For a decade or so, New Delhi has been projecting Shah Faesal, a former Kashmiri bureaucrat who topped the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) examination in 2010 and joined politics in 2019, as a ‘role model’ for Kashmiris. Today, he is caged under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA). His freedom is considered a ‘threat’.
What has changed so drastically in the last six months? What was so special about Faesal for the last nine years? And what is so bad about him now?
In January last year, Faesal created a storm of sorts by announcing his resignation as a civil servant, saying “the unabated killings in Kashmir and the marginalisation and invisibilisation of around 200 million Muslims at the hands of Hindutva forces (in India)”, as a reason.
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He has a reasonable number of followers on various social media platforms, especially on Facebook and Twitter. His fan base is not restricted to the Kashmir Valley, though. People, especially the youth, follow him in Ladakh, Jammu and many parts outside Jammu and Kashmir. Even at global platforms, he was taken seriously as an opinion maker. He would offer counselling for free to aspiring civil servants. His views on socio-political issues as a young and articulate individual mattered.
But on Kashmir’s political turf he was largely seen as Delhi’s poster boy. Many would overtly accuse him of being a nodding goat or Delhi’s daily wager. Some would go a step further to dismiss him as a collaborator. A section of Kashmiri youth considered him a success story.
On its part, the New Delhi-based media promoted him and gave him adequate airtime to voice his opinion on varied issues. He was often invited to participate in television debates. In one of his last television appearances on BBC’s talk show, Hard Talk, after the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood, Faesal said that in Kashmir only two political formations exist now: “Stooges and Separatists”. When asked which category he would want to be a part of, he responded by saying, “definitely, not a stooge.”
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Many believe that it was this position that he took on Kashmir, at a critical juncture, in August last year, might have landed him in trouble. Apparently, his articulation was considered a threat. But many in Kashmir ask what exactly Faesal’s crime is? That he said in a talk show that he would not act as a stooge. That he is articulate, educated and can speak and write well? That he was to complete his research work at Harvard? Or, that he is a Kashmiri Muslim who has a view on Kashmir?
Faesal’s critics say that “he is New Delhi’s project consigned to the dustbin just like the Autonomy Report passed by the Jammu and Kashmir’s Legislative Assembly in 2000 during Farooq Abdullah’s stint as Chief Minister after the 1996 Assembly Elections.”
His followers argue that “the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) feared his global appeal and his potential to expose the BJP’s civilisational Kashmir plan with his articulation.”
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In the PSA dossier, one of the charges against the bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal is his “support for soft separatism” through social media posts. His dossier also refers to his alleged “provocative statements” made by him last year.
The dossier reads: “The subject advocates the idea of soft separatism through his articles, tweets and social media posts, which on several occasions have attracted response, amounting to a potential threat to public order.”
Faesal heads a newly-formed political party J&K People’s Movement (JKPM). He was booked under the draconian PSA on February 14, the day his six-month preventive detention ended. Under the stringent law, a person can be jailed without trial for up to two years. In March last year, he formally launched his political party. The slogan of his party was “#AbHawaBadlegi” (“The wind will change now”). One objection that was raised by many in Kashmir was about the lack of clarity in JKPM’s vision document.
In one of his articles that Faesal co-authored with another Kashmiri writer Mehboob Makhdoomi that was published in The Indian Express on 3 January 2019, the predominant argument was that “At the root of the political problem in Kashmir is the paradox that those who represent the sentiment do not participate in the electoral process, and those who participate in the electoral process do not represent the sentiment… This needs to change.”
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Faesal talked about representing Kashmir in Delhi, but his freedom was curtailed. He wanted to bring a new vocabulary and idiom into electoral politics, implying that, talking about the right to self-determination of the people of J&K would no longer be considered a taboo inside the J&K Legislative Assembly. He landed in jail.
There are many in Kashmir who have never voted in life but were ready to take a risk with the aim to give Faesal a chance to prove his credentials as a new-age politician. Some of them were worried about his pace though. They thought he was taking too many decisions, and too fast. This lot wanted him to invest in long-term politics at the grassroots level, and make JKPM a mass movement, which, according to them, could possibly represent the larger political aspiration of Kashmiris. In simple words, they saw him as a prototype of Imran Khan and Arvind Kejriwal. But the BJP saw him as a threat.
As a headline hunter, he ticks many a box.
Headlines are fine if Faesal’s aim was to only attract headlines alone. To make a real and long-lasting impact on Kashmir’s sticky political turf and edgy landscape, he ought to speak in unambiguous words and not replicate the PDP model. The moment he started to voice his opinion with clarity of thought he was taken under detention despite the perception in Kashmir and Delhi that he was Delhi’s own man.
Some did try to inform Faesal that what Delhi did to former prime ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, such as Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, and former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah (1984) and Mehbooba Mufti (2018). Faesal should not have over-estimated himself like the late Mufti Sayeed.
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There is a certain red line that ought not be crossed by even those who stick to the political thought that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. Those who have dared to cross the red line have been punished, be it Sheikh Abdullah (1953) or Mehbooba Mufti (2018). On 1 April 2019, Faesal took a dig at BJP President Amit Shah, who had said that Article (35 A) should be abrogated. Faesal tweeted: “Amit Shah: BJP will abrogate Article 35A before 2020. Faesal Shah: JKPM will restore PMJK post by 2020.”
Clearly, Faesal was referring to the post of the prime minister in Jammu and Kashmir, a constitutional position that was renamed as “chief minister” in the 1960s. But then, it was 1 April. And all of us know about the tradition of cracking practical jokes and spreading hoaxes on that day.