J&K: When Personal Becomes Political

June 4, 2011

By Sahba Husain and Gautam Navlakha

Gautam Navlakha, long term member of the of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights(PUDR), Delhi, and for long a campaigner against state repression in Jammu and Kashmir, was detained by the J&K Police at Srinagar airport recently and denied entry into the state. The reason given for the denial of entry was that S. 144 of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) had been applied in Badgam District (where Srinagar Airport is located ) and that Navlakha’s visit presented a threat to public order. This is an account of the events from Sahba Husain and Gautam Navlakha. – Ed.

Sahba’s account:

As our flight began to descend at Srinagar airport on 28th afternoon, Gautam drew my attention to what lay beneath: the landscape around the airport was dotted with army camps; the green rooftops glistening in bright daylight of a mild summer. We wondered how much more land would thus be acquired by a force whose presence is not only an eyesore but a formidable threat to all who live in their midst. But we were arriving here for a trek in the mountains of North Kashmir and hardly able to contain our sense of joy and excitement; despite the lingering discomfort and anguish at what we had just seen from a window in the sky…a grave reminder that we were about to land in one of the most militarized zones, although a familiar one. We have been returning here for any number of years; a little over two decades for Gautam and half of it in my case.

As we disembarked, a police constable came running to show us the way to the arrival lounge. “Why is he showing us the way?” I turned to ask Gautam without realizing or apprehending what awaited us inside. There were a dozen uniformed men who, as we learnt later, belonged to the JK branch of the CID. As I took hold of a trolley for our luggage, one of them was asking Gautam to follow him to the VIP lounge at the airport; we almost laughed in disbelief at this VIP treatment that seemed to have been reserved only for us while other passengers got busy collecting their baggage and leaving the airport. When we did the same and looked in the direction of the ‘exit’ Gautam informed me that according to the DSP who was thus far persuading him towards the VIP lounge that he, Gautam was being prohibited to enter the city. Unable to make any sense of it I demanded to know from the DSP what the matter was. He said, with a polite smile that did not at all match his words, “Oopar se IG ka order aaya hai ke sir ko Budgam district mein dakhil hone ki ijazat nahin hai, hum toh bus order follow kar rahe hain” – we have received orders from above that he is prohibited from entering Budgam district, we are only following the order. In desperation, I heard myself telling the officer something that I have always contested, rejected: that Kashmir is an integral part of India and we as Indian citizens had every right to enter here whenever we wished! It fell on deaf ears even as our ‘citizenship’ was being challenged; our basic democratic right was being violated, our ‘sense of self’ eroded…

Not willing to follow any verbal order, we asked for a copy of the written order which was procured for us after more than an hour. In the meantime, while we tried to make sense of the situation and reason with them, they were preparing to send us back to Delhi by the next available flight! The ‘order’ was from the District Magistrate, Budgam, who in his authority had invoked Section 144 Cr PC to prevent Gautam’s entry. According to him, Gautam (“social activist”) posed a threat to the prevailing state of peace and normalcy and could disrupt the smooth flow of civic amenities! Even after reading the order, when we refused to leave and said that we would wait until our lawyer’s advice, the DSP’s ‘polite smile’ was replaced with a scowl that indeed suited his demeanor better; now it was in a loud, harsh and arrogant tone, with arms flaying, that he addressed us, “now that you both have read the order, please obey it and do as we tell you. The only option for you is to return to Delhi, give us the money so we may purchase your tickets and send you back. We have other duties too and we cannot carry on with this headache”. Do we have to pay from our own pockets to be deported? Of course, will the sarkar pay for you? That is not how it is done, we were told candidly.

