The winter’s dim light exposes Haneefa Begum’s sad countenance. She is 72-years-old and her voice trembles as she makes a low, moaning sound. “Ab yahan koi nahin rehta (nobody lives here anymore),” she says as she enters her garden, leafless in December’s biting cold.
Inside the front room of her big, quaint house in Sopore town of Kashmir’s Baramulla district, one wonders what happened to the members of her family as she takes out some court papers from a folder and spreads them in front of her.
Her husband, Haji Sheikh Mohammad Yousuf, has been in jail for more than 15 months. Her elder son Altafur Rehman, a pharmacist, was gunned down by unidentified assailants in 2015 and her younger son, Abdul Rauf, a PhD student at Aligarh Muslim University, was killed, allegedly by security forces, in 2000 near Badami Bagh, a cantonment in Srinagar. “I now live with my elder son’s 36-year-old widow, two granddaughters and a grandson [who are] all schoolchildren,” says Haneefa.
Her house, silent except for the sound of her sniffling, gives no hint of its living occupants. Just as Sopore’s opulent natural surroundings give no idea of the infamous massacre of January 6, 1993 when India’s Border Security Force (BSF), following an ambush, allegedly burnt down houses and shops in this ‘apple town’, 50 kilometres northwest of Srinagar. The Indian government maintains the fire was caused by explosives stocked by militants who had attacked a BSF patrol party.
“Kaun kehta nahin Khuda ko Khuda, hamne kaha to saza payi” (Why would anyone not call God as God, [but] we were punished when we said so), says Haneefa, as she begins talking about her family. The choice of the couplet is not unwitting. It alludes to the instinctive call by Kashmiris for azadi (freedom) and describes how this call is nipped in the bud in (Indian-administered) Kashmir. For political workers affiliated with pro-freedom groups and parties, like Haneefa’s husband who is a member of the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami, the ‘witch-hunt’ is even more intense.
Between Wani’s killing in July 2016 and February 2017, more than 750 habeas corpus petitions have been filed in Kashmir against detentions made under the PSA.
Pointing to the papers on the floor, Haneefa says the Jammu and Kashmir police detained Yousuf four times under the Public Safety Act (PSA) of 1978 in the span of about a year and a half. On three occasions, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court found no tenable grounds for his detention and quashed the orders issued for his detention under the PSA.
“The police [first] came here on the night of August 8, 2016,” she recounts. They wanted her husband to accompany them but he did not want to leave her alone at night. “He went to the police station the next morning. They arrested him.”
The summer of 2016 was an extraordinary time in the Kashmir valley. After a young militant commander, Burhan Wani, was gunned down by security forces in an encounter on July 8 that year in Anantnag (locally called Islamabad), 106 kilometres south of Sopore, the whole valley rose up in anti-India protests. By winter, more than 90 civilian protesters were dead. Thousands of others were injured. Hundreds, including minors, were blinded by the indiscriminate use of pellet guns by law enforcement agencies.
In order to quell the protests, the police also targeted pro-freedom political workers of all ages, including those who were 75 years and above, allege rights group. Most of them were detained either under Section 8 (i) or Section 8 (ii) of the PSA. The former section empowers law enforcement agencies to detain people without trial for a period of three months – which can be extended for up to one year – if they are involved in any activities deemed prejudicial to public order. The latter section gives the authorities the power to detain people without trial for a period of six months – that can extend up to two years – if they are involved in any activities deemed prejudicial to the security of the state.
A district magistrate has to subjectively satisfy himself that the relevant constitutional guarantees have been fulfilled before he issues a detention order under the PSA. “[The magistrates] never follow the constitutional safeguard,” says Nasir Qadri, who offers free counsel to PSA detainees.
“I was arrested because I am a member of Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat,” alleges 84-year-old Shah Wali Mohammad. “Whatever they [Jammu and Kashmir police] have written in the detention order is untrue.”
He says he was arrested on September 1, 2016, when he was returning to Sopore from a village called Tujjar. “The police stopped me midway and took me to Sopore Police Station where I was kept for one week. They issued a PSA order and shifted me to Kupwara jail, alleging that I had headed a mob that pelted stones at CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] personnel at Sopore’s main chowk,” narrates the former school teacher of Handwara Government Primary School in Zachaldara village of Kupwara district. “Can I head a mob at 84?” he asks.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court rubbished the charges against him when the matter reached its doors in February 2017.
