Srinagar: It has been 44 days since cancer patient Jawahira Bano, 50, and her husband Ghulam Nabi Rah, who suffers mental-health issues, saw their daughter incarcerated, first in the village police station jail and then in the main jail of the capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
A former special police officer, whom her neighbours describe as a “strong and independent” woman, Sayeema Akhter, 30, now faces charges of terrorism—a disporportionate use of the law, said lawyers—for obstructing an army patrol that tried to search her house.
Bano and Rah are illiterate and have not yet reached court or met any lawyers. For the first two days of her arrest, they went to the local police station near their village of Frisal in Kulgam district, 55 km south of Srinagar. Hoping for her release, they waited all day, then returned at dusk, tired and dispirited.
On 12 May, a day before Eid, Akhter’s parents learnt that she had been sent to Srinagar central jail, 70 km away from Frisal, leaving them even more distraught.
They have not seen her since.
Akhter first came to public attention through a viral video that recorded the events of 14 April, when she and her parents were about to sit for the first Sehri, the pre-dawn meal of fasting during Ramadan. They heard loud male voices, said Bano. Akhter lifted the window curtain to find an army patrol had surrounded their house.
Worried, Akhter’s ailing parents could not eat. “She tried to persuade us nothing would happen,” said 50-year-old Jawahira Bano, Akhter’s mother. “But soon the army aimed floodlights at our house, and we realised they were readying for a search.”
The Search That Angered Saima Akhter
It was the fifth time in over six months, Bano said, that the Army had encircled or searched their single-storey house, surrounded by apple orchards, possibly because a man who later became a militant once sought to marry her.
Soon after the sun’s first rays, Bano recalled, 10 to 15 soldiers entered their house—with their shoes on—and started searching through a room, scattering whatever came in their way.
Bano, who undergoes chemotherapy for her cancer, fainted.
The same day, the three-minute, 57-second video surfaced online. The voice of a woman, later identified as Akhter, could be heard asking the soldiers to leave her house. “When there are no militants inside, then why do you come to our house again and again,” Akhter is heard saying. “Kashmir hamara hai... aap kahan se aate ho.. ham darne walon mai se nahi hai (Kashmir is ours...where do you come from… we are not among those who get scared).”
“My daughter had cleaned the entire house just the previous day. She was furious when they started messing around,” Bano said. “When I fainted, she thought I was dead, perhaps that is what angered her.”
Akhter can also be heard telling the soldiers that if anything were to happen to her mother, they would be responsible.
On 16 April, the Jammu and Kashmir police said they filed a first information report against Akhter, a special police officer (SPO), from south Kashmir’s Kulgam village under section 353 (assaulting a public servant) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and section 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA),1967.
On 15 April, the day after she berated the army patrol, Akhter was called to the police station and her arrest announced the next day. Given the nature of the UAPA, there is no immediate prospect of bail or trial.
A Disproportionate Use Of the UAPA In Kashmir
In Kashmir, using the UAPA is not only a disproportionate use of power but arbitrary too, said Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer from south Kashmir.
“She could have been booked under section 353 for obstructing a public servant from doing his duty. Using an anti-terror law at the drop of a hat has become the norm in Kashmir,” Iqbal said, adding that “the ordinary law of the land has stopped to exist here, and we are governed by these exceptional extraordinary legislations like UAPA.”
The UAPA specifically disallows anticipatory bail not only for alleged terrorist acts, but for all offences of alleged terrorist activity punishable under the UAPA, including conduct, such as attending meetings and protests, making speeches, giving loans, and conspiring to do any of the above.
Under this law police can arrest for six months—without trial or bail—anyone they deem capable of committing a crime in the future. Alongwith the Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978, a law that allows detention for upto two years without trial of those above age 18, the UAPA has been used against scores of Kashmiris, including journalists, students and others, with the UAPA now preferred, lawyers said, over the PSA.
