Game of Thrones?

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Amid expectations that the political leaders will move out after putting half of the year in custody, the government slapped Public Safety Act against three former Chief Ministers’ and two of their aides as many more are expected anytime soon, Tahir Bhat reports

Accompanied by a few cops when a magistrate drove to the Hari Niwas guesthouse on February 6, evening, it was expected that Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister might be shifted to his Gupkar home, seen normally as a prelude to the release. Instead, he was handed over a warrant under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) that formally arrested him.

It happened in case of Mehbooba Mufti, being held in a government bungalow in the Banquet Hall’s backyard; and the two other politicians, Ali Mohammad Sagar and Sartaj Madni, whom the police had shifted from the MLA hostel to 5M on the Gupkar Road, earlier in the day.

The PSA warrants came within days after authorities silently moved some of the politicians from detention centres to their homes. Sajad Lone and Waheed Parra had moved from the Hostel barely a day before. It had generated an expectation that traditional stakeholders of Kashmir politics may now be permitted to resume their routine.

The government, however, decided otherwise. While the second rung was sent home (at least 10 political workers including some ministers are still in the MLA Hostel), the biggies in Kashmir politics were formally retained. Earlier, they were held under Section 107 (security for keeping the peace in other cases) and Section 151 (for apprehension of breaching peace) of CrPC. Now, they are formally arrested under the PSA, a law that allows government to retain them up to two years. Dr Farooq Abdullah was already under PSA that was extended to second quarter after he completed three months at his home, now a sub-jail. Of the four former Chief Ministers, right now, three are in detention under the law; they all are accused of using and abusing the same during their governments.

The warrants were issued hours after the issue was taken up by opposition in the parliament. “Three former chief ministers, including Farooq Abdullah, are languishing in jails for the past six months, they have been put behind bars without giving any proper reason,” Congressman Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, told the Lok Sabha. “Farooq Abdullah has not been allowed to attend three sessions… This House has a moral responsibility to see to it that his right to attend the House, express his views and raise the issues of his constituency in this House is protected. It has been six months and he has been detained illegally,” added Suresh Kodikunnil, who had moved an adjournment motion that Speaker Om Birla denied. Sitaram Yechury had in fact written a letter to the Prime Minister seeking the release of the politicians in Jammu and Kashmir.

Later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi read out the statements made by the three former Chief Ministers’ in recent past. After reading them out (with at least one inaccuracy), he asked the opposition: “And you speak for such people? You approve of such people?”

The grounds of detention are interesting. The dossier of Ali Mohammad Sagar (1247-50, dated 5-2-2020), as reported by Daily Excelsior, mentions that he raised the voice against the vision of India besides Article 370 and Article 35 A. “He was very vocal against abrogation of Articles 35A and 370,” the dossier reads. “He was involved in instigating youth especially party workers. His capacity to disturb the public order can be gauged from the fact that he succeeded in mobilizing voters in the peak of militancy and poll boycotts.”

In Madni’s dossier, approved by the Deputy Commissioner, Kulgam, the newspaper said, he has been accused of playing a pivotal role in agitation after alleged rape and murder of Asiya and Nelofar in 2009. “He played vital role in mobilizing anti-social elements. He was also involved in provoking people to come to the streets and actively support separatists and propagate secession of J&K from Union of India especially after Afzal Guru’s hanging,” the newspaper quoted the dossier reading.

Regardless of how the politics will be transacted outside, these high profile detainees are expected to retain their routine. They are unlikely to challenge the detention orders in the court of law. Omar Abdullah, for instance, spends most of his day in the erstwhile palace suite where he has access to TV, some books and his iPad (with its SIM removed) on which he watches pre-recorded movies. During the day, he moves out on a walk for less than an hour.

Informed sources said Omar, who now sports a flowing long salt and pepper beard, hardly talked to people and only interacts with the close family that visits him twice a week. His food comes pre-cooked from his home and he has some access to newspapers as well. He has even told the staff on duty around him to treat him as a prisoner, the real status that he has.

By and large, Mehbooba Mufti is in the same situation. Usually being visited by her mother, and some other close relatives, she is confined to the same bungalow that was revived by her father as Chief Minister’s official residence on the MA Road in 2003. Her daughter, Iltija Mufti, last week was quoted saying apart from studying the Quran, her mother has read Catherine Bowness’s Lost Palace, and Reza Aslan’s No God But God, besides Elif Shafaq, a Turkish-British novelist. Writing on social media, Iltija revealed how she and her mother communicated during the initial days. While Mehbooba sent her a note in the tiffin box, she sent her response in a written note that her granny concealed “into a tiny square & carefully sealed, rolled & locked inside the middle of a chapatti.”

