Saturday, Dec 10, 2022

Shabnam Lone

Shabnam Lone

The daughter of Abdul Gani Lone on her father, family, the state of the judiciary in J&K, her perception of the years of strife and the unforgettable experience of being held hostage by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar, and of being booked under TADA

(Extracted from the chapter Interviews by Pamela Bhagat)

The interview with Shabnam Lone, a well-known lawyer, took place in a plush, book-lined office on the main tourist shopping mall in Srinagar. Like all lawyers, Lone is articulate and forthright on some issues and deft at dodging others. Presently in her early thirties, Lone has been practicing for some years.

She is the daughter of the senior All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader, Abdul Ghani Lone, who was a Congress leader till 1977, a Cabinet Minister for a short period and a legislator for twenty-six years. The APHC is a representative body of 23 separatist political and religious groups that was behind the recent poll-boycott in Kashmir. In recent times her father has either been 'underground' or under detention for long periods due to his secessionist activities. At the time that we spoke, he was in America for medical reasons. The Union government had initially refused him permission to fly to the US and he was allowed to do so only after the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and a number of political leaders intervened on his behalf.

Shabnam spoke about the state of the judiciary in J&K, her perception of the years of strife and the unforgettable experience of being held hostage by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar, and of being booked under TADA in Delhi.

My family consists of my father, my mother who was a schoolteacher and two brothers. Because of his political activities, I seldom saw my father but whatever time he gave me was enough for me as a daughter. He gave me confidence and I never felt any different from my brothers -- there was no discrimination between us -- I felt that was the maximum that he could have given me. I went to a missionary school here, Presentation Convent, and went on to do my English Honours from Kashmir University. Then I did law from Aligarh Muslim University.

Initially I joined the J&K Bar. I practiced here for three years before I decided to move to Delhi. I wanted to specialise in Constitutional Law because in the beginning I did a lot of civil rights cases. I represented Yasin Malik and my father a number of times because at that time not many lawyers wanted to take up these cases. It didn't matter for me because I had a political background. I was quite successful with their cases and later I also took on the cases of other detenues whose family members were not allowed to meet them. It was only because I took up their cause that the government later made a rule that they should be allowed to meet their family members. I was able to achieve this right at the beginning of insurgency in 1990-91, when I was fresh from law school, fired up with idealism and passionate about my work.

I felt strongly about human rights abuses and the state of terror which was rampant because of the excesses by the security forces. Militant excesses were also there but you could not pinpoint the culprits. They came masked at night so you really couldn't condemn the militants.

Once my mother and I were in the car when we were stopped at a barricade by the police. They were extremely rude and started arguing since I was used to demanding my rights, having lived in Delhi. But my mother was very scared and said, 'here you don't argue'. There is suppression and oppression in the minds of people. The urban situation is far better than the rural where small groups of people live in far flung areas, isolated from help and authority. They have become hypocrites and opportunists to save their skin.

Kashmir has always had more than its fair share of uniformed people. Even as a child I remember hearing about demonstrations against shortages of essential commodities, or hikes in tariffs; and these demonstrators were often fired upon. But we were not scared of uniforms or easily intimidated. Children nowadays know fear. They talk about bomb blasts, policemen, army men. Parents are sending their children out of the state, not because they want them to escape the strife here but because they want them to study.

The state of the courts here is pathetic. There is a tremendous gap between the judiciary here and the judiciary in Delhi. I would like to change 90 per cent of the system here. We need better judges who are more qualified. Presently we have unsuccessful, briefless lawyers at the helm of affairs just because of their political affiliations.

For me, working here is a culture shock. I am used to being thoroughly prepared with my brief for appearing before the Supreme Court. The judge here once told me, 'I don't want to see the Supreme Court judgement, I don't want to see this book. Don't bring it here.' I didn't know how to react. But now I am adjusting and I know that if you take books it angers them and there is no point in preparing your briefs because they don't listen. A judge here is just someone supervising the Courts, that is all.

Lawyers here have suffered a lot during the last ten years and are helpless. There hasn't been much of litigation work and they are badly affected financially. They feel vulnerable and are at the mercy of the judges. They wouldn't dream of speaking against them. When Justice Venkatachaliah was the Chief Justice, a Supreme Court judgement was passed against relatives of sitting Supreme Court judges coming up in the courts because it impairs justice and does not help the confidence of other lawyers or the public. This rule is blatantly flouted here. The wife of a sitting Supreme Court judge is a regular member of the Bar and all central government briefs, sales tax briefs, everything goes to her.

