Dr. Syed Ghulamnabi Fai
November 29, 2013
I want to tell you a little story that touched my life in a very personal way in 1979. It is important to consider, I assure you, because of its historic significance, not only in having an impact in a very real way upon my own survival and the personal vision I came to adopt for the rest of my life, but how it came to shape the very destiny of Kashmir itself. My own life became inextricably linked just as intimately as a man and woman united in marriage. Each detail of this story is integral to understanding who I was then, who I am now, and the process that formed my calling and the rest of my life.
I was in my late 20s then with a driving zeal, as is in every young man’s heart in Kashmir, to make a significant impact somewhere and somehow on life’s stage. At this particular time, I had been placed in charge of the international section of a major conference being held in the Capitol of Kashmir, Srinagar. I was inspired to invite a speaker of an international stature whose presence could be used to energize and internationalize the issue of Kashmir on the right of self-determination. I made a trip to Jeddah, then the Capitol of Saudi Arabia, and talked to several university scholars, asking if they might assist me with an invitation to the Grand Imam of the holy mosque of Kaaba in Makkah to come to Kashmir and speak. The Grand Imam is one of the most important figures in Muslim world and plays a significant role at the center of pilgrimage made to the holy city by millions of Muslims every year. His coming to Kashmir, I felt, could be an important factor in uniting Kashmiris in their struggle. Although their roles are quite different and no figure serves Islam in quite the same way, the Grand Imam might be considered equivalent to the Pope among Catholics in terms of respect, if the two religions could be compared, and of course his opinions carry weight in the spiritual life of Muslims.
The scholars I spoke with were quite helpful in advising me on how to arrange a meeting with the Imam and the effort proved to be a distinct benchmark in my career. As it turned out, I was able to meet the Imam in person and he was not only gracious enough to provide me with an audience and accept the invitation in principle but to share lunch with me at his home afterward. However, being the member of the Cabinet (Shoura) of then the King of Saudi Arabia, King Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz, he advised me that it was a matter of courtesy to the king to seek his advice and approval of such a trip. This responsibility obtaining the king’s permission was then laid upon my shoulders. As such, my trip to Saudi Arabia was to hold even larger significance than I had ever imagined.
The next day, I met with the university scholars who were so kind to assist, and they advised me to go to Riyadh to meet with the protocol officer in the ‘Royal Court.’ They then drafted a letter in Arabic to the king under my signature to be carried with me on my journey. The following day I flew to Riyadh. Naturally, the guards stopped me when I reached the gate of the ‘Royal Court’ and inquired of my business. I showed them the envelope containing the letter, and they let me in. It was then a good 15-minute walk from the main gate to the Royal Court and it gave me time to reflect upon the challenge I was then facing. The urgency and importance of what I was doing weighed heavily on my mind. I had gone this far. Yet the stature of the individuals I was seeking to engage was more than overwhelming, given my meager background in international relations. It was crazy, I thought. What am I doing here? Who am I to be asking these people for such a favor? I have asked it not only of someone who carries the weight of the Ummah (Muslim nation) on his shoulder; now I am approaching the majesty of a royal figure who commands the attention of world leaders everywhere. He must get hundreds of requests daily. What possible chance did I have?
When I reached inside the ‘Royal Court’, the police again asked me, "What are you doing here in this building?" Shaking by now, I showed them the letter. Upon review by the guards, I was relieved that they immediately escorted me to the protocol officer. Fortunately, it was not quite so threatening after all. The protocol officer’s manner immediately put me at ease. He was friendly and we greeted each other in the custom most familiar to those who live in the region. The protocol officer was quite polite and extended his hand graciously as I handed him the letter. Something stirred inside me that gave me hope. Immediately, before he could open the letter, he gazed at me directly and asked where I was from. "I am from Kashmir," I said. I had been quite tense and nervous, but I was beginning to relax. Imagine being in your late 20s, having grown up in a pastoral atmosphere in a country few people in the world had ever heard about, and ever rarer still, where few people have such an opportunity, in the midst of such finery, elegance and formality. How does one behave?
