Journalist and author Freny Manecksha revisits 'the longest day in the history of Kashmiri activism' by sifting through Aasiya Jeelani's notebook and bringing out the memories of the day through people she left behind.
It is a simple notebook, the kind journalists and activists would use on the field, before the advent of the voice recorder. Pockmarked with a perforation that goes right through its innards, this notebook is a wounded “survivor” of the IED blast on April 20, 2004, at Lolab, in which a Sumo cab was blown up. The driver of the vehicle, carrying members of an election monitoring team, Ghulam Nabi Shaikh was killed on the spot. Khurram Parvez, the activist, received horrific injuries. Two other volunteers were also hurt. Tragically, Aasiya Jeelani, the owner of this notebook, grievously injured, succumbed to her injuries a few hours later.
Gingerly I open this notebook, given to me by advocate Parvez Imroz of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) who initiated the election monitoring exercise, anxious not to damage it further. On the first page, in Aasiya’s handwriting, is the dateline Lolab and the date but the month has been erroneously scribbled as March instead of April. As I go through jottings and observations made by this young woman activist of JKCCS, I realize the importance of this notebook as the witness, not just to the violence of the voting exercise, but to the “flawed conception” of the election process as a demonstration of democracy.
The Indian state, anxious to showcase elections as part of a free frank exercise, had claimed the 2002 assembly elections, were a step forward in initiating the political process. But, JKCCS effectively repudiated that premise. Its crucial report highlighted how coercion, threats and retaliatory tactics by the intimidating deployment of army, paramilitary, police and other forces like the STF and SOG, could not legitimise the election process. The report illustrated how there is more to elections than mere voter turnout. It wondered if, it was at all possible, to claim elections as a democratic process when even the most fundamental right to live in dignity and exercise civil liberties had been denied to Kashmiris. Well received in international circles, a similar exercise was planned for the 2004 parliamentary elections, for which Aasiya was a team member.
The premise of the monitoring remained the same: whether a formal procedure of election intrinsic to democracy could be imposed on a real and existing undemocratic structure.
Recalls Imroz, “We asked for volunteers and some Indian groups joined us. We decided to set up a makeshift control room in our office in Srinagar.” He recalls how mobile phones had just come into use which would make it easier for various groups to coordinate and be in touch.
“I was in Kupwara with a team from Punjab when news came in of the landmine blast. I heard that the driver had been killed on the spot and Aasiya was seriously injured but, still, I did not think she would die. I had initiated this crucial fact-finding. I expected some detentions, maybe some beatings but, nothing of such horrific violence.”
Khurram Parvez, whose leg was amputated following the blast, can vividly recall details of 20 April, 14 years ago. He says he was surprised at seeing Aasiya early in the morning in the office. She had been ill and he thought she would not come. “I chose to go to Lolab the most remote region and she said she also wanted to join our team, dismissing concerns of her ill health.”
There were seven people in the ill-fated Sumo. “Ghulam Nabi Shaikh, from my area was the driver. He was known as Guljaan and we also had with us two local volunteers Abdul Ghani Tantray and Ghulam Mohiuddin Reshi. Then there was Kumar Buradhikathi from Bengaluru, Jalees Andrabi and Sadiq Ali.”
It was at Shumrial village, after Kupwara, that the team began hearing accounts of intimidation. People had been threatened that if the indelible ink mark was not seen on the finger it would be chopped off. They also heard how people had been forced to vote because they had been threatened that the development plans of the village would otherwise be held in abeyance.
It is interesting to note some of the jottings in Aasiya’s diary that bear witness to these threats and retaliation that Khurram talks about.
“My son is imprisoned. Army has punished us.” Or then “Nobody wants to vote.” Or “1 lac youth have been killed. How can we vote?”
On one page is her observation “Children voted.” Khurram elaborates on this jotting. “It was in Sogum where, in contrast to other places, there was an almost mela (fun fair) kind of atmosphere. Many people were enthusiastically casting their vote for the local candidate. Then we noticed children had also voted and we asked them to show voting slips.”
Aasiya became visibly upset, notes Khurram. She felt deeply about this fraudulent exercise and the contrast between this village and the coercion in the other. Whilst getting into the car she asked if she could sit near the window and exchanged her seat with Khurram.
Shortly after they set off, four army vehicles passed them on their way to Chandgam. Then a little later they had to wait as the army vehicles began to turn around. Barely a few minutes later a huge explosion took place.
“The car went up in the air. I tried to open my eyes but they were filled with dust. When I could open them I saw blood spattered everywhere. Sadeeq and Andrabi who had been sitting at the back were trying to pull us out of the wreckage. I saw that my leg was stuck and a huge portion of bone was missing. I had to cradle my leg in my hands and try to lift it and hoist myself out of the car.” There were army personnel at the scene but they did not help. When some villagers gathered around the site, Andrabi and Sadiq began to shout angrily. Their reactions sprang from the fact that they believed the villagers had been participating in a fake election even as the team had risked all and people were now dying. Ghulam Nabi Shaikh had died on the spot. Aasiya was calling out loudly for her mother as others kept trying to reassure her.
After about half an hour the ambulance from the Sogam PHC (Primary Health Centre) arrived. At the Sogam hospital, the doctor said that Aasiya would not perhaps survive. She was put into a Sumo that then sped towards Srinagar. But somewhere near Narbal, she breathed her last.
Meanwhile, another vehicle took Khurram and the others to SMHS in Srinagar. Khurram recalls how he was desperately searching for a signal on his mobile so that he could call home and speak with his mother. From SMHS he was transferred to SKIMS because of a serious head injury. “By then I could sense Aasiya was no more even though people tried to keep the news away from me.”
After 17 days he was sent to Delhi for treatment of his leg injury.
For Imroz, it was the longest day of his life. He shuttled between various hospitals, trying to handle the events of the ghastly day. Aasiya was lowered in her grave under grey skies and pouring rain. Her mother was tragically not at home.
For many years it was believed that the explosion had been triggered by the militants. But, in 2006 the mysterious death of Captain Sumit Kohli moved the needle of suspicion in a totally new direction. Kohli was the whistle-blower who had raised concerns about a fake encounter of “militants” that took place on the same day as the blast and in the same region. A CID probe is taking place.
The blast brought utter devastation for JKCCS and others. The election monitoring exercise had been abruptly halted on that day. There was tremendous fear but, later, with a firm resolve, monitoring efforts for the next phase of electioneering were resumed and the report published. It is dedicated to Aasiya and Ghulam Nabi Shaikh.
In his tribute to Aasiya, Imroz remembers her strong sense of commitment. “She came to our office after apprenticing with a leading daily in Delhi. Perhaps initially she just wanted the experience of working with a human rights organisation to be part of her CV but she grasped the reality of Kashmir very quickly through her interactions and documentation work and became really active.”
Khurram recalls her intense involvement with the stories she documented. Her understanding of gendered violence was acute and she could see the layers of suffering that women were undergoing - not just by the state but by patriarchal structures too. She liked to be photographed with the women and children when she went to the villages. “Their suffering is in my heart but I want to preserve their faces, their histories.”
Ironically these photographs are now history. They preserve the memories of Aasiya’s, one of Kashmir’s brave woman activists and her contribution to the resistance and women’s struggles.♦