A midnight thriller ended for a Kashmiri boy dramatically when he landed in a jail outside Kashmir, soon after the nullification of JK’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019. Seven months after his release, the former captive tells his year-long prison tale to the author in this first-person account.
I woke up from a terrible nightmare in the middle of the night to find myself sleeping in a small room. A red bulb shining over my head felt like a small ball of raging fire, and the sweat all over my body complemented my illusion.
The rage only got stronger as the night went along. I wanted to get up but couldn’t. The cross of my own body felt too heavy for me to bear or even lift up.
‘Where am I?’ I asked myself.
Whenever I wake up confused from a bad dream, I try to remember where I slept last night and then things begin to fall in place and make sense.
But, that nightmare in the searing summer of 2019 was different. Maybe I knew, and my mind wasn’t ready to accept the harsh reality. The reality of losing my freedom, of losing my life; the reality of being locked in a prison far away from home.
I didn’t sleep anymore, I couldn’t.
‘These are very dangerous terrorists, I saw in the news,’ I had heard one of the guards telling his colleague when we were being transported from Lucknow to our prison. In my opinion though, the real terrorists were the army of ants and moths in the cell, they only grew in number as the night excruciatingly passed into the morning. I looked at those small yet fierce creatures and wondered how briskly they reproduced. If I had a phone I would have googled it but they don’t give you phones in jail. How unfortunate of me!
A couple of hours after the sunrise the guards came to make sure all of us were alive and of course to serve us our morning tea – that smelled like cat piss and tasted even worse.
I put my t-shirt on. The same I used as my blanket last night. They say that the first day in the prison is the hardest and the longest. Well, I was about to find out as my second day had now begun.
‘Where are we supposed to piss?’ I asked my cellmate Mushtaq, with whom I had already spent more than 15 hours and the only thing I knew about him was that his wife was a witch and his two daughters were angels.
Although, for some strange reason he said that it was the witch he missed the most.
‘In my mouth,’ he replied apathetically pressing his right knee with both his hands.
I began to cry. Holding my head between the knees and wrapping my arms around them, I cried to my full potential. It is not that someone hadn’t been rude to me before, but there are times when the baggage keeps building on you and then something very small triggers it and you break down. And when you are just 18, locked up, you have no idea if your family knows about your whereabouts. The agony is incomparable.
After a while I felt some sort of metal rubbing around my head. It was Mushtaq trying to console me with his chained hands. A chained man trying to console a chained boy. He told me to piss in the corner.
I eventually learnt how to relieve myself in the corner and eat in the other one. Got along well with Mushtaq too.
We were fed 3 times a day: Early in the morning with cat piss; in the afternoon with uncooked ‘daal’ swimming in cold oil and a ‘roti’ professional stone masons might struggle to rubble up. Mushtaq was a mason and he was the one who came up with the analogy. And, finally in the evening, we were fed with whatever was left.
‘I just want to breathe some fresh air. I feel suffocated in this cell! Is it too much to ask?’ Saleem, another Kashmiri prisoner, pleadingly asked one of the men guarding our prison cells.
‘We have strict ‘aadesh’ (orders) of not letting anyone of you out,’ the guard gave his usual reply.
It wasn’t the first time Saleem was pestering a guard on duty to let him out and it was surely not the last.
‘If I ever get out of here, I would write a book about my stay in this shithole of a jail and title it: ‘Aadesh’,’ he told one of the guards when he was tired of hearing the same word again and again. We all shared a laugh about it. It was a first in many days. There were 30 of us, all Kashmiris: locked up in two rows of cells facing each other, built in between two humungous fencing walls. Perhaps the height of the walls was to remind us each day that we had lost our freedom to the might of those concrete structures. The block was so tightly built that the light would not enter it.
Perhaps, they thought the ‘terrorists’ might somehow use the sunlight to their advantage and escape.
Since the day we were brought to the Ambedkar Nagar District jail, we hadn’t been allowed to leave our cells.
Except for my cellmate, I hadn’t seen a human being for almost a month and yet, I had constantly heard one, in fact all of us had, even more than our respective cellmates I guess: It was Saleem and his never ending antics with the jail personnel.
‘We are going for a hunger strike from tomorrow, this is barbaric. They have to let us out, at least once a day,’ I heard Saleem announcing loudly enough for all of us to hear while I was about to lay on the piece of mat we were provided to use a mattress.
‘He is joking, right?’ Mushtaq asked. His face was covered in his white shirt. He couldn’t sleep if the light fell directly onto his eyes.
‘He is in the first cell, we shall find out tomorrow,’ I suggested.
