A photo of a chained father hugging his son in Islamabad district court has gone viral on social media evoking many emotions. Behind the photo however, is the story of a man whose tryst with prison life is but a classic example of the dissent-hounding in post-2008 Kashmir.
Before the 2016 by-election would begin in Islamabad—where Ak-47-wielding insurgents fearlessly walked down the aisle to pile up ‘uniformed’ bodies at will—one young man in town was busy recounting the ruling PDP’s political farce played in the name of dual currency and porous LoC in the run-up to 2002 elections.
With a boyish eagerness, he could possibly detail every atrocity inflicted on his hometown Islamabad, right from 1989 when it became a rebel stronghold, before the loose cannon militia called Ikhwan unleashed the “get them by the balls” terror in the town. No sooner the perilous period perished, he was rejoicing the sunset of the government-backed renegade ruling.
Some 15 months later, that man was brought in chains from Jammu’s Kuthua Jail to Islamabad district court for a hearing. Dressed in a blue Khan Dress, the 31-year-old father hugged his five-year-old son and triggered a tearjerker scene for onlookers. Later as the image of the father-son reunion made it to social media site Facebook, Aatif Hassan—the man in chains—only evoked much intense emotions.
The chained father happens to be someone who holds sway over the townspeople for his selfless Samaritan nature. In the court, he was swarmed by the young lot of Islamabad. For them, it was a disquieting homecoming of the man who stood by their side in their testing times. Among them was a boy whose eyes got moist recalling how Aatif would visit his home to buy medicines for his ailing mother when he was languishing in jail.
Despite being a jail bird himself, Aatif would make sure to visit and attend every detained person in the town. “Not only he would visit us in jail,” says Imran, one of the boys, “but he would boost our morale—especially when the prison life began taking a toll on our nerves.”
It was because of his humanistic nature that almost all shades of pro-freedom want Aatif in their camp. However, he prefers care over camp. “When unity was forged in an otherwise divided Hurriyat camp last summer,” says his friend, “Aatif was the happiest person in the town. Not that he had any stakes in it, but he believes in unity over a divided house.”
Aatif quietly walked away from the scene last summer as the pro-Burhan protests raged in Islamabad, the friend says. “He knew if he would stay, police would name him the ‘ringleader’ behind the spontaneous rebellion in town.”
But a month before Commander Burhan Wani’s killing, Aatif narrated more about the horrendous past of his hometown. He happened to narrate his own haunted past, too, in a voice struggling to choke and chuckle in one go.
“How did you see your town changing?” I asked, as we sat with a common friend inside a highway tea-stall down the bustling Khanabal. Behind the question was the rationale: Aatif was the name to reckon with in the town.
“I saw it smoking up repeatedly,” he began, joyously talking about things, events, persons—but mainly, about nightmares. “I lost my childhood under the shade of Ikhwan. Most of us did. There was no fun except a lurking dread of that fatal gang of gunners around. That said, but it was disturbing to see people routinely getting killed, neighbourhoods devastated and friends becoming tombstones…”
“But wasn’t that the pan-Kashmir phenomena by then?”
“It was! But then, some become more receptive to things around them than others. I realised that when I first came out to protest in 2006 over the Wular Lake incident where 16 students died after navy boats carrying them capsized. I thought I was finally reacting to undo my disturbing mindset fueled by the perilous status quo around us. It felt good.”
“So that became your flash-point?”
“Yes, you can say so. I was a college-goer then and was detained with 20 odd students. I was detained for almost a month. That changed me forever.”
“I became more inclined to the Kashmir freedom struggle. The more I read about it, the more I became resolute. And I know, it wasn’t criminal on my part to desire for the change…”
Aatif Hassan aka Babloo comes from an ordinary Sheikh family of Deva Colony of old Islamabad’s Janglatmandi. His father Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, a retired forest employee, was an important member of Kashmir’s first pro-independence armed group Al-Fateh.
Aatif was merely a three-year-old when the ‘war’ was formally declared in Islamabad on August 31, 1988 after the first blast rocked it. In what could have been Shabir Shah’s stronghold, the boy grew up watching different characters thrown on Islamabad’s conflict theatre.
