Srinagar and Kulgam: As she prepared for an examination on the morning of 13 December 2021, Ayesha (she uses one name), 21, did not imagine that within the next 24 hours, she would be swept up in an emotional protest in Srinagar and find herself in jail, her future uncertain overnight.
Disturbed by a commotion outside their single-storey home in the quiet neighbourhood of Wanbal-Rangreth in Srinagar, Ayesha and her mother Afroza, 40, stepped out and were told about a shootout in the vicinity. According to the police, two terrorists including a foreigner had been shot dead.
There was another account, however, with local residents saying it had been a staged gunfight, and that the slain men were civilians killed in cold blood. Before they knew it, the mother-daughter duo were participating in a flash protest alongside dozens of other Kashmiris.
With tears in their eyes, Ayesha and Afroza shouted slogans calling for a free Kashmir. They were filmed by journalists. Unwittingly, they became the face of the Wanbal-Rangreth protest.
On the morning of 14 December, a team from the local police station knocked at their door—the two were asked to go along with the police party.
Mushtaq Ahmad Sofi, Afroza’s husband and Ayesha’s father, said the women were asked to visit the Saddar police station in Srinagar because their name had appeared in connection with the protest. “The policemen told us they would not be arrested but would have to tender an apology for participating in the protest,” Sofi, a mason, told Article 14.
The two women, accompanied by a few relatives, went to Sadder police station in Srinagar’s Barzulla area and were arrested, The first information report (FIR) invokes sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly) and 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
According to a press statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police, the two were sent to the women’s police station in the Rambagh locality for “further investigation”. It said the mother and daughter were arrested after their identity was ascertained from a video of the protest.
The arrest of Ayesha and Afroza came after a handful of similar arrests in 2021: a woman special police officer was arrested for resisting a house search; a well-respected woman educationist was arrested for a social media post in which she addressed the former chief of defence staff as a “war criminal”.
While registering of cases against protestors has followed a familiar pattern in the strife-torn region since August 2019, these arrests of women opened what observers called a new element to the stifling of dissent in Kashmir. The families of the arrested women and some experts alleged these arrests were “collective punishment”, harassing families by detaining women.
The arrest of the two women for participating in a protest was criticised by mainstream politicians and separatist camps.
Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, chief of pro-India political party Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), tweeted that the arrest marked a “new low” by the administration “that persecutes civilians only to please their masters in Delhi”. Mufti herself spent 14 months in detention in the aftermath of the August 2019 abrogation of the erstwhile state’s autonomy.
“The situation is getting worse & instead of reaching out to the people, GOI (government of India) is pushing them to the wall,” she wrote.
Former director general of Jammu and Kashmir Police Shesh Paul Vaid said the police could have acted differently instead of arresting the women protestors.
“To protest is the people’s right. As long as it is peaceful, that is what democracy is about,” he told Article 14. “Why should one object to it?” On the arrest of the mother-daughter duo, he said the police could have counselled the (women) protestors.
‘My Entire Family Is Going Through A Tough Time’
The arrest of Ayesha and Afroza left the family in a state of shock. “Since that day, I have not been to work,” said the grey-haired Sofi. “How would there be any money at home?”
Sofi said his wife and daughter were not the only ones at the protest, but they had somehow attracted the most attention. “Many people were part of the protest but the sword fell on a poor man like me,” he lamented.
They were released on bail on 20 December, a week later. Through the seven days that they remained in custody, Sofi did not know who to approach for help.
In a two-minute video that the police’s press statement referred to, Ayesha was seen saying: “They (security forces) are picking up young boys from the roads, killing them and later dubbing them militants. How long should we tolerate this? I don’t believe them.”
She said her younger brother is in Class 10 and could similarly be killed on the streets and labelled a militant. “... do you think we will believe it?” the student who is in her second year of undergraduate studies said.
Sofi said his entire family went through a tough time when the women were in custody. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
In New Kashmir, No Red Lines
The protest in Wanbal-Rangreth was the second incident in recent months in which women were arrested in Kashmir for protesting against security forces.
In April 2021, a policewoman was arrested on charges of terrorism after she “denied permission” to security personnel seeking to carry out a search of her house in south Kashmir.
On 24 November, a little over a fortnight before the Rangreth shootout and protest, the killing of three militants in a brief shootout in Srinagar’s Rambagh area was followed by a protest by women who expressed doubts over the authenticity of the gunfight.
The arrest of women for participation in protests was a rare occurrence in Jammu and Kashmir until the union government took over administrative control—the separatist movement itself saw only a negligible number of women leaders, and authorities almost never arrested common women protestors.
Naeem Akhtar, a senior politician who was a minister in J&K’s last elected government, told Article 14 that the arrest of the women in Rangreth sent “a clear message that there are no red lines in the new Kashmir”. He said, “There is no recourse to any redressal, and everything is halal (permissible) now in this battle to curb the voices of people and crush their genuine demands and aspirations.”
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a cohort of more than two dozen political, social and religious organisations advocating resolution of the Kashmir issue and led by cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, called the incident in Rangreth an “emotional outburst”.
A statement released by the APHC said the arrest of the two women was a needlessly harsh measure.
“It is very unfortunate that mere raising of slogans is seen as a threat by those in authority. APHC asks the authorities to release Afroza Begum and her daughter Ayesha who have committed no crime except an emotional outburst,” the statement read.
A political analyst who preferred to remain anonymous said arresting the women is a manner of harassing the entire family. “Historically, women are primary victims of the conflict but secondary players in politics,” he said. “That trend is now changing in Kashmir."
