Politics

Interview | 'This Isn't Just About My Mother,' Says Mehbooba's Daughter Iltija

As the former CM remains under detention, her daughter speaks to 'The Wire' as she makes her way back to Srinagar with a court order allowing her to meet Mehbooba.

Chennai: Iltija, the younger daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, is angry. More than a week after being released from house arrest on condition that she immediately leave Kashmir, she is still angry – perhaps even more so.

Her grandmother and aunt remain in detention in Srinagar and she is still not able to communicate with her mother.

More than that, it is the overall situation in the Valley and the continuing lockdown and communications blackout that millions of Kashmiris have been subjected to for a month, that bothers her deeply.

“I need answers,” she says, as she raises more questions. “It is tiring, of course, because the answers are not forthcoming, but then we know that this government doesn’t want to give or take anything in writing.”

Speaking to The Wire at length, Iltija explains how she herself was detained ‘illegally’ for over three weeks, and how ordinary Kashmiris continue to suffer for no fault of theirs.

Now that you are out of Kashmir, do you consider yourself free?

How can I be free? Because I have internet? I am deeply troubled by whatever is happening back home. What will the authorities achieve by subjugating Kashmiris, smothering dissent and detaining minors? The government says it is integrating the people of Kashmir with the rest of the country but it has only pushed Kashmiris further away. For them, it’s a fight for their land, identity and culture.

Also read: ‘Can a Stone Do This?’: Family of Srinagar Youth Who Died Refutes Police Version

As for me, speaking personally, I still cannot communicate with my family. I haven’t even been able to speak to my mother yet.

You moved the Supreme Court and succeeded in getting a ruling saying you have the right to go to Srinagar and visit your mother. What is your next step?

I feel a sense of relief. I had no other alternative but to approach the Supreme Court for justice. I now intend to fly to Kashmir at the earliest, meet my mother and also get a sense of the ground situation. You see, this isn’t just about my mother. It’s been a month since Kashmir was turned into an open-air prison. This undeclared state of emergency needs to end. People are suffering and their voices are being smothered.

Also read: The Kashmiris are Still Waiting to Speak. This Time, Their Voice Will Carry Far.

You yourself were kept under house arrest for a few weeks. Why were you detained?

No one has given me any explanation. When I pressed the senior-most police officer in charge of those who were preventing me from leaving home, he claimed this was because there was Section 144 imposed in the city, and since I was a Z category protectee, I was only allowed to move with a cavalcade of guards, which would have breached Section 144.

This was ridiculous. He was trying to suggest I was not under house arrest but the fact is that people coming to visit me were not allowed in. Why was that so if I was not detained? The officer had no answer for these questions and kept falling back on the line that he had “received orders”.

The authorities in Kashmir have told some media outlets that you only reached out to them on August 27 with a request to meet your mother. Is this true?

The greatest casualty of this crisis is not just truth but common sense too. It is a brazen lie that they say I reached them only on 27th. I made repeated verbal requests – through the people who had detained me and not allowed me to leave my home – asking them to allow my grandmother to see my mother. On August 21, my aunt [Rubiya Syed, who is also in detention] and I wrote a letter saying we have been trying to meet Mehbooba Mufti for the past few days and have not got a response. We also said that if our request is being rejected, please cite the reasons. To this day, I have not had a response.

If they are going to place me under illegal detention, placing a ban on all forms of communication, it is common sense that I can speak only to the security at my gate.

I was told by them that I cannot meet my mother and I am under the same detention category as my mother, who is a former chief minister. But excuse me, I am a citizen, not a politician. It beats me how can I be under the same detention category as my mother.

File photo of Mehbooba Mufti. Credit: PTI

File photo of Mehbooba Mufti. Photo: PTI

Also, despite my repeated requests and despite the fact that I wrote a letter to Union home minister Amit Shah telling them that I need an order to explain my detention, I have been refused any explanation.

Also read | Mehbooba’s Daughter to Amit Shah: ‘Tell Me Under Which Law I’ve Been Detained’

As we speak now, at this moment, my aged grandmother is placed under detention and I know for a fact that people try to go meet her and have been turned away at the gate. How exactly do they expect me to communicate if they place me under detention with no form of communication allowed? I made repeated oral requests.

Is it not common sense that when a parent is jailed, as a daughter I should want to see her? Every single day she was under detention, I had made attempts to see her and these were all turned down. Things came to a point where we felt that since whatever they are doing is illegal, our only choice is to tell the media.

What happened to the letter you had written on August 21?