While all this was being ‘sorted out’ the last flight from Srinagar to Delhi had already departed and the airport was beginning to take on a deserted look as there were no more passengers in the departure lounge where we had now been brought under strict security. It was instead teeming with gun toting uniformed men and then we saw sniffer dogs being brought in; a mock drill for a hijacked airplane was about to be conducted for which the airport had to be evacuated! But before that the cops had to ensure that our tickets were purchased for us to leave the next morning; an exorbitant amount was thus demanded from us failing which we were threatened that “you will be taken as accused by the police in a PCR van up to Jammu from where you may proceed to Delhi”. When we objected strongly to being treated as criminals, the DSP turned the threat into a sinister joke; “why don’t you make good use of this opportunity we are providing; once we leave you in Jammu you can enter Srinagar (Budgam district) by road, no one will know; who can stop you then?” We refused, paid the money for our ‘return journey’ and were then led outside the airport to wait until the mock drill was over.

While the tickets were being purchased, phone-calls were flying between the cops and the SSP regarding where to put us up for the night. I overheard one of them; “Sir there is a madam with Mr Gautam (turns to me to ask ‘yeh aapke kaun lagte hain? Who is he to you?). And there’s no place here at the airport to keep them”. We were unaware of whatever instructions might’ve been given but each one of the cops maintained a rigid silence in response to our repeated query about where they would take us from here. One of them, perhaps in an attempt to soothe my frayed nerves declared that he was like my son and I should trust him as a mother would! So, here in the midst of these surrounding policemen and what seemed like a surreal, endless drama unfolding, a new relationship was being forged with me. I wondered whether he would call Gautam a ‘father’ if he were alone in their midst? Gender, Citizenship, Democracy, Rights; all were distorted, wrenched of their meaning. A personal visit turned into a political farce? What do I tell this new-found son? Listen to your new-found mother? No, I had to listen to him he said (doesn’t that happen in ‘real’ life elsewhere?) as he drove and brought a caged PCR van and told us to get in; does he expect me to feel proud that I had suddenly acquired a young cop-son who was telling me to sit in the front seat with him while Gautam and the luggage were ‘placed’ in the back of the van along with gun wielding men. “But where are you taking us” we protested and I, the new-found mother told him that it was the most infuriating, humiliating experience for me and I refuse to have a son that drives his ‘mother’ in his police van to an undisclosed location. “Please don’t worry; we’ll make sure you are comfortable”, he said.

As the police vehicle sped out of the airport with two of us as their ‘captives’, I began to think of the hundreds of ordinary, innocent citizens that are ‘picked up’ as a matter of routine here to maintain ‘law and order’, to ensure that ‘civic amenities’ are supplied uninterruptedly, to keep up the charade of ‘peace and normalcy’ and to show the world that tourism was thriving here; so what if there were “minor hiccups” such as this one; nothing compared to the brutal suppression of others. So what if we too had come here, on this occasion, as tourists desiring to visit the mountains to trek. There are tourists indeed but one among them here was a seen as a threat to tourism itself, a threat to the prevailing state of peace. How fragile is this peace, how fragile a State that (mis)uses its power and authority to prevent one from entering, how fragile the belief that an ‘order from above’ is enough to demolish one’s fundamental rights…Truth is not fragile, it cannot be made captive; ideas have a way to flourish even in a State that is afraid of them.

The short drive from the airport was the longest for us in terms of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment; where are they taking us, we kept wondering, silently now. And then we saw the vehicle enter the premises just outside the airport gates: JK Police Mess, Humhama! Promptly, room 14 was allotted to us; “you will be our guests tonight” we were told and ushered into the room; a suite with a small sitting room, a bedroom with an attached bath; a guard in uniform with a gun slung across his shoulder was posted outside along with a sturdy man in plain-clothes. It was nearly 8 o’clock in the evening now. I told them not to lock the room from outside; oh no, how can a son lock his mother? You are free now said the new-found son. However, ten minutes later, when a few friends came to the gate to visit us, we were not allowed to meet them, not even I whose name was not mentioned in the DM’s ‘order’. “You will not be allowed to re-enter these premises if you step out; these are orders from above” I was told and ‘requested’ to step back into the room.

