Kupwara: For the past five days, 55-year-old Kaif* has left his home early in the morning for the police station in Kupwara, some five km from his village, Bumhama, hoping to return home with his son.
Kaif’s youngest son, 15-year-old Zahab*, was arrested on May 29 when he, together with three other young men, all residents of Bumhama, voluntarily went to the police post in Drugmullah with their village sarpanch (head), who had been directed by the police to present them at the station.
The police booked eight young men from the village under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA), for allegedly raising anti-national slogans at a funeral. Zahab is among the four young men already arrested, his case just one among the sharply rising number of proceedings under the draconian security law in Jammu and Kashmir.
Arrested for slogans
On May 28 at around 9 pm, a car hit 29-year-old Bumhama resident Mohammad Amin Dar on the main road in the village that connects the picturesque Kupwara district to Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar.
Dar, a labourer, died on the way to the hospital. The next day, hundreds of people from his native and adjacent villages participated in his funeral.
Between the chanting of religious slogans according to the ritual of burial, someone in the crowd raised a pro-freedom slogan – ‘Hum hya chahte (What do we want)?’ And a few young men among the gathering responded with the word ‘Azadi (freedom)’.
The video of the funeral went viral on social media and the next day, the police post at Drugmullah told the village sarpanch to inform eight young men from the village to report to them.
“We could not understand who raised these slogans,” Nazir Ahmad Dar, sarpanch of the village, told The Wire.
Nazir convinced four young men among the eight accused to accompany him to the police post. They were taken into custody and later shifted to the police station in Kupwara.
“Among the four who were arrested, three had not even participated in the funeral. The fourth one is a minor. However, he can be seen in the video,” Nazir said.
Nazir and the village elders tried to persuade the police officers to release the arrested young men, but the officers did not budge from their stand.
At the Kupwara police station, Kaif told the officers that his son is innocent and a minor. Zahab is a student of class 10 at the government higher secondary school in Drugmulla. “I showed them his birth certificate. But they (the police) showed no mercy and sent him to Srinagar jail,” Kaif said.
Kaif, a labourer and the father of five, has no idea of the meaning of the charge against his son. He hopes that Zahab will be released soon after his bail application is heard.
“I don’t know anything about this act. They (the police) told me he will be released in the next few days. I am illiterate and I feel I am losing my senses as I roam from one door to another for the release of my son,” he said.
The other families
Among the four young men who were arrested is 28-year-old Aijaz Ahmad Sheikh, who is suffering from a chest infection and has no history of criminal activity. Aijaz has two sisters, a brother and ailing parents.
“Aijaz did not participate in the funeral. There is no evidence against him in the video that went viral on social media,” said Farooq Ahmad Ganie, Aijaz’s uncle and a government employee.
Aijaz’s family has been depressed since his arrest. “Everyone at home is shattered. They cry all day,” said Farooq. Aijaz runs a tea stall in the village and earns a paltry sum. “The family lives hand to mouth,” Farooq added.
In their struggle to get Aijaz released, his family even went to meet Fayaz Ahmad Mir, a former member of the Rajya Sabha from North Kashmir.
Like Kaif, Aijaz’s family does not know what the UAPA is. “We have approached a local lawyer and we hope all the men from the village will be released soon,” Farooq said.
Advocate Mir Qayoom who represents the four young men from the village told The Wire that he has moved their bail applications in the UAPA-designated court at Baramulla.
“The prosecution has asked the police for the report. Once the police file the report, the case will be listed for hearing,” the lawyer said.
Qayoom feels his case is strong. He believes there is no evidence against the accused. “One of the accused is a minor and we have moved the juvenile court for his bail,” he said.
When the families of the young men sought Fayaz Ahmad Mir’s help, he contacted senior police officials. However, he told The Wire that the police had already filed a case against them.
“When this law was passed in parliament, I opposed it strictly and warned that this law would make the people of Kashmir suffer the most. Now we are seeing it happen,” said Mir.
The two other arrested men are siblings: 31-year-old Qaiser Ahmad and 27-year-old Bilal Ahmad Mir. According to a family member, the brothers run a spare parts shop in the village and live a simple life.
