Srinagar: “Tiger is back,” read the handwritten poster pinned outside Qazi Shibli’s house, the day he returned home from jail in April 2020.
Shibli—a journalist who was arrested last year under Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) draconian 42-year old Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without procedure—received a hero’s welcome. Fireworks marked his homecoming in Anantnag, 60 km south of state capital Srinagar.
“Despite the pandemic, everyone came to see me,” said Shibli, editor and owner of news website, The Kashmiriyat. After spending over eight months in jail, 27-year-old Shibli was freed on 25 April 2020 from the district prison of Bareilly in western Uttar Pradesh.
“From 1 to 23 April, 295 detenues have been released either on payroll or bailed out. PSA has been revoked for 65 people,” an official at the office of the Director General Police (Prisons) told Article14.
In March 2019, the home ministry informed the upper house of parliament that since August 2019, 7,357 people had been detained in J&K. “Out of these, 451 such persons are presently under preventive detention,” Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy said, adding that 396 of them had been charged with the PSA. People were also detained under Sec 107 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
Shibli, a graduate of Bangalore University, started The Kashmiriyat in 2017, a year after he got his bachelors in mass communication. He said the police kept an eye on him after he launched his journalism venture. “They would question me about the news stories published on my website,” said Shibli who accepted the surveillance as part of his job. Kashmiri journalists are routinely harassed by the government and the police as we reported here. “The website was shut around the time I was arrested but we might make it functional anytime soon,” he said.
In the last week of July 2019 when the central government deployed 100 additional paramilitary companies—about 10,000 troops—in J&K, Shibli was quick to tweet about this development. “I confirmed the news from police officials and then I shared it on Twitter,” he said, adding that it was retweeted 400 times.
In an earlier tweet on 2 July, Shibli had uploaded a video that showed how traffic in Khanbal, Anantnag, 56 km south of Srinagar, was blocked to allow pilgrims to Amarnath to travel. “In one more tweet in the same month I had shown how the police were searching the bags of female college students on a college bus,” he said.
On 28 July, Shibli was summoned by the police. “For three days, they questioned me about these tweets and the funding of my news website,” said Shibli. They promised his family he would be released by next Sunday, 4 August 2019.
But as it neared midnight on 4 August, mobile internet services were suspended in J&K. Politicians, including former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, were placed under house arrest. Mufti continues to be under detention, while Abdullah, and his father, Member of Parliament Farooq Abdullah, were released in March. All three were charged under the PSA.
Shibli was whisked away to Uttar Pradesh in the midst of the communication clampdown. “On Wednesday at midnight they shifted me to Central Jail Srinagar, and the next morning, I was shifted to the district jail in Bareilly,” said Shibli.
On 5 August, when the central government scrapped the special provision of J&K and downgraded the state to a union territory, curfew was imposed. Shibli did not get a chance to speak to his family before leaving.
“When I asked the police where they were taking me they said the superintendent of police wants to continue the investigation,” he said. Two days later, at 5 am, the police took 20 people by bus to the airport and from there they were transported to Bareilly in a military aircraft. Shibli said.
Back home, his family wondered where he had disappeared. “My sister went to jails in Srinagar to find me,” said Shibli. They feared he was dead. It was a month before they found out he was in Bareilly.
The Bollywood Connection
“The moment we arrived in Bareilly, traffic was halted; no one was allowed to move on the roads,” said Shibli. “There was a huge ground inside the jail, where families had come to meet their sons/ husbands/relatives. They were all asked to move aside; the ground was vacated because Kashmiris had come.”
Shibli said he overheard policemen discussing whether they were terrorists or sympathisers of terrorists. They would inquire, he said, if they were from Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Shibli said he and the other Kashmiris were kept in a “high-security” prison 22 hours a day, and allowed out in a cramped compound for an hour every morning and evening. “The police there had a notion that all Kashmiris are terrorists,” he said.
To kill boredom, Shibli and one of his Kashmiri inmates sang songs from Hindi films. Their repertoire consisted mainly of Kishore Kumar hits such as Aane Wala Pal Jaane Wala Hai and Zindagi Ke Safar Mein Bichad Jaate Hai. This surprised the policemen in charge of guarding them.
“They would think, if they are terrorists how can they sing Hindi songs?” said Shibli. “Then they were like, Arrey! Yeh log toh Hindi gaane gatein hai, yeh Pakistan se nahi aaye hain (Oh! These men sing Hindi songs, they have not come from Pakistan).
“The music, folktales and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s revolutionary poetry (favourites included Nisar Main Teri Galiyon Ke, Hum Dekhenge, Yeh Daag Daag Ujala and Aaj Bazar Mein Pa-ba-jaulan Chalo) really helped us to bridge the gap, make them believe we are Kashmiris, not terrorists,” said Shibli. “The policemen would then request us to sing old Bollywood songs.”
Shibli told The Kashmir Walla that he had been desperate to write: “I sat on a hunger strike demanding a pen and a paper — they didn’t give me that but allowed books. And I went on to read a vast deal of literature, including [Sigmund] Freud, George Elliot, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, [Mirza] Ghalib, and others.”
As India started reporting Covid-19 cases, the families of Kashmiri prisoners who had been lodged in different jails across India since the abrogation of J&K’s special status, demanded their kin be released on humanitarian grounds.
