The dream of a free nation made Muhammad Salman Yusuf sacrifice everything he possessed in life. Living a nomadic life since last 20 years this former JeI teacher has documented almost every painful memory of Kashmir’s troubled history.
The expressions on his face fluctuate with every passing detail, while the strength of his voice stays intact all through. Unbreakable and fastened to emotions, Salman Yusuf, goes down the annals of history, and revisits his life. The memory of struggle and torture tends to be as fresh, as the taste of the last sip of tea; he had just few seconds before.
Salman Yusuf, 48, introduces himself as a migrant of Srinagar, who presently works as a political and a human rights activist, with Tehreek e Hurriyat – a political party in Jammu and Kashmir, led by a senior separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Besides, Yusuf works with various organizations that endeavour to promote human rights awareness and documentation in Kashmir.
Addressing himself as a ‘worst victim of freedom struggle’, Yusuf quietly walks himself to a narrow room. As he reclines to unfurl the events of oppression, violence and carnage, his lips immediately spurt out a couplet.
“Yaad e Maazi Azaab hai ya rabb, cheen le hafiza mera. (That the memory of my past is excruciating O lord, take away everything that I remember)”
Born in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, Yusuf’s memory doesn’t stray. He immediately rewinds it to 1984, when he was 14 years old.
Kashmir, in 1984, was in a state of mess and was submerged in political tension. Like many other Kashmiri’s then, Yusuf also wanted to decipher the questions brimming inside of him. The most urgent of them, “What made a princely state get besieged by a foreign nation?”
This quest took him to what he calls as, “his first step towards freedom struggle”, that is, studying Marxism
“One of my school teachers taught me Karl Marx. The idea of ‘equal status’ ‘no class’ system inspired me to an extent that I spent hours studying Marxism in the library,” recalls Yusuf.
However, with time Marxism seemed too inefficient to satiate yusuf’s battle of ideas, and he settled for another ideologue. It was Maulana Maudidi’s political concept of Islam; Islam as a complete way of life.
By the age of 15, Yusuf, a school going boy, had already started to crave for a change. He followed everything that could possibly bring Kashmir its rightful status. And, as time passed by, Yusuf passionately read every single document that could get him to the root of K- issue. The more he read, the more he was pushed into the sentiment of freedom struggle.
“It was once I was reading few documents on Kashmir and I came across the Treaty of Amritsar. That amazed me. I thought to myself; is it possible that even nations could be put up for sale? Is it possible that human trade would happen? And this agitated my mind,” says Yusuf in a stunned expression, eyes dilated.
In the Treaty of Amritsar that was signed on 16 March 1846, Kashmir was sold off for a sum of 7.5 million rupees by British to Dogras. A nation was sold, and sold so cheaply, depriving its people of everything – their property, land, houses, cattle and even themselves, later sending entire nation into slavery.
And this revelation had struck Yusuf to astonishment, an 18 year old then.
“I went into a shock,” says Yusuf, “all the isms; communism, socialism, secularism, collectivism, seemed pathetic to me. All that my mind could plunge into was; Musalman ko Musalman hona chahiye, kisi kaum ka ghulam nahi hona chahiye. (That a Muslim should be a Muslim, not a slave of any nation)”
With this sentiment, in 1987, Yusuf passed his 12th standard. And, as soon as he passed, he joined Jamaat-e-Islami.(JEI) – a socio-religious, political organization that tends to follow Maulana Maududi’s concept of Islam.
“Due to my regular involvement in many social and political affairs, I was chosen as a district head of Islamic Tehreek-e-Tulaba (a student wing of Jamat-e-Islami),” says Yusuf.
Yusuf was highly inspired by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who was the political chief of JEI at that time. Until now Yusuf looks to him as his role model.
Yusuf took his college in 1987, as a student of Political science. It was the same year when Yusuf was taken into custody for the first time. He was arrested at Bandipora during a protest that had stirred up in solidarity with Palestine. Palestine in 1987 had its first intifada, against the Israeli occupation.
Yusuf smirks, and says, “They arrested me because I was a part of that protest. More than that because I was waving a Pakistani flag.”
That day, Yusuf was taken to Baramulla Jail, where he was kept under custody for 7 consecutive days, with 10 other protestors.
During Yusuf’s first detention, his mother suffered a cardiac arrest. The conflict demanded first life from his family.
“My mother had gone into a shock. She was worried that they would take me to Red 16, and kill me,” says Yusuf
(Red 16 was one of the dreaded jails of its times in Srinagar)
Yusuf turns grim. While sipping the lingering cold tea in his cup, he looks outside and says, “The love of mother ended with her death, and all the responsibilities fell on me. For that period I left everything and started to look after my family.”
In 1989, Yusuf through all the ups-and-downs managed to reach his final year at college. By that time, insurgency had begun in Kashmir.
