‘Free My Baba’: A Daughter’s Campaign for Her Jailed Father

Areeba pleading for her father’s release

After completing two years in prison, jailed journalist Aasif Sultan lately found a new campaigner in the form of his toddler.

LITTLE Areeba calls every male member of her family—Baba.

She even calls her maternal uncle with the same name, as she desperately awaits her own father—whom she meets every now and then behind a netted wall in Srinagar’s Central Jail.

But as she keeps on chanting the name—Baba—her mother affectionately tries to break her innocent monotony.

However, doing that, the young mother says, “breaks her heart into thousand pieces”.

Areeba Sultan is the daughter of incarcerated Kashmiri journalist, Aasif Sultan, who’s behind bars from the last two years.

She was just 6 months old when her father was arrested in a nocturnal residential raid in August 2018. Now two and a half year old, Areeba keeps asking about him every day.

This past Eid-ul-Adha, as the father’s absence amplified yet again, the toddler painted and sent out a message requesting his release.

“My daughter’s realization about her father’s fate is growing,” says Sabeena Akhtar, her mother.

“God has given me enough strength, but when your child questions her father’s absence repeatedly, it shakes you up.”

Earlier, a viral picture of the handcuffed journalist, wearing a T-shirt, with a telling insignia, “Journalism is not a crime”, was followed by another one, in which, he could be seen lapping his daughter.

Jailed journalist Aasif Sultan holding his daughter during his case hearing.

Akhtar says Areeba wouldn’t initially recognise her chained father upon meeting him in jail and court.

“But now, whenever she meets him, her face beams with smile,” she says. “She clearly identifies who her father is. Back home, she keeps telling me: ‘Baba is in jail’.”

The most heartbreaking moment for the mother comes when Areeba sees her cousins with their fathers.

“She asks, ‘When will my Baba come?’ At that time it’s very difficult for me to console her,” the mother says.

At Central Jail Srinagar, the family gets “just 30 minutes” for the meeting. Aasif mostly spends that time with his daughter.

However, he can’t hug his toddler due to the net that has been fixed in the room where families meet their detained kin.

“He advises me that I should’ve faith in Allah and have as much patience,” Akhtar says. “But my Allah knows it, how difficult it is to stay patient when your daughter questions her father’s absence.”

Little Areeba holding her incarcerated father’s I-card.

Booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Aasif Sultan has been charged for “harbouring militants”, the charge denied by his family. His arrest came on the heels of his cover story on the rise of the slain Hizb commander, Burhan Wani.

Several international organisations including Reporters Sans Frontières and International Federation of Journalists have demanded his release.

On August 27, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization based in New York City, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The letter, demanding the release of Aasif Sultan, was signed by 397 journalists and civil society members.

But so far, as the global media campaign has failed to secure the journalist’s release, he recently found a new campaigner—his toddler daughter—who put up a pleading poster, reading, “Free My Baba”, after spending yet another Eid without him.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is special correspondent with Kashmir Observer and tweets @AuqibJaveed

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