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Shah Faesal’s journey from an overwhelming personal tragedy to excellence in his career is both amazing and awe-inspiring. At 19, his father, a government teacher who was very popular locally, was murdered by the hitherto unknown militants because of his refusal to provide them shelter, according to a 2010 newspaper report quoting his mother Mubeena Begum. Such a calamity could’ve easily swerved and failed him like thousands before and after him that Kashmir’s continued catastrophe has not ceased to produce. What is even more enthusing is his ability to keep focus; days after his father’s violent death he sat for an entrance test for MBBS and cleared it. Several years later, after gaining the degree to become a medical doctor, he performed a real sensation by becoming the first Kashmiri to top the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exam of 2009. This miracle of sorts transformed him into an overnight icon. The unprecedented chorus of euphoria that was produced by the Indian national media, in tandem with the official machinery, suggested that Faesal might have had a much bigger role carved out for himself in future than just being a glamourized pen-pusher.

It seemed his success story was badly needed at the time, not because his brilliance and hard work deserved to be acknowledged and celebrated, but that the Indian state was desperate for a profile like his with its attendant characteristics and achievements. He was not only affable and intelligent but had shown terrific promise in his pursuit of what may be described as The Indian Dream by qualifying for the top civil service that millions of young and bright Indians aspire for every year. Becoming a member of this exclusive club made one a part of the “steel frame” that the colonial masters of yore built to create a class among the slaves to build a credible scaffold of security for their operations and interests. These elevated bondsmen were more than willing to mediate with their ilk on behalf of and for their owners. Such a role offered instant financial reward in form of salaries and other perks as well as psychological gratification. While it allowed these Indians to steer away from their own people in a spatial, physical and emotional sense, it also conferred upon them a degree of authority to coax the very people to some trivial comfort or two. It would serve all those involved very well – the local middlemen of the empire for this provided them with a faux feeling of some empowerment for they could ‘make a difference’ and the colonisers for the incantations they received and pledges of continued allegiance. It also produced a certain sense of satisfaction from a population that was otherwise largely ruined, deprived and dejected because of the very system that managed them was designed with an express aim to exploit and extend their suffering. Although the new babus were relegated to a second class position because of their genealogy and geography, they took immense pride in serving the ‘system’. Jawaharlal Nehru, the founding father of modern India derided these bureaucrats and wanted to excise them in the new political order, but Sardar Patel prevailed for he knew the value of these cogs for the steel frame that had allowed the British to sway and hold the system for them. The usefulness of these local bureaucrats was not just for their familiarity with the milieu or their technical and managerial skills but also their personal attributes; they had been programmed to perform for their masters in guise of serving the system and without ever entertaining such considerations as morality or conscience.

When Shah Faesal arrived at the scene in early May 2010, Kashmir was seething in anger against the murder of three youth who were lured from their homes in Rafiabad, Baramulla, condemned as ‘Pakistani terrorists’ and murdered unceremoniously at the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara, Faesal’s home district. The incident would later trigger a mass rebellion that caused more than hundred civilian deaths and vicious injuries to thousands, mainly youth. The killings at the LoC severely exposed the benign security narrative of the state that it had built over the years. The incident also exposed the vicious thinking of the security agencies that enjoyed immense power and privilege while sheltering their misdemeanours under the faux chronicles of terror. Under these circumstances, the news that a certain Kashmiri who was also a victim of terrorism because his father had been slain by the freedom-seeking rebels had topped in India’s premier examination for bureaucracy was flashed as some sort of a vindication for the Indian state’s behaviour while claiming to fight terrorism. Also, the ‘success’ was used as a readymade alibi for much-touted secularism in Jammu and Kashmir that conveniently sought to veneer over the streams of blood that had been spilled so very recently, or in the past and perhaps in future as well. From that very day, Shah Faesal, the politician was born. Luckily for him the Manmohan Singh government had already rolled out a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy under the custom of engaging the Kashmiri youth. The new policy saw the central government lavishly funding a plethora of activities which included leadership conclaves, sports and other events of entertainment and profligacy. Faesal, for all his features, demonstrated the state’s version of an ideal Kashmiri, and therefore, became a gregarious trinket of Indian democracy and her exceptional promise that she offered to youth in form of becoming a part of the ‘system’ in contrast to Pakistan, which, according to the official narrative, turned them only into the foot soldiers of so-called jihad and the destruction that it wrought.

With a sustained cacophony of sounds produced by an overabundance of local media that has proliferated under a constant but sociable vigil and through a host of friendly incentives from the same ‘system’ that Faesal was about to serve, his ‘youth icon’ status and success story was produced so forcefully and constantly that it managed to distract the anger of a considerable number of educated and social media savvy youth, and for quite a while. The constant celebration of his achievement produced strong aspirations among many brilliant minds to emulate his course and identify with the very system that disempowered them in a collective communitarian sense. Such a path, as demonstrated by the fame and goodwill generated by Faesal, offered one of the best short-cuts for the so-called barbarians to transform into noble savages, under the refrain of such banalities as ‘serving the people’ or ‘making a difference’. From the very beginning, Shah Faesal alluded to such a thinking pattern, but credit is due to him because he also placed his self on much higher a pedestal than other cut-out IAS toppers, perhaps guided by some premonition that his was a much bigger role to play in the future. He has been so good at it that he managed it without raising any alarm and suspicion or provoking scorn that is so abundant here. Soon after the IAS results, in his first-ever interview with The Times of India, he adopted a tone and tenor that is usually associated with the post-colonial Arab or African dictators who tend to see their subjects as their children worthy of constant vigil and guidance. “I wanted to serve my people and in the role of an IAS officer I would like to reduce the communication gap between the people and the administration. I will give audience to them to hear their problems, cares and worries. I want to bring a change, especially for women and the youth”, he told the newspaper.

