“Areeba keeps asking us where her ‘Baba’ is. What all to explain to a 4-year-old?” says Sabina Akhter, wife of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been in jail for over 1,400 days now.
Aasif, who in 2019 was given the John Aubuchon Press Freedom award, has been in jail since the past 4 years only because of his journalistic work, his family strongly believes.
This year in April, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir re-arrested Aasif under the 1978 Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act days after he was granted bail in a separate case.
Aasif’s family said that it has been most difficult for Areeba Aasif, who does not know her father well and has been forced to grow up without one.
Aasif’s father Mohammad Sultan, 65, told Maktoob, “I keep telling her that her father will come back. Few days ago, she asked me, ‘you said he will come, where is he? He hasn’t come yet.’”
In a highly militarised region like Kashmir, journalism was never easy but since the abrogation of Article 370, there has been a huge rise in attacks on press freedom and journalists being slapped with anti-terror laws and arrested frequently, Aasif’s story is yet another blotch on the biggest democracy in the world. This year, the Kashmir Press Club was also shut down by the Indian government.
His family speaks to Maktoob about his arbitrary arrest, the fallout of the same on his daughter, the reasons behind his arrest, and insight into Aasif beyond media reports.
Mohammad Sultan spoke about his daughter-in-law and the resilience with which she has lived in the past four years.
“She does face a lot of anxiety and is really affected mentally. If your life partner is not with you, it can really cause a lot of problems. She does it all, she takes care of Areeba too,” he said.
“She is a very strong woman. If she goes through something, she doesn’t show it in front of me,” he added.
“If I get depressed, who will take care of our daughter?”
The last time when Sabina and her family saw Aasif was after he got bail and was kept in illegal detention for almost a week in April. Shortly after, PSA charges were imposed on him and he was shifted to Kot Bhalwal, Jammu and then to Ambedkar Nagar jail, UP. The re-arrest shattered Aasif and Sabina’s hopes of finding some normalcy.
But ‘normalcy’ means something else in Jammu and Kashmir, and they were being made to realise it. Sabina said he was very hopeful that he will return and finally be with them, with his daughter who has missed her ‘baba.’
Sabina told Maktoob how felt when Aasif was first arrested in 2018. “Initially I used to get very anxious, especially when Areeba was very small. She was just 6 months old. I couldn’t understand what to do, should I take care of her or myself? But then gradually, God gave me strength. I had to look after my emotions because my emotions would affect Areeba too. If I would have been depressed who would take care of our child?”
Sounding devastated over the call she said it has been very difficult living without her husband. Moreover, Areeba has been falling sick frequently this year which has been an added worry in her life. Sabina visited a doctor as she assumed it to be likely that Areeba is unable to express the emotions or trauma of living without Aasif.
Choking as she spoke, Sabina said, “She sees fathers of other children and wonders about her own. My cousin visited recently and after seeing them, she asked me about her father. In those moments, what do I tell her?”
A close friend of Aasif who wished to be anonymous, told Maktoob, “Most of the time when I was on a vacation, Aasif was the one who took care of my children and stayed with them. Now he could not be there for Areeba when she needed his father the most. Nonetheless, we believe in Allah and in the day of justice and justice will be given to him and the family.”
He said it’s a double whammy, that Aasif is being discriminated against because of two identities: being a Muslim and a Kashmiri.
Agitated about Aasif’s imprisoned, his friend said, “speaking to the media about Aasif also comes at a cost in Kashmir.”
Sabina, however, refused to comment on being asked if she faced any harassment or pressure by the state authorities.
Coming back to Areeba, Sabina mentioned that in a recent school assignment where she had to talk about her father, Areeba was prepared to say “Baba is in jail.” Sabina had to convince her daughter that she cannot say/write such things in her school assignments and made her say, “Baba is in office.”
Sabina said the worst part is that Areeba has come to believe that fathers are meant to stay far away. When they visited Aasif in Central jail before, Areeba used to think the jail is her father’s home and their own home is different.
Gradually, the family has tried to make Areeba recognise Aasif.
