A Cupid’s Curse

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Some love stories are known to have a treacherous plot besides a tragic end. But what happens if the love story holds a house hostage and releases it only to let people suffer inside, reports Bilal Handoo

Agha Syed Iftikhar Hussain Jalali standing in front of famous Jalali House at Zadibal Srinagar.

Agha Syed Iftikhar Hussain Jalali standing in front of famous Jalali House at Zadibal Srinagar.

As he set his tone to recall his roots in a foggy lawn of his architectural marvel home in Srinagar’s Zadibal, the man with mild manners became cautious. Perhaps he knew: what did it mean to narrate the love story that held his heritage house hostage and turned it what many later called Kashmir’s ‘Abu Ghraib’ or ‘Guantanamo Bay’—trending torture, well before, America in the name of “war on terror” broadcasted its war abuses from these twin prisons. The man was awkward to talk about the treachery his family faced and how that treachery gave Kashmir a dreadful torture centre—Red 16!

Before he could talk, Agha Syed Iftikhar Hussain Jalali, 64, took a deep sip of tea. The man is no commoner in Shia community of Zadibal. He is the grandson of Agha Syed Hussain Shah Jalali, the prominent landlord who along with six others (Khawaja Saad-ud-Din Shawl, Khawaja Hassan Shah Naqshbandi, Mirwaiz Molvi Ahmadullah, Mirwaiz Hamdani, Mufti Sharif-ud-Din and other) intercepted boat convoy of Viceroy of India, Rufus Daniel Isaacs, near old city’s Khanqah in 1924 and submitted him a memorandum. The memorandum of grievances against Dogra rule was drafted by Aga Hyder—a Shia barrister of Lucknow on Srinagar tour at that time. The daredevil Agha was at the forefront of Kashmir’s political movement well before Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah returned from Aligarh and plunged into politics.

Iftikhar made a quick mention of the day in 1961 when then Prime Minister of J&K, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s flamboyant brother Majeed Bakshi called him for a meeting at Subhana Tailor’s showroom on Bund. Once face to face, Iftikhar was shocked to hear Majeed’s demand: “Leave that Sonawar house for me.”

At Sonawar, Iftikhar’s grandfather had bought a bungalow from Bhagats of Krishna Flour Mill fame during his lifetime. It was also called Jalali House—like the one at Zadibal.

Majeed’s demand was huge, so was his authority. Iftikhar knew the influence wielded by Bakshi’s brother, thus could only reply, “Alright, have it!”

Nestled nearby the ‘powerful’ Gupkar Road, Jalali heritage home shortly housed the love story. As it turned out soon, Majeed Bakshi had spared the house for his brother’s labour officer from Saloora Ganderbal, Sheikh Ghulam Mohammad—who had fallen for a Dalgate girl.

As love blossomed between the two, they married, and inhabited Jalali House at Sonawar. But the love didn’t last long. Once Sheikh’s first wife back in Ganderbal came to know about his second marriage, she revolted, forcing him to return to Ganderbal.

In his absence, Sheikh’s second wife invited her family members to live with her at Sonawar. By the time Iftikhar knew about it, the sun had already set over the Bakshi regime. It was 1965, and GM Sadiq was ruling the state. The girl, Sheikh’s lost love, wouldn’t evacuate the property even after being served with a legal notice.

The drama of sorts continued until something unexpected happened—proving a curse for the property as well as the people.

One day, a posse of police arrived, and showed the girl and her family the door. But before Iftikhar could rejoice the moment, police took over the structure. The disgruntled Agha took the matter back to courtroom. But police were in no mood to exit. As unresolved tussle between court and police ensued, the heritage house tucked in a hushed spot became the notorious torture centre, namely Red 16. Behind the name “Red”—are two theories: one, “since it had red appearance like a typical Dogra building”; and second, “since it housed brutalities”. Numeral “16” happened to be its house number in the locality.

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Erstwhile Red 16. (Photos: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

Sadiq was still ruling the state when screams emanate from Jalali mansion. Iftikhar recalled that Kashmir’s first armed group was among the first persons lodged, tortured inside Red 16. The band of boys had resorted to a novel protest, mailing posters—bearing India’s map showing J&K as a separate entity in red ink—to politicians, pro-establishment persons. The “Red Kashmir” posters coincided with 1967 elections, thus creating a ripple effect during Sadiq era. The group known as Al Fateh later stabbed a sentry to death in protest at old city’s Nawa Kadal, eventually landing them in Red 16.

The second high-profile person detained inside was Asad Chatt, the gold smuggler during Sadiq regime.

By summer 1968, Red 16 became a crowded cell. In connection with an ammunition dump break at Srinagar’s Islamia College, police detained several youth there. By then the torture centre had attained notoriety for its sheer ruthlessness—instilling dread, disgust in detainees. Equally dreadful was an inspector Girdari Lal Darbari posted there during that time.

It is said that Darbari’s torture tactics were more vicious than those of a notoriously famous police officer, Ghulam Qadir Ganderbali—who would resort to hot iron on body, rubbing salt on inflicted wounds, feeding hot potato, sniffing red chillies besides bodily humiliations.

Darbari had a dark face, bulged eyes and stern looks—making him a nightmare for prisoners. “He would break the resolve of detainees by parading them naked besides subjecting them to bodily humiliations,” said an elder, detained in Red 16 during late sixties.

The unionist MY Tarigami detained in Red 16 during mid-seventies also recounted the ‘inhuman’ torture. “I have seen how police, paramilitary forces would detain even elders,” he said, “and shamelessly torture them.”

