In a quiet corner of a city far away from the Centre, a wife and her teenaged daughters pad quietly about their home, feeling numb, distraught.
Some version of that scene is being played out in lakhs of homes across the country; for the teenagers are numb because their father is COVID positive. But this household, and this patient are different in some respects to all those lakhs of others.
Their 54-year-old father is an undertrial prisoner in Tihar jail, and the family has no contact with him. The last time his wife met him during a jail visit was in February 2020, a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic was announced.
Called Shahid-ul-Islam, he has been secretary to the Mirwaiz of Kashmir and a member of the Hurriyat Conference for a couple of decades.
A Popular Spokesman & Peace Advocate
Shahid is well-known and popular among Kashmir’s journalists, for the affable man was the spokesperson of the Hurriyat for some time, and of the Mirwaiz for much longer.
His wife emphasises that he has been a moderate voice within the Hurriyat, working for peace. That is particularly pertinent at a time when peace talks are apparently being held between top functionaries of India and Pakistan.
It is possible that those who can play a bridging role at the grassroots will become more relevant than they have been for many years.
Of Incarceration & Illness
Naturally, Shahid’s wife said she hoped and prayed that he would be released, and well taken care of until then. His condition is challenging, for Shahid’s chequered career has left him with several dangerous co-morbidities, including diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, and arthritis. He used to take several medicines regularly while he was at home.
His eyesight has deteriorated in prison.
She too has suffered two strokes since her husband’s incarceration, and is being treated for depression.
Fundamental Rights of Prisoners
How the State apparatus responds to cases of this sort raise vital questions about the rights of undertrial prisoners, the fundamental right to life of all citizens, the State’s attitude to those whose crimes are essentially political, and the extent to which the State wishes to embrace them into the mainstream.
His wife says the only thing held against him in the charge-sheet that was filed after Shahid’s arrest on 24 July 2017 is that a Pakistan visa form and a form for admission to a Pakistani medical college were among his things.
“What do we argue about such a charge,” she asks plaintively, adding that there is no terror-related or money-laundering charge.
She was deeply disappointed that no one in the government had informed the family that he was unwell. They heard through the family of another undertrial prisoner that Shahid had developed several COVID symptoms since last Wednesday, and that he had been shifted (perhaps to the prison’s medical facility) over the weekend. The other three prisoners in his cell apparently tested negative.
Radicalised Despite a Sufi Upbringing
Shahid was one of the best educated of Kashmir’s freedom champions. He went to Burn Hall School in Srinagar, where former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were also schooled.
His father, who had once been a junior commissioned officer in the army, was in charge of discipline at the school. A dedicated Sufi who invoked the names of all deities in conversations with non-Muslims, he thoroughly disapproved of Shahid’s rebellious activities.
He was irate when, as a firebrand youth looking to make a mark amid the frenzy of alienation, Islamism, and geopolitical upheaval at the end of the ‘80s, Shahid became a leader of a relatively marginal terror outfit, soon after earning a law degree.
After several years underground during the ‘90s, Shahid was arrested and then released in 1998.
Shahid’s Change of Heart: Moving Towards Inclusivity
Shahid had clearly had a radical change of heart over those terrible years underground. His closest chum now was the son of a Pandit who had once been his father’s closest friend, and now lives in Jammu.
When Shahid got married (to the girl he had fallen for while hiding in downtown Srinagar), his Pandit friend’s wife took over the household chores while the family was engrossed in the wedding celebrations. And he included prominent Delhi journalists in the guest list, even for the baraat going to downtown Srinagar.
Shahid: A Warm & Inclusive Humanist
I have known Shahid to be a genuinely inclusive, warm and caring Humanist. Kashmir’s leading newspaper publisher introduced me to him very soon after he was released from jail. I was looking for a former militant whose life and career I could study in detail for my first book on Kashmir.
During the course of research over the next few years for the book called The Story of Kashmir, I spent a lot of time with Shahid, even staying with his family for long periods. He and his father were always very welcoming.
Role as Peacemaker
Shahid has remained dedicated to Mirwaiz Umar since then, and has been a part of his circle of political advisors and aides. His marriage into a family from downtown Srinagar (the traditional base of the Mirwaiz) helped to cement that.
The Mirwaiz has been the most moderate leader of the Hurriyat, playing his inherited role with exquisite maturity. No doubt his views and values were deeply influenced by the assassination of his father by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists when Umar was just 16.
The earlier Mirwaiz had been doing his best behind the scenes to end violence just when enthusiasm for violence had peaked during April-May 1990. Those values and attitudes are shared by the current Mirwaiz’s aides, including Shahid.
In this extremely challenging time for the nation, let us wish everyone well, including peacemakers — as also peacemaking. Surely the future matters more than the past.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)