After some 40 days in jail, this man is having his moment with a family reunion that seemed ever so elusive. As he slouches in a sofa, his son and daughter stand behind him clutching his shoulders as if to say, “No, Abbu we won’t let them take you away again.”
But Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani is a different material. He is not the one to take a sabbatical from his activism that often rubs the state the wrong way. He is not the one to wrap his political beliefs in some diplomatic prolixity. Not even the one, who would resort to a cautious tone knowing well how close he was to being sent to the gallows 15 years ago. He knows his political beliefs. He knows they are the ones the state would always find an affront to its authority over critical issues. Yet, he is clear and categorical about them. “My goal is the freedom of Kashmir,” he told me during a long interview where he had to skip his lunch and a much-needed siesta.
Geelani is also clear about why he is repeatedly being targeted. “Yes, the Indian state is against me. It is to muzzle a specific voice: that of a Kashmiri Muslim who demands right of self-determination for Kashmir.”
For SAR Geelani it was just another warmish cheerful February evening on the 15th of that month when he walked out of his classroom at Delhi University’s Zakir Hussain College to head for home. As he strolled out on the roadside, he was surrounded by a posse of plainclothes men who appeared to him as “robbers.” They were from the Delhi police who had come to arrest him. Geelani had a couple of bodyguards with him. He told me had he not interfered, a gunfight between his guards and the undercover policemen could have by mistake meant some bloody results. Geelani was quickly whisked away and arrested without any warrant which is not unusual when state forces go against anyone the state isn’t comfortable with.
Back home, there was business as usual. Geelani’s son, daughter and wife were waiting for him to return home. But when they heard about his arrest, it was almost like a slow-motion action replay. Qurat-ul-Ain Aarifa, his wife, remarked in utter cynicism to her son, Aatif, “It looks like we are back to square one!”
For more than a month, Geelani, 46, an Associate Professor of Arabic, remained away from his home — lodged in the high risk ward of jail No. 1 of South Asia’s biggest jail Tihar.
Nusrat and Aatif’s youthful aura was wilting. They looked like their memories and mere symbols of survival. I could make out it wasn’t new to them. They were just reliving what happened 15 years ago when their father was first arrested. Only difference was that they had since grown up and learnt to face adversity with poise
Geelani is not an outsider to what it is like inside Tihar jail and I wanted him to picture that. He gave me a long dark answer making things stand out in an ominous stark contrast. “There are two different worlds. One side is the 21st century, a civilized world. On the other side, one goes centuries back. Many, many centuries back. There you see prisoners treated like slaves. You can see the kind of slavery that we have read in books.”
Geelani’s children have seen their father, who they call Abbu, snatched from them, accused of being the “mastermind” of one of India’s worst terror attacks, tortured in jail, sentenced to death, later acquitted, then an unknown assassin pumping bullets into him — three of which are still in his body — and now this. For daughter Nusrat and son Aatif, Abbu has turned into something of a haze dissolving into a pall as if to never come back. And then they have to struggle to recover him from the pall. Even Geelani is not sure about how he comes back from the brink. “When I look back today, I wonder how I survived,” he told me while speaking of his time in jail in 2001.
This happened to Geelani and his family 15 years ago when he was arrested in 2001 for his “role” in the attack on the Indian Parliament. The police and the agencies framed him in the case, exerted pressure through torture to extract a confession from him and a trial court ordered his death. He was acquitted by the Delhi High Court in October 2003 as the case collapsed for want of evidence. The acquittal was upheld by India’s Supreme Court in August 2005.
Thirteen years later, in February this year, Geelani was sent back to the same prison where he was earlier kept in confinement for 22 months between 2001 and 2003. This time the charge was sedition.
He was booked because he organized an event at Delhi’s Press Club of India on February 10, on the hanging anniversary of Afzal Guru. At the event, the police claim, anti-India slogans were raised, hence the sedition charge against Geelani. However, Geelani through his lawyer has noted, “I have no role to play in the slogans raised in the event and in fact I was the one who pacified and made the persons raising slogans stop.”
