One night, in 2017, when the government forces entered his two-storey house and asked him to accompany them, he obliged. His mother thought they wouldn’t arrest him “as he had done nothing”. But half an hour passed and he didn’t return so his mother and sister went out to look for him.
“I saw the army and police personnel taking him in a vehicle and he screamed, ‘They are taking me away,’” says 45-year-old Rafiqa, the mother, doing dishes at her home in Rampura village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district.
Back then her son, Tajamul Sheikh, was preparing for the main test of the Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) to serve as a civil servant in the Jammu and Kashmir government. With his few months old daughter and wife behind, Mr. Sheikh, who was then 31, was kept in police custody for seven days before being released.
However, freedom didn’t last for long.
A year later, on a cold evening of 10 December 2018, he spoke to his sister, Akeba Jan, 24, over the phone from his in-laws’ residence. He asked her to iron one of his pants and a navy-blue sweater that he would wear the next day to school, where he worked as a teacher. But he couldn’t come home. Instead, at around 11 pm, the government forces arrived at his in-laws’ residence and took him away, again.
Mr. Sheikh, who studied in a local school and later joined the Government Degree College in Anantnag, completed his postgraduate degree from Bhopal. Then he returned to Kashmir to prepare for civil service exams. “He was a very hardworking student right from his childhood,” said his father, Abdul Majeed Sheikh, a farmer. “He would confine himself to a room and study day and night.”
But studying was never easy for the 33-year-old. More than a dozen members of his extended family have been militants. Mr. Sheikh’s own brother, Asif ul Islam, was killed in a gunfight with the government forces in Banihal in 2007. His two uncles, Mohammad Ibrahim Sheikh and Mohammad Ashraf Sheikh were killed as militants too. A third uncle, Mohammad Abbas Sheikh, is the only surviving militant from this family. His aunt, who is also the sister of Mr. Abbas, Naseema Bano, was also booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in June 2020 for facilitating militants, said the police. Ms. Bano’s own son, Touseef Sheikh, was a militant and killed in a gunfight.
Soon after Mr. Sheikh’s arrest in December 2018, his father, Mr. Majeed says that he went to the Kulgam police station. “They told me that they would release him soon,” he said. Later he was told that his son has links with militants so he won’t be released.
After staying in custody at the station for forty-five days, his mother went to see him before he was shifted to Mattan jail in Anantnag and booked under the UAPA. “I couldn’t even look at my son,” she recalls. “Torture marks were evident from his face and he wasn’t the same person, who they had taken from the home.”
But, she says, her son never spoke of torture or any hardship because he knew that would affect his parents. “He is a very sensitive person. He would never say anything,” added Ms. Rafiqa. “But I am his mother, I could see what he is going through.”
After six months in the Mattan jail, Mr. Sheikh was booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) in June 2019. Despite the continuous attention from the authorities and locals for the family’s history, Mr. Sheikh was adamant in his career path — and he continues his attempts even from Jammu’s Kotbalwal jail — 600 kilometers away from his home — as his family fights a battle for his release in the courts.
A battle for education
On 1 July 2019, the family filed a Habeus Corpus petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court for the quashing of the PSA. But in the last sixteen months — earlier due to the clampdown by New Delhi in August 2019 and later the COVID-19 lockdown — the case has been moving at a snail’s pace with not much relief to Mr. Sheikh.
Since March 2020, after the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent countrywide lockdown, the High Court has also been unable to hear pleas like before.
The court last heard the case in June 2020 and since then it hasn’t been picked but “kept in open hearing, meaning the judge will hear the case whenever he wants”. But it hasn’t happened so far.
With his vigour to continue his studies, Mr. Sheikh has been studying hard in jail to sit for the National Eligibility Test (NET) this year. Advocate Wajid Mohammad Haseeb, who represents his case, said that due to the COVID-19 lockdown Mr. Sheikh couldn’t reach out to the court, asking for permission to sit in the NET on 10 October 2020. And Mr. Sheikh missed this year’s opportunity.
“Courts are virtually functional but it obviously has impacted the process to a large extent,” says Mr. Haseeb.
The family accuses the authorities of ruining Mr. Sheikh’s life. “Tajamul told me that the officers who were interrogating him said that they will make sure he doesn’t sit in any examination,” said Mr. Majeed, his father, adding that the then “SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police, Kulgam] Harmeet Singh had told Tajamul, ‘How can we allow someone from your family to become a KAS officer?’”
However, while speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Mr. Singh, the then SSP of Kulgam, said that all the allegations of the family are baseless. “Why would I say that? He was involved in providing transaction and support to militants,” said Mr. Singh. “He was warned to stay away from militancy. But he continued to work for his uncle, Mr. Abbas [Sheikh], so we had to book him under the PSA.”
Even though Mr. Sheikh still clings to hope and continues to study in the jail, Umar Rashid Lone, 29, one of his close friends, believes it won’t happen for him. “Imagine you are in jail for two years without being guilty, will you be able to focus on your studies?” he asked.
At home, Mr. Sheikh’s mother, Ms. Rafiqa, has also not been keeping well since he was arrested. Her only wish, she said, is to see her son happy return home to his family. Then only, she said, she “can die in peace”.
His room is filled with hundreds of books and the ironed pair of clothes, which he couldn’t wear to school, hang on the back of the door. These priced memories are hard to bear for Ms. Rafiqa — she had promised her son that she won’t cry while he is away. But her eyes welled up in tears as she said: “I will enter his room again only when my son comes back safely.”
“They force boys to pick up guns”
Before Mr. Sheikh was shifted from jail in Mattan to other hundreds of miles away, in Jammu, authorities allowed his family a meeting. As the police took him away in the vehicle, his sister, Ms. Jan said she broke down; Mr. Sheikh hugged her and said: “Don’t cry, I am alive. When I die, then we’ll see.”
The COVID-19 lockdown has only made the distance to Jammu farther for the family. And they haven’t been able to visit him.
Last October 2019, Ms. Jan recounts seeing Mr. Sheikh in a room, standing against iron bars covered with mesh in Kot Bhalwal jail. She couldn’t clearly see his face but spoke for over ten minutes before a woman constable asked her to leave.
“He told her, ‘My sister traveled a thousand kilometers to meet me, will you give us just ten more minutes to talk?’” recalled Ms. Jan. “On hearing this, the constable allowed me to stay for ten more minutes.”
Like his mother, father, and friends, Ms. Jan too believes that he would have qualified for the KAS exam if he wasn’t taken by the army. “He is in jail and he’s not able to focus because he is always thinking about home and family,” she said.
The passion behind Mr. Sheikh’s ambition to become a civil servant was shared by his friend, Mr. Lone, who recalled him saying: “Rampura is a backward village. We have always been ignored. I want to qualify KAS and work for [the betterment of the area].” But as soon as he was arrested for the first time, in 2017, Mr. Lone said that his friend was afraid that his career would be in shambles.
“The government wants the youth to shun the violence and study,” said Mr. Lone. “This is exactly what Tajamul was doing but they didn’t let him be. Instead they tormented him. This is how they force the boys to pick up the gun.”