After emerging as the poster boy in 2010 by topping the coveted IAS and breaking the psychological barrier to a new avenue of public service, Dr Shah Faesal is living a prisoner’s life in a special jail dictated by the Public Safety Act. Saima Bhat pieces together the young man’s story of inter-sectoral struggle and success from Sogam to the MLA Hostel
Jami may never forget his fifth birthday, an event he was obsessed with in anticipation. “It is my fifth birthday tomorrow (February 20),” Jami would tell visitors at his home. “I will be meeting my papa where we will cut a cake together.”
The only son of Dr Shah Faesal, the systems did permit this special meeting. A cake was cut in the MLA Hostel, where Kashmir’s youngest politician, is held with many others.
Dr Faesal is the eighth politician who was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) after his half-year detention under section 107 CrPc expired. He was arrested on August 14 on “preventive measures” from Delhi airport when he was travelling to the USA to complete his last semester at the Harvard University.
“We were expecting his release or maybe house arrest after completing six months in jail as they did with others. He had just started his political career. But instead, they slapped him with a PSA,” said Mubeena Shah, Faesal’s mother. “Jami has packed his bag and he keeps on saying if papa cannot come home, let me go to MLA hostel (and) I’ll stay with him.”
Jami does not know his father is under detention. The family has told him that his father is in school where he is working on a project, which as per the family members gets authenticated to him when he sees his mother carrying many books along when she meets him twice a week.
Family apart, Faesal’s is a curious case, even for commoners. Unlike all others, he had just begun his politics by launching a party. There was just one political gathering to his credit. A subordinate to politicians, as an officer, he had not “enjoyed” the power as politicians are usually accused of. Besides, he had been a huge role model after he topped the IAS 2009. Everybody talked to him from Dr Manmohan Sing to Narendra Modi.
Securing the top slot in IAS 2009 (the results of which were announced after the bloody unrest was about to conclude) made Dr Faesal a poster boy. Though Kashmir had rarely seen IAS as an option, his top slot pierced through the psychological barrier. Overnight, Dr Faesal became a household name in Kashmir as the governments in Delhi and Srinagar portrayed him as a national hero, an inspirational story especially because the conflict had orphaned him. His father was killed by unknown gunmen in Kupwara when he was a school-goer.
The 1983-born Faesal had a perfect blend of life in Kashmir periphery and the city. Born in Sogam, in the valley of Lolab, in whose praise Allam Iqbal sang, till his matriculation, he was a typical village boy with a difference. The difference came to him from his parents, Ghulam Rasool Shah and Mubeena Shah, who were teachers in the government school. Shah, well known in his area, used to give home tuitions up to the 12th standard and had a very strong hold on Urdu and Persian poetry.
Faesal has grown with Mohammad Rafiq, one of his close friend and relative. He termed his friend “a highly disciplined bookish” boy, who had impressive language and oratory skills and would routinely attend the senior classes, his father would teach. Till his tenth class, Rafiq said, Faesal would take all the top positions in class, debates and inter-school competitions. He eventually moved to Srinagar and was enrolled at Tyndale Biscoe School.
However, it was soon followed by tragedy. In 2002, his father was killed by unidentified gunmen. On the fourth day of his murder when mourners were still visiting their home, Faesal was supposed to appear in his entrance test for entry into a medical school.
“His mother motivated him to appear in the test and he obliged,” Rafiq said. “At 19, he exhibited the leadership quality as the fate had forced him to be defacto head of his family. He passed the test and got admission in SKIMS Bemina college, then known as JVC.”
His medical school admission dictated a new routine. The family comprising his mother, younger brother, now a doctor and youngest sister, now in government service, shifted to Srinagar. They started living in rented accommodation.
“I had never told anybody about our tragedy because I did not want it to impact the children,” Mubeena said. “Even at home we hardly discussed it. Their father had no political affiliations. He was a simpleton known for teaching only.”
Fascinated By Cavalcade
After finishing medical school in 2008, Rafiq remembers when Feasal was fascinated by the then IGP, Shiv Murari Sahai’s cavalcade in Lal Chowk. Instead of getting into specialization into his subject, Feasal decided to attempt a civil service examination. By then, however, he would regularly write for The Greater Kashmir and was involved in the RTI movement along with Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat.
Soon after, he got in touch with IPS officer Abdul Ghani Mir, then SSP Anantnag, who used to help students aspiring for civil services, under an academy, Initiative for Competition Promotion. At this academy, he got in touch with Shahnawaz, who is also his friend now. “We knew he was a very bright student and he will crack the exams,” Shahnawaz said. “Luckily he emerged as the topper. Later, he joined as trustee of that academy and an inspiration for many. But after joining politics he gave up his membership.”
His preparations for the civil service examination were interesting.
Rafiq and Faesal were among four students who sat for a pre-coaching test by the Zakaat Foundation of India at the University of Kashmir. All were selected. The Foundation assigned them their centres and gave them bank cheques to fund their costs. “ Faesal was admitted in Karol Bagh but after attending our first class Faesal decided not to come,” Rafiq remembers. “He suggested that I should get the notes and he will be studying at the apartment.”
Later, they shifted to Mukherjee Nagar after getting admission in Jamia Hamdard study circle. For six months, they lived in a room. “Faesal had geography and public administration as his optional subjects and I had Urdu and Public Administration,” Rafiq said. “Knowing Urdu well, he used to guide me as he knew great poets like Iqbal and Faiz well. As the prelims result came, he got it and I was dropped.” Faesal eventually changed geography with Urdu.
Faesal’s top position broke the psychological barrier. Now everybody compares the IAS in Kashmir in pre and post-Fesal period. Earlier, there were quite a few and now they are abundant.