Geelani’s bail order was issued on March 19 by a local court and he was to be released by the evening of the same day. But despite the order, he was held for two more days because the magistrate sought verification of his address in Kashmir. He was released on the evening of March 21. It was Aatif who stood outside the Tihar to take his father home. That evening when he entered his home, it was tears and smiles, sorrow and joy both at the same time and in equal measure. Behind the emotional scenes of the family reunion, there was a question that has come to haunt the Geelani family time and again: what next?
When SAR Geelani was arrested in 2001, a police team raided his home. There, the family was watching a programme on PTV. On seeing this, a police officer remarked in outrage, “Abhi se PTV!”
A day after his release I met with Geelani at his home. He was chatting with an elderly man who I suppose had come to pay him respect. When I introduced myself, he gave me a warm handshake and followed it up with a generous smile.
I didn’t want to break Geelani’s conversation with the man and chose to listen. They talked in Urdu and Geelani shared with him his second-time prison experience.
“This time around I asked the interrogator to tender an apology,” Geelani told the visitor. “He said to me that I was lying. I fought with him and asked him that his job was to ask questions and not to judge.”
Geelani’s voice bubbled with confidence as he talked. From the kitchen nearby, a familiar aroma of Kashmiri preparations wafted around. His family members were busy preparing for lunch. The home was abuzz with a lot of friendly chattering and clinking of kitchen ware. But amid all these sounds and smells, I asked myself a question which I believe was on the mind of every member of the Geelani family: how long will this buzz last?
When I visited the Geelani family two weeks before his release it was not the same. He was still in jail with no hope of when he would be back. Nusrat and Aatif were reluctant to talk for obvious reasons. Their home looked like a house — walls and windows, doors and floorings — but no family buzz. There was silence swelling all around and disturbingly building up into layers. I found it difficult to start a conversation with the family through these layers of silence.
That day, sitting on a worn-out sofa next to Nusrat, 24, and Aatif, 20, I almost forgot what questions to ask. I looked at the floor, to the ceiling and then peered at the pages of my notebook. There were questions alright, but they just dissolved into some eerie blankness.
Somehow, I struck a conversation.
But then they flowed like rivers, their memories carrying with them everything that came their way. They had seen themselves descending into a dark night that they thought would never end. Their youthful aura was wilting. They looked like their memories and mere symbols of survival. I could make out it wasn’t new to them. They were just reliving what happened 15 years ago when their father was first arrested. Only difference was that they had since grown-up and learnt to face adversity with poise.
As they opened up, their memories cascaded from one point to the other and finally froze at a moment in life that changed them forever.
Nusrat was nine-years-old and Aatif five when Geelani was first arrested in 2001, their memories as fresh as yesterday. The next day when she saw her father chained, Nusrat couldn’t make out what was going on. She rushed to her mother and cried, “What is happening to Abbu, Maa?”
Nusrat, Aatif along with their mother and some visiting relatives were also put in lockup a day after their father’s arrest. ‘Little terrorist children of a big terrorist mastermind’ – I didn’t know whether to joke about it to myself or pity these young souls.
At that point, Nusrat didn’t understand the notions such as “nation,” “law” and “crime” which she is now accustomed to using every day. Now terms like “role,” “acquittal” and “sedition” bear little meaning to Nusrat and Aatif, who have, from an early age, witnessed their father become “a long target of a so-called democracy.”
A 5th year student of law at Jamia Millia Islamia, Nusrat now aspires to become a criminal lawyer, having been inspired by her father’s struggle. Aatif, a law student at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, on the other hand, hopes to become a judge.
I wondered if Aatif’s and Nusrat’s ambitions to take up law as a profession have been shaped by the perennial threat this family faces from the state. I also wondered about what happens to the psyche of children when they are treated as terrorists, confined to a “special cell” where governments usually keep “criminals” away from the civilization. And what is the emotional aftermath when a five and a nine-year-old see their father paraded before them in chains. It haunts them — not just for a moment but for every breath they take.
It casts a long threatening shadow on their lives and forces them to rethink their dreams. Aatif, who let his sister do most of the talking during my conversation with them, alluded to this. “As a child I dreamt of becoming a pilot,” Aatif told me, gazing at the floor realizing how events have grounded his high-flying dream. “I never realized how that dream turned into something else.”
