This series of photographs captures the struggles of detained Kashmiri journalist, Aasif Sultan's family, especially how his wife is raising their two-year-old daughter, while coping with his absence.
On August 24, I visited the family of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who was detained by the Indian police exactly two years ago on August 31.
Sitting in the warm living room, where the afternoon sunlight pierced through the window panes, I met Aasif's two-year-old daughter Areeba, who was just six months old when her father was picked up in an overnight police raid.
Cautious, yet welcoming about a stranger's presence in the house, Areeba exchanged smiles with her mother while stacking pillows to make a miniature house, a common activity among Kashmiri children.
“She doesn't cry my name in distress but her father's name," said Sabina, the mother of Areeba and wife of Aasif.
Enlisted in Time magazine’s most urgent cases of journalists under attack, Aasif received the prestigious John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award in 2019 by America's National Press Club. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP), a US-based watchdog, has repeatedly sought his release.
In a strongly worded statement in Feburary 2019, Steven Butler, the CPJ's Asia programme coordinator in Washington, said: “Filing terrorism-related charges against journalist Aasif Sultan, despite a complete lack of evidence, marks a terrible injustice and further undermines press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir”.
“Is it so hard to understand that journalists, in the normal course of their work, must make contact with the people they write about?”
Butler was referring to the main accusation laid by the Indian government against Aasif — that he, along with nine other individuals, were "harbouring and giving support" to a militant organization. Aasif came under the police radar after he wrote an in-depth profile of Kashmir's popular rebel Burhan Wani. The profile was published in July 2018, two years after Wani was gunned down on July 8, 2016.
The story was carried by Kashmir Narrator in its July issue and can be accessed here: https://t.co/kXtfXKsP0G. Aasif Sultan was being pressurized to reveal his sources and turn into an informer for the J&K Police. They even questioned his political ideology.— Detention Solidarity Network (@detsolnet) August 26, 2020
Critics reject India's accusations against Aasif, saying he was a professional journalist whose only goal was to bring stories from the people he interviewed in the conflict zone of Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since 1947.
India ranks 142nd among 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Aasif's case is a tell tale of India's declining free speech under the governance of a Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
For human rights groups, Aasif's detention is a strong indicator - it betrays India's authoritarian slide under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But for his family, it is an absence that has had a devastating impact on his wife, daughter, parents and other family members.
Recalling the police raid that ended with her husband's detention, Sabina said the armed policemen searched everything, from cupboards to mattresses, to the washing machine.
"They confiscated every mobile phone in the house and took Aasif’s laptop as well.” Sabina said.
The devices continue to remain in custody.
The police officer who oversaw the raid, assured them that Aasif would be home by 10.30 in the morning.
"That 10.30 is yet to strike (in the government's clock)," Sabina said.
Hearing the morbid details of her father's detention, Areeba grew restless while sitting in the "pillow house" she had made for herself. She asked her mother where her toys were and quickly darted out of the room.
A few minutes later, Areeba returned with a puzzle toy in her hand. Sabina had taken out an old family album and Aasif's press card to show me. Seeing it, Areeba kissed her father's ID.
“During our initial jail visits, she reacted to her father as if he was a stranger to her. She was just a few months old".
Sabina said her father's absence began to haunt Areeba in different ways. When she heard her cousins call their father Baba, she began calling her uncle Baba too.
“We had to tell her who her baba is. We showed her Aasif’s picture routinely so that she remembers her father’s face. Whenever Aasif calls from prison for ten minutes, we put the phone on speaker and open Aasif’s photograph on our mobile phone and show it to her so as to make her understand it is her father speaking”.
Jail visits have been a gruelling challenge for the family, especially during chilly Kashmiri winters.
“We had to pass through 6-7 checkpoints and it took us three hours in that nail biting cold to pass from the first to last security checkpoint," Sabina said.
"Areeba was shivering from the cold as the jail staff removed her jacket and sweaters to be sure that we did not hide anything in her clothes. Even her diapers and socks were removed. Areeba cried a lot and seeing her like that, I wept too”.