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Students busy studying near the gutted building of Red 16.

Amid unremitting torture in Jalali House and inconclusive court battle, Iftikhar chose to concentrate on his business. His withdrawn attention however didn’t end a cycle of torture inside his family house. The torture tales kept piling up. And once narrated, gave goosebumps to listeners. The content, the method and the severity made these tales sound more gruesome than those leaked out of the dreadful torture centres like Morocco’s Temara Secret Detention Center.

An extrajudicial detainment and secret prison, Temara like Red 16 was located in hushed spot. And akin to Red 16, detainees at Temara recalled similar inflicted torture—ruthless beatings, suspension of body in contorted positions, sleep deprivation, cigarette burns, electric shocks, forcible insertion of objects into their body parts. The same ordeal makes JKLF chief Yasin Malik to assert: Red 16 was the most monstrous torture chamber I could ever find myself in.

Malik was first detained in Red 16 in 1985 for 16 days when his group printed an anti-establishment sticker. After 1987 elections were rigged, he again landed inside the centre “where one of my heart valves was damaged after being served poisonous food”. He spent next two months in a hospital before sent back to prison.

Apart from parallel torture methods, there was another similarity between Temara and Red 16—the former was largely controlled by CIA, while the latter mainly ran by Delhi-based intelligence agencies, Malik said. “In both cases, the state governments were merely implementing agencies.”

Malik’s former comrade, Javaid Mir, also recalled his harrowing experience inside Red 16. The erstwhile JKLF commander-in-chief said the detainees would be given blankets infested with ticks, mites. “The high-voltage bulb glowing inside the torture chamber whole night would take a great mental toll on us,” Mir said. “We were deprived of daylight, served soiled food, tortured at length.”

Charred walls and debris inside gutted Red 16 building.

Charred walls and debris inside gutted Red 16 building.

By the dawn of ninety, the torture only turned draconian in Red 16 after paramilitary took it over. “In 1992,” said a former militant, “I was arrested, taken to Red 16 where I was given electric shocks, and kept without water, food for days.”

The torture was badly disturbing the life outside the centre as well. Many locals had to shift their base to escape the mounting mental agony triggered by recurrent shrieks of detainees. Those shrieks would resonate hauntingly during nights. “Though the torture centre was located at a fair distance from cluster of houses, but those torture-induced shrieks would still pierce through our homes, making us restless,” said Farooq Ahmad, a grocer at a stone’s throw from the heritage house. “Torture used to happen before ’89 as well, but its frequency and ferocity escalated alarmingly after ’90s.”

One former militant talked about the same alarming trend set off in Red 16 during those days. “The bearded youth had become cannon fodder inside the torture centre,” he said. “They would be tortured, forced to confess that they were PAK trained militants—who were, and still are, prized catch for forces besides a ticket for awards and rewards.”

Several tortured youth remained tightlipped about their torment—“fearing military backlash”—until someone leaked ‘torturous’ images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay cells some years ago. The pictures portraying war abuses might have shocked the world, but they hardly surprised Kashmiris with torture history. For many Kashmiris, the ‘abused’ pictures were a throwback moment. The images stirred up grotesque, graphic torture details in them. A former Hizb guerrilla, Shabir, detained in Red 16 in June 1992 didn’t feel any different.

“It was desperate thrashing,” he recalled his torture stint inside Red 16. “They would beat you until you fainted, and then resume it once you regained senses. Besides electrocuting private parts, they would subject us to bodily abuses I possibly can’t narrate.”

The same torturous nightmare makes these former rebels to assert: “People who condemned war abuses inside Abu Ghraib would have shuddered to a core had they ever seen what we faced inside torture centres, like in Red 16.”

Besides Red 16, there existed 25 other torture centres in Srinagar, including Papa-1, Papa-11, Hari Niwas, Cargo, and others. Though the state government introduced Jail Manual in 1996—borne out of a MoU signed between Delhi and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1994, but it barred global watchdogs from visiting torture cells, thus giving forces a leeway to torture. By 2005, the whistle-blower website, Wikileaks exposed this widespread use of torture by Indian troopers in Kashmir. The Wiki dispatches revealed: ICRC briefed US diplomats in Delhi (in 2005) about the use of electrocution, beatings and sexual humiliation against hundreds of detainees in torture centres of Kashmir.

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Students during a class in Jalali House.

Back in mid-eighties, many Punjabi militants demanding Khalistan were languished inside Red 16. Like many Kashmiri prisoners, most of them scribbled slogans, messages on walls of the torture centre. In 2000, when forces finally vacated the building, people saw walls loaded with political messages. Iftikhar by then had turned grey, and grim upon glimpsing huge losses inflicted by forces on his heritage house.

The Dogra-dated sprawling bungalow spanned over 14 kanals of land shortly faced public ire. Some men, probably former torture victims at Red 16, turned up one evening, smashing all its windowpanes in rage. Before the fury would have decimated the building any further, a missionary school approached Iftikhar to avail the property on rent for running an educational institute.

“I thought,” said Iftikhar, sitting in the lawn of Zadibal’s famous Jalali House, “it is not a bad bargain.” And by the way, he said, “how many torture centres are there that eventually became schools.”

Since 2000, the St Paul International School has been running from the erstwhile Red 16. But perhaps destiny wanted to erase its haunting past before scripting its new present. A few years after the school started functioning, the building mysteriously caught fire—gutting down everything: torture chambers, politically-loaded walls and signs of the treacherous love story.

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