The Life and Times of Fayaz

  • Kashmir Ink
  • Publish Date: Feb 28 2017 8:12PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Feb 28 2017 8:12PM
The Life and Times of Fayaz

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‘His life’s worst travails were just about to commence’


The 25th of August 1989 was an unusually sultry Friday. That broiling and dusty day found Fayaz Sheikh sprawled out like a dot in the vast inner lawns of the centuries-old Jamia Masjid mosque. Savouring the shade that the diagonal shadows of the mosque’s pagoda spires proffered, he watched as scores of pigeons hastily pecked on the corn and rice sprinkled around.

The only dampener was that he wasn’t himself that day. His crush for a medical school student from the Zaina Kadal area had come to naught, leaving him heartbroken. The vocal rebuke and social ridicule that he had had to endure after the girl publicly berated him at his shop for writing love letters had accentuated his grief, leaving him in the throes of despair. It seemed as if someone had scrawled the word ‘loser’ on his visage for all to see.

That Friday he had arrived early for the mandatory prayers at the Jamia mosque. Beyond the sanctum sanctorum, comfortably perched in the lawns, he lent his ears as always to the ubiquitous orations of conspiracy theories and political polemics peddled by the earnest sounding young men who, like him, were diehard Mirwaiz followers.

Times were changing. Given his limited electoral success, the incumbent Mirwaiz,Maulana Muhammad  Farooq had considerably increased his orotund criticism of the government of the day led by, Farooq Abdullah. But in what could be considered a break from the past, he also found himself increasingly hemmed in and hamstrung by the aggressive streaks of his younger followers who had of late appeared increasingly absolutist and less enchanted with both his homiletic preaching and the political alliances he always seemed to be contriving to mount a challenge to the mainstream political status quo.

According to Fayaz’s recall, earlier that year in July, as the Muslim world mourned Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, a masked worshipper interrupted the Mirwaiz’s weekly liturgical mass and took offence to the presence of the mainstream politician Rashid Kabuli on the Jamia pedestal. Kabuli’s propensity for gratifying his political ambitions and whims had seen him adopt and discard innumerable political ideologies. Kabuli’s chequered and unfruitful political postures included morphing from a one-time secession-seeking firebrand to a tamed, power hungry wannabe in the process. The masked protestor physically prevented Kabuli from speaking and instead chose to himself talk of the virtues of the absolutist rejectionist politics taking hold in the younger, charged-up crowd.

On that humid August friday, during the pre-prayer banter, Fayaz sat bolt upright listening to the animated conversations elucidating the excursions of aspiring insurgents to and from the guerrilla training camps in Pakistan. His curiosity was even more piqued when one of the lads narrating the anecdotes produced Pakistani currency notes from his pocket, passing them around as mementoes, or rather proof, of his proximity to the elusive militant returnees. The discussions were peppered with predictions of a full-fledged war against the Indian state set to commence in future months. Fayaz felt the defiant bravado within himself and the others even as mention of the inevitable fighting and the taking on of the armed might of the Indian state seep into their conversations. Much of this could be ascribed to the over-identification of these boys with the exploits of a local lad who had become a name to contend with in the insurgent echelons—Mushtaq Zargar, alias Latram.

Zargar, borne into a family of coppersmiths who, much like Fayaz’s family, were hard-core Mirwaiz supporters, had been a utensil-maker in his previous avatar. Over the years, tumultuous political upheavals had seen many youngsters, among them Zargar, increasingly give vent to their resentment towards the ruling class who in their view were compradors representing Indian overlordship by indulging in stone-pelting on Fridays. This had become a favourite pastime among the lads, who had honed their brick-batting skills to the level of an art. Joining in were many youngsters whose political ideations were still congealing. The brick-batting and demonstrations of street power had earned the area the sobriquet of ‘Palestine’. These contrarian proclivities and their ramifications, in the form of violent street protests by his followers were dismissed by the torpid ruling class opponents as the Mirwaiz’s other means of being heard. The violence was a headache for the policemen, who for years had faced the ire of demonstrators like Zargar and many other boys had cut their teeth in street demonstrations who went on to become part of the second wave of volunteers stealthily crossing the Line of Control for arms training at the end of 1988.

