From gun to stick: Mohammad Saeed’s walk to woe

As a hothead downtowner, Mohammad Saeed grew up as a diehard Mirwaiz family follower, who braced himself up for a ‘Sarhad Paar’ trip by late eighties. But he was cut short, tortured and jailed, only to come out two years later, to embrace the gun. It just took him one wrong trigger that not only ended his machismo, but also pushed him into darkness. 

In a small, winding alley of Srinagar’s downtown, some Pheran-clad men walk discussing the events of last Friday at the Jamia Masjid. They stress the role of the place in keeping the ‘sentiments’ alive.

“No matter how bad the times have been for the resistance, this place has always kept the spark lit,” says one of the men while raising his index finger in acceptance.

Suddenly, they fall silent, while seeing a man in his early 50s, holding a stick and walking slowly in the opposite direction.

“Asalamualikum Saeed Saeb,” everyone greets the man. Without raising his head, he answers, “Wailakium Salaam” and pushes on.

As he passes by, one of the men whispers, “Saeed was among the first youngsters to take the armed front from downtown and he has paid the highest price for it!” Others without saying a word nod their heads in agreement.

A small distance away, in Naid Kadal, Mohammad Saeed Dhobi, locally known as ‘Saeed Saeb’, lives in single-storey house.

The ‘Tik Tik’ sound of his stick hitting the ground announces his arrival for the kids playing cricket in the alley outside his home. “Saeed Uncle is here,” says a kid, while passing the ball and making a way. He enters his small house, using his stick as a guide.

The appearance of the man defies the sense that his shaky hands once held a gun, before a stick became his permanent companion.

He traces the birth of his rebel in the later part of the 80s, when he would be at the forefront of resistance in this part of the world.

Mohammad Saeed Dhobi.

Inside his small, poorly-lit room, where his wife is busy in chores, Saeed takes a seat with a sigh. Hearing the kids fighting amongst them, ‘out, you’re out!’ outside, Saeed remembers his childhood days when he would run after his father’s bicycle.

“Despite the extreme poverty and hardships, our childhood was more peaceful and happy than these kids,” says Saeed, while talking about the violence and bloodshed that the current generation is surrounded with.

Saeed belongs to a poor family of Dhobis—the traditional washermen family—of downtown Srinagar. His family was known for dry-cleaning clothes and washing carpets of the upper class households.

“My father used to wash carpets of Dars and Khans of Rajouri Kadal and Gojwara and later on, my brothers switched to making the packing of Kashmiri Shawls to be exported outside Kashmir,” he continues, in his thoughtful voice, while mentioning his family’s inclination towards the Mirwaiz family.

“One of my elder brothers, who was part of Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq led Awami Action Committee, would frequently face prison,” says Saeed while explaining how the ‘sparks of resistance’ entered his home.

He grows silent, as his elder son, Muneeb, aged 13, opens the creaking wooden door of the kitchen, to inform his mother: “Don’t look for me. I am playing just outside.”

On hearing his son’s voice, Saaed turns his face towards the door, pretending as if he has seen him.

“I can’t see him, but I do know that I was just like him. Those days my mother would ask me to finish my food first before going out to play cricket with my friends,” says Saeed, in an emotional voice. “I never used to finish my plate, neither does my son.”

Going back to his childhood days, Saeed remembers how pro-Sheikh Abdullah and pro-Mirwaiz Farooq, popularly known as Sher-Bakra, followers were to change Downtown forever.

“Growing up, I sensed that Bakra is a pro-resistance label and I along with many other boys hit the streets as stone-throwers, wearing that label as a badge of honour,” he says.

As a street regular, he experienced and witnessed the transitions throughout the 80s, making Downtown Srinagar a heartland of resistance. During the nights, Saeed would turn up with his comrades to paste pro-resistance posters on the city walls.

“By late 80s, the political mood started changing in Kashmir and the trigger was the rigging of the 1987 elections. It was followed by the mass arrests of Muslim United Front (MUF) leaders and activists,” he says, talking about the events culminating into the first armed uprising against the Indian State in Kashmir by the late eighties.

Besides the rigged election, Saeed believes that the two other major events in the late 80s attracted the young towards the movement.

“The kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed [daughter of then Home Minister of India, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed] followed by the release of few commanders including my neighbour Noor Mohammad Kalwal and Altaf Bhat of Namchibal set the stage for the mass movement in Kashmir,” he says. “That prisoner swap episode was something that actually fired the imagination of the youngsters like me.”

Soon the first shots were fired by armed insurgents—some of whom were his neighbours and playmates—just outside his residence, on the serpentine Nallamar Road.

“And suddenly, everyone wanted to cross over to Azad Kashmir for arms training, as the trained men were being welcomed as ‘angels’ back home,” Saeed recalls, with a faded smile on his face. “I also made up my mind along with my two other friends, but we couldn’t make it. We were cut short in Jammu and sent to torture chambers.”

