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Srinagar: When she chose to pursue a career in journalism, Sajida Yousuf knew being a journalist was never meant to be easy in Kashmir. The 23-year-old Srinagar resident finished her master’s in journalism from the University of Kashmir in 2019 and subsequently started working as a reporter with a local news agency, Kashmir News Observer.
“I turned my passion into a profession,” says Yousuf, sipping coffee in a restaurant located along the Bund in the heart of Srinagar.
As she began her carrier as a journalist, Yousuf, who had earlier worked with the English daily Rising Kashmir, always wanted to amplify voices of the most vulnerable in society: women, children and others whose human rights have been abused.
Her desire began to change in April 2020 when two journalists – Masrat Zahra and Gowher Geelani – were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. Zahra, a female photojournalist, had posted some of her previous work on social media, while Geelani, a senior journalist and author, had expressed his opinion on his social media accounts. Police had accused both of them of “glorifying terrorism” and indulging in “anti-national activities”.
“I never thought practising journalism would become this much harder in Kashmir. The one thing that strikes my mind whenever I think of doing any sensitive story is UAPA. You don’t know who will be next in the list of this draconian law,” says Yousuf, who hasn’t only become selective in choosing story ideas, but says she refrains from posting anything on social media that she believes may land her in trouble.
“UAPA is an invisible tape bound around our mouths,” she declares.
UAPA enables the state to detain someone without a charge for 180 days, that too, without that person being tried in a court or convicted.
Enacted in 1967, the law was primarily used to combat terror and proscribe known terrorist organisations. A few days before the Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unilaterally abrogated the limited autonomy of Kashmir in August 2019, the ruling party revised the law, giving impunity to the state to designate an individual as a terrorist.
The revised law is so harsh and vague that several opposition political parties, retired police officers and formers judges have expressed concern over its “draconian” provisions and consistently asserted that the law is susceptible to misuse.
Spike in UAPA cases since 2019
As the law has been rampantly used in Kashmir over the last couple of years, especially after the BJP J&K’s abrogated special status, critics say, it has more insidious effects on people and its fear leads them to become more conformist.
The widespread use of the law has coerced journalists to self-censor themselves, pressurised dissidents to stay dormant out of fear and pressed social media users to become mute spectators.
Noor Mohammad Baba, a political commentator and retired professor of politics and governance at the Central University of Kashmir, believes the administration in Kashmir has subdued anybody who may speak out by using such laws.
“The atmosphere the ruling party generated in Kashmir after the reading down of Article 370 is extremely suppressive, vindictive and non-accommodative,” says Baba. “As the normal judiciary is missing in action, common people can’t even take recourse to law in the court against UAPA.”
Analysts also say the BJP modified the law just before the revocation of J&K’s semi-autonomous status because the ruling party wanted to use it as a tool to suppress those who criticise them and their policies in Kashmir.
Indeed, a rising spike in UAPA cases since 2019 raises concern over its extensive use and prevalent impact on people.
According to a report by the Indian Express, police have booked 2,364 people under UAPA since 2019 and nearly half of them are still languishing in jail inside and outside the Valley.
Moreover, the data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) from 2010 to 2018 reveals that alongside Manipur and Assam, Kashmir has witnessed the maximum number of UAPA cases, rising from 45 in 2014 to 245 in 2018. There were no UAPA cases registered in Kashmir from 2010 to 2014.
Though most of the accused have been arrested after being booked under UAPA, the conviction rate remains low. The data presented by the Union home ministry in parliament in March this year shows only 2.2% of cases registered under the UAPA between 2016 and 2019 resulted in conviction by courts.
Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, who is working on UAPA cases, claims that UAPA is one of the tactics New Delhi has employed to completely control and subjugate the people of Kashmir.
“It would be an understatement if we say the law has been used to silence people in Kashmir,” says Iqbal. “Its widespread use in Kashmir is a punishment meted out to the people.”
Women targeted under UAPA
Quratulain Rehbar, a young journalist with more than three years of experience in reporting, has often received advice from her worrying friends and relatives not to work on sensitive stories, as such stories could put her in trouble.
