Life and Times of Nasrullah—Kashmir’s Grand Old Activist

Nasrullah. KO Photos by Zaid Bin Shabir.

From exposing an erring J&K High Court Chief Justice to fighting pitched battles for employee and student welfare, a downtowner became privy to many tumultuous events in Kashmir during his ‘half-century’ activism career filled with 600-odd petitions.

THE serenity of the Chinar-dotted Syedpora locality in Srinagar is getting wasted by the strong stench emanating from the nearby Achan dumping yard. The bad air makes the entire neighbourhood some infested industrial area driven by departures and distress sales.

But while natives sound disgruntled about the suffocating situation, a septuagenarian stenographer of yore sporting fashionable cap and shades is fighting the rot within.

However, Syed Nasrullah’s environmental crusade—including unearthing of some buried springs of Srinagar—is hardly making any whisper in the faded locality bereft of liveliness.

But inside his office, where he helps people with judicial documentation, Nasrullah’s godfather-like mannerism, including his vocal dialogue delivery, makes him one of the rare old-timers with brushes and battles with the powers of the day.

That upfront nature, with which he stirred up a storm against the Chief Justice of J&K High Court in 1984, is still there at the supposed senile age.

Perceived as an “active antagonist”, Nasrullah always remained at the forefront—raising and objecting certain questionable decisions of the state, that were termed “partial” in nature.

At the outset of the armed upheaval in the valley, the activist became the pen and policy for the Judicial Employees Association. Within a period of twelve months, the body evolved to achieve the status of a confederation—Employees and Workers Confederation.

But the growing “bureaucratic paperwork” in the state later denounced Nasrullah’s activism as “too idealist” and quite convincingly wrote him and his confederation off. But that hardly discouraged the defiant downtowner.

Later, when the government introduced a brazen suspension order in the state, Nasrullah was the first person to voice his concern. That “war-cry”, creating undercurrents in the valley, turned out to be his formal jump into Kashmir’s activism arena.

The controversial order surfaced after Jagmohan came as a “nurse orderly” during his second stint as J&K Governor in 1990. Apart from using force on press and processions, Delhi’s go-to man in Kashmir suspended five government employees—including the then Tourism Secretary Naeem Akhtar, PDD Chief Abdul Hameed Matoo, J&K Bank General Manager Abdul Rasheed Mubarki, Director Handicrafts Muzaffar Ahmad and MD JK Cements Tajamul—for their “threat to state” activities.

“Our first demand was quite clear,” Nasrullah recalls the historic protest with a rapt clarity. “And that was the immediate reinstatement of the five suspended employees.”

During the same time, Dr. Abdul Ahad Guru, a renowned Kashmiri medic with a certain political affiliation was booked under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) and jailed. Nasrullah challenged his incarceration on the grounds that ‘the charges framed by the state against the celebrated cardiologist were highly objectionable’. “His vitiated trial created our second demand — Dr. Guru’s early release. And if failed to do so, then the Jagmohan regime would've to suffer serious repercussions.” Nasrullah’s activism fuelled the 72-long protest against the standing institutions of the state.

Amid the growing massacres and mass movement of employees in the valley, Jagmohan was unceremoniously removed from Raj Bhavan and replaced by a “security strategist”, Girish Chandra Saxena. The new governor had to deal with an unprecedented situation. Kashmir’s Civil Secretariat was shut as employees were rocking the valley with anti-government protests. The grave situation even cancelled the traditional Darbar Move.

But soon, Nasrullah received a volunteerism prize. The Saxena government reinstated the five suspended employees, quashed Dr. Guru’s TADA and freed him from confinement.

“One must understand that it isn’t the days of protest that matters but the unity of people standing against the wrongdoings of any individual or a group,” Nasrullah says with a bleak smile. “And it becomes impossible for any regime to target the unity.”

Nasrullah in his Syedpora office.

But Nasrullah’s sensational “action/reaction” activism didn’t just end or start there.

In 1984, he was the first petitioner to beckon Supreme Court Chief Justice, Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud, asking him to set up an enquiry into the alleged employment scam by the then J&K High Court Chief Justice, Adarsh Sen Anand, a local from Jammu.

In days to come, Nasrullah’s vocal advocacy against Anand would create rage and ruckus in the Justice’s Jammu hometown.

“That protest against Anand was quite a landmark,” the grand old activist says. “He had appointed nine people, all from Jammu and perhaps his relatives, in government jobs, without issuing any public advertisement about the posts. As a person belonging to judiciary, I had understood it quite early that Anand had toyed not just with everyone in Kashmir but even with his own Jammu people.”

Fearing protests, Anand wanted his associates to keep the fly-by-night Nasrullah and his band in check. His paranoia was deep-rooted in the realisation of how his own clansmen were trying to adhere to Kashmir’s policy of a vocal uprising against infringement. “The strike by Judiciary members against Anand kept on thriving and within a few days, I along with other protesting members went to Delhi to meet several parliamentarians including Communist Party of India’s leader, Indrajit Gupta,” Nasrullah recalls.

When the anger against Anand peaked in the erstwhile state, Gupta filed an impeachment motion against the erring justice in the Supreme Court of India. The apex court ordered an enquiry bench of three judges to look into the matter and announce a verdict at the earliest. “Our struggle against Chief Justice Anand wasn’t just remarkable because of the unity of judiciary members from Kashmir and Jammu, but it was also a landmark in my career because my struggle to bring down an authoritative person proved worthwhile,” Nasrullah says.