The demand came after Iran released over 70,000 prisoners in March amid fears of the spread of the pandemic. As the pandemic started claiming lives in India, the process to decongest jails began. By March most had been released.
“The only good thing about going to jail was that earlier they (police) thought of us as terrorists and when we left the notion was completely changed,” Shibli said. “They had started liking us.”
Free, But Not At Home
Bashir Ahmad Malik was also released from jail this month, but he has not yet met his family.
“I will first hug my children,” he said. “They have been yearning for my love.” In jail, Malik would often dream about “walking a free man” and spending time with his two sons and a daughter.
On 22 April when the resident of Anantnag district was freed from the Agra Central Jail, he headed straight home to see his children but he was quarantined en route in a trauma hospital at Qazigund, Kulgam, 34 km from his home, Bijbehera. It’s been five days he hasn’t been allowed to go home, even though authorities at the checkpost asked him to home quarantine himself.
The others from Kulgam district who were released reached home without quarantine, according to Malik, who said he tested negative.
“I was advised to home quarantine myself by the jail authorities at Agra. At the Lakhanpur check post, the authorities put a stamp on my wrist and wrote ‘home quarantine’ and here they kept me in this building,” said Malik. “This is unfair.”
Deputy Commissioner, Anantnag, Bashir Ahmad Dar, did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from Article14.
Divisional Commissioner (DC) Kashmir, Pandurang Kandbarao Pole, said: “Their movement was regulated in jail, treating it as fulfilment for home quarantine.” The DC appeared unaware that Kashmiri prisoners were being held in quarantine in hospitals and other government facilities.
On 1 August, 2019, 42-year-old Malik received a phone call from the police station in Bijbehera, 45 km south of Srinagar, asking him to report there. Malik, whose father had passed away on 20 July 2019, went the next day. “They told me that sahib – the local Station House Officer (SHO)– wants to meet me. For the entire day, they kept me waiting and in the evening they put me in lock-up,” Malik recalled, adding that he remained there until 6 August.
Like many others who are stone-throwers or have criminal records, Malik had been summoned by the local police days before the scrapping of the special status of J&K.
On 7 August, he was transported to Central Jail Srinagar and the next day he and others were informed that he would be moved to Kot Bhalwal Jail in Jammu.
Instead, they found themselves elsewhere. “At 8am, they loaded 26 of us in two buses and dropped us at the airport and from there we were flown to the Agra jail. We were shocked. The police had lied to us for they thought we might protest against their decision. They fooled us and secretly shifted us to Agra,” said Malik. “It was after six months that my brother-in-law came to see me.”
Malik wants the district administration to release him from quarantine and let him go home. “I am fearful,” said. “I think they will send me to jail again.”
A Top Lawyer Remains In Detention
On 27 February, five United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote a letter to the central government to release 76-year-old advocate and president of the J&K High Court Bar Association, Mian Qayoom, who is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.
The letter, made public on 28 April after the government failed to respond, detailed the arrest of Mian Abdul Qayoom under the PSA on the cusp of 4 and 5 August as part of a reported mass crackdown on dissenters. It said Qayoom was “accused of being a ‘most staunch advocate of secessionist ideology’.” The septuagenarian was placed in solitary confinement in Agra Central Jail. On 21 August, his lawyer filed a habeas corpus petition.
“Mr. Qayoom is seventy-six years old and suffers from multiple health conditions, including diabetes, double vessel heart disease and kidney problem. He has been surviving on a single kidney for the last twenty-five years and suffers from partial renal failure. He is diagnosed with hypertension and has a prostate ailment for which he has undergone two surgeries in 2012 and 2018. He also has a cataract in the left eye and suffers from arthritis in his right foot and right knee. He was scheduled for open heart surgery at the time of his detention,” said the letter.
It added that on the evening of 29 January 2020, Qayoom’s family received a phone call from the jail authorities notifying them that Qayoom had been transferred to Sarojini Naidu Medical College after he complained of chest pain and breathlessness. He had suffered a heart attack.
At the hospital Qayoom was deprived of food and water despite being diabetic, “He was reportedly left only with the one water bottle he had brought along with him from the jail. Medical tests performed at the hospital reportedly indicated various serious health problems including artery blockage of 60 percent which is near fatal at this age,” the UN Special Rapporteurs wrote.
Qayoom’s family had repeatedly requested the government to shift the advocate to Central Jail Srinagar, but there was no response. The letter said Qayoom’s health was deteriorating: “He has lost substantial weight while in detention and is now unable to walk unaided.”
“...we wish to express our concern that, if confirmed, may be in contravention of the rights of every individual to life, liberty and security, as set forth in articles 6 and 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by India in 1979; the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment, as set forth in Article 7 of the ICCPR and in convention against Torture and Others cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (CAT), signed by India in 1997,” the letter added.
Amnesty International in its report released on 7 April, 2020, said India should release all unjustly detained prisoners as a matter of priority.
“Immediately release all arbitrarily detained prisoners, including journalists, human rights defenders, political leaders and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views including Mr. Mian Qayoom and those arrested after 5 August 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir,” Amnesty said. “Consider releasing those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders.”
(Shafaq Shah is a journalist based in Srinagar)