At Srinagar's Central Jail, Despairing Families Wait to Meet Detainees

Amid reports of detainees being moved to jails outside Kashmir, the relatives of those picked up have been stuck in a cycle of despair.

Srinagar: Mugli Begum kept her eyes glued to the gate of Srinagar’s main prison – Central Jail – and waited for a policeman to call her number.

“I haven’t moved at all since morning. They might call my number anytime,” she said. Begum’s serial number was 46.

After three unsuccessful attempts over the past two weeks, the 69-year-old woman from Daanderkha- Batmaloo locality in Srinagar had finally been given permission by the authorities to meet her jailed son, Mohammad Rafiq Sofi.

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“I’m dying to see him, to touch his face,” she said in a soft tone. “I am worried he might have been tortured by policemen.”

‘Wrongful arrest’  

According to Begum, 39-year old Sofi was picked up by the J&K police during a midnight raid at their residence on August 21 and shifted to the jail after he spent two nights in detention at a local police station.

“He didn’t commit any crime. Allah knows my son is innocent,” Begum kept saying. “They (police) arrested him only because they couldn’t find his nephew whom they blame for throwing stones on security personnel.”

Mugli Begum waits outside Central Jail to meet her son who was arrested last month. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

A mason by profession, Sofi is married with two children – a four-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son. His nephew is a Class 11 student and lives with his family in Padshahi Bagh locality, some 10 km away from Daanderkha, Begum said.

The young boy was staying at Sofi’s house for a few days during the second week of August.

“After staying with us, he took our leave,” Begum said. “Since then, there has been no news of him.”

As the conversation continued, Begum questioned her son’s “wrongful” arrest.

“Isn’t there a law that governs the arrests? How can they arrest one person in place of another? Have they carried out similar arrests elsewhere also?” Begum asked.

On August 5, the Indian government revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which stripped the restive J&K of its special status. Since then, security agencies have arrested more than 3,500 persons in the Kashmir Valley alone. The August crackdown to thwart protests against the decision is the most massive clampdown the region has witnessed during recent years.

Many of those arrested include top politicians – among them three former chief ministers – separatists, lawyers, businessmen and scores of youth.

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The J&K police said only those youth who were “chronic stone pelters (stone throwers)” have been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a law under which a person can be detained without trial for six months.

But the government has came under severe criticism for the mass arrests and for sending incarcerated persons to jails outside Kashmir – in Agra, New Delhi and UP, among others.

Wrinkle-faced Begum fears her son Sofi might also be shifted.

“A son of our neighbour who was also wrongly arrested in place of his brother was lodged in this jail some days ago. We heard he too has been shifted,” she said.

Local media reports said dozens of prisoners have been moved out of Kashmir. However, authorities are tight-lipped over the matter.

‘My brother broke down’

Every morning parents and other relatives queue up outside the entrance of the highly fortified jail to meet their kin arrested post August 5. Meeting time starts at 10 am and concludes at 2 pm, say the relatives of the incarcerated persons.

Once a prisoner is shifted to the jail, he is asked to register names of his three close relatives who can visit him. The relatives are required to produce Aadhaar cards as proof that they are related.

Relatives of a boy detained in the jail. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

Iqra had arrived at the jail in the morning along with her younger sister to meet their brother Shahid Manzoor, who was arrested by the police on August 17.

A resident of Khanyar locality in Srinagar, 19-year-old Manzoor, a school-dropout, worked as a washer at a local car service station, said Iqra. The young boy was picked up on the charges of stone throwing during a midnight raid.

Manzoor’s family said it was their third meeting with him. “During his last meeting with his father, he (Manzoor) had broken down, pleading to get him released. The lawyers say that they can’t do anything right now and we will have to wait for some more time before applying for the bail,” said Iqra, holding her baby in her lap.

‘Careers ruined’

Outside Central Jail, which is situated in the Kathidarwaza locality, three shops remain open throughout the day even as most parts of Kashmir remain shut. From there, many who have come to visit their relatives buy some food.

Iqbal Ahmad Teli, an engineering student from Dooru Shahabad in Anantnag, and three other family members, had set for Srinagar journey at around 5 am to meet their kin – Mudasir Ahmad, a Class 12 student.

While Ahmad’s two brothers and his father had entered the jail to meet him, Teli waited for them in the park outside.

“My brother was arrested on August 2 (three days before the Article 370 was abrogated). We came to know on August 14 that he had been booked under the PSA,” said Teli.

According to him, 19-year-old Ahmad was arrested for “mobilising” youth in his village to stage anti-government protests, a charge the family vehemently denied.

Ahmad was also arrested during a midnight raid. “That night, they arrested four boys from the locality, but three of them were released later,” said Teli. “My brother was shifted here.”

The family is now worried that their son might not be able to sit in the annual Class 12 exam, which is likely to be conducted in November.

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“He had passed with distinction in the Class 10 examination and had made his mind to prepare to study medicine,” said Ahmad. “The detention has crushed his dreams and ruined his career. Now we pray that he isn’t taken to any outside jail.”

The J&K administration and police have avoided disclosing exact number of arrests made in the past 36 days.

Last week, the additional director general of J&K police (law and order) Muneer Khan told the media that the cases of the arrested youth were being reviewed regularly.

“Most of them have been released after counselling by the police. Only those youth who are chronic stone pelters and those who instigate people stage protests have either been booked under PSA or sent to outside jails,” he said.