hours of a crude journey between four hospitals due to ‘official protocol’, during which crucial time might have been lost.
“He could have gotten specialised treatment at Srinagar but they wouldn’t accept him unless he wasn’t referred by the district hospital. By the time we reached there, six hours were wasted,” said a relative, who didn’t want to be named.
Five days after Shoaib ended his life, the results of his BEd exam were announced. “He has scored 81 percent but I haven’t yet shared it with his family,” said Abbas, his friend.
The J&K administration also issued an order on 2 June for releasing the withheld salaries of the teachers.
“I am happy that his last wish has been fulfilled,” Bashir said. “But my child has sacrificed his life. We can’t bring him back.”
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