“We made her see photos and videos which have Aasif in them so she knows him. She asked me once, ‘Is there any video where I’m on baba’s lap?’” said Sabina.
Aasif, the son, the husband, the father & journalist
Aasif’s father is a heart patient. A year ago, he underwent heart surgery and a device was fitted to his chest for better flow of blood to his heart. In such moments, the family lamented the absence of Aasif who could not be there for his father when he needed him.
Sabina and Aasif’s friend talked about his journalistic excellence and personality.
“Aasif is a very soft-natured person. He is not the kind of person to get into any fights with anybody, he only focused on himself, his conduct, work, and family. He is a complete family man, and has always been close to his family,” said Sabina.
Aasif’s friend on the other hand said that Aasif is a hard-working person. He scored and achieved well during his school life.
Sultan was a gazetted officer and wanted Aasif to become a doctor. Aasif was a medical student as well, but he had a knack for writing and was “marvellous” at it, as he puts it. He said that Aasif even proofread his work.
“I consider him my teacher. he is very disciplined and honest, as a person and as a journalist. Not only this. but he’s also well-read, we call him a polymath,” he said.
Aasif wrote ‘The Rise of Burhan’ for the Kashmir Narrator in 2018. The piece deep-dived into Burhan, as a person and a leader, and his followers and gave insight into how the Over Ground Workers (OGW) operated.
Aasif’s friend said, “When he wrote that piece, he got an earful from me. I told him that you live in a highly militarised and conflict area, there might be a backlash, but he was not scared. he told me, ’There is nothing wrong in it, it is my journalistic work.’ Whatever happened, I am very proud of him and I always will be.”
He continued, “He started receiving calls right after his piece was published. I was just scared that the state authorities would not understand. The establishment is allergic to the truth. They want to show the picture that in Kashmir ‘sab kuch changa hain.” (All Is well).
Why police’s narrative raises questions
The family also stated that the legal process and the court hearings have also exposed several anomalies in the police’s narrative.
Maktoob also has copies of PSA dossiers of not just Aasif, but journalists Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul who have also been imprisoned.
Here’s the catch. The PSA dossier against Aasif has many similarities with the PSA dossiers of the other two. All of them have been accused of promoting “anti-national” content under the “garb” of journalism.
“You are having radical ideology since childhood. Through social media and articles, you are advancing your radical ideology” is a common statement in the PSA dossiers of Aasif and Fahad.
However, remarks like, “Promoted separatism through articles” “disseminating anti-India and provocative sentiment,” “activities seem to be prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity, security of J&K” and “aim is to destabilise the J&K government” are common for all three journalists in their respective dossiers.
Aasif’s lawyer Adil Pandit talked about the bail he had received before getting arrested again. He said that apart from allegations of providing logistics to militants, there was also an encounter in Batamaloo in which Aasif was falsely booked.
“The witnesses have also not quoted anything against Aasif. That is why the court came to the conclusion that Aasif is not involved in the crime. It was provided in the court that he was not involved with the militancy and hence bail was granted,” he told Maktoob.
He has failed a petition in the J&K High Court to squash the “frivolous” PSA charges. Pandit also pointed out an inconsistency in the allegations.
He noted, “Earlier in 2018, in the charge sheet they said he was an OGW to Hizbul Mujahideen, but the current PSA dossier has different stories. Now the police are saying that he is an OGW for the Ansarul Gazwatul Hind. It’s a contradictory statement.”
The family has been scared to overtly voice their opinions. Sabina and her father-in-law continue to resist in their own ways. For the safety of their own, every action by the state apparatus makes them trust the institutions lesser and become suspicious of how their words can be misconstrued.
On being asked how the family is coping financially, Aasif’s father said, “Allah ka shukar hain.” (We thank God). The finances with regards to their house and Areeba’s education are met through Sultan’s pension.
Sabina added, “Aasif is innocent. Just like that, 4 years of his life have been snatched from him. All we want is for him to be free. The family is suffering and we are waiting for the day he is released once and for all.”