"How is the situation in Kashmir?" he asked. "Not good," I said. "People are still dreaming of a day when they will be given the right to decide their future." "How can I help?" the officer asked. He seemed sincere. "In ten days, we have a conference in Kashmir," I told him, hesitatingly slightly. "We would like to invite the Grand Imam of Kaaba in Makkah." The Kaaba is the most sacred site in Islam. He looked at me quizzically and shook his head. "Impossible. In ten days? It is not possible to get permission from the king so soon." "You asked me how you could help." I responded. "This would be a great contribution to help the people of Kashmir. Your assistance would be deeply appreciated.
He offered me a cup of tea, and asked me to wait. He looked off in the distance for a minute. Immediately, I began to worry. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Finally he looked back at me, and asked: "Have you got a contact number where I can reach you? I will have to let you know a little later whether I have obtained permission." Greatly relieved, but still unsure of what would happen, I gave him the contact number in Makkha, finish my tea and left. I returned to Makkah the next day and immediately informed the Imam about my meeting in the Royal Court. The Imam’s eyes lit up as I described my experience, and he smiled, giving me a warm embrace: "Let us hope," he said, "that we get a positive response."
A few days later, Imam sent his driver to my hotel to pick me up. A meeting with him had been arranged again. It was then that I learned, to my extreme delight and surprise, upon my arrival, that the Imam had received permission to travel to Kashmir. The Grand Imam of Makkah, one of the most respected figures in the Muslim world then graciously again invited me to share lunch at his home, a personal touch which left me awestruck and that I will never forget. However, before we could start lunch, he gave me a telephone number and told me to call the embassy of India in Jeddah. (The embassy has since relocated to Riyadh.) I called the number and I said, "May I talk to his Excellency, the Ambassador?" The voice on the other end immediately responded, "Excellency is speaking. How can I help you?" I did not know that this was his direct number.
"I’m calling, I said, "from the office of the Grand Imam, and he’s traveling to India tomorrow, along with his delegation. He would like to send the passports so that he can get the visa for India." "He was in India only two weeks ago, "the ambassador said. Why is he going again?" "Oh no, I blurted out. "This time he is going to Kashmir." "What?" He responded with a tone of incredulity that almost unnerved me. The Imam, "I said, "is invited to speak at a conference in Kashmir." "I have a great respect for the Imam," the ambassador replied, leveling off, "but I will have to contact my foreign office in New Delhi. You will have to wait until we get the approval." "I will convey that to the Imam," I said. "Waiting for permission from New Delhi will take some time." "Can we afford to wait? Imam asked, overhearing my conversation with the ambassador. I told the Imam, "if we do not leave by tomorrow, we cannot reach Kashmir in time to attend the conference." "Tell the ambassador, I have a diplomatic passport. I do not need visa. I am going tomorrow anyway," Imam told me.
I conveyed that to the ambassador. "That is his choice," Ambassador said. "I’m sorry, I cannot help at this moment. I will do what I can. Just give me your contact number." And the ambassador dropped the telephone. Less than an hour later, still in the middle of lunch, the telephone rang. I was closer to the telephone, so I picked it up. "Are you the person I was talking to an hour ago?" It was the ambassador again. I had not told him my name. "Are you still in the office of the Imam?" He asked. "Yes," I said. "Tell Imam," he replied, " to send his passport, even if it is going to be late, to the embassy here in Jeddah. There will be someone at the counter waiting for the passports until 5 pm." We had plenty of time. It was around 1.30 pm and it only takes an hour to get from Makkah to Jeddah. Obviously, I did not need a visa. I had an Indian passport at that time. The members of the delegation got the visas, and the next day we took the flight to Bombay (now Mumbai).
Success was within my grasp. An imaginable dream, hardly possible for even men of much greater stature than I, was beginning to unfold before my eyes. Together, we now comprised a delegation of five people: (1) the Grand Imam, (2) his son, Yahya; two other scholars, namely, (3) Sheikh Taha Abdul Waseh al-Barakati, Chief of the Section of Preaching at the Haram in Makkha and (4) Sheikh Qari Khalil -ur-Rehman, Chief of Tajweed-e-Quran in Medina; and (5) myself. The journey had begun. And there were yet much greater things to come.