‘He has gone nuts if he’s serious,’ Mushtaq remarked.
Saleem wasn’t joking. When the guards came in the morning, he along with his cellmate refused to take tea. So did the guys from the cell besides them. And soon everybody followed, even Mushtaq.
24 hours passed. The jail personnel were still unhinged.
‘This was a really bad idea. Why do you think they would care if we eat or not. They will let us die in here,’ Mushtaq said, not addressing me but everyone who could hear.
‘I agree! It’s better to stay locked in, than to die of hunger,’ said a voice from a couple of cells away from us.
I thought it was over. The protest had failed. Right then, the moment I thought everybody had almost given in, I heard the most calm and beautiful voice one can imagine. It felt like someone was speaking through his heart and his heart was made of music.
‘We all die one day and die for sure. What matters is how we choose to die. We can eat and let the guards dictate our lives for God knows how long; or we can take a stand and take our rights or at least die trying,’ Imam Sahab said.
Imam Sahab was a teacher by profession. We didn’t know his real name but when the protest ended after four and a half days he led our first collective prayer and then every other prayer after that. Hence the name: Imam Sahab.
After the protest we were allowed to gather in the lawn from 7 in the morning to 4 in the evening. It wasn’t much but it was a start. And soon there were more protests: for a few books, for a little better food- for everything a free man takes for granted.
A couple of months in the prison and I still had no idea about my family but what troubled me more was if they had one about me. I missed my mother, my siblings, my friends and most of all, my father. Actually, none of us had any contact with our families. We couldn’t even write them a letter if we wanted to. Pen and paper were strictly banned in there.
‘Pen and paper have the power to immortalize a story or an idea that can shape futures and topple dictators. That is why it scares them the most,’ Imam Sahab told us when his umpteenth request for a notebook and a pen was declined because their ‘Aadesh’ were as such.
There wasn’t a day when a guy or two didn’t break down. I was the youngest of the lot, so I was the most frequent.
But to make sure we had some fun, Saleem somehow convinced the guards to spare him some small pebbles, a needle and a thread. A couple of hours later he came up with an almost perfectly round ball, made up of our socks, to play a prison version of handball.
We played for an hour or so until, I made a quick intended pass to one of my teammates and it hit one of the guards in the head. He was fuming. He came charging towards me and hit me on my face. I felt every bit of urge to retaliate but Imam Sahab held me back. We were thrown into our cells immediately like a flock of sheep who didn’t behave as their shepherd would want them to.
The next morning we weren’t allowed to leave our cells. The guards looked more hostile than usual. At around noon the same guard from yesterday opened our cell. It was unusual because our cell was in the middle.
‘Come with me!’ the guard ordered looking right into my eyes.
My heart was pounding, my hands shaking. I was sure they were going to stage an escape and kill me; I had seen it in movies.
‘You will see for yourself,’ he grabbed my collar with his left hand and signaled his colleague with his right hand to come and help him to drag me out. His hands were small but they were strong.
‘I don’t want to die,’ I screamed deliberately for everyone to hear. I knew they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it but, when you are pushed to wall, you want to hold on to every bit of hope that is still left. I was dragged out. As much as I tried to struggle, against two strong men the odds were not in my favour.
As we reached closer to the main door of the block I closed my eyes and prepared myself for death.
‘If they ask about my last wish I’d ask them to call my father,’ I thought. I wasn’t sure though, whether they ask you about your last wish in fake encounters.
One of the guards opened the door. I opened my eyes and saw a completely different world. It was like how they show in those futuristic movies – a wall built in the middle of the city to divide the high end and other end of the society. All those movies made sense. They weren’t futuristic anymore, not for me at least!
A narrow but long corridor led us to jailer’s office. Behind him he had a few flags in his office. A well-built man, tall, dark, precise with his clothing, his watch, his shoes: everything about that man was absolutely detailed.
‘Who’s this?’ he asked me handing me an identity card.
‘Do you know this man?’
‘He is my father,’ I answered bursting into tears again.
A few minutes later, I was in the visiting room. I sat on a chair in front of the glass, with a window-sized opening.
In my left was a camera, in my right was a guard, and in front of me was my father. I cried, he cried, and then he spoke, and I cried more.
‘Take me home, father!’ I pleaded.
‘I will, very soon,’ he consoled. ‘I just wanted to make sure you are alive.’
I looked into my tired father’s eyes and only felt guilty. He is a daily wager. I had been gone for months. He must have spent a lot while trying to find my whereabouts. Then he had to travel all the way from a remote town in Kashmir to a jail, 130 mile away from Lucknow. He couldn’t have worked for a single day in those months. He must’ve used all our savings. The money he was saving to renovate our small house. He has a family to take care of- my mother, my elder sister and my three younger brothers.