Perhaps to compensate for the “inconvenience caused” to us, the cop-son informed us cheerfully that we could order anything we wished for dinner; “please have chicken; the quality of the mutton is not so good tonight; they’ll also give you vegetables and dal, rice and roti, relax and enjoy the dinner”. But could we have some alcohol, first, asked Gautam; much to their surprise; “please wait until we find out from our officer” said the gun-wielding guard. An hour later it was the cop-son again who marched into the room and announced, “SSP Sir has sent whiskey for you all the way from Budgam, Sir.” Two pegs of whiskey followed his exit as we settled down to eat our first meal. He returned after sometime and took Gautam to a corner in the room to ask, “Sir, would you like to shift to another suite as it has two rooms? One for madam and the other for you, would that not be a better arrangement?” No, we’ll stay together in this room, said Gautam. The cop-son did not address me as mother again all of the following day!

The attendant (name withheld) who came with tea for us the next morning expressed regret at the fact that we were detained in this manner. He said he’d seen and heard Gautam on television and wondered why he was being treated in this manner for speaking the truth. He said that in the ten years of his employment here he was witness to how the army was expanding its base by erecting camps in the surrounding villages; “villagers cannot breathe easy, there is always fear and tension in the air. Children and others wake up to the sound of firing (we both did too) as there is a firing range here; instead of the sound of birds chirping, children hear firing in the air. They are terrified of stepping out but they have to go to school. Villagers have appealed to the authorities to shift these camps and the firing range but who would listen to us?”

An hour later, we were back in the caged police van that was headed for the airport; one ahead of us while another followed us – baggage screening was waived in our case as the vehicles sped along, we were whisked past the waiting civilian vehicles, past the waiting queues of passengers, past the security check-in area with cops on either side and finally into the departure lounge. As I turned, there were no cops following us anymore; we were now ‘free’ to depart! However, just in time for boarding, a young man in civilian clothes greeted us and asked us to follow him for boarding; he too whisked us past all other passengers with an urgency, right up to the door of the aircraft; it was on the way he disclosed, to my question, that he was an CID officer who had been instructed to take over from where we had been left by the cops.

On our way out, we were given two airline coupons worth Rs 500.00 by the airport manager (‘as and when we book our flights again’) and on arrival in Delhi, the first few pieces of baggage that came belonged to us! I am quite certain these were not ‘orders from above’. Could it be the new-found son who had made these arrangements?

Gautam’s Account:

Let us look at the bright side first. Sahba and I were not abused, arrested, encountered, tortured, implicated in multiple cases under multiple charges, awarded life sentence, most of all we were not separated….We were merely prevented from entering Kashmir . A private mountain trek got transformed into a political issue.

Today, telephones, mail, emails, what we do, whom we meet….virtually everything one does is monitored by an increasingly paranoiac Indian State with, 21 investigating and intelligence agencies capable of snooping over us. Therefore, they could not be unaware of our plan to trek. And yet a personal visit was perceived by them as one which could result in “a situation which effects peace and tranquility in the society and create disturbance to the civic amenities of people”, wrote the District Magistrate, Budgam, citing S 144 of Cr PC. No offence was mentioned. Mere suspicion sufficed to take this decision. To add salt to our wound we were made to pay an exorbitant price for being deported!

Why were they so keen to stop us? Because people like us do not “understand” the situation in Kashmir, euphemism for not agreeing with the official version of ‘truth’. While perception of truth does vary and the truth of the rulers and the ruled are different, there is also a hierarchy of what constitutes ‘truth’, because, all truths are not equal, and some are more important than others. We became the sacrificial lamb to send a message to the democratic minded Indians that they should keep away from Kashmir , away from “politics”, don’t talk about the underbelly of ‘normalcy and peace’. If there was any doubt it was set to rest on 30th May, when Sec 144 of Cr PC was declared in Srinagar. This prohibits assembly of “person/persons” i.e. a virtual ban on all forms of protests, manifestations, dharna….Precisely the condition which prevailed for 63 years in Kashmir and caused people’s anger to erupt. Look at the paradox.

