2021: A Year of ‘Arbitrary’ Detentions in Kashmir
‘People in Kashmir are living in distress, they are fearful, have restricted certain activities and have stopped talking about particular things due to the fear of getting booked under draconian laws.’
SRINAGAR — On November 22, a prominent human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, was arrested after National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided and searched his home and office in Srinagar.
The agency had not issued any statement on Khurram’s arrest but, according to an official memo provided to Khurram’s family, he was detained under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for “terror funding” and other related charges.
Khuram is the program coordinator of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society(JKCCS), a federation of various non-funded, non-profit, campaign, research, and advocacy organisation based in Srinagar. He has played a key role in documenting human rights violations in Kashmir and provided legal aid to victims.
His arrest under anti-terror law caused global outrage and evoked sharp criticism from international human rights organisations, activists, political parties in Kashmir and abroad who are demanding his release.
“The arrest of Kashmiri activist Khurram Parvez is yet another example of how anti-terror laws are being misused to criminalise human rights work and stifle dissent in India. Instead of targeting HRDs, authorities should focus on bringing accountability for human rights violations,” Amnesty International tweeted.
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According to Kashmir-based lawyers, the frequent use of anti-terror laws by authorities has increased over time. Many believe it is aimed to suppress critical voices and impose a particular narrative that suits the authorities.
Urfi Mir, a senior lawyer based in Kashmir, said that the voices the state feels is against them or holds them accountable, they invoke UAPA against them. “To curb free speech and create an atmosphere of fear in the region, they suppress the voices and the opinions by invoking UAPA,” she said.
Under the UAPA, a detainee can be kept in jail without charges for up to six months. “Everyone is living in distress, people don’t talk about anything, and they have restricted doing certain things, activities and talking about particular things due to the fear of getting booked under the UAPA,” Urfi added.
UAPA is defined vaguely in the law as any action, whether by an individual or an association, which “disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India or cause or is intended to cause disaffection against India”.
Salih Peerzada, a Kashmir-based lawyer said that the definition of the UAPA is so “vague” that it can be invoked against anyone for doing anything, or without doing anything, one can be booked under it (UAPA). It criminalizes the right of dissent. “The vagueness of the definition of this act makes it the most misused act,” he said.
“They book people under these laws irrespective of the crime and who the person is. They use this period of accusation and put people behind bars without trial for months or even years as a punishment,” he added.
UAPA After Abrogation of Special Status
The Ministry of Home Affairs on December 15 informed the Parliament that a total of 787 cases under the UAPA were registered while 750 persons were arrested in Jammu and Kashmir between 2018 to 2020. Over the years, especially after the erstwhile state’s special status was abrogated, there has been a sharp increase in detention under such laws including the sedition and stringent anti-terror laws like the UAPA and the Public Safety Act (PSA).
The government claimed that Article 370 was the main hurdle in the development and peace of the region and it was read down to pave a way for the same. They claimed that the economy and tourism would get a boost, militancy will be eradicated and more jobs and opportunities would be created, but two years later, the situation on the ground shows no progress.
Jammu and Kashmir has been reeling under insurgency for the last thirty years, witnessing military operations, killings, shutdowns, curfews, fake encounters, human rights violations, and arrests under draconian laws.
On August 5, 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government read down Article 370 and downgraded the erstwhile state into two Union Territories, the people in the region were cut off from the world after all the means of communication were cut down. Businesses in the valley suffered, many online businesses collapsed, the tourism sector got affected, children were unable to attend schools as people remained deprived of basic rights for months.
The government has been claiming normalcy despite the feeling of disempowerment and alienation. In 2021, many cases point out arbitrary use of the UAPA. The overall human rights violations raised doubts on the claims of normalcy, something that was flagged by international rights bodies like the UN.
People critical of the authorities including on social media were intimidated, harassed, raided, threatened, arrested and booked under stringent laws and many were dismissed from government services. An environment of fear rules as freedom of speech suffered immensely. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, political analysts feel that they are not allowed to express their views and have repeatedly flagged the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region.
Booking Mourning Families Under the UAPA
Since April 2020, militants killed in the encounters are being buried by the police at far off graveyards in the Kashmir mountains. Initially, the police claimed that this was done in accord with the Covid-19 protocol.
According to a report published by Economic Times, since April 2020, 357 people have been buried in different graveyards in Baramulla, Kupwara and Ganderbal districts.
Police, however, has confirmed that there will be no more burials in the graveyard of Sonamarg in Ganderbal for being the tourist circuit–– where 25 persons are buried so far—including Athar Mushtaq, a 15-year-old youth from Pulwama, who was killed along with three others in the alleged Lawaypora fake encounter on December 30, in 2020.
On February 7, Mushtaq Ahmad, Athar’s father, was booked under the UAPA along with seven others for allegedly organising a protest in which demands to return the body were made.