It was 1989, and Saeed’s two-year “spine-chilling” journey to different jails had just begun.

“While being moved from one jail to other for interrogation, I ran into a man who went on to change my outlook,” recalls Saeed. “That man was Syed Ali Geelani, whom I met in UP Jail.”

The caged Hurriyat patriarch used to teach jail mates, especially Kashmiris, who had started crowding Indian jails. But for Saeed, who came from a Bakra background, Geelani’s speeches and ideology were “something new”.

“Speaking of Hassan-ul-Banna, Syed Kutb and Allama Iqbal, the man’s speeches had a great motivational power and I couldn’t resist them,” recalls Saeed.

But despite those ‘morale-boosting speeches’, jail life was only passing him through different experiences.

After Kehkashan Hotel, Mamta Hotel, Central Jalil, Sheraz Cinema, he was taken to the dreaded torture centre Papa 2, now housing Mehbooba Mufti, in its refurbished avatar, called Fairview mansion.

“At Papa 2, I memorized Surah Rehman under guidance of Master Ahsan Dar, but I also won’t ever forget the place for the kind of torture we were subjected to, both mentally and physically,” Saeed continues.

The torture centre was a packed house, he says, where some 300 odd inmates would be allowed a single toilet a day. “Mostly,” Saeed recalls, “inmates wouldn’t even require to go to toilet, as the brutal torture would itself make them pee in their pants.”

Papa 2, now the residence of Muftis.

Recalling that phase of his life unsettles him. He turns silent, lowers his head, to control his gush of emotions. With concern rising on her face, Saeed’s wife comes with a glass of water. With a broken Kashmiri accent, she tells him, “Cheyew hex treash” (Have some water.)

Reshma, Saeed’s wife, is from Kolkata and was married to him in 2000. Saeed’s younger son, Mohsin, aged 7, also joins in, to console his father. The sob scene turns the poorly-lit room only murkier.

It was in 1991, when he finally came out as a free man. But his jail ordeal hadn’t changed him. He stepped out as the same emotional young man reacting to the events around.

In that year, Kashmir witnessed a rattling abduction spree. And the militant outfit doing it soon became Saeed’s new domicile: Student Liberation Front, popularly called SLF, the student wing of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), fighting for an independent Kashmir.

“After being affiliated with SLF for some time, I joined Hilal Beig, Altaf Qureshi and others to be part of Ikhwaan-ul-Muslimeen to carry on with the armed resistance,” says Saeed, as he switches his tune after having a glass of water.

For next few years, Saeed continued his armed activism, spending days in hiding and nights on the streets of downtown. “Then, many would denounce us as ‘Batte Mujahid’, but our movement was much sorted as our hideouts had layers of coverings,” he says, drawing parallels with the contemporary militancy. “We fought it like a guerilla war, where being practical was more important than being emotional.”

But soon, as some members of his outfit shifted loyalties, his tanzeem got split into two factions—Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon led by Kukka Parrey, and Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen led by Hilal Beig.

It was during those times, when insurgents had to face counterinsurgents—the renegades, called Ikhwanis—apart from the usual military, that Saeed accidentally shot himself, which ended up cutting his nerve.

“On the fateful day, there was a shutdown call and I after some ‘action’ rushed into an overloaded bus,” he remembers. “Somehow the trigger of my gun that I was hiding got pulled by the belt and six bullets were pumped into both of my legs, cutting a nerve connected to my eye.”

After sudden fires went off inside the bus, he ran to deboard it, jostling with scared passengers on the way. His few meters run ended near Gojwara-Makdoom Sahib link road, where he fainted and was luckily rushed to hospital by some auto driver. “But my gun was handed over to my outfit by a member of Al-Umar,” he smiles over the bygone adventure that changed him forever.

Then, almost a week later, Saeed walked out of hospital as a partially-blind man. By 1996, his sight dimmed to an extend that he decided to give up the gun. He again landed in jail. And when he came out, he wasn’t the same ‘emotional man’, who had walked out in 1991. The reckoning rebel of yore who had responded to the mass movement in his backyard was now a disabled person, facing taunts, “for failing the gun”.

Back home, his brothers had long moved on with their lives. But as a blind man, he could no longer take care of himself. And after responding to the ‘collective cause’, he was now left to fend for himself.

Saeed was now nobody’s rebel.

During his distressed hour, however, his former teacher whom he met in UP Jail would send him Rs 2000 per month for one and half year. That monthly assistance continued, he says, till Syed Ali Geelani was United Hurriyat Conference’s chairman.

“Now,” Saeed says, “JKLF supremo Mohammad Yasin Malik sends me Rs 1000 every month.” Rest of the help comes from his community.

But deep down, he feels a big letdown.

“Whose duty is to take care of families of those who have sacrificed their today, their lives, their vision, their families, their properties and whatever they had for the tomorrow of ours?” Saeed leaves behind many unanswered questions, while holding his stick and walking out for prayers.


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