For years Kashmiris were told that they should give up armed militancy. When they did and began mass protests in 2008 it got characterized as “agitational terrorism” or “gunless terrorism” by the Indian security forces. Hundreds of thousands of those who participated in mass protests, all of them became ‘terrorists’. And, therefore, legitimate targets for soldiers to even shoot and kill. This has been followed by security crackdown, coercion, arrests, filing charges, threatening to ruin future prospects of youth….forcing and pressurising people into submission. Most separatist leaders are under arrest or house arrest. Nearly two hundred persons are booked under PSA, an act which allows preventive detention for up to two years. But no sooner two year end/ or High Court acquits the booked person, he gets re-booked repeatedly… sometimes for up to 12 years. Shakeel Bakshi of Students Islamic Movement and Masarat Alam of Hurriyet Congerence (G), for instance have spent 12 and 8 years respectively at a stretch. Besides all this, as per a written reply of the Home Department to the J&K State Assembly, on March 17, 2011, a total of 5255 persons including 799 students were arrested for resorting to stone pelting last summer.
The five month long spree of killing in summer of 2010 were triggered by protests against the custodial killing by security force personnel, on the night of April 29-30, 2010 of Mohammad Shafi, Shehzad Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmed, residents of Nadihal in Baramulla district of J&K, three days after they were disappeared. They were buried as “unidentified militants” in Kalaroos village graveyard on the LoC, and the army officers received, without any hindrance, a reward of Rs 600,000. (Kalaroos was one of the 55 graveyards investigated by the International Peoples Tribunal on Kashmir, between 2008-09, when studying the phenomenon of Mass Graves.) The IPTK report identified 2373 unidentified graves in 55 villages of three districts: in 33 villages of Baramulla district there were 1013 unnamed graves, in 14 villages of Kupwara 1278 graves and in 8 villages of Bandipora 82 graves. The report was submitted in December 2009 to the J&K state government as well as the Indian Government. The report had urged the government to look into the matter, institute an inquiry, verify the facts referred to in the report, and take steps to prosecute perpetrators of the crime. Even the CM had then admitted that Macchil encounter have “raised questions about several other encounters ”. But the government did nothing.

Instead, speaking at the fifth convocation of Sher I Kashmir University for Agriculture Science and Technology on June 9, 2010, Indian PM said: “There are handful of people who do not want any political process for empowering people to succeed. This is the reason that attempts to disturb the lives of people in the Valley still continue from across the LOC….Our security agencies are forced to act in the wake of such incidents. During the process sometimes innocent civilians have to suffer….” Coincidentally, two days later killings began in Kashmir.

If Machhil triggered public anger in 2010, Shopian rape and murder of two young women brought people out in 2009, and the illegal transfer of forest land to a non-state religious body fed the mass protests in 2008. In each instance protests were caused by an incident of horrible crime committed by the government forces.

So what about justice for the 125 killed between June and September 2010, 1500 cases of firearm/tear gas shell/pellet injuries, 500 cases of severe beatings and 38 instances of blindness caused by bullet or pellet or marbles used as projectile in slingshot used by CRPF, since June 11, 2010, death due to torture of eight children? One is not even raising fatalities which took place for over 21 years. How many FIRs record security force personnel as accused for crimes committed last summer? How many of them are being investigated? In how many cases have charge-sheets been filed? How many are being prosecuted and how many convicted? Authorities are ‘quiet as a mouse’. However, in response to notice issued by the J&K High Court in a PIL filed by JKLF leader Yasin Malik for prosecuting the killers of 117 Kashmiris in 2010, the State government told the Court that most of those killed were either “hardened criminals”, or “miscreants ….”. So was it alright to kill them? Justice Bashiruddin led commission was setup in June 2010 to look into 17 killings out of 125 which took place between June-September 2010. CRPF refused to depose before him because being an Armed Force of the Union state constituted commission of inquiry does not have jurisdiction over them.

As for Machhil fake encounter case trial is crawling along because its credibility is being questioned by the authorities themselves. The Army Chief told media, on January 14, 2011, nine months after the fake encounter, while talking about the Machil case, that “various pressures (on the judiciary) out here (in J&K)”, therefore, “what kind of justice would we expect or if legal provisions would be followed, is the question mark. And that is why as per the laws and procedures laid down we would like to complete our inquiry before we come to a conclusion”. Meanwhile the state government ordered its own probe into Machil killings, and according to Rising Kashmir (Janury 18, 2011), will go by its “own probe”. So what is the meaning of the case being tried in the court if both the army and the state government are conducting their own probe into the fake encounter.