When SAR Geelani was arrested in 2001, a police team raided his home as well. There, the family was watching a programme on PTV. On seeing this, a police officer remarked in outrage, “Abhi se PTV!” Nusrat, Aatif and mother Qurat-ul-Ain were detained — Geelani calls it “kidnapping”— for three days in a special cell and were also taken to the Cantonment for a day where Geelani was shown to them in chains. A crude mind game played on Geelani at one end and his family at the other to break the man and force him to accept what he is being asked to.
“I now realize that it was a great psychological operation: to provide us a glimpse of our father in chains with bruises and have him see us crying,” Nusrat told me. “A similar feeling has come back to us as Abbu is not with us.”
During Geelani’s incarceration between 2001 and 2003, Nusrat recalls those painful events as if it all happened yesterday. “Everyone looked at us with suspicion,” Nusrat recollected.
Back then, the family lived in Mukherjee Nagar in north Delhi, but later shifted to Zakir Nagar in south where they currently reside.
“Telephone booth owners would never let us make a call and vegetable vendors shoved us away,” Nusrat recalled. “Life was suffocating and the world looked like a noose around our necks.”
Geelani’s arrest for the second time came back with the same manifestations. “We feel suffocated again and nobody is talking about the treatment my father is getting from the Indian state,” Nusrat told me. She obviously was referring to the similar JNU student sedition case that happened in tandem with her father’s. The JNU sedition case was also based on alleged anti-India sloganeering during a function on the same topic of Afzal Guru’s hanging.
“The media is blind, framing my father as a criminal. The truth actually is that it is in the nature of Indian state that a Kashmiri has to be presented as a criminal no matter what. It satisfies them, their collective conscience,” Nusrat said. The words “satisfies their collective conscience” rang something inside me. Nusrat too has these words etched on her mind as a reminder of how justice can turn into travesty when the state utilizes devious methods of framing a person it wants to put out of currency. The Supreme Court had ordered the hanging of Afzal Guru in the Parliament attack case “to satisfy the collective conscience of the society.”
Not everyone had mistreated the family during Geelani’s time in jail in 2001. Nusrat told me about the Bluebells School in New Delhi, where both she and Aatif studied, and the school’s aged founder-principal who loved them like her own grandchildren. “One day our school held a programme on human rights and the founder-principal invited my father as the chief guest after his release,” Nusrat recalled. “I remember the school principal kissing my father’s forehead as her own son and wishing him luck.”
But how do the children who have now come of age perceive a state — in retrospect and present — that first keeps their father away from them for almost two years, orders him to be sent to gallows, then acquits him for “need of evidence” and then arrests him again? The ways of their seeing overlap, but have a resonant idea. They believe what their father believes in and they are clear-cut about it: Give Kashmiris the right to self-determination.
I asked Nusrat to elaborate. “See, if New Delhi believes Kashmir is its integral part, let it hold a referendum,” she told me. “The truth is that when India failed to physically weaken us, it is trying to break us the other way: by mentally defeating us.”
“But one can’t afford to break down,” Nusrat noted. “Courage means coming a long way.”
Talking with her, I discovered a deep connection between what Nusrat told me and what she and her family members had gone through over the years. When she was a child, she cried because her father was not with them and she didn’t understand why. Today, while her father is away again, Nusrat is able to connect things as if solving with ease a jigsaw puzzle she didn’t understand at all as a child.
“If India is bragging about freedom of speech, why throttle my father’s voice,” Nusrat asked. “Why don’t media talk about my father the way they report Jawaharlal Nehru University? If it’s not an institutional hypocrisy then what do we call it?”
On 10 February, the programme held at Press Club of India in New Delhi hosted by Geelani was not the only event of the day marking Guru’s hanging anniversary. The day before, an even bigger and controversial demonstration took place on the campus of JNU, famous for its politically charged atmosphere. What followed was the arrest of JNU Students’ Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, and two other students, who, police claimed, were among those raising anti-India slogans. Kanhaiya, who has become a sensation in India and elsewhere for his boldness to comment on the current political scenario, was granted bail within weeks. The JNU story dominated much of the Indian media discourse while Geelani found his voice choked even there. It’s this concern then — the concern of representation and no representation actually — that Nusrat shared with me.