In that letter, we clearly said we wanted to meet my mother. The inspector said he will not pass the letter on and I will not be allowed to meet my mother. What exactly am I supposed to do? Why was my aged grandmother detained? Is she some kind of a threat? We made repeated requests at the gate, every single request was turned down.

Also read | ‘No Answers’: What the Government’s Frequent Press Briefings At Srinagar Tell Us

We even requested to meet Rohit Kansal – the bureaucrat in charge of public communication. That request too was turned down. After I flew out of Kashmir on August 22, I contacted the divisional commissioner on 27th. It is common sense that if I am detained, I can communicate with them only after I am released. It took me time because I had to ascertain who it was that I should speak to.

Iltija’s luggage being scanned before she leaves for the airport.

The irony is that the government has jailed the mainstream leaders who had picked up the flag of India at a time when ordinary Kashmiris were seething with resentment towards the country. If this is how the authorities are treating the family of an elected representative, I shudder to think about the situation of ordinary Kashmiri families.

How is it now for ordinary people? What is the mood like in the Valley?

I should say the entire state is going through such agony and trauma. I have had the freedom to fly out. Journalists speak to me because I am the daughter of Mehbooba Mufti.

What about the daughter whose father has been dumped in jail in Agra? Who is she supposed to speak to? She obviously does not have access to a landline and no cell phone too. She has got no clarity on her father’s detention. There are many families where the fathers and brothers have been detained and taken away in military planes.

I am not speaking to you for my mother. I am speaking for all those Kashmiris whose family members have been detained. Can you give some clarity about their detention? How many people have you held, and where, and on what charge?

Look at my home, they have put padlocks [on the gate]! Am I a criminal that they have to do this? They allowed my family to meet my mother after I spoke to the media. Am I to believe that this is a coincidence?

Padlock on the gate of Iltija’s home.

What do you say to the government’s logic that they have imposed these restrictions in order to prevent casualties and violence?

You have repressed people; you have stripped them of their rights and refuse to restore their civil liberties. You have refused them even the basic rights to communicate with each other. Thirteen-year-old boys have been detained; I am told they cry asking their mothers to help them. Lawyers, activists, businessmen – everybody is being detained. The local Kashmir media is not allowed to cover things. To us, it is like the dark ages.

You say you are talking about the future of the Kashmir, forget the future; let us talk about the present. People are detained and the internet is blocked. Only very few landlines are restored in Kashmir. You say you are blocking internet to prevent crimes, why is the internet allowed in Uttar Pradesh, where the crime rate is higher than in Kashmir?

What exactly is the government trying to put a veil on?

I respect the sentiment against bloodshed but it has been a month now and there is a crisis in the Valley. Relatives are not able to attend the burial of the dead ones. A woman has to walk for hours only to deliver a stillborn baby. A man dies because he couldn’t get his treatment for cancer on time. Is this the normalcy that the government is talking about?

The government prides itself in the fact that there has been no protest, no bloodshed. But the human cost of this crisis is huge. Look at the streets; look at the people denied medical attention because they have been cut off.

Also read: In a Ravaged Kashmir, One Woman’s Fight to Give Birth

The anger is not just restricted to abrogation of Article 370 and the manner in which it was done. People are seething with anger because they are caged like animals. Why isn’t the government giving proper clarity on how long this will continue for? The anger over the manner in which Article 370 was ‘abrogated’ has been compounded by the fact that the people have been caged.

Have you received any indication on when your mother will be released?

I don’t have any clarity. They haven’t bothered contacting the family and telling them the status and when she is likely to be released. But I have heard people who are supposed to behave responsibly tell media that the longer a person spends in jail, the brighter their political career will be.

What kind of convoluted logic is that? On the one hand, you say my mother’s political career and Omar Abdullah’s political career is finished. If that is so, why aren’t you letting them go?

Rumours were spread about a falling out between Mehbooba and Omar. That this is why they were shifted to different places for their detention. What is the truth?

I can say this confidently that they were shifted to different places for their detention because the government is afraid they will talk to each other and devise a common strategy. To say that they have fallen out is complete, patent nonsense.

Security personnel patrol a deserted road in Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

When do you see yourself going back to Kashmir?

I want to go to Kashmir. I want to go see my mother but I’ve been told by senior police officials that they have received instructions to detain me again. They still haven’t explained the grounds for the first time I was detained and clearly it’s illegal since they never explained why I was placed under house arrest in the first place. For the world’s largest democracy, it’s a crying shame to detain people illegally without any explanation whatsoever. Kashmir needs answers instead of a callous radio silence from the government of India about when this brutal and debilitating state of emergency will end.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.