A group of 13 women who planned the first protest against August 5 decisions spent almost 30 hours in jail and were set free after they signed a bond that they will not breach peace again, reports Tahir Bhat
These days, history is in a complete reversal, literally. In 1947, probably the first IAF aircraft carrying the soldiers to Srinagar to push back Pakistani intruders flew two Kashmiri women to Delhi. Wearing white shuttlecock Burkha, the two women were said to be Begum Akbar Jehan, the wife of Kashmir’s towering leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and their daughter Khalida Shah. They were flown to Delhi to protect them from any harm in the explosive situation that existed in Kashmir at the time of the accession.
In 2019, when the entire constitutional arrangement that was the outcome of the 1947 process was binned by a new law that the bicameral Parliament passed in the first week of August, the first-ever symbolic protest came 73 days after, when a group of 13 women came with placards and wanted to have a “peaceful sit-in” on the Moulana Azad Road. Within minutes, they became the first female detainees of the ongoing crisis. Among others, these included Sheikh Abdullah’s daughter, Dr Suraya Matoo and his granddaughter, Safiya Khan.
Suraya is Dr Farooq’s sister, and Safiya his daughter. He along with his son Omar is already in jail and are being held separately. Unlike Omar, Dr Farooq is formally detained under Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act.
Wearing a black band, Safiya Khan held a placard saying: ‘Why downgrade J&K state’. The other placards displayed included ‘Kashmiri bride not on sale’, ‘Resist to exist’, ‘Restore rights’ and ‘Don’t deceive Indians.’ Suraya’s placard read: ‘Release all detainees’.
Police attempted preventing the women from distributing a brief statement to the media. “We the women of Kashmir disapprove the unilateral decision taken by the government of India to revoke Article 370, 35A and downgrade and split the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” the statement said. They demanded the restoration of “civil liberties and fundamental rights” of the citizens and slammed a section of the media for “their false/misleading coverage” of Kashmir.
They were bundled into two armoured police vehicles by a posse of female CRPF personnel and rushed to the police station Kothibagh. There, they were told they stand arrested for violating Section 144 CrPC, barring assembly of more than four persons. They were booked under Section 107 CrPC for “breaching the peace”.
As police were removing them, a few of the protesting women did talk to the media. “The peaceful sit-in protest was to seek answers for the humiliation inflicted on the people of J&K,” said Suraiya Mattoo. “They are saying it is normal. Whatever is happening in the last two and a half months is not normal. They must restore civil liberties.”
“We wanted to say that they (a reference to BJP and central government) are saying that Kashmir is happy,” Hawa Bashir, a retired teacher and wife of retired high court judge Bashir Ahmad Khan, told reporters. “We are unhappy over what was done to Kashmir. We want them to talk, we want to discuss and we want to say why we are unhappy but we are chocked.”
Hawa, the wife of retired High Court judge Bashir Ahmad Khan, had not gone alone. She was accompanied by her two sisters – Ruqaiya Malik (wife of journalist Mohammad Sayeed Malik) and Quratulain and also the daughter of her another sister, Bushra. The three are sisters of journalist politician Shameem Ahmad Shameem. Others were identified as Fareeda Naqshbandi, Shumshad Suhaaf, Zubaida, Dr Shameem and Dr Muslim Jan along with her domestic help and Sushiba Barve. Their another member Kanta Alvi, who was also part of the symbolic protest, however, escaped arrest.
“We wanted to sit silently with placards,” Quratulain, author and academician, said. “As soon as we started, the police came asking us dozens of questions, about the permissions. Is this democracy?”
Dr Muslim Jan, a University of Kashmir teacher said in the police station they were told that they will have to be presented before Deputy Commissioner. “We insisted that why cannot commissioner come to the police station because a number of the detained women are aged and unwell,” Jan said. “They finally got an armoured police truck and drove them out of the police station.” Jan was accompanied by her domestic help and she was also arrested.
The women were hoping that they are being driven to DC Office but when they reached Khanyar, they knew they were being driven to the Central Jail in Srinagar. They were straightaway taken to a new complex in a big hall. Moments later, a senior magistrate reached there to formally convey to them that they are in judicial custody. Minutes later, they were again driven out to the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital in Rainwari for the mandatory medical check-up.
“When they listed a couple of diseases and asked if any of the members had one, a dominant number said they are patients,” Jan said. “What was painful that the aged women were moving from one staircase to another and it took some time to get the tests done.”
By the time, they returned to the central jail, the hall was converted into a workshop with carpenters working on the toilet doors. Jan said a senior jail officer had driven to the jail to ensure that the toilets lacking doors should be fixed quickly. “Some jail staffers’ thanked us for the completion of the hall that was not being done for a long time,” Jan said. “Some staffers told us to convey to the society about how we treat prisoners but a member rebuffed him saying that is not our job.”
After they had dal-rice in dinner, they attempted sleeping on the 13-beds specially laid for them; Jan said most of them could not sleep. “We were not unhappy but some of us started thinking of the people back home, somebody was expecting a guest and somebody had forgotten telling home about the dinner preparations,” Jan said. “Most of the night was spent talking with Sheikh’s daughter telling them how she used to visit her father in the jail quite often.”
By morning, after they were served tea, the process for their bail started. Altaf Khan, their lawyer got the ‘bonds of peace and tranquillity’ from the magistrate along with surety bond (for Rs 10,000) and the women signed assuring the government that they will not resort to breaching the peace or creating a disorder. The bond was the same as is currently in vogue. “We were treated fairly and we do not have any regrets either for the symbolic protest or the subsequent developments,” Jan said. They moved out of jail at around 5:30 pm.
Incidentally, the NC was the only political group that sharply reacted to the development. “The detention of Suraya Mattoo and Safiya Abdullah Khan, respectively sister and daughter of Dr Farooq Abdullah and the aunt and sister of Omar Abdullah, reflects the sad state of affairs the state is in for the past nearly seventy days,” NC statement issued jointly by its leaders read. “Such harsh measures will further alienate the people and delay restoration of normalcy in the Kashmir Valley, which is reeling under fear psychosis and sense of insecurity among the people.”
Some members of the group said the media coverage of the event suggested as if it was an NC protest. “The fact is that after the phone services were restored, some of us suggested a symbolic protest and when the word spread Suraiya Mattoo said she will also join,” one member said. “Same was the case with Sushiba Barve, the Director of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR), who also volunteered to join and was arrested.” Another member was irked when somebody told her that the protest was an “elitist one”.
However, their own family members used social media to elicit support for them. “…while my mother and aunts are in jail for a peaceful protest,” Hawa’s son Aamir Bashir, famous for his role in the popular Netflix series Sacred Games, wrote on Twitter. “While they’re old and need medicines for arthritis, asthma and cardiac ailments, they’re still better off than those mothers who have not seen their young ones since this lockdown began.”
Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based academician and Suraiya’s daughter wrote: “My mother and the rest of the women with her at Pratab Park have been taken to Central Jail, Srinagar. They have been put behind the bars for attempting to peacefully protest”. Mansoor Anwar, whose 81-year-old mother-in-law Ruqaya Sayeed was among the detained women, said he was proud of her.