“Fear of UAPA has been ingrained into our minds,” says Rehbar. “It (UAPA) has become a part of our daily discussions.”
Another female photojournalist, withholding her name for fear of reprisal, says scrutiny has escalated in Kashmir over the last couple of years and the administration has used laws like UAPA as a tool to hide ground realities and break the will of the people.
“Such harsh laws affect you mentally which in turn alter your work,” she says. “I have become cautious, but I will never cow down into submission.”
Besides Zahra, two other women – a former police cop and a deceased militant’s mother – have been booked under UAPA, jailed and later released on bail.
On May 11, Naseema Bano was released on medical bail after spending more than 11 months in jail. The 57-year-old Bano, a frail lady with feverish eyes and restlessness in moments, was arrested on June 20, 2020 from her home in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district and booked under UAPA. Police accused her of recruiting two youths to militancy and providing logistical support to a militant organisation in Kashmir – charges her family denies.
Bano’s 24-year-old son Tauseef Ahmad Sheikh had joined the militancy in 2014 and was killed in an encounter by paramilitary forces in 2018. In 2017, Bano’s photo sitting beside her militant son and holding an assault rifle went viral on social media in Kashmir. Her family believes the photograph was the reason she was booked under UAPA.
“I still don’t get a sense of why I have been incarcerated for such a long time,” says Bano. “If the photograph was the reason that has infuriated the state, then thousands of mothers would have been jailed, as taking photographs with militant sons was common in Kashmir.”
When this reporter met Bano in 2018, after her son was killed, she was active, vociferous and resilient woman, who couldn’t only do household chores but took an active part in farming.
“Jail has incapacitated me,” says Bano, who is a diabetic and hypertension patient. “Since I was released from jail, I didn’t even visit our farmland once.”
Bano’s condition had deteriorated in jail. Her eyesight has weakened, and her high sugar level has made her teeth fall.
“It wasn’t only me who was suffering during my jail time, but my whole family was distressed,” Bano adds.
‘UAPA is a collective punishment’
Iqbal, the lawyer, agrees with Bano. “UAPA is a collective punishment,” he says.
“It is not the victim who suffers, but his/her whole family becomes sufferers. It is an act of psychological punishment to control souls.”
In the same district, on April 14, 2021, Saima Jan, a policewoman in her early 20s, was detained by police and booked under UAPA for confronting counter-insurgency forces during Cordon and Search Operation (CASO) that had been laid in her locality.
Jan’s self-recorded video of the confrontation went viral on social media in Kashmir. The only child and lone breadwinner of her ailing parents, Jan had been accused of “glorifying militancy and obstructing the government officials on duty”.
After her arrest, she was terminated from her post as a special police officer. In a statement, police said Jan resisted the search party, turned violent, and uttered statements glorifying the violent actions of alleged terrorists. On July 16, Jan was released on bail.
Meanwhile, Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, couldn’t be reached for his comment on rising UAPA cases in Kashmir. A questionnaire sent to him via email has not received any response.
A research scholar and an independent journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, says laws like UAPA exacerbate the already existing state of emergency through which the Indian state perpetually controls Kashmir, repressively tries to reconfigure political equations within the region and tries to stifle every form of dissent.
“UAPA is like the Nuremberg laws of the Nazis, albeit advanced under the veneer of democracy,” he says.
“One lives in a perpetual state of psychological siege under these laws in Kashmir, and free speech is unimaginable without forceful retribution from the state, so all critical expression is filtered either through self-censorship or imposed censorship.”
Sheikh Showkat Husain, a political analyst and former head of the department of law and dean of the school of legal studies at the Central University of Kashmir, who has authored several books on Kashmir conflict says laws like UAPA have always been used by those in power to silence dissenters, and Kashmir is no exception.
“What happens because of such laws is that dissent doesn’t come to limelight while it perpetuates in dormancy. Then it surprises those who subject masses to suppression,” says Hussain.
Note: The story was reported under the National Foundation for India fellowship for independent journalists.
Aamir Ali Bhat is a journalist and independent researcher based in Kashmir. He writes on human rights violations, politics and environment.