In the following decade, while he served in various roles in the local provincial administration, and simultaneously hogged the limelight for various reasons, mundane or serious, Faesal’s trajectory clearly demonstrates an outgrowth of his ambitions and their attendant politics. Under the weight of expectations that his ‘iconic status’ imposed upon him, he faithfully served the system beyond his nine-to-five job, and to some effectiveness. For example, he continually sought to build associations with the local youth, but openly clamoured for Kashmir’s status quo that was derided and hated by the majority of his target audience. Surprisingly, despite this tension in his didactic and the yearnings of the youth, he continued to exercise a good deal of charm among them. Unlike his other colleagues in the system, he never left the public space. He remained almost omnipresent, always lurking around, ready to tweet, issue a statement, write a newspaper article or give an interview that would attract enough value to clog the prime-time media space for weeks together. While this demonstrated his boundless energy and passion, after a while, his refrain became boring and started to provoke pessimism with many among his fans starting to wonder about his actions, commitment, and, above all, his interest. Faesal seemed oblivious, perhaps wilfully, because he seemed to be in love with the limelight and the charm that it offered. He became addicted to the glare of publicity that forced him to continuously ‘do things’, invent ideas or simply ‘perform’ controversies that served in keeping him in the news. But, finally, his brilliance could not stretch his repertoire to infinity.

In the mid-2016, soon after the killing of Burhan Wani, when Kashmiris rose again in rebellion against the state, the Indian government – from an apparently strong-willed Prime Minister to a very vocal Army Chief – showed signs of cluelessness as mass brutalities and open threats failed to obliterate the public defiance, led mainly by the youth. At this crucial juncture, Faesal arrives at the scene, yet again, albeit not on his own volition. While trying to make sense of the public rebellion, the jingoistic national media devoted endless airtime to run comparisons between Burhan Wani whose instant posthumous evolution into a new and powerful iconic symbol for the youth severely challenged the curated image of Faesal that had been built for almost a decade. For the first time, Faesal seemed miffed at the media attention as his “photographs and videos were … being juxtaposed with the visuals, dead and alive, of young local militants from Kashmir, as some sort of a clash of role models”. In his article for The Indian Express where he lamented at such assessments, he tried to reorient the debate and called for “an urgent need for India to reclaim ‘national interest’ from its national media”. It is a tribute to his sharp mind that he had patently recognised, and well in time, that the pulse of the youth at that juncture militated against his own oft-proclaimed ideals and prescriptions. Suddenly, he was pleading the very media that built him into a romantic figure to cease celebrating his achievements because, in the changed scenario, this made him feel not only unworthy but also mortally vulnerable, a consideration that must have been nightmarish for him and his family because of the earlier tragedy in their life. His opinion piece was an unconvincing effort to wriggle himself off the hook. Instead, it provoked voices from within India that questioned his allegiance to the system. Bikram Vohra, a writer at The Firstpost, wondered how an IAS officer who is governed by the civil service code of conduct could get special dispensation for his public utterances. He offered several possible explanations including the one that he attributed to the Machiavellian logic suggesting that “Faesal has been given permission and a script, and he is being used as a distraction and a hopefully calming influence”.

In the post-Burhan scenario, much of Kashmir’s political leadership on both sides rapidly lost its clout. The pro-India hawkers and their brand of politics became severely constricted and compromised in the public eye. Mehbooba Mufti’s so-called soft separatism to National Conference’s emotive pro-Kashmir sloganeering was badly denounced for both parties had too much blood on their hands. The latest entrant to the pro-India ring, Sajjad Gani Lone, had limited influence besides being increasingly seen through his new identity as a proxy Hindutva sidekick. Such were those times that even most of the pro-freedom leadership also stood discredited, saving the trio – Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik – that later came to be known as the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL). At the height of the rebellion in 2016, the JRL barely survived on margins, and without much clue. The youth were participating in a ‘leaderless revolution’ as they continued to fuel the rebellion through their sheer passion and by offering their bodies at the altar. At this critical juncture, despite threats that he himself had subtly identified earlier, Shah Faesal makes yet another entry, this time on his own accord. He seemed to be in some ambitious hurry to try and create some political space for himself, particularly within the youth.