Change of Mind
After serving the government for nine years he decided to quit and join politics. “First I thought I should become a doctor to help people so I became a doctor,” Faesal told in his post-resignation interview. “While being a doctor I thought if I have to do more for people then I should be in civil services so I became a civil servant and then while being in services I realised I have to do more so I decided to join politics.”
His friends believe that Faesal changed his mind while seeing decision-making up-close. Though he had a feeling of not being able to do what was genuine and within the limitations of the system, he felt frustrated at various points of time.
“While in education department he did many reforms but he wanted to do more and before he could he was transferred,” one of his confidant’s, who is still in service said. “I remember he once told me that if we want to overhaul the system it has to be a top-down approach.” In the power sector, he felt helpless.
His series of writings were part of his mechanism to retain his sanity. However, when sections of TV started comparing Faesal with Burhan, it marked an end of the space.
“Every hour of prime time TV news aggression pushes Kashmir a mile westward from India,” he wrote in The Indian Express, insisting the “an urgent need” for India “to reclaim ‘national interest’ from its national media”. The article was dictated by his personal insecurity. In response, certain voices questioned his allegiance to the system.
Some of his social media posts, especially the one in response to rape, went viral. Soon, he got a show-cause notice, dubbed by him as “the love letter”.
10 Years In Jail
“I have chosen a longer but a more straight road to achieve my objectives,” Faesal told Huffpost India soon after. “For the last 10 years, you might have thought I was serving the government, I was literally in a jail. I saw excesses and torture. I was telling myself that I was doing injustice to myself.” Soon he was topping the popularity charts in January 2019, when he wrote the paradox in the Valley: “In Kashmir, those who represent people’s sentiment do not participate in the electoral process.”
Returning from the Harvard, he resigned on January 9, 2019. He cited “the unabated killings in Kashmir, and the lack of any sincere reach-out from the Union government”, along with “the marginalisation of around 200 million Indian Muslims at the hands of Hindutva forces” and “the growing culture of intolerance and hate in mainland India in the name of hyper-nationalism”. In a press conference, he said he was influenced by the political stature of Imran Khan and Arvind Kejriwal.
The National Conference expected him to join them but he did not. He floated Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) on March 17, 2019. From the very start, he tried to help political change by asking people to donate. Eventually, he joined hands with Engineer Rasheed – currently in detention in Rajasthan, and to create People’s United Front (PUF) on June 18, 2019, under the chairmanship of Javed Mustafa Mir, that finished second in north Kashmir.
As the tough talks and rumours over Article 370 and 35A started getting louder, Faesal attempted an all-party response. There were a few meetings. Well before they could fly to Delhi and meet the Prime Minister, as they had planned, August 5, changed everything.
Unlike his colleague, Faesal was in Delhi. He made a series of remarks.
“Nobody had the slightest idea that the Indian Constitution would be robbed of its value in broad daylight. We saw it as the demise of India. I have come to Delhi to mourn this demise,” he wrote.
He saw the abrogation as “a nuclear bomb on Kashmir”. In the new situation, he told in a TV interview: “So you can either be a stooge or a separatist now. No shades of grey.” On Eid, Feasal said what the Turkish leader said in the UN and that led many accuse Faesal of sedition.
In SC And The Arrest
Faesal was one of the few who quickly moved the top court, the Supreme Court with litigation challenging the abrogation of special status.
As Kashmir was far from normal and all politicians were arrested, Iram Rashid, his wife, who accompanied him in Delhi, told Kashmir Life, Faesal decided to go back to Harvard to complete the last semester of his fellowship. Before boarding his flight, he gave an interview to BBC’s famous show Hard Talk. As soon as he reached the Airport he was arrested on August 14.
One of his friends filed a habeas corpus seeking his release alleging that he was illegally detained at the airport and then sent to Srinagar, where he has been kept under preventive custody under section 107 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) at SKICC.
Reports, however, indicate that “some official had approached the family to withdraw (the case) and promised that he will not be booked under PSA.” If sources are to be believed then “a PSA dossier” shown to the family and used to withdraw the case, was “invoked after the completion of six months.”
Faesal was booked under PSA on February 14. The police dossier accuses him of “soft separatism” through his articles, tweets and social media posts which, on several occasions, it says, attracted response amounting to “a potential threat to public order”. The Indian Express reported it to be 90-pages long including annexure detailing his statements and records of his activities, an FIR, his television interviews, Facebook posts and the credentials of people who had joined the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), the political outfit Faesal launched in March 2019.
In MLA Jail
At MLA hostel that the government converted into a sub-jail Faesal, according to his family, is busy with reading. “He loves reading so I have taken him a lot of books including novels, fiction, Tolstoy, literature, political science, history, holocaust, and religion,” Iram said. “He writes in Kashmiri, Persian, Arabic and Urdu but at the hostel, they are not allowed to have a copy or pen. They are not allowed to write but he writes snippets, symbols on books.”
Before getting arrested, Faesal had signed a book contract. “I guess its name was On the wrong side of history. This book is about the Kashmir’s socio-political scenario,” said one of his friends, who also added that his party is intact and will continue to be so.
Unlike others, reports from the erstwhile hostel indicate Feasal is “calm and compact” who has asserted that he has no regrets. Interestingly, he stays away from gossips, the mainstay of the crowd that has thinned down to a few.
Back home in Ompora, Jami feels a letdown as his father’s school is not ending. “He feels dejected.” Iram, also a government official, said. “But I always talk about him with great pride and tell him you have to be like your papa.” Mubeena is painful, however. “ I can’t bear the sight of my daughter-in-law and grandson living alone because I have lived this tragedy,” she said. “Why can’t they put all of them together.”