“Both Bilal and Qaiser were busy with preparations for Qaiser’s wedding which is scheduled for next month,” said a relative who wished to remain anonymous. “The police have accused them of raising slogans at the funeral. But they are not seen in the video. The video shows hundreds of people responding to the slogans. Does that mean they (the police) will arrest all of them?” he wondered.
“This is the height of injustice and brutality. If people are arrested for such small issues, then I believe we all should be sent to jails and end the story once for all,” he added.
A senior police officer told The Wire on condition of anonymity that they have arrested four young men in the case so far. “They raised anti-national slogans at a funeral and we booked them under the UAPA,” he said.
The police officer confirmed that one among them is a minor and has been shifted to a juvenile home. He said the basis on which the four men were arrested was the video. “We have the video as evidence,” he said.
The rise of UAPA cases
Senior criminal lawyer Mir Urfi told The Wire that the police in Jammu and Kashmir tend to invoke the UAPA arbitrarily and the Kupwara episode is a case in point.
“The police could have booked them for disturbing the peace under provisions of the Indian Penal Code,” she pointed out. Instead, they framed charges under this “heinous act”.
Mir has had 15 years’ experience in criminal cases in the erstwhile state. She claims that the Jammu and Kashmir police book people under the UAPA to suppress the pro-freedom sentiment in the union territory.
“People are scared of the UAPA. We cannot say the government has been successful in instilling fear among the people, but the process of getting bail under the UAPA is troublesome. It worries people and breaks them,” said Mir.
In the past, according to Mir, the Jammu and Kashmir police have used security legislations such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA). Now the UAPA is in vogue. But the pro-freedom sentiment prevalent in the Kashmir valley has not died down.
Since Article 370 was read down in August 2019, the draconian UAPA has been used to criminalise any form of dissent. According to many people in the union territory, it has been invoked since 2019 not only against severe crimes but also petty offences that are covered by the IPC.
To make matters worse for the accused, the Jammu and Kashmir police charge the same person under two laws: the UAPA and the PSA, which leads to delays in the trial process. India has been internationally criticised for its rampant use of the PSA in Jammu and Kashmir and now uses the UAPA either as an alternative or in combination with the PSA.
In the shrinking democratic space of the region, the authorities have charged journalists, university students, politicians, young men playing cricket and people raising pro-freedom slogans at funerals under the UAPA. Even an aggrieved father who demanded the body of his son from the authorities was charged under the UAPA.
In 2019 alone, 255 cases of charges under the UAPA were registered in Jammu and Kashmir according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau.
“In the UAPA designated court in Srinagar which caters to four districts – Srinagar, Ganderbal, Budgam and Pulwama – we currently have 157 pending UAPA challans. The number of people accused under this Act is huge,” said advocate Mir.
The Srinagar court that handles UAPA cases was designated in 2019.
Sheikh Showkat, a senior political analyst and author who earlier headed the law department at the Central University of Kashmir, believes that the Indian state uses this law in Jammu and Kashmir so often because of a sense of insecurity.
“Whenever they smell any type of resistance, they (the police) rush in and try to harass the people,” he told The Wire.
He could not comment on the impact of the law, he said, because the law is not being used for its actual purpose, but mainly to deter the people of the erstwhile state from their pro-freedom sentiment.
“Probably even after using this law, the deterrence is not working,” he added. “Dissent still exists on the ground. This is because the society here continuously remains in conflict situations and people now have no fear of such laws. The practice [of charging people under the UAPA] only alienates the people more than ever.”
In February, a seven-member team of Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations expressed “deep concerns” over the arbitrary use of anti-terror laws and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) against human rights defenders and journalists in Kashmir which they said “aimed at discrediting their work”.
Five days have passed since Zahab was arrested. Now Kaif has started thinking about a long legal battle that will consume more of his already depleted resources.
“These days due to the lockdown I am not finding work and learning how the UAPA works is another nightmare for me,” he said. “I don’t have enough resources to even feed my family. How can I fight a case for my son?”
*Names changed to protect minor detainee’s identity.