Unfazed by the fetters that the civil service rules imposed on him, he strategically used social and traditional media channels to articulate opinions, raise concerns, offer sympathies or simply kick up a storm. According to a senior journalist, in the mid-2017 he learned that Faesal had decided to join politics amid rumours that the security establishment was roping in some new faces, including a few retired judges and bureaucrats to forge a new political front. This was later partially modified in favour of the National Conference (NC) that Faesal was to join per the news reports that finally appeared in July last year, nearly a year after the rumours first surfaced. By the end of 2017, Shah Faesal seemed hard at work to portray himself as a rebel within the system, courting as much controversy and attention as possible. Around the same time when the Jammu and Kashmir government issued a social media gag order on its employees, Faesal openly poured scorn on it and vowed to use “coded language” to circumvent it. He continued to flout the orders with impunity, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that his outpourings might have carried some coded or subliminal messaging.

At the time when fanning intolerance became official Indian policy and even the slightest protest by celebrated film stars like Aamir Khan, Om Puri, Swara Bhaskar or public figures such as cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sindhu and retired Justice Markandey Katju attracted serious condemnations and open threats, Shah Faesal remained immune. In early July 2018, while on a study leave at Harvard, Shah Faesal started to openly nit-pick not only at the government but the very idea of India. In a derisive tweet, he likened India to Rapistan, highlighting the frequent incidents of rape and sexual harassment of women. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, it did not attract any censure or threats, and he came out unscathed. Sometime later, when the government issued him an official reprimand, he ridiculed it and posted the communiqué online, sarcastically calling it a “love letter from my boss”. In response, Omar Abdullah, with whom Faesal had remained in constant touch, tweeted a little prophecy, perhaps unintentionally: “Looks like the DOPT [Department of Personnel and Training] is determined to chase @shahfaesal out of the civil services”. A few days later, in an interview, Faesal suggested a similar course when he told the News 18 that he was “prepared to forfeit an enviable career”. When we connect the dots, it becomes clear that he was already working under a plan and that the system was cleverly supporting and allowing him to gain maximum support. He was portraying himself as a committed and brave crusader when he told the News 18: “Losing my job is a small risk compared to the magnitude of the debate I’m trying to have. Yes, I could lose my job. But then the world is full of possibilities.” Around the same time, a senior NC leader confirmed to me that Faesal was joining his party. He also revealed that the celebrated bureaucrat was in touch with Omar Abdullah and that the senior Abdullah had made up his mind to send Faesal to parliament for his clout and proximity to what my NC contact described at the time as ‘centre’, a short-hand for the central Indian establishment.

Despite his long and well thought-out preparations, when Faesal finally took the plunge early this year his plan went awry as he lost the steam before he could even take off. In a neatly-crafted Facebook message, he announced his resignation from his job to “protest against the unabated killings in Kashmir, and lack of any sincere reach-out from the Union government”. He also talked about the marginalisation and invisibilization of Indian Muslims. While he did not reveal anything further at the time, there was little doubt about his future course and some local newspapers carried stories that he was joining the NC. What I was able to deduce from his post was little more nuanced – that his forays into pro-India politics through Kashmir was but a tactic, and that he was more interested in an India-wide platform and audience, in consonance with the earlier accounts that he was joining the NC to contest parliamentary elections. Even before he could address the proposed press conference “to share his future plans”, his rationale for quitting the ‘enviable career’ was widely pilloried and lampooned. I must share the blame for being one of the first to call him out for what I described as lies, a position that I maintained during my recent conversation with him. While I have been an admirer of his, not for his skill to pass competitive exams or generate news stories about himself, but his inspiring Urdu poetry and wonderful intonation, I could muster anything honourable than bluntly blame him for being deluded. This was not because his entry into the unionist politics was anything bad or exceptional, but due his belief that he can employ worn out tactics and still try to play on both sides of the fence. Such politics has little chance of success, particularly among the youth that he courts. Worse, many among the youth that were once in thrall to his success, are even insinuating what Bikram Vohra had hinted at more than two years back: Faesal’s actions are scripted with a consent and permission from the state under a Machiavellian plot. There are even suggestions that his entry is a slapdash attempt by the deep state to afford “some credibility to the discredited mainstream politics”, as one observer put it. A teacher told me that she thinks Faesal’s ambition is being instrumentalised to belittle the sacrifices that Kashmiris have made.

It is becoming clear that Faesal’s rationale for entering politics has boomeranged and is producing damage to the cause of unionist politics, at least in the short-term. Under the weight of growing public pressure, Faesal has been forced to modify his plans, more so because he could no more shelter under the bandobast that the system had offered him earlier. Therefore, he is currently not joining any political party and has started canvassing for his own platform that is very diffuse in structure and unsteady in orientation. This has become his first big failure since he came to public attention, almost a decade ago. As a politician, he has relayed a motley collection of confused signals and contradictory statements, further injuring his fledgling reputation. Suddenly, his talk has turned into an uninspiring verbiage with a tone that is more featureless than the disparate slogans of the past. His own recent public admission about being a ‘man of the system’ offers no help to his strained reputation. In his extremely short journey into politics, Faesal, for the first time since his father’s demise, has become both vulnerable and defenceless!

Murtaza Shibli is a writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He is also the editor of ‘7/7: Muslim Perspectives’, a book that explores the British Muslim reaction to the London bombings. Twitter: murtaza_shibli

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