“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – Milan Kundera.
Identity is very essential. We all are identified by some things, we all identify with something. Identity is very essential. An honest man is honest, he is not dishonest. A person from India is an Indian, a person from Pakistan is a Pakistani and a person from Kashmir is a Kashmiri. Freedom is freedom, it cannot be bondage. A melody isn’t discordant. A comedy isn’t tragic. Living isn’t dying. A terrorist isn’t a martyr. We have a number of labels ascribed to our identity. At times, they coexist in harmony and at times, they struggle with one another in an eventful war of self-discovery.
I will now narrate a story. It neither has a new subject matter, nor a different point to make. It has all been said many times before; perhaps, it has been said too many times. However, this is how we live — in tell-tale patterns, with history repeating itself. What was said before, needs to be said again.
A boy named Afzal was born in Kashmir, when the tumult had set in but dissent hadn’t become final, resistance hadn’t become fatal yet. In school, he performed songs and stage productions. At home, he helped his mother with chores. When the boy grew up, he joined a medical college. All the girls there swooned over him, an ex-classmate would say later on. There was always, always a deep intensity in his eyes and all the girls swooned over him. This is how he lived, by loving Ghalib and Iqbal, by singing ghazals in his smooth, beautiful voice. When dissent became final and the resistance became fatal, he left home. He crossed the Line of Control when insurgency hit Kashmir. The ghosts of age-long bondage and suffering were suddenly out in the open, waiting to be heard. He wanted to save the sanctity of his land, perhaps without fully knowing what wanting that meant. He wanted to save it, to hold on to it.
He reached Pakistan and trained there with JKLF for a few weeks. After hours of feckless training, in the evenings, he would read Ismat Chugtai. Soon, he was disillusioned by how the movement was being led; it was all a waste, a complete waste. There was neither any help nor any plan deployed for the larger cause he had set his heart on. He had to leave. He had to surrender. He could not indulge in the petty local rivalries. He couldn’t fight if it wasn’t for the cause. He wanted to save the sanctity of his land. He couldn’t. He needed to surrender. He surrendered to the BSF — the very authority that tortured his people in the name of protection, the only authority that there was to submit to. “I want to live a normal life,” he said. He married a local girl. He sang and danced on his wedding. He started a local business. He worked hard to earn enough for his family. All this while, his normal life was interrupted by enquiries about his former alliances. He refused to reveal any information; they took all his money, they shoved chillies up his behind, gave electric shocks to his penis, and beat him up brutally. He had been dragged from his house at night; he came back tortured, tired, and defeated by the injustices of life. There was nothing he could do — nothing. His name was Afzal.
To mark our identities, we are given a name. A name is ours for the rest of our life albeit given to us by someone else. Past the primary introduction of our identity through our name, we are associated with other essential components of our identity. Such as, the place you grew up in is more than just your foggy memories of kite flying and wet earth in your head. Who your parents are will always remain a surprisingly intrinsic feature of your identity. Moreover, how much money they earned, the occupation through which they earned it and thus how comfortable and privileged your childhood was, continues to influence who you become. Though, those are concerns about the evident identities that I am not interested in talking about right now, I got distracted. It is perhaps because I hope to finish there, or perhaps because I am always restless to communicate my wonder over the bigger questions. I wonder over the complex promises of equality and justice made to everyone in our modern world, with all these disparities waving in its face.
When Afzal had a son, he named him Ghalib — after the great Urdu poet that he so loved. When Ghalib started keeping memories, his only memories of his father were of him in jail, locked up. He could meet only for a few precious moments and always asked him to study well to become a scholar—an aelim.
When Afzal was killed and his body was refused to be returned, Ghalib would refuse to believe he had died. He would tell his mother, “Maybe they haven’t killed him yet. Maybe they have hidden him in the deepest cell. Maybe he can still come back.”
While Afzal was alive, his wife had often told him that they will let you out, “Probably decades later, when we are both very, very old, probably when Ghalib is married with kids, they will let you out and we can finally live together”.
Tabassum would meet her husband once a year. Afzal would sit across from her. They would hold hands. They would hold hands to make up for their uncertainty, their fear, their separation. They would hold hands to conjure up the ghosts of their past selves; of Afzal singing on their wedding day, calling her pyaari; of Afzal making her sit near him as he made dinner for her with ladle in one hand and a book in the other; of them both raising their son together. In the past, whenever the identity of being a surrendered militant trying to live a normal life with his family became too much for him, he would say “I wish I had a cave to retreat to”. Inside Tihar Jail, shouldering the burdens that modern world has no name for, that modern India has no name for, she would teasingly ask, “Well you are in the cave now, how’s it?” “Zabardast!” he would say.
For us, it is easier to think what most people are thinking, be what most people are, and to slowly slip into the atmosphere where you would rather that other people were also like you. Law is fair to everybody, we are told. Law is fair, we believe, unless it is unfair to us. If the easy question is: are democracies democratic? Then the important question has to be: were democracies meant to be democratic? The pioneers of political thought, who laid down the rules for how all of us willingly or unwillingly live today, did they mean what they said? Did they believe in what it promised?
The honourable Supreme Court of India couldn’t find anything to condemn him for. The charges on the basis of which he was arrested turned out to be invalid. In such a tricky atmosphere, however, they couldn’t release him either. The length and breadth of this democratic country greatly disapproved it, so he was condemned to “satisfy the collective conscience of people”. When he was hanged in secrecy one morning by the upholders of law — Congress celebrated, BJP celebrated, CPI celebrated. Among others, the graceful and influential, the Amitabh Bachchan sent out a tweet congratulating the state for letting justice prevail. Everyone who wasn’t Afzal did not find it problematic. Everyone who was Afzal started to cower with disgust, disbelief, and frustration.
India flashed ‘Afzal the terrorist’ on their newspapers and news channels relentlessly. Along with the title ‘Afzal the terrorist’, a single picture was flashed across the country — of Afzal with a long beard and a kurta, gazing away from the camera, surrounded by a dozen policemen dressed in khaki. Unsurprisingly, the media devoured it like scavengers on dead meat. The masses accepted at face value the thought of him as a terrorist who was involved in the parliament attacks. After he was hanged, the jailor at Tihar jail felt that a great wrong had been done, “he was a gentleman” he said.
When Ghalib scored ninety five percent in his boards, Kashmir celebrated. Everyone celebrated, in voices cracking with emotion, in loud Facebook statuses, proud and overwhelmed as if a sibling, a son, a family member had done them proud. This is how they live, accepting what is given to them. This is how they mourn their dead.
Was Afzal a terrorist? Was Afzal a martyr? Or was Afzal the sacrificial goat of ‘peace-making’? Afzal was a victim of unspeakable injustice where people from certain backgrounds are made the sacrificial goat to make peace elsewhere. Was Afzal wronged? Did Afzal wrong others? Identity is essential, but through whose eyes are we looking at this identity?
History shows us that the vulnerable will be exploited, the powerful will get away with anything, and the resistances will be too scattered to make a difference.
In this world, it is repeatedly proven that safety is not safe and justice is not just.
Narratives of the powerless are changed in the hands of the powerful. It is an anomaly that cannot be helped.
Written by Faryaal
Edited by Eshna Gupta
Artwork by Parul Nayar