When civilian protests witness large and active participation of women, these often tend to be non-violent, prompting authorities to slap cases against them by way of punishment. “Jailing a woman is like breaking a family,” he said, “Nothing in collective punishment works as well as breaking a family does."
Akhtar said the administration would do well to be seen as being accommodative, but was instead creating a “pressure cooker situation” by going after women and families of peaceful protestors.
After Long Lull, Protests in Kashmir Again
Following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August 2019, with the valley flooded by police and paramilitary personnel and with swift legal action initiated against demonstrators, there was a pause in popular protests.
The last months of 2021, however, witnessed a spate of protests once again, mostly in Srinagar, which incidentally became a flashpoint for gunfights.
The first major protest was triggered on 15 November by the killing of two civilians, a doctor and a businessman, in Srinagar’s Hyderpora neighbourhood. These were followed by the shootouts in Rambagh (24 November) and Rangreth. All three incidents were followed by brief protests, spearheaded by women.
A senior police officer told Article 14 that the circumstances of the Hyderpora gunfight were the subject of investigation and that the police are also looking into what led to the recent protests in Srinagar.
About the arrest of Ayesha and Afroza for participating in a protest, he said the police would do whatever is right under the law.
Messages sent to Inspector General Of Police (Kashmir Zone) Vijay Kumar for comments regarding the arrest of the mother-daughter duo in Rangreth went unanswered. The story will be updated if he responds
Woman Special Police Officer Arrested
The arrest of the mother-daughter duo for participating in a protest in the Rangreth locality was the latest in a string of incidents that reflected the state’s hostility against women, who have faced a growing threat of violence, detentions, arrests and filing of cases since the abrogation of J&K’s autonomy in August 2019.
In April 2021, a woman special police officer (SPO) of J&K Police, 25-year old Saima Akhter, was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 and disengaged from service after a video showed her arguing with security forces over a search of her house. She had complained that her family had been “subjected to such harassment regularly”.
The incident took place in Frisal village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. After the video went viral on social media, police said they booked Akhter under the anti-terror law and section 353 (criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the IPC for “uttering statements glorifying violent actions of terrorism” and “resisting the search party”.
Akhter’s family denied the allegation.
Ghulam Nabi Rah, Akhter’s ailing father, told Article 14 that security forces had been searching their house repeatedly over two weeks, accusing them of sheltering militants.
“They (security forces) ransacked my house because they believed that we were shielding militants,” Rah said “How was it possible for a militant to take shelter in our house with my daughter working in the police?”
He said his daughter raised her voice because she had grown tired of the harassment.
Rah added that Akhter had not intended to shoot a video to post on Facebook, but the video recording had occurred accidentally. “She accidentally tapped her mobile phone that she was carrying in her hand and the entire chaotic scene went live on Facebook,” he claimed, adding that his daughter had neither interrupted the search nor had she glorified militancy.
Akhter, an only child and the sole breadwinner for the family, was behind bars for more than three months before being released on bail.
“Since the arrest, my wife Jawahira has been on medication. She is yet to come out of the shock,” Rah said. Jawahira was being treated at a Chandigarh hospital.
The Arrest Of An Educationist
On 13 December 2021, educationist Sabbah Haji, who hails from the Doda area of Jammu, was removed from the management of a school she co-founded and was subsequently arrested.
The arrest was on the basis of a complaint by a few people for an image she posted on her Instagram account calling the chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat a “war criminal” soon after his death in a helicopter crash on 8 December. Rawat was the army chief when security forces used a Kashmiri as a human shield against stone-throwers in 2017.
The 39-year-old Haji was released from police custody after a couple of days and was asked to report to the police station every day for the next four days. She was eventually made to sign a surety bond on 17 December.
Doda executive magistrate Shabir Ahmad, however, denied that Haji had been arrested or detained but confirmed that she had signed a bond executed under section 107 (security to keep the peace) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
He said she would be under “surveillance” for six months and action could be initiated against her if she repeated the act. “Yesterday, she signed a surety bond pledging not to repeat it,” Ahmad told The Telegraph.
Haji, whose family had relocated to the Middle East from Doda district during the years of militancy, returned about a decade ago to set up a school in Breswana, a remote hamlet with no roads in Doda.
Haji and her family politely declined to be quoted.
Haji’s arrest was reminiscent of the April 2020 arrest of 27-year-old award-winning photojournalist Masrat Zahra who was booked by the J&K Police under the draconian UAPA for “uploading anti-national posts”, allegedly with the intention of inducing youth to “promote offence against public tranquillity”.
The UAPA charges against Zahra attracted widespread criticism for the intimidation of a woman and as an attack on the free press.
Over nine months after Zahra was booked, she went to Germany and has since never returned to her home in Srinagar.
On 31 December, Zahra took to Twitter to complain that her family continued to face harassment from the authorities in Kashmir. “I cannot keep overlooking it and just uselessly hope for it to end,” she tweeted. “I am worried about the safety of my family.”
Police routinely demanded that her family tell them about her whereabouts, she said. “I feel helpless…..This is causing me a great deal of anxiety. I am already grappling with the difficulties of living away from my family and this is just making this worse,” Zahra wrote.
For Ayesha and Afroza, the arrest will be the beginning of a new and lengthy struggle that consumes their time and their savings. “There is a wave of seething anger that is natural in a situation where you plug all the safety valves,” said Naeem Akhtar, the former minister. “One has to be hopeful that it does not result in mayhem.”
(Pirzada Shakir is a journalist based in Srinagar, affiliated with The Kashmir Walla. Muheet Ul Islam is a journalist and filmmaker based in Srinagar.)