In Depth

Braving it all: Being a doctor whose husband is in jail

Juggling between the roles of a doctor and a mother, Dr Bilquies has been fighting many battles as her husband, pro-independence leader Shabir Shah, remains in prison.  

The COVID-19 pandemic came as a leveller for the world, introducing people who had not heard about curfews and restrictions, to a prolonged lockdown period. For the people of Kashmir, the challenges have only multiplied.

Dr Bilquies, 49, juggles between being a medical doctor and a mother, while her husband, a pro-freedom leader of Kashmir, incarcerated at New Delhi’s Tihar jail.

Bilquies is a Resident Medical Officer (RMO) and administers COVID-19 operations at Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial (JLNM) hospital in Kashmir.

The medico says she worries about her husband Shabir Shah, who has spent a total of 33 years of his life in prison for his political beliefs. The 67-year-old detainee is the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party (JKDFP). 

Shah was arrested by Enforcement Directorate (ED), a specialised financial investigation agency of India, in July 2017 for an alleged money laundering case and ‘financing of terror groups’.

Saying that her husband was arrested on ‘fabricated’ charges, Bilquies is now more worried about his health than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

She mentiones multiple health conditions that Shah is suffering from, including Diabetes, Hypertension and Arthritis making him vulnerable in COVID times. The doctor says that her ‘medical-mind’ is bound to calculate risks knowing that her husband is in an “overcrowded jail”.

A Doctor’s ordeal

Dr Bliquies has been working 12-18 hours on a stretch since Covid-19 cases started to rise in Kashmir. Having worked in the administration of JLNM hospital for 20 years now, Bilquies and her team have never experienced an emergency situation like this before.

It was amidst this health crisis and disturbance that she almost skipped sending a money order to her husband in Tihar, some time ago.

Every month, the family sends money to Shah to cover his essential needs inside the jail. Amidst the lockdown, Dr Bilquies left her hospital tasks to go to the General Post Office (GPO) Srinagar for sending the money order.

The authorities refused to transfer the money citing COVID lockdown as the reason. Worried about the situation back in the hospital, she did not enquire further and rushed back to work. Later, she was told that money is being transferred even amidst this lockdown.

“I went back to the GPO the next day they exhibited the same attitude. After getting into an argument with them I was finally able to transfer the money. I have no idea when my husband will receive it,” says Bilquies who sent the money from the GPO nearly a month ago. 

Denial of permission to meet family

The Shah family receives his 2-3 minute calls from jail in which they ‘struggle to package words’.

Shah’s elder daughter, Sama, a 20-year-old law student in the UK is not lucky enough to speak to her father, as Shah can not make international calls.

“A few days ago I was home and he called by chance, we immediately dialled Sama’s number from another phone and brought both the phones together so that they could hear each other’s voice. Both of them broke down,” the medico says.

Bilquies has been legally fighting an order that restricts Shah’s family, barring a few exceptions, from meeting him in jail. Before this government order, the family could meet him inside the jail premise.

“His immediate relations his parents are dead. His elder brother and sister are too aged to travel to Delhi frequently. Sama is in the UK and she can’t come to meet her father. The only people left are my 18-year-old younger daughter, Sehar, and myself.”

However, she still can’t visit him due to financial burden of frequent travels and her tight schedule in the hospital.

Bilquies says that her legal fight against the order that started earlier this year was rebuffed by the authorities and the pandemic further complicated the process.

The doctor further adds how she ‘never felt weak’ in this fight because they have internalised these ‘abnormal ways of living’.

“Some years back, my daughters and I were in Delhi and Shabir had to come from Kashmir the next day to join us. It would be the first time that we’d be living together in Delhi for some days. I got a call at midnight that our house in Kashmir was raided and Shabir arrested. I had no clue why, until next morning when news of Afzal Guru’s hanging flashed everywhere,” she says recalling an incident from 2013.

Afzal Guru was convicted in the case of the 2001 parliament attack and was executed on February 9, 2013. Shah was released three years after Guru’s hanging.

“The family,” she says, “has fought a slew of rumours about Shah’s safety in Tihar from time to time. In February last year, a rumour about Shah being attacked inside the jail spread, and created panic in the family”.