“When the court quashed the first PSA order, he was released from one door but was re-arrested from the other door,” says Mohammad’s lawyer, Qadri. “The police told him they had arrested him on the basis of FIRs [first information reports] registered against him [for substantive offences].”
He was kept in detention at Baramulla’s district jail for 15 days. During this time, a second detention order under the PSA was issued and he was sent back to Kupwara jail.
The second detention order, according to Qadri, was in contradiction to the Supreme Court of India’s observations in 2005, 2011 and 2017, in which it said that if a person was involved in substantive offences he could not be detained under the PSA unless the police had a compelling reason to cite it. Instead, the person should be booked under the ordinary law of the land, the Ranbir Penal Code in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, which covers criminal offences.
Qadri, therefore, contends that the second PSA order was illegal to begin with as Mohammad, having been incarcerated for months, could not have been involved in any new activities prejudicial to public order or the security of the state.
Mohammad’s case was then taken up by Engineer Rashid, an independent member of Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly from Langate town in the Handwara region of Kupwara district. The legislator lobbied hard for his release. “Chief Minister [Mehbooba Mufti] was under pressure. Within three months, the high court quashed my PSA order again,” Mohammad says, smiling benignly and sipping tea prepared by his 80-year-old wife and lone companion.
Haneefa’s husband was not as fortunate. When the Jammu and Kashmir High Court quashed his second PSA detention order on March 2, 2017, a third one was issued on April 17. It, too, was quashed on September 26, but police slapped a fourth one on October 21. “The police acts with barefaced audacity,” she says.
The ailing woman, who has been bedridden for three months due to thyroid and renal disorders, alleges that her husband has been targeted because he is a political worker. “Why else would they go after a 77-year-old?” She recalls how a judge was embarrassed to see an old, fragile man in custody when his case first came up for hearing. “But the judge had no powers,” she says. “This is a police state.”
Ghulam Mohammed Khan Sopori, 70, has been similarly languishing in detention for more than 10 months now.
He is the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s League, the oldest pro-freedom group in (Indian-administered) Kashmir. He was arrested on February 15, 2017. Police allege he organised the stone pelting of law enforcement personnel and the damage of their properties. “These were fake charges,” says his son Sajad Ahmed, a cloth merchant in Sopore. “The high court quashed his PSA [detention order] on September 15.”
But he is still in detention. “The police brought him back from Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu, where he was lodged, to Sopore Police Station, and kept him there for 15 days [without any legal basis].”
“They slapped a second PSA order, alleging that my father had participated in the funeral of Abdul Qayoom Nazar, a top militant commander, on September 26.” He could not have been there, says Ahmed. Sopori was then being held illegally at Sopore Police Station.
The police, indeed, use many different tactics to keep people in detention, both legal and illegal, allege rights group.
Once the Jammu and Kashmir High Court sets aside a preventive detention order, the police sometimes call the Counter Intelligence Kashmir (CIK), which detains the person again and takes him to an interrogation centre in Jammu, says Mir Shafqat Hussain, a noted human rights lawyer based in Srinagar. He has handled over a 100 cases of detention under the PSA. The CIK, he contends, cannot arrest any person unless it has documentary evidence against him. “What happens is that the person is kept at the police station illegally for 10-15 days and then a successive PSA order is soon invoked,” he says.
Between Wani’s killing in July 2016 and February 2017, more than 750 habeas corpus petitions have been filed in Kashmir against detentions made under the PSA. Only 257 detainees have been released so far. Although no separate data is available for senior citizen detainees, human rights lawyers allege the PSA has been used to detain prominent political workers across the valley regardless of age.
The older detainees and their families complain that they are not provided with adequate medical attention in jail. “One night I had acute pain in my chest. When I was taken to the district hospital in Kupwara, the doctors recommended I should be shifted to a better-equipped hospital in Srinagar but the police showed no consideration,” says Mohammad.
Sopori, too, fell ill in detention but, his son says, “the police did not take him to a hospital despite our appeal.”
Yousuf’s eye problems have also worsened due to lack of medical care but Haneefa says that he “is in peace”. When she last asked him about his health, he said: Khuda ke hawale (I am in God’s care).
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a New-Delhi based political reporter working for an English weekly.