After New Delhi’s rigged elections of 1987 people started to lose their faith in democracy. Their expectations were ruined. The promise of an independent nation seemed to disappear. And by 1989 itself, there was a surge in militancy. People had started to fight for their rights.
“It was a time when people knew that they were the worst kind of slaves,” says Yusuf, giving a direct look in the eye.
During 80’s there was a compound arousal of Pakistani sentiment in Kashmiris. In 1947, after India’s independence from Britain, when Kashmir acceded to India without a proper referendum, against the will of people, the only ally that seemed to be in nexus was Pakistan. Now after three decades, under the frail and deceptive system of a foreign state, the choice seemed to be apt, and how much apt, nobody knew. For now, it was only resistance and resentment that flared up.
Where many of Yusuf’s friends joined militancy, he turned to run a Jamati-e-Islami school at Ganderbal, a district in North Kashmir. (Jamaat-e-Islami schools were the educational institutes for young boys where they were enlightened about Quran and Sunnah. There were more than 300 schools in Kashmir with around 40,000 students enrolled.)
“It was the intellectual class that was associated with the idea of freedom struggle, not just anybody. Most of my friends had passed as engineers, earned degrees like LLb, Mphil and Phd,” says Yusuf.
Serving the movement through education, Yusuf was taken aback when in 1991, Jagmohan, the then governor of Kashmir, ordered a ban on all the Jamat-e-Islami schools in Kashmir. But Yusuf didn’t stop.
For another three years, till 1993, Yusuf continued to run a Jamat-e-Islami school. On the other side, it was a period when human rights violations started to surface in Kashmir.
During 90s, Indian government introduced laws like PSA (Public safety act), AFSPA (Armed forces special power act), DAA (Disturbed Area Act) in Kashmir to counter sweeping insurgency. To offset estimated 10,000 youth known to have crossed LOC; around 5 lakh Indian military and Para military forces landed into Kashmir, turning Kashmir as one of the most militarized zones of the world.
And the spree of killings started in Kashmir.
“It was a period of distress. People wanted to have self determination. More than 216 militant outfits were active in Kashmir,” claims Yusuf, “and the bloodshed started.”
Yusuf relaxes for a while, smiles, and then says, “What should I tell you, how strong have I been. I may look weak but Allah never lets me down.” While saying this, he settles down his unkempt hair, his fingers doing that involuntarily a multiple times in the conversation.
While the disappearances, killings, and molestations were going rampant in Kashmir, a deep impact and pain was following Yusuf’s self. Yusuf however was against any killing, and bloodshed.
“I was totally against the idea of killing, even in political affliction. Be it an atheist, a Hindu or anyone. I was never in favour of killing anybody,” says Yusuf.
He further quotes a verse from Al-Quran, “Aur izzat bakshi hai humany insaan ko… (That we have given human rights to you. He, who kills one, kills the whole humanity).”
Where AFSPA gave impunity to the forces, and people were detained and killed illegally on mere suspicion. Yusuf remembers how he and his brothers were arrested and interrogated, about one of their cousins who was associated with Hizb ul Mujahideen – a top militant group of 90’s.
Like some 8000 families who lost their beloved one’s in this process of catch and kill. Yusuf, reveals, how they were tortured, for the information they didn’t know about.
“I and my brothers were tied by a single rope, and then we were dragged and humiliated. The suffering was immense. We were beaten ruthlessly to the pulp,” says Yusuf.
He opens his black dossier that he had brought along, and that he held very securely in his hand. As he unchains it, he takes a document and reads, “Ye bedye thay…(These were wolves)” He’s referring to Ikhwan ul Muslameen – pro government renegades that came into form in 1993, to neutralize the active militants in Kashmir.
For Yusuf, not only him but his entire family suffered immense.
In 1994, Ikhwanis, along with army men, raided his house, and destructed everything. Spilled rice, conked out every single thing, and at the end, left Yusuf with the second biggest jolt of his life. His house was set on fire, and everything was burnt down to ashes.
“They blazed down everything. My wife and my sister had to jump off a window, and for the whole night, they stayed in a barn.” A quiver passes through Yusuf, as he says, “Sometimes this amazes me, how me and my family survived. I can never forget how that Army Major smacked my 8 month old son to the wall, causing him a severe arm fracture.”
That night, Yusuf left for Srinagar, where he lived as a tenant for next 20 years of his life. In Srinagar, he joined a Human rights trust where, till 1997, Yusuf, with other activists documented some 42 books.
Closing his eyes, and tilting his head back, he lists few: Wailing vale, slaughtering Sopore, Lal Chowk on Fire, Voting Under the Shade of Gun, Bruised Valley, Dark Day and Deadly Nights, Counter Insurgents of Kashmir, Human Rights Abuse, Rapes and Molestation.