Everywhere we went we were met by important figures of the day in both India and Kashmir. First, there was a very high level delegation from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra waiting for us at the runway of the Bombay airport. Maharashtra is the third largest state in India, more than a third larger than the country of Kashmir itself. The delegation escorted us with fanfare in diplomatic procession to the hotel, and the same day, in the morning, we caught a flight to New Delhi. There, officials from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Saudi Ambassador to India, along with a large entourage, were waiting for us at the Delhi airport. They escorted us in person to the pride of hospitality in India, the most famous world-class five-star hotel of the day, the Ashoka Hotel, located centrally in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave.
Following diplomatic greetings and all the fuss of formality, we stayed there one night and the next day proceeded on to Kashmir. There I was stunned even more. I couldn’t believe my eyes that the local government of Kashmir had allowed around 50 people to receive us on the runway itself and not the terminal. As it had been at the other stops, this was inconceivable that private citizens of Kashmir would be allowed to be this close to the airplane on the runway in Kashmir. Conspicuously, the Grand Imam was being treated as VVIP (Very Very Important Person) and who was being given the most desirable protocol, not only in Bombay and New Delhi but here at home in Kashmir as well. It was clear that the Indian government had instructed those at each location to provide special respect to the Imam and his delegation, given his significance in the Muslim world, which was unthinkable for anyone but dignitaries.
I remember reaching the hotel in Srinagar, (the Capitol of Kashmir), early in the afternoon. We had a light lunch. The Imam took a brief nap. Then late in the afternoon, we talked again. I appealed to his tourist sensibility and suggested that, if he was interested, he might like to visit one of the Moghul gardens called "Shalimar" which was six or seven miles from the hotel. The Shalimar Bagh, as it is also called, was built during the Moghal dynasty that covered Asia by Emperor Jahangir in 1619, for his exquisite wife, Nur Jahan who shared his extravagant taste for the arts, and who was probably more responsible for its construction than he was.
The Imam quickly agreed to go. We reached the garden about an hour before sunset and he and his colleagues were delighted to see the fountains, the fabulous pavilions, the greenery and lotus flowers, and the deep pools of water against the backdrop of the massive snowcapped Himalayas. The garden is also on the bank of Dal Lake, known around the world as the "Jewel in the crown of Kashmir," perhaps the most beautiful lake in Asia.
The Imam was moved to ask me, "is the whole of Kashmir as beautiful as this garden?" "This is nothing," I said, smiling. When we go to Gulmarg and Pahalgam you will forget about this garden." It is interesting to note that the Imam was permitted by royal consent and agreement to visit Kashmir for five days. The Imam told me, "We must send a telegram to the king and tell him that I would like to extend my visit by two weeks," Which I did next day. He did not need the approval as such, but again as a matter of courtesy, he felt that he needed to inform the king.
The next day, we had the main conference, which was held at a very large garden "Goal Bagh" in front of the national secretariat in Srinagar (the Capitol City of Kashmir) and the office of the Chief Minister of Kashmir.
There was a general feeling among the Kashmiri people by virtue of the Imam’s presence that they were poor people, so they could not afford to go to pilgrimage to Makkah, but God Almighty, it seems, had been kind enough to flip the coin, as it were, and send them the pilgrimage (Haj) to Kashmir in the person of Imam. Imagine the many hundreds of thousands who make the journey every year to Saudi Arabia. Now tens of thousands of people in our country, came to listen to this most respected religious leader. And it was then that the opportunity I along with the organizers of the conference had envisioned all along came to fruition. It was then that the greatest moment of my role in the conference was realized, because it afforded an occasion to bring to the forefront the dream of every kashmiri: "to adopt a resolution calling for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolution # 47 which was adopted on April 21, 1948 and was co-sponsored and co-authored by the United States of America." This resolution says that the people of Kashmir have the right to decide the fate of their land. The conference resolution was unanimously adopted by a show of hands, demanding the implementation of the Security Council resolutions. This was accomplished without a single window being broken, or a single stone being thrown but in an environment of peace and tranquility, in the presence of tens of thousands who were able to express on that day and in subsequent days while the Imam remained in Kashmir that the voice of the people of Kashmir was unified and firm in expressing their resolve for Kahsmiri people’s right of self-determination.