J&K has the third highest number of cases (255) registered under the UAPA, after Manipur (306) and Tamil Nadu (270), according to 2019 data, the latest available, from the National Crime Records Bureau
A police statement accused Akhter of “glorifying militancy and obstructing government officials on duty.”
Senior criminal lawyer Mir Urfi said the UAPA appeared to be indiscriminately used.
“Understanding the trend of UAPA has become difficult,” said Urfi. “You book people under any law on intensity of offence. Irrespective of age, gender or how grave someone's involvement or the allegation is, we have seen how police are booking people under UAPA.”
Arrest Of An Officer
Akhter was summoned to the local police station the day after the video surfaced, and the family was told she would be released after questioning.
Two days later, police announced her arrest under the UAPA.
“The search operation was obstructed by a lady SPO identified as Saima. The lady resisted the search party and turned violent and uttered statements glorifying violent actions of terrorists,” said the police statement. “Taking cognizance of the matter, the woman has been *arrested* and subsequently terminated from service.”
J&K's cadre of special police officers was started in 1995 to help the state police in counter-insurgency operations. Numbering about 30,000 personnel now, they work on contract and their payment is reimbursed to the state by the union home ministry.
Women SPOs mostly assist with law and order, being paid about Rs 6,000 a month after three years of experience, going up to Rs 12,000 after 15 years. Applicants aged between 18 and 28 are considered. Eligibility includes a physical test and schooling till class 10.
A day after the initial statement, J&K police issued another statement,justifying the terrorism charges against Akhter.
The 17 April statement read, “...On various media platforms, a number of interests have put in a lot of effort into making the incident appear like an overreach and an excessively strict action. It is clarified that the accused woman uttered anti-India and pro-freedom slogans off-camera thus inviting penal action under UAPA.”
The statement said that “the utterances made on-camera were broadcast on social media with the intention to cause disruption of an ongoing operation and to incite disaffection.”
An Independent Woman Who Provided For Her Parents
Akhter, 30, her parents’ only child, is described by neighbours as a “bold and independent” woman.
After graduating in Art stream in 2016 from a government college in the nearby town of Bijbehara, she looked for a job because the family needed the money. Bano said Akhter could not get a job, so she applied for and was appointed a special police officer, serving for four years at the Yaripora police station, 5 km from home.
Bano receives treatment at a hospital in Chandigarh; over the years the family has had to sell many of their assets to meet medical expenses. “My family spent Rs 19 lakh on my treatment, and it is still going on,” she said.
Akhter’s arrest has devastated Bano. She missed the latest appointment for a chemo session at the Chandigarh hospital. With her daughter’s arrest, there is no one to take her to Punjab.
The Second Statement
The second statement issued by the police provided a clue to why she was the target of searches.
“Akhter’s house is a suspected shelter point of an active Hizb-ul-Mujahideen terrorist namely Aslam Dar and the woman has been on police radar as a suspected OGW (over-ground worker, police jargon for terrorist sympathiser) thus was subjected to search,” said the statement. “It remains to be investigated whether her act was meant as a decoy to aid the escape of the said terrorist when the search operation was underway.”
Bano acknowledged that Dar was a militant but was not one when he sought Akhter’s hand in marriage.
“But we refused,” said Bano, “because my daughter only wants a husband who would stay with us.”
Akhter’s colleagues at Yaripora police station refused to speak to Article14.
After the abrogation of J&K’s special constitutional status in August 2019, police faced frequent attacks, some even killed at their homes. Concerned neighbours had cautioned Akhter about her job.
Her reply had been if anyone were to take responsibility for her parents, she would have no problem leaving the job. “All I want is to take care of my family,” a neighbour recalled her saying. Akhter continued in her job.
To every reporter who visits them, Bano requests that the government release their daughter.
“If they won’t release her, why not arrest us as well?” said Bano. “My daughter didn’t commit a crime. She reacted in frustration. Please forgive her.”
(Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)