“When my father is expressing something, he must be provided with the same kind of treatment as others are given who express themselves,” Nusrat told me. Does it mean having an expectation from the system, I asked her. “The treatment should not be same because we expect something special from the system, but because a system can’t violate its own constitution by distinguishing between the two.”
When I met Nusrat and Aatif at their home on that day, a drizzle had turned roads outside muddy. When I was about to reach Geelani’s apartment, a paramilitary trooper poked out of an open space, his gun clasped between his hands. (Since 2005, when Geelani was shot at, two CISF troopers have been guarding his residence and two more guard him personally). First I thought I had come to a wrong place, but then Nusrat and Aatif were waiting for me on the other side. A bearded old man (I later came to know that he is Nusrat’s maternal grandfather) ushered me to a room where some dust-covered sofas were lying around — almost a tell tale sign of the family’s emotional state of mind.
Few minutes later, Nusrat and Aatif came. They looked confident and depressed — both at the same time. I didn’t want to add to their unease by asking scripted questions. I talked with them freely, deliberately drifting here and there, not caring whether the answers are politically correct or in line with journalistic requirements.
“Which weather do you like the most: Delhi’s or Kashmir’s?” I began with this inane question.
They both looked at each other and then smiled at me. “When it rains in Kashmir, it is beautiful,” Nusrat told me, trying to add more words. “Rain in Delhi just settles dust.” Probably she meant it metaphorically too.
Aatif has never seen snow in life, in real time. Since his birth, he has been in Delhi but wants to “touch it one day, feel its coldness.”
When I asked Nusrat whether I could talk with her mother, she said, “I’m really sorry. She is not in a position to talk.”
Or perhaps she was in a position to talk, but wanted not to. I tried to juggle around with the reasons for declining to talk. May be, it is the burden of her husband’s absence, I inferred. Or, the thought of an Indian television news reporter asking her questions for which there are no answers such as, “How do you feel about the arrest of your husband?”, “Why did he raise slogans?” and “If he is anti-Indian why shouldn’t he be in jail?” At least that’s the kind of treatment Indian media had given to the family, Nusrat told me in a resigned tone as if she expected nothing good out of Indian media houses as far her father goes.
Nusrat could not explain what sort of treatment the family expected from the Indian media. “At least the media could have reported his arrest alongside others,” she added as an afterthought. Having created some comfort level, I went back to asking her about how she missed her father. “Abbu’s arrest has once again created a huge vacuum in our life,” Nusrat said. “It is a feeling of perpetual sadness. And we have been again pushed to the wall.”
Has the family received any support from Indian intelligentsia? Nusrat was quick to name one person: Ram Jethmalani. “He was the person who took my father’s case after he was given death penalty in 2001,” Nusrat said. “He played a great role in his release and we remember him for that.”
But Nusrat was upset at not getting any support institutionally despite Geelani being a professor at Delhi University.
“When he was arrested outside the university in February, nobody said anything,” she told me. “At least courtesy demanded that the university make some sort of intervention.”
Geelani has been living in Delhi for more than 30 years. He came to the Indian capital as a student and pursued his doctorate in Arabic from the Delhi University. He teaches at Zakir Hussain College, a DU-affiliated graduate institute.
Ram Jethmalani was the person who took my father’s case after he was given death penalty in 2001. He played a great role in his release and we remember him for that
All along, since their birth, Nusrat and Aatif have been in Delhi, but the place has never felt like home to them. The city has always looked at them with suspicion — something they told me they have become accustomed to. “Somewhere deep down there is a feeling that this is not home,” Nusrat said.
The room where I talked with Nusrat and Aatif was enveloped in dust and I could smell the mixture of sand and cement coming from outside the room where some repair work was going on.
“At this moment we feel no peace, not even in this house, when Abbu is not with us,” Nusrat said. “This house is just a mixture of sand and stone. Without Abbu, can it be called home?”
That afternoon I met with Geelani after he was released, his house looked different. What Nusrat and Aatif felt two weeks ago had evaporated. They were jubilant at their father’s homecoming. It was this moment that they had been looking for all along. The two gently rested their hands on their father’s shoulders, wanting him to leave them never again.