Bilquies quickly packed for Tihar and flew to delhi to see if his husband was okay. However, she was not allowed to meet him.

Later, reports said that Shabir Shah was safe inside the jail.

Never ending fight 

Dr Bilquies says that the last two years of Shah’s imprisonment have been the most trying for her.

Following Shabir Shah’s arrest, the family received many notices from the Indian government. In April last year Shah’s elder daughter Sama who was in the UK was also summoned by ED in the money laundering case.

Bilquies, while talking to the media, had said that if the summoning and harassment continued, her daughter would have to seek asylum in the UK. According to Bilquies, Sama’s university supported her and prevented her from coming to India.

Last year, Bilquies received a notice that her property was attached by the Enforcement Directorate and she should vacate within 10 days.

“Everything blacked out for me, I’d no idea what things to take and what to leave, I asked my daughter to pack her books. I left for Delhi the very next moment to meet my lawyer,” she says.

Because of the communication blockade in Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370, things for Bilquies became difficult.

“I ran from pillar to post. From courts in Delhi to courts in Srinagar to get a stay order,” she says.

The medico managed to get a stay order and now waits for the pandemic to end in order to proceed with the legal course.

Braving it all

Dr Bilquies who has been married to Shabir Shah for more than twenty years, says that she never let her professional life get affected by her personal struggles. The doctor shares that before being married to Shabir Shah, she was completely detached from Kashmir’s politics and had never thought that she would have a role to play in it.

“I was brought up in a very shielded environment and after marriage, life took a very different course. It was after believing in my husband’s resolve for a cause and seeing him struggle that I kept growing stronger with each passing day,” she says.

“I have learned to put up with this life and haven’t allowed anything to break my courage. It is only after I see my younger daughter’s pain for her father that I shake,” she adds.

Dr. Bilquies’s younger daughter Sehar’s is on medication for depression as she has not been able to cope with the trauma of her father’s incarceration.

She was a happy go lucky kind of a kid but has drastically changed in the last three years. She doesn’t sleep, and when she does, she wakes up crying. She constantly has dreams of her father and keeps on writing about him,” she says. 

“It breaks my heart to see her condition and longing for her father. Whenever she goes to visit her father in Tihar, they both struggle to touch one another and the meeting only lasts for a very small time. She can’t even talk about her pain to her father,” Dr Bilquies adds.

In addition to braving her personal battles Bilquies is also at the forefront in the fight against the deadly pandemic. She adds that it took her time to take everybody onboard in the COVID preparations as her family, as well as her colleagues in the medical field, were panicked by the whole situation.

“I have to leave Sehar at her aunt’s and often pick her up in the dead of the night when I return from the hospital. I barely have gotten time to spend with her in this pandemic.”

Juggling between the roles of a doctor, a mother and the wife of an incarcerated leader, Bilquies says that despite the ‘apathy’ of the government towards political detainees of Kashmir, she isn’t surprised by the power of such institutions.

Instead, she says, the struggle has brought her closer to God and she derives her strength from Him alone.

COVID and political prisoners 

“Some time ago after the lockdown started he (Shah) shared that the water supply had stopped inside his cell. He was soon exposed to the strong smell of the open commode inside his cell. Although he has spent most of his life in different prisons we haven’t been as worried because it is different this time. There is a global health crisis going on,” Bilquies shares.

Governments throughout the world have had to release prisoners in order to prevent the virus spread. UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres’s office also called for ‘countries to take a very close look at incarcerations during the pandemic.

As countries around the world released prisoners in order to prevent outbreaks in prisons, the Supreme Court of India directed all states and union territories to release prisoners on parole, but with conditions attached.

As per government reports 7,357 people in Jammu and Kashmir were arrested after August 2019. On August 5, 2019, the Government of India scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which granted autonomy to the region. The state turned Union Territory remained under a government imposed clampdown for several months.

Following the pandemic, 31 Kashmiri prisoners were released from various jails of Srinagar city, however hundreds continue to remain detained across various jails in India.


Sadaf Masoodi is a graduate of Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.


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