Shah Faesal is susceptible to an easy smile. It lingers on his oval, cherubic face during a conversation. Most pictures of him reflect it too. And as often happens in Kashmir, even your appearance can take on a political meaning. As an Indian administrative officer, Faesal’s smiling face enhanced his image as India’s youthful Kashmiri poster boy in a state battling a decades-long separatist revolt. Those photos of a smiling Faesal also came in handy for a section of nationalistic media that juxtaposed them with ones of unsmiling bearded Kashmiri rebels to counter the latter’s narrative.
Five days before we met in mid-January, Faesal, 35, suddenly resigned from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in protest against New Delhi’s policies on Kashmir and the killings of fellow Kashmiris by government forces. Those same smiling photos hit the media again, but the mind of the man in the images has changed. Faesal’s turn has thrown the state’s politics into a churn. And the former bureaucrat is keeping national and state political parties guessing about his next moves, as India embarks on the world’s largest democratic exercise this year.
Sitting at a hotel on the outskirts of Srinagar and mulling his future, Faesal’s biggest challenge is negotiating an entrenched political binary in his state: a pro-establishment political system and a separatist struggle that has left tens of thousands dead over the past three decades. Navigating this has never been easy and many have eventually fallen between two stools, ever since India and Pakistan were divided in 1947.
He respects the space of the separatists but won’t join them, as he doesn’t have “the mental strength to go to jail.”
Faesal burst into India’s national consciousness when, in 2009, he became the first Kashmiri to beat more than 500,000 candidates and top the IAS exam, an annual all-India competition to select senior bureaucrats. It was a stunning accomplishment, particularly with Faesal’s backstory, coming from a remote North Kashmir village. When he was 18 years old, his father, a schoolteacher, was killed by “unidentified gunmen,” which in Kashmir could mean either separatist militants or pro-government forces.
The attention made Faesal — who spent time at Harvard Kennedy School last year on a Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship — both a hero and an antihero. The more New Delhi projected him as its version of a good pro-India Kashmiri, the more he became the other in Kashmir. Any time he spoke, he had to perform an intricate balancing act to maintain his credibility with both camps.
“Now I will do what I have been wanting to do for a long time,” says Faesal. “I see a political challenge in Kashmir. And I want to contribute to make a difference.” He says the people of Kashmir must reclaim their “agency” in the land dispute rather than continue to be pawns of New Delhi and Islamabad.
These views haven’t been taken kindly throughout India. Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including prominent members of Parliament Subramanian Swamy, have denounced him. He’s faced ad hominem attacks on social media.
Back home in the Kashmir Valley, some have doubted his intentions — local BJP politician Kavinder Gupta suggested Faesal had taken money from Pakistan — while others have raised questions about his ability to make a difference. He’s taken heat for staying short of championing the separatist cause. But, referring to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who slugged it out for 18 years in the country’s bruising politics, Faesal says he is “here for a long haul and willing to make sacrifices to turn things around.”
Days into his new persona, Faesal is busy charting the contours of his politics. He is holding consultations online and off, urging youth to come and meet him. He has promised to hew his politics closer to their aspirations.
He sees himself both as the man of the system and a disrupter. He respects the space of the separatists but won’t join them, as he doesn’t have “the mental strength to go to jail.” Or, for that matter, the will “to stay away from [his] family.” Faesal is married with a 3-year-old son and regards his spouse and mother as “two anchors of [his] life.”
He says he won’t join mainstream political parties, but he will be a part of the same political setup. Just how, though, is unclear. He doesn’t know whether he’ll contest the 2019 parliamentary elections, form a political party of his own or go on without one for a while to test the resonance of his ideas among the people.
By Kashmiri standards, his is an unconventional foray into politics. But that slow-burn entry has the major players in the state’s electoral politics watching him closely, even as he pushes more discussion of taboo notions like Kashmir’s right to self-determination — where the people would decide, through a referendum, whether to be part of India or Pakistan or become independent. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has issued an open invitation for Faesal to join his party, the National Conference. Former Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram of the Congress party has said the “world will take note of [Faesal’s] cry.”
Naeem Akhtar of the Peoples Democratic Party, who as education minister in the previous state government was Faesal’s boss, says he has long understood Faesal’s desire to break out of “the official straitjacket” of civil service. “I don’t think his politics will be limited to Kashmir,” Akhtar says. “Kashmir will be his electoral constituency but his political constituency will be entire India.”
Right to Information activist and longtime friend Raja Muzaffar Bhat also sees larger aspirations at play: “Faesal always thinks big. He wants to make a bigger difference by taking on bigger challenges. His foray into political space is motivated by this urge.”
Faesal knows he is up against long odds. Over the past 70 years, Kashmir has been a graveyard of reputations of leaders, from Sheikh Abdullah — the state’s first leader after its accession to India — to more recent chief ministers like Mufti Sayeed and Farooq Abdullah who have struggled to solve a local crisis enmeshed with geopolitics.
But he is convinced that a breakthrough is possible if politicians are more responsive to Kashmiris’ needs. “I want to usher in this change,” he says. “I have sacrificed my career for this.”
Read more: She’s bringing alive dying memories of the India-Pakistan partition.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.