Zargar returned to the Vale in early 1989. The next few months saw his stock skyrocket, particularly after an ambush on the eve of Eid on Nala Maar road—a furlong away from the Jamia mosque—left many paramilitary men dead in its wake. Many bystanders including gujjar shepherds selling their produce for the Eid ul Adha festival were allegedly shot dead by the troopers, enraged by the sight of their fallen and injured comrades.

Previously, in an effort to stem the intensity of the protests, the police had increasingly resorted to midnight knocks and arbitrary arrests, which had never been more frequent compared to previous years. But this time the frisson created by the stashing of weapons in neighbor-hood attics and courtyards by childhood friends and acquaintances returning from training camps congealed into a confidence that percolated to fuel an increasingly militant backlash on the streets, with arrested and harassed young men increasingly seething with revenge. For these lads, Zargar embodied the challenge to the state’s monopoly of violence and in downtown barrios he was viewed increasingly as a role model whose emulation would turn a new leaf in the long simmering resentment against Indian sovereignty over Kashmir.

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The first step was undermining and upending what most of them perceived as venal self-interest driven ruling class National Conference and other pro- India politicos who, along with their bow and scrape supporters— actually little more than a bunch of political gangsters—they thoroughly despised. This thralldom for Zargar in particular and the nascent insurgency in general ensured that the lads would follow in Zargar’s steps sooner rather than later. The steady wave of recruits swelled the ranks of Zargar’s faction within the JKLF, so much so that only a few months on, he felt confident enough to start his own independent tanzeem. His fiercely pro-Pakistan Al Umar Mujahideen would in time become an intimidating insurgent power to contend with in the downtown Srinagar area that took the Indian army and paramilitary forces years of sustained counter-insurgency operations to neutralize. The coming times would also find Zargar consigned to prison, with scores of his commanders and foot soldiers dead, before his release was secured as part of the Indian Airlines 814 hijack- hostage exchange deal at Kandahar Airport in 1999.

Thinking back to that Friday, 25 August, Fayaz remembered feeling elated at possessing and pocketing the Pakistani currency note even as he continued nibbling the mutton kebab lunch he carried. A foreboding feeling of looming trouble lurking in the environs of the mosque gripped him at this juncture. He felt an odd shudder, which led him to think that he ought to leave the mosque as soon as possible. But given his state of mind, which was addled by humiliation and unrequited love, he chose to stay rather than heed his prescient sense. Even as the prayers finished and the Mirwaiz Maulana Farooq left the premises, the mosque was cordoned off by paramilitary troops and the local police hemmed the remaining worshippers in. Their state owned TV and radio that evening reported that the police and paramilitary had launched an operation after actionable information regarding the presence of armed insurgents being present in the congregation was received, but according to Fayaz and other eyewitnesses there were none present that particular day.

The enraged paramilitary soldiers, mostly drawn from mainland plains, were especially furious and were heard cursing the deceased Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq—who had died in an air crash a year prior—with the choicest of expletives, along with the elusive insurgent Mushtaq Zargar.

They herded the mass of men filing out of the mosque into the waiting police trucks and onward to detention centres. Fayaz felt a punch on his forehead and a kick on his butt before he found himself squeezed into the police vehicle. As the vehicles took the men to the various detention centres in the city, Fayaz remembered the Pakistani currency note in his pocket, and stealthily tore it to bits. The Kothi Bagh sub-jail in the heart of the city was brimming with fellow detainees, so Fayaz’s group was diverted to the Sher Garhi sub-jail some distance away from the city centre. He was detained for a week before being released without charge.

What he couldn’t discern then was that this ordeal was a sign of the future times, when thousands were destined to be detained and subjected to mind-numbing violence. The sullen faces and pessimistic glances of family members accepting the fates of their wards and relatives as some constant element that couldn’t be wished away was just the beginning. Fayaz though was among the luckier ones but his life’s worst travails were just about to commence.


Excerpted from the forthcoming non-fiction book, Jaffna Street, by Dr Mir Khalid, published by Rupa Publications