There is another sitting judge whose son is the Additional Advocate General. Then there is this sitting judge who has his son-in-law and his father here. Still another sitting judge has his brother-in-law appearing regularly. The judiciary here is a happy family of the Justices and their relatives. When there are just six judges it is very unfair on the Bar, its members and the public at large.

Working here is a frustrating experience because of the prevailing work culture and atmosphere. Being a woman makes it even tougher. Initially I faced a lot of problems from my colleagues. I come from a very well-known family so they had preconcieved notions about me. I faced immense opposition probably because there were no well established lady lawyers. The attitude was often indulgent and I used to feel like telling them that if you don't like my point of view, dismiss me but do hear me out. The judges were no different. Some of them were very nice and candid while others were positively hostile.

Now, after nine years, I am accepted as a colleague probably because I have been in the Supreme Court for a long time and they often have to cite judgements that I have been a part of. Whenever I win against them it feels very pleasant.

One of my most memorable victories was the first case I did in the Supreme Court -- a rehabilitation matter. I did it right from the initial to the final stage. The litigants had lost their case in the divisional bench and had come to me only after being turned down by all other lawyers who were convinced that it was hopeless case. The gentleman came to me and said that Rs15,000 was all he could afford to give me. I worked very hard and progressed very well at every stage. Ultimately I won the case. They got 27 lakhs which was deposited in the Supreme Court. It was a novel experience.

Another thing about this place is that for every omission or commission, it is the militancy who is blamed. This is very unfortunate. I was appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate an environment matter -- the illegal felling of trees. I was shocked to see the affidavits filed by the officials of the state government -- illegal, in flagrant violation of court orders and in total connivance with timber smugglers. I filed certain special applications in the Supreme Court itself wherein the officer said, this Supreme Court order does not apply to the 'kattha' tree because it isn't a tree it is a twig. The result was they got in a contractor, felled trees and smuggled out timber worth crores. Nobody was nailed.

People here are not doing anything to help each other collectively; nor are they demanding some kind of accountability or taking a stand against rampant corruption -- this is because they feel it would be worthless. They feel that it would be a futile attempt to make a more accountable, humane society. They have resigned themselves to the corrupt and unresponsive systems here.

You get used to hearing and seeing death and resign yourself to fate. Many of the youngsters have moved out for education and not to escape the environment. We all have to learn to live with it, not to run away from it. People move out for the lure of money or for individual perceptions and aspirations. Nobody would want to go if good education were available right here because our experience outside, in India, has not been very good.

People outside view us Kashmir is as violent and trouble creators. For me, since I belong to the exalted institution of the Bar, people don't tell me to my face but I can understand the vibes. I have to do a balancing act. They are sympathetic to Kashmiri Pandit lawyers because they can see the misery of someone who has been uprooted but they don't see my trauma. There are extreme pressures in everyday life, I face them all the time. The first time that I went to Delhi, in 1991, I was arrested under TADA from my house in Lajpat Nagar. They had some ridiculous charge about me taking some money, which they couldn't substantiate. It was my boss who filed a petition and I was let off the same day.

Another unfortunate thing about the Law Association of Kashmir is that they do not have an independent attitude. They have declared themselves an important constituent of the APHC (All Party Hurriyat Conference). They should have been more autonomous but sometimes what happens is that the people who are heading the Bar have strong affiliations and influence the rest, or that the majority ideology prevails. Here the Bar is very involved with the political and social happenings, despite it not being a predominantly Muslim Bar we have Pandits and Sardars.

I stumbled into this profession but now I feel I am not suited for anything else. I could graduate to politics sometime later but right now I am very involved and satisfied with my profession. I was invited to the USA by Frank Wisner in 1995, a woman lawyer of J&K. I travelled extensively there and respect their way of doing things and the excellent institutions they have there, but I didn't want to stay back despite the conditions here. I wanted to contribute to society here. I haven't done anything significant yet but maybe, having stayed in the profession and gained acceptance, I might have made a difference.