“The trust reported, compiled and documented each and every event from 1989 to 1997. There were around 73000 books, 2000 copies each, in the market. In few books, there were more than 5000 custodial killing recorded,” says Yusuf.
Towards the end of 1997, these books that claimed the most precious time of his life were burnt down in a go in a police raid. Later, pressure and threats brought an end to the documentation.
Yusuf looks to his front, narrowing his eyes, as if to pass the horizons, to measure age, pain, and sacrifice.
“I have given my entire life to this movement, and this has made me a worst kind of victim,” says Yusuf, heaving a deep sigh.
What upsets him is how natives switched sides to fight against their own people, their own cause.
The third and the profound shock silently hit Yusuf’s life in 1998, when he was picked up by an SOG officer, and taken to Cargo – one of the most dreaded interrogation centres in Srinagar.
Yusuf is reminded of the two month torture that left him psychologically and physically tormented for the life to come.
“I was arrested for documentation. They targeted each one of us, and wanted us to stop it. For three days, they didn’t do anything but as the third day passed they dragged me to the interrogation room,” says Yusuf.
This was a place that had already dealt with thousands of Kashmiri’s. It was a scaffold of death and pain.
With Yusuf, there were other 40 detainees in the room. A chapter of torture opens.
The room looked like a replica of a slaughter house. Limbs oozing blood and pus, ears chopped down, un-cleaned blood on the floor. And shrieks and screams filling the room when it remained silent for 8 hours. The detainees were subjected to torture for about 16 hours.
“As they took me, they subjected me to such a torture, that for every next second, I asked for death. It felt worse. My legs were stretched to 180 degrees, and for hours I was suspended by a ceiling, and beaten ruthlessly. Then an iron roller was moved over my legs, and that was further weighed down by around 6-8 interrogators. It was an endless pain,” says Yusuf, in a dislikeable tone.
The interrogation continued for ceaseless time. For detainees like Yusuf, a single day had an impact of a hundred year time. Even longer and painful.
In this quiet hour, as Yusuf details the events meticulously, his gaze fixes at a white painted wall to his front. He shakes himself as if to brush away a deadly animal. His mind instantly flutters into another detail.
“There is something that I could never forget. It was when they pushed me into a drum full of water, and then they passed electric current to it. For those two hours, I felt like…,” Yusuf gets silent, and continues, “and then when they dragged me out, they stamped over me, causing me to omit everything out of my stomach. The water and food gushed out.”
He pulls his grey trousers, and shows multiple scars on his upper limbs. These are the marks of the fissures that were hammered down in his legs.
“They mocked me, and told me how much happy they were to disfigure me. I mocked them back, telling them, ‘Nothing is permanent in this life. Man’s youth and beauty, everything decays with time. Those are not humans who only live eat, sleep and die’,” remembers Yusuf.
Yusuf considers Cargo, worse than the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre, a US military prison that is known to use inhuman scientific ways to prosecute and interrogate detainees.
Yusuf was released after two months of torture, however at that time he found himself to be someone he didn’t recognize, someone who wasn’t familiar to him. He was psychologically lost, physically impaired and emotionally wrecked. For next 6 months, he never slept properly. The nightmares of men shouting, walls spilled with blood, faces disfigured appeared before him.
Yusuf however pulled himself back in a year. In 2000, he resumed his work as a human rights activist. And in 2005, he published a book by one of his friends that helped him run his household.
In between these years, he was threatened by various forces to be killed in a fake encounter.
For a movement that syringed half of his age, he still promises to go on with it. But what worries him, at this point in time is, how the genuine idea of resistance seems to have lost.
Yusuf gives a thoughtful expression as he says, “Ab is qaum ko azadi se zyaada, apnay wajud ko bachanay ki fikr karni chaye. (That this nation should worry more about its identity, than the idea of Azadi). Because if we will lose our identity, our Azadi will never come,” believes Yusuf.
He knocks at his right thigh, and says, “We are on a ventilator. We don’t need any enemy anymore. No, not at all. We are our own enemies,” asi chu gamut phutmut radio, gara BBC, gara Tehraan. (We are like a broken radio. A tap and a BBC channel. A tap again, and a Tehran channel).”
Yusuf carries an unshaken strength. Yusuf is someone, who doesn’t have a home, in his own homeland.
As Yusuf walks away to receive a guest, his lyrical words gently flow with vitality, and verve..
“Aisa bhi inqilaab kya sheikh. Tumhe ye kya hai? Rukh he soye but kada, pusht janabe haram. Kahi teray sajday tujhe kaafir na banade, tu jhukta kahi aur hai, tu sonchta kahi aur hai.” (What kind of revolution is this? O sheikh. What has happened to you? You are facing a temple while your back is on Ka’ba. Your prostration might turn you an infidel. You bow in one direction, while your heart is somewhere else!)
Muntaha Hafizi is an independent Journalist based in Indian Administered Kashmir. She reports on conflict, and women issues.