Apart from paying out ‘blood money’ to families of those killed in 2010 little else is being done. Instead the very forces which were responsible for the crimes of summer 2010 are “counseling” Kashmiri college and school kids as part of their ‘Winning the Hearts and Minds’ outreach and to counter the “well designed conspiracy” behind stone pelting. Prabhakar Tripathi, Commander of CRPF, described their initiative as “brain draining” of youth to help them “dream big and earn more”. He explains “(t)he mind of the youth are fragile and they get easily attracted to something. We have been trying to make them understand difference between right and wrong through our counseling programme”. (Rising Kashmir , 1 March, 2011).

What about other confidence building measures? Scrutiny reveals that only 39 out of 400 odd bunkers in Srinagar have been removed, and 30, 000 army and para-military forces out of 667,000, withdrawn.

Consider how wikileak disclosure about rampant torture in J&K was suppressed. The International Council of Red Cross, under a ‘limited mandate’ in 1995 could visit prisoners in jails, but was barred from interrogation centres such as the notorious Cargo Building (Humhama) near the Srinagar airport, not far from where we were detained. While ICRC shared data for 2002—2004 with US diplomats, which shows that 45% of 1491 detainees/prisoners interviewed by them in 177 visits, were tortured. (Hindu, 18 December 2010). No one took notice of this. So the hostile nature of Indian military presence is not make-believe but remains the overarching lived reality of the people.

Militancy is said to be in decline. There are no more than 488 militants, according to the DG of J&K Police. Speaking about the presence of large security force in J&K, he said that “presence of forces in different areas is not proportional to the number of militants…..(it) has to be viewed in context of potential of militancy to strike in any area…” (The Hindu 4 January 2011) All this while we were told that when militancy comes down troops would be phased out. The goal post has shifted from real to potential. This requires continued control over public and private lives of people, in order that the objective of counter-insurgency operations, to “transform the will and attitude” of the people, is met.

Army chief had earlier said that “(t)he areas they army) cleared should not become terrorist infested again”. (The Hindustan Times 15 January 2011) Only way this can be ensured is by maintain a physical presence amidst habitation of people.

Just as an illustration of this fact take a look at Sopore, the apple town. It has a population of 59,624 as per 2001 census, in an area spread over 61 sq kms. It boasts of two RR battalions, two CRPF bns, one Territorial Army bn, detachments of paratroopers apart from the dreaded SOG, which include renegades (The Indian Express, 2nd January, 2011) The ratio would be one armed security personnel for nine or ten persons. What does this signify? Does it not mean that troop cutback is not so much linked to militancy but to stubborn unarmed resistance in Kashmir? How else otherwise can one explain such unprecedented deployment of forces even when armed militancy has declined.?

As mentioned all truths are not equal, and some are more important than others, even when they are sought to be suppressed. So, do we commit a crime as Indians when we expose the truth of mass graves, fake encounters, torture, disappearances, rapes…. experienced by the Kashmiris, who are our own people, in an “integral part of India”? Is it a crime to remind ourselves that the Declaration of Human Rights 1948, in the third preamble states that if rights are ignored, governance will become tyrannical and the response would be rebellion. In other words, resistance is an inalienable right which comes into play when the State, which monopolises means of violence, employs it in a partisan manner, not to protect people, but to force them into submission by giving up the idea of ‘azaadi’. Therefore, it is no wonder that it becomes a crime when one supports referendum, the universally accepted democratic and peaceful method for ascertaining people’s will. But it feels good to know that authorities do fear truth.

1 Comment »

One Response to “J&K: When Personal Becomes Political”

  1. A.K.Maleri Says:
    June 5th, 2011 at 04:42

    throwing to winds all supposed democratic credentials and rule of law. democracy in India has run its course.
    a.k.maleri

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