Islamic Preachers Latest To Be Detained Under Feared J&K Law, As Kashmir Crackdown Widens

25 Oct 2022 10 min read  Share

Four Islamic clerics and three activists of a banned Islamic organisation were the latest to be detained under Jammu and Kashmir’s draconian 44-year-old Public Safety Act, which allows detention without charge or legal representation for up to two years. The police said the clerics had been warned against inciting Kashmiris and the arrests, which have evoked new resentment in a restive region now directly controlled by New Delhi, were ‘a last resort’.

Azan Barkati and Shabrooza Akhtar, son and wife of Islamic preacher Sarjan Barkati, who has been detained under the Public Safety Act since 17 September, his second PSA detention since 2016.

Shopian (Jammu & Kashmir): The knock on the door came at 7 am on 17 September 2022, recalled Shabrooza Akhtar, 32. 

She opened the door of their newly constructed house, nestled amid willow and poplar trees here in south Kashmir, and a posse of armed police walked in. 

The police asked for Akhtar’s husband, 42-year-old cleric Sarjan Barkati, and did not explain why he was being arrested, according to Akhtar, her face covered in a black, scarf, staring at a photo of her husband on her phone as she spoke to Article 14.

Two days later, Akhtar learned that her husband had been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) 1978, a feared law used to imprison hundreds of Kashmiris, including journalists, without formal charges. 

The PSA allows the government to detain anyone for up to two years, without any trial. In the last release of public data on PSA detentions, union minister of state for home G Kishen Reddy told Parliament in February 2020 that 389 were imprisoned. Those numbers have increased since.

"They took my husband away when we needed him the most,” said Akhtar, 32, her face covered with a black scarf, as tears rolled down her cheeks. 

“It pains me to see our children suffering, it kills me from inside,” said Akhtar. One of her two children, aged 11 and 13, cried loudly beside her, as she explained how the family of four depended on the Rs 7,000 or so her husband earned monthly as contributions from his congregation. 

“We live on his earnings,” said Akhtar, a homemaker who studied till class eight before marrying Barkati. “We can’t understand why he has been arrested again,” she said. “My husband is not a militant, nor a resistance leader.”  

Known as azaadi chacha or “freedom uncle” because he urged people to rise against Indian security forces during a 2016 uprising, Barkati was arrested by police in October that year and detained under the PSA.

A charismatic crowd-puller, Barkati was released in 2020. He had not taken part in protests, public gatherings or delivered any sermons or speeches since, according to Akhtar.

“He even used to pray his jummah (congregational Friday prayers) at home,” she said, “And had stopped leading prayers in the local masjid."

A Fresh Tide Of Detentions Under The PSA


Barkati was one of four Islamic preachers and three activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami, an influential social, cultural and religious group, which police accused of fuelling extremism in Kashmir, detained in September under the PSA.

The arrests are part of an ever-widening crackdown (here, here, here, here, here and here) that began more than two years ago and is meant to serve as a deterrent, the police acknowledged, even if no crime was apparent. 

Thousands of arrests were made after Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was reduced to a union territory from a state and its special constitutional privileges revoked on 5 August 2019 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Apart from Barkati, four other preachers—and more than seven others—have been detained under the PSA. The arrest of the preachers appeared to be an effort to clampdown on leaders of Islamic organisations and sects, coming as they did after a 28 February 2019 ban on the 69-year-old Jamaat-e-Islami.

Before Barkati's arrest, the J&K administration also arrested other well-known preachers of the Kashmir Valley, including Maulana Abdul Rasheed Dawoodi, Mushtaq Ahmed Veeri, Abdul Majeed Dar. 

Kashmir’s additional director general of police Vijay Kumar, at a press conference on 17 September, said they had “ample proof” that the preachers arrested were “provoking people”. 

PSA Is The Last Resort: Police

"We have been warning these religious leaders not to incite youths or people for the last four to five months,” said Kumar. “But since they persisted, we booked them under the PSA.” 

Kumar said the police would share evidence of their complicity “if necessary”, but no evidence has been offered, a common feature as thousands of Kashmiris were detained after August 2019 under either the PSA, India’s anti-terrorism law and other criminal laws. 

Since August 2019, more than 2,300 people were named in more than 1,200 cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 or UAPA and 954 under the PSA, the Indian Express reported in August 2021. 

Kumar said that “a lot of people” had been freed after “counselling”. 

"We have them sign bonds (of good behaviour),” said Kumar, adding that more could be similarly punished, especially clerics who incite people. “If people don't understand, the last resort is PSA.”

Kumar said there could be more arrests. “They will also be booked as soon as we get sufficient evidence,” he said, alleging that the police had “ample proof” that Jamaat-e-Islami members were still “stealthily” at work.

It was, said Kumar, the “prime responsibility” of “every member of society” to “maintain social order”.  

 The government would ensure that no one would be “wrongly implicated”, said BJP general secretary Ashok Koul. “Those among the arrested preachers found innocent will soon be released,” said Koul. 

Arrested, Released, Arrested Again

On 15 September, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, 45, known to his congregation as Moulana Mushtaq Ahmad Veeri, received a call from the police asking him to report to a police station in Anantnag, 57 km south of Srinagar.

After half an hour Veeri’s family received a call from the police asking them to bring clothes for the cleric. The next information they had was that he had been moved to Kot Bhalwal  jail in Jammu, around 200 km south of Bijbehara.

Veeri was a prominent preacher of the Salafi school—originating in 19th-century Saudi Arabia— of Sunni Islam, a fiery orator and former president of the Jamiat Ahle-Hadith. 

The Jamiat is a conservative non-political Islamic religious organisation that urges Muslims to adhere to the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet. Based in Srinagar, it has thousands of followers across J&K.