It should be made clear that this was a momentous occasion in the history of Kashmir. To call for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir is even now considered a treason by the Government of India. This is happening despite the fact that both India and Pakistan agreed to those resolutions of the United Nations Security Council before they were adopted, as did the world powers including the United States, Great Britain, China, France and USSR. Then, however, the presence of the imam and his participation prevented officials from enforcing the law, at least through direct intervention. The backlash would have been overwhelming. It was a day that would forever seal my fate in Kashmir as a man whose deep affection for his own country would become common knowledge and a man perhaps most loathed on that particular day by the Government of India.
One of the leading Indian writer and internationally known author, Booker Prize Winner, Ms. Arundhati Roy, threatened with the charge of treason in October 2009 for making a similar call, said in New Delhi on November 27, 2010, "My reaction to today’s court order directing the Delhi Police to file an FIR (First Information Report) against me for waging war against the state: Perhaps they should posthumously file a charge against Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (first Prime Minister of India) too. Ms. Roy mentioned that here’s what Pandit Nehru said about Kashmir: In his statement in the Indian Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1947, Pundit Nehru said, "In order to establish our bonafide, we have suggested that when the people are given the chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as the United Nations Organization. The issue in Kashmir is whether violence and naked force should decide the future or the will of the people." And "…In his telegram to the Prime Minister Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru said…’Our view which we have repeatedly made public is that the question of accession in any disputed territory or state must be decided in accordance with wishes of people and we adhere to this view."
Later, I received requests from people through out the Valley of Kashmir for the Imam to give additional lectures. I organized at least twenty five to thirty lectures to be given by the Imam, and, each lecture was attended by from ten to twenty thousand people. At the end of each lecture, a resolution was also passed calling for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the issue of Kashmiri self-determination. Since I had been formally responsible for the occurrence of all these lectures, the office of the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the grand father of the current chief minister, Omar Abdullah, informed me that the chief minister would like to meet with the Imam. The person who called was the Arabic translator of the chief minister, Mufti Abdul Ghani Al-Azhari and who happened to also be my Arabic teacher and with whom I have since had the privilege of making the pilgrimage together to Makkah. I told him, "Imam belongs to everybody. You choose the time and it is done." My role in these matters had become of such significance that the government of Kashmir was forced to consult with me on any arrangements concerning the Imam. No one could meet the Imam unless they consulted me. That was the understanding because the Imam did not know anyone from Kashmir but me. The next day we had lunch with the chief minister.
A few days later, after the Imam’s departure, I was told that the chief minister had a cabinet meeting in which they discussed the impact of the Imam’s visit to Kashmir where more than a million people were able to listen to his lectures in many cities and where the United Nations Security Council resolutions, which were considered seditious and illegal to even mention, were declared as legitimate. The senior staff in the office of the chief minister obviously wanted to have word with me.
Rather than meeting with the officials, I preferred to leave Kashmir. I was thereafter to be blamed for this evolutionary revolution in the consciousness of Kashmiris by raising the topic of the United Nations Security Council resolutions in every speech of the Imam and the hope now more instilled that we would one day see the freedom of Kashmir. I took a flight back to Saudi Arabia where I had made a few friends, and later to the United States. Now even more driven by this initiative and its consequences, understanding even more now what my life was to become and some hint of how future would unfold, knowing that I was for the foreseeable future to live in exile, honored by my countrymen, condemned to a fate that I must either embrace or die from the sheer weight of it. As it had then become clear to me, Kashmir was my friend, my lover, my country, my honor, and my dignity, and my only dream or hope of any future at all. I was not about to forsake it.
"To be continued…"