All those men and their methods kept the town on the edge. By the time Aatif was ten, he saw JKLF supremo Muhammad Yasin Malik almost being assassinated by renegades—remote-controlled by garrisons.
And once PDP started going South, Aatif had grown into a receptive teen beyond his years. He saw how the incumbent chief minister Mehbooba Mufti would visit the beleaguered grassroots in his hometown to create ‘sympathetic constituency’ for her father and their newly floated party wearing the MUF symbol.
After 2002, with new party on saddle, Aatif saw many insurgents falling to anonymous guns and gunfights. It would make him uneasy. He had become no-holds-barred dissenter by 2008 when the infamous Amarnath Land Row agitation saw him hitting streets regularly to clash with the armed forces. “After Ikhwan period brought so much of bad name to the town,” says Aatif’s friend, “here were these new faces including Aatif who wanted to restore the rebel image that once Islamabad wore on its sleeve.” But being the change-maker came at a cost.
He faced repeated detentions. To evade arrests, he went into hiding—only to surface after forces would pick up his father. He became a classic case of post-2008 dissent hounding: detentions, court appearances, hidings and offers to change the camp. Out of prison, the unbending Aatif would face regular harassment for expressing his pro-freedom views—especially on social media.
“So,” I asked him during our tea-stall chat in Islamabad in first week of June 2016 when the PDP’s who’s who were in town to rally for their chief’s victory, “does it feel bad to live a life where you have to constantly grapple with imprisonments?”
“Who wants to live such a life,” Aatif said, matter-of-factly. “But then, you are forced to react in a certain way. Taking part in protests for me was the only meaningful expression and I paid the price for it.”
“Like, they detained me on the fourth day of my marriage. And when my wife was pregnant with our first child in summer 2010, I was in jail. The ordeal traumatised her. Our first child died after 23 days. Besides her, both my parents suffered dearly. They are still suffering because of my detentions…”
Since 2008, Aatif has been named in over 50 FIRs on “frivolous” grounds, as his friends and family say. Before his latest detention, he was detained thrice under PSA. Under that lawless law, a person can be jailed for up to six months without a trial.
Mindful of his dissent past, many unionists tried wooing him in their camp with an offer: to revoke his cases. But Aatif stayed defiant — when many in his tribe were exploited to work for the local unionists as polling agents and campaigners with the hope and promise that their cases will be dropped.
“One of them,” Aatif told me during our meet in Islamabad, “I mean, a stone pelter turned polling agent cut short Mufti Mohammed Sayeed during his 2015 Islamabad visit, saying, ‘what about your promise? Why are they still calling me to the police station?’ To which the Mufti could only maintain a criminal silence.”
“But, what about you?” I asked. “Even when you are far from dissent activities, why are you still facing these regular detentions?”
“It’s obviously an oppressive measure on their part. Such methods only tell us that dissenters will always have to live a hounded life in Kashmir.”
“And what about your four-year-old son? How does he make peace with your repeated absence from home?”
“Eventually we all learn to make uneasy peace with things in Kashmir before some of us cut loose and restart the cycle of rage, all over again.”
Just two months after that chat, his PSA dossier charged him for “exhibiting hardcore anti-national mentality”.
Even his defiance to embrace the unionist camp was termed one of the reasons behind his incarceration. “You were given ample chances to join mainstream ideology and join forces of progress and development,” the dossier reads, “but you have imbibed such extreme ideology which advocates secessionism, violence, disturbing the public order of the district Anantnag.”
In a sweltering day of July 2017, Aatif was arrested outside the Islamabad district court. He had gone there for a hearing in some old case. Before anybody could know, he was booked under the PSA and shifted to Kathua Jail, known to house hardcore criminals. “It’s the worst kind of police terrorism,” Yasin Malik reacted over his detention. “Aatif is a peaceful activist, whose political ideology on Kashmir dispute is clear. He has been striving for resolution of Kashmir issue peacefully but police and other forces have always inflicted harm on him.”
Days before his detention, Aatif was looking forward to his new business. It was supposed to give relief to his ailing mother, old father, struggling wife and longing son. But just then, he was reminded of his past and punished for it, all over again.