Narrative

Jailed for Journalism: Letters of love, and hope in an Indian prison

One of the letters Shibli and Masroof exchanged in the dark prison.

As more and more paramilitary forces were being flown into a clamped-down on-genocide-alert Kashmir, thousands of political prisoners were being shifted out in the darkness of the night. One batch amongst them had journalist Qazi Shibli, being flown out in an Indian airforce carrier, singing the famous revolutionary poet Faiz’s songs, to cheer up his fellow prisoners. 

Jailed after reporting facts about huge contingents of the Indian Armed Forces being brought to Kashmir, Shibli found himself battling a crises, where he was caught between his own emotions, and defiance of a journalist questioning authority.

After being stripped naked, made to move from one undisclosed location to another, the 27-year-old editor of The Kashmiriyat was finally taken to the Srinagar Airport. It was here, while being made to walk under the glare of sniper fire, seeing the other Kashmiris scared, he decided to put up a brave front.

Shibli and another boy from North Kashmir, Masroof, decided to sing. “We sang Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’,” he says, while the Air Force carrier flew over multiple states into the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, a bastion of pro-hindutva forces.

“As a journalist it had become really important for me to present the facts in front of them,” says Shibli about his time in prison.

While the prisoners from Kashmir were seen as “terrorists”, Shibli’s instinct to produce counter narratives and challenge biases, were brought to the fore in the most unexpected place.

I knew I needed to kill time to stay sane, and keep my fellows’ hopes high, he says, adding that they would be taken out of their cells, for half an hour every 12 hours.

“The entire space we had to walk around in the mornings and evenings was not more than 12 x 30 ft,” he says.

In the dark cells, where insects and rodents were company, Shibli and the boy from North Kashmir, Masroof, thought about hope, and love.

***

Human emotion, and resilience of the heart would surprise Shibli. When nothing around was familiar, anything would bring hope.

Ironically, even the Jailor’s everyday visit, and the Doctor’s familiar face produced an emotion that gave comfort.

“We would try to make sense of weird things. Masroof and I had talked all night in Srinagar central jail. He wanted to learn and I would share poetry, and philosophy. When we were being moved, he stayed close to me, as if I could help. I would put up a brave face to comfort him, as if things were in our control,” Shibli says.

Jailed away, so far from home, both Shibli and Masroof knew no one was going to come see them, and so they decided to stay close. But as fate would have it, they were kept in different blocks, Judaa.

READ MORE: Jailed for Journalism – Part 1: ‘I was made to strip naked in prison’

“After some days, I started a conversation with another prisoner who had a duty to distribute food in my prison block. I asked him if he knew another Kashmiri boy in the next block. He didn’t, but said he could find out. I told him ‘his name is Masroof, please give him my salaam’,” he shares.

The next day, the prisoner came back with a message, “Masroof has said Walaikumaslaam. Khosh peayth? Atti cha searie nafar theek?

The prisoners would use coupons to get tea, but Shibli didn’t have any money. No one had come to see him.

A few days later, Masroof sent some money.

It lifted me up, as if someone from home had come, like the notes must have been touched by home, he says.

Next day, the doctor visited the patients, and prescribed a medicine to one of the inmates who was sick. The medicine was wrapped in a parchment. Shibli did not let the person throw it away.

The journalist had found paper, now all that he needed, was a pen.

I was trying to make friends with the guard, one of them was a Dalit, he would often give me a vibe that he felt sorry for us, says Shibli, and asked the guard if he could arrange a pen. “There are cameras all over. I will get it late at night.”

So Shibli waited.

“I wrote ‘Shukriya Masroof. Please tell me stories’ and gave it to the prisoner who distributed food,” he says.

In the coming days, Shibli and Masroof talked about everything. Life, the women they loved, how they see their life ahead.

“I would cheer him up, telling him I am a journalist, they won’t let me go but you are an ordinary civilian, you will be out sooner or later,” Shibli shares, adding that they then started writing songs to each other.

It was love-poetry, ghazals, and everything under the sky.

We would send each other lyrics, and then sing those songs loudly in our cells.

