Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Poshpora, Keegam, Shopian (Jammu & Kashmir): Umar Farooq, 22, would often tell his mother Safiya that he dreamed of becoming a cricketer like Indian captain Virat Kohli and playing on the Indian team.
A famous batsman in Poshpora, a village surrounded by dense apple orchards and connected to nearby villages by a narrow, rough road, Umar’s love for cricket was meant to be his potential ticket to a better life. Now, it could jeopardise his future.
Earlier this month, Umar along with eight other young men, four from his village, were summoned by Shopian police and detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, for wearing jerseys with the name of a slain militant, Syed Ruban, and offering prayers at the militant’s grave after a cricket match in the village.
A law meant for acts of terrorism, the UAPA was amended last year to make it more powerful. The amendment allowed the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to take over cases that would otherwise fall under the purview of the state police. It also gave the Centre the right to declare individuals as terrorists and punish them with prison terms of up to seven years. Human rights groups have often accused the government of misusing the law.
Families said that the incident occurred in August when their sons participated in a cricket match where Syed Tajamul Imran, the younger brother of Syed Ruban, from the nearby village of Nazeenpora, distributed nearly 100 free cricket uniforms among the boys at the nearby playground in memory of his militant brother “who was a cricket enthusiast”.
Syed Ruban, who was associated with the Al-Badr militant outfit and was killed in a firefight in 2019 in the Char-e-Sharif area of Budgam was a well-known cricketer in his village. The young boys in his village remember him as someone with “unique cricket techniques”.
To honour the slain militant and his cricket, his brother and other boys went to the nearby graveyard after winning a game and offered prayers. The picture that day, of the nine men aged between 22 and 29 years, surfaced on social media and was one of the reasons they were charged under the UAPA.
‘Glorifying A Militant Is Precedent For The Future’
The UAPA bypasses conventional legal logic that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. It is “criminally overbroad, excessively vague and short of a legislative carte blanche to state-sponsored violations of fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution”, lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in April on Article 14.
The police said the men—almost all students—were detained for “glorifying militancy” under section 13 of the UAPA, as news magazine The Kashmir Walla first reported on 5 September. Section 13 prescribes punishment for anyone who “advocates, abets, advises or incites the commission of any unlawful activity”.
In an earlier statement issued by the team, Imran, the slain militant’s brother, said he had distributed 100 cricket uniforms among participants of the cricket tournament in “loving memory of his brother”.
“Organising an event in the memory of a terrorist is very serious. It is glorifying, eulogizing a militant, and it is going to set a precedent for the future,” a senior police official told Article 14 on condition of anonymity.
“This kind of thinking needs to be curtailed among young men,” said the official. “Anyone who is a terrorist, he is a criminal for the law of the land. The system is not going to allow or celebrate such individuals.”
A young man from the village, also a cricketer, said on condition of anonymity that they had remembered the slain militant as a cricketer.
“Before anything, the militants too had families and friends, and it was just a prayer. We can pray for anyone and it should be allowed. For us, Ruban was a cricketer.”
‘My Son Was Just Playing Cricket’
A year away from completing an undergraduate degree, Umar had been insisting that his family send him to a cricket academy in Ranchi to polish his skills and play for a team. He had it all worked out, including the promise to return their investment.
“He was dreaming of replacing Virat Kohli,” said his mother Safiya, who was in tears when we met her. “He would tell us, when Kohli retires, I would have polished my skills, I will take his place.”
“I was always happy and relieved that he did not think of anything beyond cricket, but now I am shocked that this is the only thing that put him in trouble,” said Safiya, displaying cricketing medals and trophies that her son had won in school and college.
Umar’s arrest has added to the family’s financial difficulties. Umar’s father Farooq Ahmad was a carpenter, but a year ago he fractured his spine after falling from the roof of a two-story house, leaving him without work and the family in a financial crisis.
“We already have so many problems at home and now fighting my son’s arrest going from one office to another is big trouble,” said Safiya at her single-storey house where the walls and windows are unpainted. “Who would listen to poor people like us whose big worry is to feed the family two meals.”
“My son did not do any wrong, he was just playing cricket,” said Safiya. “If our children are not allowed to play cricket, the government should simply ban it.” Umar has two siblings, a younger brother and an older sister.
All the five men from the village, most college students, have been detained. Umar’s father Farooq fears that the arrest will ruin his son’s future.
“They could have just counselled them and not put them in jail,” said Farooq. “Where are our children supposed to go when there has been a year of lockdown with no schools and colleges open?”
“In the villages when there was stone-throwing or any other problem my son would run to hide himself,” said Farooq. “He was scared of all those things because his only love in life was his game.”
‘Wearing A Jersey With A Name Does Not Call For UAPA’
The UAPA is a special enactment and extra caution must be exercised while applying it, said Habeel Iqbal, a human-rights lawyer from Shopian. Instead, he said, in recent times, the police had been using it “mechanically and oppressively and long incarcerations are a hallmark of this act”.
“Playing cricket, wearing a jersey with a name and celebrating the life of someone who used to play cricket does not merit imposing a law which is of extreme severity,” said Iqbal.
The Dar family, which lives next door to Farooq, is worried about their college-going son, Sajad Ahmad Dar, enrolled for a degree in computers at Pulwama Degree College and also detained.
Muhammad Maqbool Dar, an apple farmer, said he had tried but had not managed an appointment with senior officials.
“We are all worried now,” said Muhammad Dar. “My son was never part of anything, he was just busy with his studies and playing cricket. We do not know what to do now.” Dar said, adding that his wife suffered from severe mental illness which has worsened after their son’s detention.
“If our children can be detained for cricket too, what can we say?” he said, adding his wife’s mental illness had worsened after the detention. “We want justice for our children, they should be freed.”
Manisha Bhau, a researcher at the National Law University (NLU), Delhi, who has researched court orders under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and other stringent laws like UAPA, said this case was a clear example of how a terrorist law can be misused to silence people.
The law was never meant to book innocent people for playing a match but the definitions of UAPA are so broad and vague that it can be tweaked and misused by the authorities, she added.
“By booking these youngsters the police is taking away the right from families to mourn, remember or even to arrange a prayer meeting in their memory, which is clearly not mentioned in the law itself,” Bhau said. “Let’s even assume that the game was organised with an intention—there are many ways to counsel them before booking them under a tough law and a punishment even if the court decides to set them free.”
(Safina Nabi and Rifat Fareed are independent journalists based in Kashmir.)