In my opinion the only way out of the impasse in the valley is dialogue with everyone, even the most extreme militant_ listen with patience and without any preconceived notions. To find a solution there has to be an understanding of the historical, political, economic and real problems here. It is a complex situation that requires a collective solution. The thought process hasn't even taken off as yet. Everyone here wants peace and stability. They realize that the best place to live in is where there is dignity and respect for human rights.

Recently, during the elections, the Hurriyat had called for a poll boycott which was very successful -- nobody voted. It wasn't due to intimidation but because people thought elections were not a relevant process at this point in time. The Election Commission should have announced that there were zero votes in certain places. They did the contrary and it was like telling the  people that you don't matter. I am not speaking for the Hurriyat but as a lawyer.

Everyone here has suffered or had some dreadful experience. I haven't told you yet about my kidnapping. It was a terrible and scary experience that left me very bitter. Sometime in late 1990, I visited my father in Tihar jail where he had been detained along with other activists. While there my father told me to meet another senior leader, Shabir Ahmed Shah and other detainees since I was a lawyer.

Soon after that, on 10 January 1991, a girl came to my house in Rawalpora, Srinagar and told me to accompany her since a Naeem Khan wanted to see me about a message from Shabir Shah. I am usually very careful but on that day I just walked into a trap. I drove her to wherever she said and then we walked. Gun-wielding boys started surrounding us and we kept walking through a labyrinth of narrow lanes till I was led into a room. All this while I kept asking them about where they were taking me, but all they said was that I had to meet someone who was coming all the way from Baramullah and that I would have to wait for him. I was very scared but then I thought that if this is how I am supposed to die, well then so be it. Then these boys put a Kalashnikov to my head and started saying ridiculous things like -- you are a lawyer, a very modem girl, an Indian agent. I told them -- 'if you want to, go ahead and shoot me. I have worked with many militants but they were very good boys who were committed to the cause of freedom, not like you.'

Then they put me into a three-wheeler and boldly took me through the security cordons to another place. Here I was asked all kinds of political questions like, when you visited Tihar -- what deal did you strike up there? What set agenda did you discuss with people in Mehrauli? In what way are you involved with IB [Intelligence Bureau] and what role are they playing?

I was blindfolded throughout with my hands tied. There were torture sessions when I was made to sit in a bucket full of water, I was made to walk on ice and a lady called Baaji was called upon to slap me off and on. They put a Kalashnikov in my mouth and said that I should remember God since I was going to die. I told them that they were cowards and that if they were good people they should just kill me without coming near me. That they should kill me like men. In Islam, before someone is killed, all the jewellery is removed. They had done all that.

They kept me for two nights and three days. Later I came to know that they had wanted to kill me but since I had remained cool and coherent, I had created some kind of division between them. I did hear them arguing. Most of them were young drop-outs but were being directed by some older men. Many did not even know who I was.

After they left me I was angry, scared and shattered. But I had to recoup on my own because no one from my family was in Srinagar. Our retainer did miss me but all he did was to ask a few people and wait. Later, my anger lessened against them because I realized they were as much victims as I was. They had been used by a certain system, by certain people. This helped me get over it.

But this was not the end. A couple of years later there was an attempt on my life -- I was also shot at. I escaped that assassination attempt and am still confused about why they targeted me. I am opinionated but I couldn't have posed a threat to anyone. Everyone knows that I have always believed in Kashmir for the Kashmiris without discrimination between caste, creed, religion. I was furious and decided to channel this anger into my career. Surviving a kidnapping and a murder attempt has been very traumatic for me.

Then I went to Delhi which was very unfriendly because firstly I was a Kashmiri and then a Hurriyat leader's daughter. I have never tried to hide these connections. I deal with people on a factual and honest basis. That is the reason I have made very few but good friends. A few months ago I shocked everyone at my office by contributing Rs 5,000 to the Kargil Relief Fund!

Recently I was honoured by the ABI (American Bibliographic Institute) with the title of 'Outstanding Woman of the Millennium'. This is a very prestigious award and is bestowed for significant contribution to society. I didn't even know that I was being considered till I received a letter from the American Ambassador in India. So now I am a member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, J&K Bar Association and the ABI.

After all I have achieved and done, our society continues to be biased against women and my achievements are not taken seriously. I am still dogged by the question of marriage. I tell my mother why don't you look around and see if there is anyone my age, man or woman, who is as successful as me. Don't compare me to just anyone.' I don't see this attitudinal discrimination ending ever.