With some hope alive, eventually, Shibli says that while the guards saw all the Kashmiris as terrorists, he succeeded in changing their perception and behaviour.

“We were in our dark cells the entire day. So I would shout and ask for Hindi books, and talk to them about what was written in it. From our confinements, we would all sing Hindi songs in the evenings,” Shibli says.

At around 8 in the evening they would start singing from their cells, and go on till 1 in the night. The policemen outside would listen to them.

***

As word spread that there was a good singer in this particular prison block, the guards started getting curious.

One day, he doesn’t remember when, Shibli asked one of them to come near and sit outside their jail, as they sung their songs.

“This was the same Dalit policeman, the first one to talk to us. We became good friends eventually. He requested us to sing a particular song for him. Eventually, other cops on duty also joined us.”

Days after, the policemen would ask Shibli and other Kashmiri inmates about the situation in Kashmir.

“They had a vague idea that some wrong was being done to us, but they did not exactly know what it was,” he says.

“I also spoke about the politics in India and not only about Kashmir. We would discuss things including our folk cultures. After 9 months, through our conduct, knowledge and music, we bridged the gap a little,” Shibli says with a sense of accomplishment, adding that the policemen were more convinced of their innocence by the end than they themselves.

Back home, Shibli’s family was desperately trying to trace him out. After 45 days, word reached them about him being locked up in Uttar Pradesh’s High-Security Prison in Bareilly.

After the first three months, they received paperwork from the Home Department in Jammu and Kashmir, the PSA had been extended.

“We were supposed to be in prison for three months, but after three months, an extension letter came, which was frustrating. They were treating me like a criminal for doing my job. I became hopeless. Something like that breaks you when are trying to remain sane,” he says.

A cancer patient amongst them stayed for over 4 months, after his PSA was finally quashed.

“On the 57th day, I got to know that the situation was bad in Kashmir. Also, I figured out by taking us to Bareilly, the authorities were sending a strong message to Kashmiris and earning points with their home population,” he says, analytically adding, “otherwise, why did they not take us to Punjab which was nearer. The problem is that it is run by a non-BJP government.”

***

Finally, after extensions and spending nine long months in prison, the court quashed Shibli’s PSA and he was set free.

“While I was leaving, 5 or 6 policemen escorted me to the gate and asked me if I would meet them when they come to Kashmir,” says Shibli exclaiming, “however it is unfortunate that the period of quashing the PSA took so much time.”

Back home in his Anantnag residence, besides the police station where he was kept before being shifted to the high security prison, Shibli sits and hears the birds sing.

Spending these quarantine days with his family, he feels that the psychological trauma inmates have faced, is tremendous.

“For those months in the cells, we would hear a sparrow chirp and try to figure out where it must be sitting. Now, I can finally see the source of the sound,” he says.

“We could only see the colour of the clothes we were wearing, and the white colour of the walls. It was dull. Now I am back home and there are so many colours,” he shares.

But it is not just psychological trauma. For around 4 months in the cramped prison cell, Shibli could not bend his leg.

“I am dealing with the physical toll the imprisonment took on me first,” he says.

As far as resuming work is concerned, he says that he was verbally asked to shut his publication, The Kashmiriyat.

“I won’t lie. I am scared. But, journalists are a part of the larger human society. The Government has launched a massive crackdown against everyone who shows a bit of love for truth and facts. The state has created a perception of good and bad journalists depending on who bends and who doesn’t,” he says.

He believes a binary of nationalist/terrorist, has been created, and the harassment of journalists is a symptom in the larger frame where intense crackdown on Human Rights activists, students, women’s groups and minorities is taking place.

“Right to expression is gone, there is no space for it anymore,” he says.

He feels that the government has used every tactic to stop journalism in Kashmir. “From Facebook, to Google, everyone has worked with the government to shut down voices. Facebook was our biggest source of audience here. But our page was shut. We started with a new page, and restarted. After I was jailed, they had shut that too.”

But Shibli is confident he will start again. For now, he is healing.

 

Qazi Zaid is a journalist based in Kashmir and edits Free Press Kashmir. 

Marouf Gazi contributed to this story. She is a Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) 2019 fellow and a senior staffer at Free Press Kashmir. 

 

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