‘Just give me 10 days, I will get you out of here,’ my father assured me in a broken Hindi. We weren’t allowed to speak in Kashmiri.
‘We won’t always be around: you have to start taking care of yourself,’ father had told me one day holding a handful of bandages and with a face-full of worries. And, I, rather jokingly told him that volleyball needed such sacrifices, for it is a game of not letting things down: neither the ball, nor the intensity.
However, had I known I was going to spend the next year of my life in a jail, thousand miles away from home, I would have taken my father’s advice seriously, in fact, way more seriously than I actually did.
It was 9th of August 2019, around midnight; my cousin and I were watching a Bollywood action movie on television. Mother had brought me a warm cup of milk and, gone to sleep – so had father and my four other siblings. While I slowly savoured my first sip, the heroine was taken by the villains in the movie in a build up to a typical Bollywood style ending.
‘Why is it always the girl that gets taken and saved, why not the other way around?’ my cousin asked me. More as rhetoric than a question, I guessed.
About to take a second sip- I heard a bang on our main door. We don’t have a proper gate. It is a makeshift one, so, to pass through unnoticed is pretty usual. What really was unusual though- was the audible urgency of the knocking.
I put the cup down and rushed to see who’s at the door. I didn’t realize that I was shirtless. I opened the door, which quite soon proved to be the door to the Pandora’s Box of my life. Although, in my case the door didn’t open the catastrophes, it was me who was going to be locked in a box: reverse Pandora Box phenomena.
‘Where is Aadil?’ asked one of the two policemen standing at our door. There were more of them. Two at the makeshift gate. One besides their jeep and one presumably in the driver’s seat.
I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unaware of all this Aadil was still watching how the hero would come and save his girl. Ignorant of the fact that, today he needed someone to save him. I didn’t tell them he was in. I called for father. Both my parents came rushing to see if I was fine.
My mother like most mothers in Kashmir is very afraid of guns and gunmen, with or without uniform. She took me to her room. For her, the only thing that mattered was that they weren’t looking for one of her sons. They wanted her husband’s nephew and, however inhumane it might sound, in that particular moment, she seemed more than willing to hand Aadil over, for it meant that I was safe.
Through the window of the room I saw Aadil being dragged out towards the police jeep. I sprinted to try and save him. I grabbed the arm of one of the policemen taking him.
‘Why are you taking him?’ I asked.
He pushed me aside and said it was none of my business. I pushed him back. And that was it. They decided to take me too. We spent the night at the police station. Exactly, four days later some of us were told that we were going to be taken to the Central Jail in Srinagar.
My cousin was kept there, and along with some dozen others, I was taken to the Central jail.
Even then, it didn’t seem that serious to me. Until a week later all the prisoners were talking about some ‘List’.
‘They say the people in the list are going to be the first batch of Kashmiris to be sent to a jail outside Kashmir,’ whispered one of the detainees while we were at the dinner.
‘Yes, I heard it’s somewhere in Uttar Pradesh,’ one of the others replied widening his eyes to stress on ‘Uttar Pradesh’.
Next day, the list came. My name was 5th on the list. The moment I saw it, I felt a sort of sinking sensation in my chest. The feeling you get when you check your pocket and you don’t feel your phone- not that one-that is panic; the one after you check all other pockets and you still don’t find it, that one.
A couple of hours later I was on a plane. I had never been on one before. There were many of us. Each one with his own personnel, ‘Kadi Man’ (handcuff- in-charge). We landed in Lucknow at around sunset. As soon as we got down from the stairs of the airplane there were trucks ready for us.
It was a 5 or 6 hours journey. The trucks didn’t stop even once. They weren’t allowed to, I suppose: One of the policemen peed in the truck. We reached the Ambedkar Nagar District Jail late in the evening. We were blindfolded and thrown into the cells.
Vaguely 10 months after that day, we were asked to give our families’ phone numbers and 15 days later (after confirming and re-confirming they were really our families’ numbers) we were allowed to talk to our loved ones.
‘Government has quashed your sentence, you are coming home soon,’ my mother told me one day. But they had to bring the orders from Srinagar to our jail for me to be released.
Another ‘Aadesh’ we had to wait for.
On 15th of August 2020, I was released. My father and one of my cousins had come to take me. As soon as I stepped foot outside that jail, I closed my eyes and let the breeze touch my face: the air of freedom.
I looked at my father and thought, ‘At least I learnt how to take care of myself.’