Anand, meanwhile, tried to challenge the Supreme Court’s order, but Nasrullah’s in-place writ petition saved the day. In his plea, Nasrullah had concluded that “Anand’s career was a ‘cock and bull’ story and that he had no constitutional basis to uphold a Judge’s stature”.

A fortnight later, the three Supreme Court appointed Judges—Justice Kuchay, Justice Motilal Bhat and Justice Razvi—declared that the accused justice was to be transferred from J&K High Court within six weeks of the order, Nasrullah recalls the Supreme Court verdict: “It was because of our mass movement that Anand’s powers were so downgraded, leaving aside a professional job, he couldn’t even appoint a ‘chaprasi’ on his own.”

The activist is currently working on the lingering issue of the Achan Dumping Site.

Standing vocal against malpractices, is what Nasrullah, 72, has been doing throughout his five decade old public life.

Born in 1949, in a humble Zoonimar, Srinagar family, Nasrullah is mostly known for his Public Interest Litigation (PIL) pleadings against red-tapism.

He completed his schooling from Islamia High School before graduating in Commerce from Islamia College. His campus played a crucial role in shaping up his activism spirit. “Activism should always come from within,” he says. “And that was the case with me. I always wanted to do activism.”

Out of campus, he grew more as a political activist than an employee campaigner. And for that he paid through his nose.

Soon after joining the Judiciary as a stenographer in 1967, he faced threats for being a vocal critic and campaigner against the prevailing red-tapism in the valley. Perceived as a sparkplug, he was shortly sidelined.

In 1971, when he was dramatically transferred from Baramulla to Poonch, Nasrullah filed a petition demanding an explanation from government for his transfer. “I didn’t ask them to transfer me back, but I wanted to know the reason behind my transfer,” he says.

It was his first ever jibe against the government — “because demanding an explanation against a transfer order wasn’t recorded before that.” His activism, he jokingly says, was making him first among the equals.

One of the major highlights of his activism career came in the early days of the armed upheaval when he was taken as one of the hostages to a hideout in Batamaloo. His vocal activism had somehow fared on the militant radar.

On reaching the hideout, the hostages—the government employees—were asked to remain tight-lipped until ‘Bab’ came.

Things soon turned out to be interesting when “Bab” arrived at the scene. It was Kabir Sheikh, Hameed Sheikh’s father. Hameed was the proscribed Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s founding member.

You idiots...how dare you bring them here?” Kabir Sheikh had yelled at the young guns as per the activist. “This man and his team are doing a pro-people activism.

During the pre-militancy days, Kabir and Nasrullah would regularly greet each other near Hotel Standard.

“Activism, especially in Kashmir, comes with a price,” Nasrullah says. “For one you’re a hero and for others you’re a threat. Perhaps, as an activist, 1990's political turmoil in Kashmir explains it quite aptly.”

By the time of his retirement as a Chief Administrative Officer in 2007, Nasrullah had become an activism-hardened campaigner. He continued fighting some crucial issues.

In 2012, when rot surfaced in the controversial Prime Minister’s Scholarship scheme for Kashmiri students, Nasrullah left for Delhi to fight the case of the “deprived” students. Through his friend, Ahmed Patel, he met Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

“Dr. Singh calmly heard all the grievances and made some angry calls to ensure the scholarship for Kashmiri students released on priority basis,” the activist says. “Unlike the present day government, Congress politicians knew the art of dealing with activists.”

But more than his anti-government policy campaign, Nasrullah created a name as an environmental activist. By aiding hundreds of petitions filed on environment conservation front, especially the wetlands of Kashmir, Nasrullah won many landmark cases in J&K High Court.

His petitions on the conservation of Chandhara wetland in Pampore and Narkara wetland in Budgam have created “safeguard measures”. His other PIL ensured conservation and cleanliness drive of the Gilsar Lake. One of the accolades that Nasrullah received in recent times was the apex court decision on conservation of Hokersar — the wetland languished with pollution for the last two decades.

Besides providing free legal aid to people supporting his “Conserve environment” cause, he had been providing free of cost documentation to the “weaker” sections fighting courtroom battles against the rigid regime.

“As a society that depends upon nature, we’ve failed to understand the importance of why the environment needs to be conserved,” says Nasrullah. “Getting old is the second biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our ignorance of environmental conservation.”

In fact, the activist cum legal expert attributes his over 600 PILs filed during his fifty-long activism career to the grave state of affairs in Kashmir including encroachment and destruction of wetlands. “Environment is a national wealth and we’ve no right to hurt it.”

His pessimist idea of societal apathy aside, Nasrullah’s petitions have created a new hope of existence for major water bodies of the valley.

He may've long hung his judicial boots, but his activism continues till today.

But somehow, Nasrullah is still nostalgic about the times when he was an activist by day and a stenographer by night.

Back then, as Delhi discreetly sent a Trehgam man to gallows in Tihar, he spearheaded a band of administrative protesters on Srinagar streets.

“Those days a person instituted as a junior assistant in any government department would retire only as a junior assistant,” he says. “I wanted to change that and that’s why led a protest march against it.”

The struggle that started in 1984 finally ended in 2003 — when the service rules were changed.

The verdict only vindicated Nasrullah’s longterm stand on public welfare and once again made him the activist for a reason.

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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