Athar and the two others killed in the encounters were buried in a graveyard far away in the Sonamarg area. Mushtaq has dug a grave in his village for his son hoping that Athar’s body will be returned someday.
On May 17, a few days after the veteran resistance leader Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai died in jail, the police arrested his two sons under the UAPA for “raising anti-national slogans” during their father’s funeral.
Sehrai, 78, who was detained under the PSA and was at a jail in Jammu, died on 4 May 2021 after his health deteriorated in jail.
On September 4, the immediate family members and relatives of late resistance leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, were booked under the UAPA accusing them of “raising anti-national slogans” and “resorting to other anti-national activities like placing a Pakistani flag on late veteran leader’s body following his death on September 1.
Denying the police charges and claims, the family of the late Syed Ali Geelani alleged that they weren’t allowed to perform the last rites of the veteran resistance leader. His grave in Hyderpora continues to be guarded by the armed forces as the civilian movement has been restricted.
On December 15, a mother and her daughter identified as Afrooza and Aisha, both residents of the Wanbal area of Rawalpora, were arrested by the J&K Police, accusing the duo of purportedly raising anti-India slogans following an encounter in the Rangreth area of Srinagar city.
The two women were booked by the police for their alleged role in raising slogans against the state and police authorities, a video of which was widely circulated on social media platforms. The video was shot following a military operation on December 13 in which the J&K Police claimed to have killed two militants, including a foreigner, in the vicinity of Rangreth.
On 29 May, 2021, the Police detained around eight young men including a minor from Bumhama area of Kupwara.
Police lodged the FIR against them and booked four among them including the minor under the UAPA, for allegedly raising anti-national slogans at a funeral of a boy, Mohamad Amin, who had died in a car accident. Dar, who was a cricketer, died in a car accident during the intervening night of May 28 and 29, while he was returning home in the Kupwara district of north Kashmir. Since he was popular in the area, a large number of people participated in his funeral.
The minor was later released after the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) – a specialized court that adjudicates offences committed by minors – granted the interim bail to him, and ruled that the alleged offence under which the minor was booked is not “heinous.”
Termination of Employees
This year, the Government of India terminated close to two dozen employees in J&K, including teachers, from their services for alleged unlawful activities and social media posts. On April 17, the police booked Saima Jan from the Frisal area of Kulgam under the UAPA, accusing her of “glorifying and harbouring militancy and obstructing the government officials on duty on the basis of a video which had gone viral on social media. Saima, who was a Special Police Officer (SPO) was also disengaged from her services.
On December 8, when Bipin Rawat, former Chief of Defense Staff of Indian Armed Forces died in a chopper crash in Tamil Nadu, an employee working with J&K Bank, was suspended after she was accused of reacting inappropriately to a social media post regarding CDS’s death.
PSA for Shooting a Video
In August, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a 35-year-old shopkeeper of Nadihal area of Bandipora, was booked under the PSA and was shifted to a jail in Jammu because he had allegedly shot a video of an accident in which an elderly woman was run over by an army truck and was killed.
In the month of October, while the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, was on his visit to Jammu and Kashmir, between 700 to 900 people were detained and many of them were charged under the PSA, according to different media reports.
The PSA, many rights bodies and the political leadership argue, has been misused by the J&K government.
“PSA is more of a preventive detention and the person is detained on the basis of apprehension that he might do something and the main purpose is to keep the person under detention,” Salih Peerzada said. He added that these cases get eventually quashed in the court but it is a time taking process and in all this process, the time of the detainee gets wasted.
Sedition Charges on Cricket Fans
On October 26, after a T-20 Cricket Match played between India and Pakistan, the police booked an unspecified number of medical students and the hostel wardens under the UAPA. The students of Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) hospital in Soura and another at the hostel of the Government Medical College (GMC) in Karan Nagar – both in the capital city of Srinagar were accused of celebrating the Indian team’s loss to arch-rival Pakistan.
FIRs were filed on the basis of the videos purportedly showing medical students from GMC and SKIMS celebrating the loss, later widely circulated on social media.
Two days later, a female government employee, Safiya Majeed was terminated from her service in the Pir Panjal valley’s Rajouri in the Jammu division, after she was accused of posting a WhatsApp update that indicated her support to Pakistan’s cricket team.
According to police data from 2019, till July-end of this year, the administration had booked over 2,300 people in more than 1,200 cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and 954 people under the Public Safety Act (PSA). Of these, 46 per cent of those booked under the UAPA and about 30 per cent of those detained under the PSA are still in jail, both inside and outside J&K.
An Indian Express report claimed as many as 699 people were detained under the PSA in 2019, and 160 in 2020. In 2021, 95 people were detained under the PSA till July-end. Of these, 284 continue to remain under detention. Other reports suggest there has been just one conviction under the UAPA in Kashmir that too against of a foreigner. According to the lawyers in most of the cases, the trial is going on and some have not even been able to reach the court for a trial yet.
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