A Troubled Union18 September 2010
Times of India
Srinagar: He was 22, tall and handsome. She was 27, bubbly, attractive and looking for a husband. When they first met - at their wedding in 1990 - Ashiq Hussain Faktoo was already one of Kashmir's most wanted jihadis and a founder of the state's largest militant outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen. His bride, Asiya Andrabi, was also a household name. She headed the secessionist women's group, Dukhtaran-e-Millat. Faktoo and Andrabi's troubled union, scarred by almost continuous separation, might almost be the story of Kashmir's turbulent relationship with India. Andrabi became an activist in the cause of gender equality. She would exhort women to fight male domination by assembling at mosques - hitherto off-limits - for religious discourses. Then she changed course and began to fight for political, not gender 'freedom'. Dukhtaran-e-Millat activists became undercover agents and a vital source of information for militants. This was the moment Andrabi wanted to get married. There were many suitable boys, for she was attractive and wealthy and belonged to an upper-caste Saeed family. A biochemistry graduate from Kashmir University, Andrabi shelved plans for a postgraduate course at Dalhousie. Faktoo was five years her junior and fascinated by tales of Andrabi's exploits. From deep within his hiding place in the forests of north Kashmir, Faktoo proposed marriage. She agreed. She was keen to marry into the jihadi cause. The nikah was scheduled at a rented house in Baspora near Faktoo's hideout. But those were troubled times in Kashmir. Militancy had peaked. Andrabi, whose outfit had been banned that year, was wanted by the security forces. The groom was on the run. Army intelligence got wind of the wedding and both bride and groom had to flee. Several days lapsed and there seemed little chance of Andrabi and Faktoo ever hooking up. But a vigorous search by Andrabi's brother put the family in touch with Faktoo, who was now in the upper reaches of the forests strung along the north Kashmir border. Another date was fixed for the wedding. This time, they didn't rent a house. Instead, the groom arrived to claim his bride in an autorickshaw, his turban hidden in a small basket. Andrabi still remembers the day, October 30, 1990, she saw her six-feet-tall husband for the first time. He apologized profusely for being unable to buy her a wedding ring. She reassured him, insisting she would have been happy with the present of a pistol instead. Marriage was no bed of roses for the couple. With the security forces hot on their trail, they were forced to change hideouts three times on their wedding night. They were arrested two years later, their six-month-old son in tow. Their baby spent the next 30 months in prison with his parents, until they were released on bail. In two decades of married live, husband and wife have lived together just three years. In 2000, Faktoo was rearrested and sentenced to a life term. Till recently, Andrabi was on the run. To many, they are to blame for their interrupted domesticity. Why challenge the system from without? But they seem driven. Faktoo is considered the mastermind of the ongoing violence in the state because he is the mentor of Masrat Alam of the Muslim League, who is spearheading the unrest. Andrabi was arrested at the end of August for offences under the Public Safety Act, which include waging war against the country and inciting violence. Faktoo and Andrabi's story lies at the heart of Kashmir's saga of unrest. It is a tale of missed chances, anger, separation and violence. Could Faktoo have been prevented from linking up with others to resurrect a movement that is now being compared to the 1989 insurgency, minus the arms? In 2002, Ashiq recalled the 1989 movement in conversation with this correspondent: 'My classmates and I decided that the time was ripe to take up the path of aggression, to snatch the freedom we had been denied for four decades.' The philosophy remains much the same today; only the guns have been replaced with stones. There have been many chances to stem the unrest. In 2005, the PM met Hurriyat leaders in the search for a lasting solution. During the negotiations, the separatists specifically asked for the release of three detainees, including Faktoo and a time-bound review of the cases against 'political prisoners'. The government did nothing and till now, the PM did not even think it important to reconvene talks with Kashmiri outfits. India has missed many opportunities to influence the collective psyche, using leaders they would believe. Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, father of the current Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and one of Kashmir's most revered leaders after Sheikh Abdullah, was assassinated in May 1990. Exactly 12 years later, the progressive and secular Hurriyat leader, Abdul Gani Lone, was killed. Lone had mass appeal and was insistent on peaceful resolution. Then, Fazal Haq Qureshi who was involved in peace talks between Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and the Indian government, was killed. His friend and chief commander of HM in Kashmir, Abdul Majid Dar was shot dead in March 2003 when he made a similar attempt. By now, strategic thinkers in New Delhi should have realized it might make sense to work with people like Faktoo and Andrabi to build bridges. The moral of the story? Considering the government has not managed to restrict Faktoo and Andrabi despite putting them behind bars, it could try a different route – allow them, on conditional bail, to live peacefully together with their two sons and use their fiery convictions and leadership skills to clear some space for peace.