Veeri, who delivered Friday sermons in several Kashmir mosques, was previously detained under PSA after the end of J&K’s special constitutional status and imprisoned at Kot Bhalwal Jail in Jammu. He was released on 30 October 2020 after 21 months in detention. 

Another of those detained was Abdul Hameed Fayaz, PhD, 66, a religious scholar and chief of the banned Jamaat-e-Islami from Shopian. Like Veeri, Fayaz, who has a doctorate in Urdu,  was previously arrested and booked under PSA in 2019. 

Another of those detained in September under the PSA was Jamaat-e-Islami co-founder, Moin Ul Islam, 50, from Imam Sahib village in South Kashmir.

One of Veeri’s family, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the preacher was spreading any kind radical ideology and instigating young Kashmiris to “anti-national activities”—a vague phrase that includes everything from shouting slogans against the government or India to incitement to terrorism.

"Mushtaq sahib is the only hope of an octogenarian parent and three children,” said the family member. “We request the administration to release him, he is the sole hope of our family…detaining and sending him miles away from his family is itself a punishment for us.” 

A Sufi Preacher’s First Arrest

Another preacher arrested was Abdul Rasheed Dawoodi,51, a prominent religious figure of the Barelvi revivalist movement with strong Sufi influences in south Kashmir. Dawoodi heads Tehreek-e-Soutul Awliya, a religious and social organisation that is not known for its involvement in violence.

On 15 September, the police called Dawoodi and asked him to report to a police station in Anantnag, where he was informed of the PSA dossier against him.  

Many were shocked by Dawoodi’s arrest, his first. In 2006, he was the target of a grenade attack by suspected militants. He escaped with minor injuries, but six were killed and about 50 injured. 

“We went to meet senior police officers and the deputy commissioner of Anantnag, but we were not permitted to meet them (officials)," said Yousuf Baba, 40, general secretary of the Soutul Awliya.

Article 14 sought comment from Basharat Qayoom, the deputy commissioner of Anantnag, but he asked us to contact the police. 

 "Whatever information we get comes from the media, and we are unaware of the charges or the circumstances surrounding his detention,” said Baba.  

‘Is This The Justice They Talk About?’

There was widespread resentment and disbelief at the detention of the preachers and others under the PSA, but few were willing to talk discuss the issue, apart from the representatives of Kashmir’s oldest political parties, which home minister Amit Shah has frequently accused of monopolising J&K politics.

“I have come here to request you to free J&K from the rule of three families this time,” Shah told a public rally in Rajouri, Jammu, on 5 October 2022. “Will you do it? Will you strengthen the hands of Modiji?”

“On the one hand they claim Kashmir is an integral part of India, on the other hand, they take these step-motherly steps towards Kashmiris,” said Sarah Hayat Shah, head of social media for the National Conference. “Is this the justice they talk about?”

“If these preachers are booked under the PSA for delivering hate speeches, what about those who chant desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko (shoot the traitors to the nation)?” said Hayat, referring to an infamous chant delivered ahead of the 2020 Delhi riots by union minister of Central Government Anurag Thakur.

The arrests of the preachers were criticised by the Majlis Muhtahida Ulma (MMU), a coalition of Kashmiri religious, social, and educational organisations. “These government actions are not only unjustified, but they are also creating a great deal of resentment among the populace,” said an MMU statement issued in a 17 September statement, which demanded the release of detained religious leaders, preachers, youth and others.

Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, the head of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which, in coalition with the BJP, ran the government for three years until 2019, also criticised the arrests, contrasting them with Modi and Shah’s claims (here and here) of normalcy.

"If normalcy, as claimed by the Government of India (GOI) has truly returned to J&K with zero occurrences of stone pelting & other actions, why are they booking religious scholars under draconian laws like PSA," she tweeted on 16 September. 

The PSA & The Prospect Of Indefinite Detention

The PSA was introduced 44 years ago in 1978 by then chief minister Sheikh Abdullah to ostensibly halt the smuggling of timber, but its political nature and potential for misuse was apparent when he invoked it in 1978 for the first time to detain political opponents. 

The PSA has since been used to ensure the “the security of the state”. 

In 2019, when section 370, the special constitutional provision that allowed the accession of the former kingdom of J&K to India in 1947 was revoked, the law that Abdullah created was used to detain his son Farooq and grandson Omar, both former chief ministers.

When the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act was passed in 2019 and J&K reduced to a union territory, most of the former state’s laws were replaced by federal laws. The PSA was one of those that stayed.

"Government can book any individual if there is apprehension that his action may be prejudicial to public order at large,” said an advocate of the J&K High Court, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of attracting attention from the government. 

The PSA has been called draconian, a “lawless law”, as the international advocacy group Amnesty International  described it in 2011.

Under normal Indian law, an arrested person has a right to judicial review of his or her detention but not under the PSA. Instead, a three-member advisory board appointed by the government reviews all orders, with no scope for appeal. 

If the board believes there is cause for preventive detention, the government can hold a detainee for up to two years. Initial detentions are often exceeded, with new detention orders following the old, a tactic called “revolving-door detention”.

Section 13 (2) of the PSA allows the detaining authority to detain someone without revealing why, if it “goes against the public interest”.

The Lt Gov’s Assurances 


On 19 September, a delegation of Islamic organisations called on J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha, demanding the release of the religious preachers detained.

"He (Sinha) attentively listened, provided a thoughtful response and gave us an assurance that everything would be taken into account and would be made known to us shortly,” said Ghulam Rasool Hami, 42, head of Karwan-e- Islami, a religious organisation known for its campaigns to ban liquor.

More than a  month has passed since that meeting. Hami and the others never heard back from Sinha.

(Irshad Hussain and Mubashir Naik are independent journalists based in Kashmir.)