'Vague Terms Used to Silence Critics': Activists Slam PSA Dossier on Sajad Gul

In its dossier, the J&K police justified invoking the Public Safety Act against the journalist because of his “negative critique” of the administration.

Srinagar: Free speech activists have slammed the dossier that the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police have issued to justify the detention of journalist Sajad Gul under the Public Safety Act (PSA), saying it has become the norm to use vague terms such as ‘national interest’ to silence critics of the Union government.

Gul, a final-year student of convergent journalism at the Central University of Kashmir, was initially arrested in early January for uploading a video of a protest. While he was granted bail by a court, the police invoked the PSA to keep him in detention.

Activists told The Wire that vague terms such as “national interest”, “threat to law and order”, “country’s sovereignty” or similar others have been used by law enforcement agencies to target the critics of the policies adopted by the Union government in Jammu and Kashmir following the dilution of Article 370. According to official data, the number of cases filed under the PSA in J&K has spiked from 134 in 2020 to 331 last year.

Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective, a rights advocacy group, termed the PSA dossier against Gul as “a fantastic work of fiction if it wasn’t such a serious charge”.

“The dossier has made completely wild statements and not ever tried to maintain the fig leaf of evidence, because obviously there isn’t any! It actually admits it has zero basis to charge him, as it says there is ‘every apprehension that you may get bailed out from an Hon’ble court of law’, thereby denying even the process of justice for him,” she told The Wire.

Seshu said the treatment meted out to Gul is “extremely distressing” as every citizen of India has the right to disseminate information in the public interest. “It is this right which is being denied and criminalised. Kashmir is long considered the laboratory for [censoring] the media and the detention of Sajad Gul is a warning to all of us,” she said.

Fahad Shah, the editor of the news website The Kashmir Walla – where Gul works, has approached the J&K and Ladakh high court with a petition to quash the PSA invoked against Gul. “The PSA was slapped against him only to keep him in jail after the court granted him bail. This is abuse of power to harass and suppress a young journalist and send a message to everyone else that if you try to report people’s expression of dissent, you will be silenced,” he said.

What did the dossier say?

The J&K police defended Gul’s detention under the draconian PSA by saying that the journalists reports less about the “welfare” of the Union Territory and is “rather promoting enmity”. The police dossier claimed that his work can “manipulate” the people of Kashmir, posing a “potential threat” to the “sovereignty of the country.”

Gul was initially whisked away from his Bandipora residence on January 5 and charged under Sections 147 and 148 (rioting with deadly weapons and subsequent punishment), 336 (rashly or negligently endangering human life), 307 (attempt to murder) and 153-B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

After spending around nine days in jail, a local court in the north Kashmir district granted him bail on January 15. However, instead of releasing him, the police booked him under the stringent PSA, described by Amnesty International as a “lawless law”, and shifted him more than 300 km away, to the Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.

The “arbitrary” detention prompted massive outrage across the country. Global rights advocacy organisations and media groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, regional political leaders and local journalists in Kashmir also urged the authorities to “drop their investigation related to his journalistic work”.

In its dossier, the J&K police justified invoking the act against Gul because of his “negative critique” (sic) of the policies of J&K administration. “You are fond and have natural tendency to support your anti national/anti social desires, so as to cherish your dream….You remain in search of anti national/ anti social tweets,” the dossier says.

The three-page dossier submitted by the senior superintendent of police, Bandipora, on January 11 and approved by the Bandipora district magistrate, Owais Ahmad, accuses Gul of posting tweets “without factual check in order to provoke the people against the Government”. The dossier accused Gul of working as “self proclaimed messiah of terrorists and their families” who “raises issues which harm the national interests”.

Women walk past police during clashes with stone pelters in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Refers to previous cases

The dossier also referred to the three FIRs in which Gul has been booked over the past year to justify his detention under the PSA. One of the FIRs was filed on a police complaint following an anti-encroachment drive carried out by the Bandipora district administration in the Hajin area, the native village of Gul, in February last year, allegedly without serving notices to the encroachers.

Gul had reported on the “illegal” demolition drive for a local news portal, Kashmir Walla, where he had joined as a staff reporter before his arrest. Gul’s brother Javed Ahmed said he was threatened by a local tehsildar for reporting the allegations of the locals. “On the next day, the tehsildar came to our village and demolished our uncle’s fence and also damaged our property,” Javed told The Wire.

In this case (FIR No 12/2021 at Hajin Police Station), Gul was booked under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 336 (rashly or negligently endangering human life), 353 (assaulting public servant) and 447 (criminal trespass) of the IPC. However, he was granted bail by a local court.

“Police and local officials accused my brother of attacking the officials who were carrying out the anti-encroachment drive. But the truth is that he was not even present in the area on that day. They framed him under false charges because he was doing his job,” Ahmed said.

The second case (FIR No 79/2021) was also filed by the Hajin police station following an alleged encounter on October 11 last year in which the J&K police claimed to have gunned down a suspected militant, Imtiyaz Ahmad Dar, a resident of the Shahgund area of Hajin, near his residence. Gul reported the allegations of the family, who claimed that Dar was gunned down in a “staged” gun battle.

The family’s allegations were also reported by sections of the local media in Kashmir, prompting the J&K administration to order an inquiry on December 7. However, the fate of the official probe remains unknown. Bandipora district magistrate Ahmad could not be reached for his comment.

The J&K police, however, denied the allegations. Dar, they said, killed a civilian in Bandipora in October last year, when Kashmir was rattled by a series of targeted killings of non-locals and civilians. The police filed a case under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 153-B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505 (public mischief) of the IPC and named Gul as one of the accused.

Regrading his story on the Shahgund encounter, the PSA dossier says, Gul spread “false and fake narrative of anti-terrorist operation … in which one local terrorist …. was eliminated thereby agitating against the security forces.”

The latest FIR was filed on January 3, when Saleem Parray, who topped the list of the ten most wanted militants in Kashmir, was killed in an encounter near the famed Mughal Gardens in Srinagar. After the killing, Gul visited Parray’s residence, where a handful of people – purportedly the militant’s relatives and neighbours – were shouting anti-India slogans while demanding his body.

Gul posted a video of the sloganeering on his Facebook page. In its dossier, the police also cite this act of recording and uploading the video on social media – which is part of Gul’s job as a journalist. The police accused Gul of “provoking the assembled people against the government established by law”.

Defending the charges, the J&K Police said Gul is “filled with hatred” against the Union of India, terming him a “potential threat to the law and order” in Kashmir, because he has “good number of followers on social media”. The journalism student has little over 1,100, 1,131 and 549 followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram respectively.