In the searing summer of 2018 when the “unholy alliance” disintegrated and ushered in an era of New Delhi’s direct control in Jammu and Kashmir, a 12-year-old arrived in Srinagar’s Press Colony with a poetic campaign for her captive father. Her wait ended when Sarjan Barkati, the ‘Azadi Chacha’ and ‘pied piper’ of 2016 civilian protests recently returned home after four years of incarceration.
Beaming over the festive footfall in her tiny home—a dusky dwelling of a small kitchen and two rooms girded with grizzled plaster walls and scaffolding of few quilts—Sugra Barkati finally looks a relieved soul.
Father’s homecoming has uplifted the gloom of four years — the traumatic timeline when she, along with her brother, and their mother kept longing for their captive breadwinner, who dished out the notable dissent: “Na Bhai Na”.
But now, that trauma has apparently ended, as women in droves have arrived in her home in Reban village of south Kashmir’s Shopian district with garlands, almonds and candies.
Kissing Sarjan Barkati’s forehead, a sexagenarian woman wearing a white kerchief and pheran says, “Oh, I can’t believe my eyes that you’re finally home!”
Wearing Black Khan dress, disarmingly, Barkati looks happy to reunite with his 10-year-old son Azan, 14-year-old daughter Sugra Barkati and 30-year-old wife Sabroz.
38-year-old Barkati was arrested on October 1, 2016, after conducting anti-India rallies in Kulgam, Shopian and Anantnag districts. His rallies largely had huge participation; ‘Azadi Chacha’ was a crowd puller — earning him the sobriquet of ‘the Pied Piper of South Kashmir’ for his one of a kind sloganeering and unconventional style of addresses
“After Abu’s arrest, my brother Azan’s behaviour changed,” Sugra, 14, says. “He used to whisper in silence and asked questions in grief – ‘why has the father left us alone?’ He used to express his fears to our mother, ‘Will you also abandon us like father did?’ When Abu reached home, Azan kissed him endlessly for 3 hours.”
During his captivity, the concern for his family made Barkati an insomniac in his prison cell.
“Many things were going on in my mind like how would my family eat as I was the only breadwinner,” he says. “Concerned for their living, I never slept throughout the nights for 4 years.”
Each night, the darkness haunted him – his ears would hear wails of his son and daughter.
“During the time of my arrest, my wife was still breastfeeding our son,” Barkati says, his tears subsiding. “I used to nap for two hours after morning prayers in a bid to keep myself sane.”
Daughter’s Poetic Campaign
While Barkati was spending sleepless nights in prison, his daughter would spend her nights in her downcast home writing versing in his longing.
Finally, in July 2018, she took her poetic campaign to Srinagar. Her father’s constant captivity under Public Safety Act (PSA) since 2016 had transformed the then 12-year-old daughter into a ‘couplet campaigner’.
“I resort to verses to overcome dejection,” Sugra, then forth standard student, said. “I mostly write in night hours.”
When Barkati was put at Kot Balwal prison, Sugra and her mother would barely visit there and meet him. Feeling the loss of her father excessively, the daughter took a pen and began composing herself during that time.
Abu myani lagyoo capture gachnas
Sugra chei cheshmoo khoon-e-dil haraan
Azan raj chu gaam pati gaam tchei chadaan
May I bleed for your detention….
Sugra is pouring her heart out to you
Azan wanders in villagers in your longing…
Barkati believes that his daughter has inherited his poetic DNA.
“My poetry was the compassion for the tyrannized Kashmiri people but my daughter’s poems were the malady of my separation,” says the man, whose “pellet-bullet” slogan remains unforgettable.
“I’m a poet who believes in Sufism. In 2001, I used to write praises in honour of our beloved prophet and slowly my focus turned towards writing slogans against the oppression on Kashmiri people.”
Sugra, who studies in 6th standard, credits for father for her poetic acumen.
“My father used to teach me poetry but I was not writing poems until the day he was arrested,” she says. “The separation of my father, agony and sufferings shaped my poetic elegies. I was only penning down my pain.”
Chuar Wari me weatim mealis wichnas….
Abu myani lagyo arrest gachnas….
Sugra che lagyo qadarwar paanas…
yena abu dalhem ath emanas…
Have not seen my father from 4 years…
May I bleed for your detention…
May Sugra bleed for your towering personality…
Never stride from your faith, my father
Life in Captivity
After popularizing new forms of dissent in that searing summer of 2016, Barkari knew his arrest was on the cards and yet “we Kashmiris are mourning from every side and we cannot neglect this fact albeit the death of Hizb Commander Burhan Wani was a catalytic tinge for everyone to revolt,” he says. “It was not only me.”
A year after his arrest in 2017, the then opposition members of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, Congress and Independent MLAs raised the same slogans against the regime—the PDP-BJP led coalition—that earned Barkati a long jail term.
Citing 65 FIRs, Barkati was booked under section 43 of the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA).
“On the first stance, I was taken to the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) office (South Kashmir Range) Anantnag, then Wanpoo police station in Kulgam district, after that Sadder Thana in Jammu and followed by Kot Bhalwal Jail in Jammu for 3 months,” he says.
Only at the Joint Interrogation Centre in Jammu, he was held captive for 3 years.
“They interrogated me physically as well as mentally but I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he says.
Barkati’s custody kept changing from one jail to other making the process of securing legal release more difficult.
“Before I would comply with the bail bond and appear before the court for bail, they (police) would come up with another FIR,” he says.
“My lawyer Shafqat [Hussain] Marhoom managed to revoke charges of PSA on me twice but they (police) were not releasing me,” Barkati says. “I’m also thankful to my lawyer who did not take a single penny from me.”
Almost surrounded by 40 men in his home, Barkati says the only valuable part in his 4 years of incarceration was reciting the holy Quran.
“I memorized 18 Para of the Holy Quran with translation,” he beams with pride.
But surviving four years without his family was a sheer battle of nerves for Barkati. The ‘awful’ food in jail equally made it horrible, he says.
“Even if an inmate is hungry from fifteen days, he wouldn’t eat that food,” he says.
“So we would make a group of ten people and collect money, write applications to the authorities to buy spices and vegetables from the market. We had this freedom to buy groceries and that’s how I endured this languishing journey.”
Back home, there were times, especially after the abrogation of Article 370, when his family had slept with an empty-stomach for days together.
“Due to the lockdown, many people were unable to reach my home,” Barkati says. “But I’m grateful to the youth of Kashmir who took care of my family in my absence, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown.”
Amid the festive footfall in her home, Sugra’s poetic struggle takes one back to that 2018 summer, when she had vowed, “We won’t wear new garments if our Abu isn’t released on Eid.”
The daughter’s beaming face now makes it certain that that the captive father’s homecoming has finally brought Eid-like celebrations for her family.