Unlike the younger two, Dr Farooq Abdullah is slightly in a better position. This is probably because he is at home with his wife around and his daughter living next door. He has access to phone but avoids talking. People who have spoken to him said he only seeks prayers.

Not used to jails, most of the political workers who moved out of the detention are keeping a low profile. They hardly meet people or interact and most of them stay home. They have a common refrain: “We are being seen as collaborators by people in Kashmir and enemies by people in Delhi.” They also have a deep hurt that the politics, especially the mainstream politics, has been “criminalised”.

While most of them moved home from the Hostel, some are still under house arrest, there are only ten persons now in the hostel: Dr Shah Feasal, Bilal Sultan, Naeem Akhter, Khursheed Alam, Ali Mohammad Dar, Tanveer Sadiq, Irfan Shah, Peer Mansoor, Mubarak Gul and Hilal Akbar Lone. The last person who moved out of the hostel was Dr Bashir Ahmad Veeri, a day after Parra and Sajad Lone.

Some of the people who moved out of the Hotel have left Kashmir for the time being. “I am facing a serious problem in eyesight,” one former lawmaker told on phone. “I moved out for the treatment because there is nothing much to do unless the leaders come out.” He said many others have taken a recess post detention and moved to the plains for the time being.

“After I was released and reached home, lot of people started coming and it scared me,” the former lawmaker said. “I found it better to take care of my eyes for the time being.”

“As a child, I have memories of my mother going from pillar to post to free boys wrongfully detained by security forces,” Iltija Mufti, Mehbooba’s daughter, was quoted saying by The Hindu, a day after she termed it an Orwellian nightmare and compared Kashmir with Dante’s Inferno. “Today, as I fight for her freedom life has come full circle. We live to fight another day.”

Political parties and politicians in Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu did react to the development. Their main point was that the government is claiming something and doing something else.

“Shocked and devastated by the cruel invocation of the Public Safety Act against Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and others,” P Chidambaram, former Home Minister, tweeted. “Detention without charges is the worst abomination in a democracy. When unjust laws are passed or unjust laws are invoked, what option do the people have than to protest peacefully?”

“They (government) are claiming that the situation is normal and improving and are releasing the detained political leaders,” Communist leader Yousuf Tarigami was quoted saying. “(then) what is the meaning of slapping the PSA on the leaders after six months?”

“The arrest is a clear case of political vendetta and yet another example of vengeance for standing up against the assaults being made by the BJP against Jammu and Kashmir’s unique position,” a PDP spokesman said in a statement termed the move undemocratic, unprincipled and reflection of anarchic politics. It said their party leader is being hounded for being “conscious and echoing the public sentiment” and resisting “every evil design of the BJP” against Jammu and Kashmir’s “core interests”.

NC is shocked over what the government is doing to the people who have been managing Kashmir for all these decades. “The world community has woken up to see how the BJP led central government is treating former CMs of J&K. The same representatives, New Delhi once maintained were the genuine and real representative voices of J&K,” the NC statement said, while condemning the slapping of PSA. “For past many decades New Delhi has been flaunting political and diplomatic messages about the Kashmiris making their choices by using ballot boxes, however the same party, and the same leaders on which people had reposed their faith are now been targeted, revealing all- encompassing crackdown of BJP led central government in J&K. The only reason why NC leaders are under arrest is because they don’t agree with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.”

It added: “Former PM Late Mr Vajpayee during Agra Summit had referred to Dr Farooq Abdullah as the “third party” to the issue of J&K; he undoubtedly qualified the claim owing to his representative character. But now the same person is under detention for past six months. The same person who held high the torch of democracy in a state torn by conflict at the risk to his life. But today we see how he along with his party colleagues is being treated. All the democratic voices of J&K have been thrown under the bus purely for their conscience.”

Party’s Jammu chapter added: “This is to undermine his (Dr Abdullah’s) huge contribution in nation building belittling his internationally acclaimed political stature. It (meeting) recalled the observations of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee as leader of the Indian delegation in the UN, describing Dr Abdullah as a towering patriot, as also his immense affection for Mr Omar Abdullah and said the harsh move made last evening a biggest setback to democratic polity apart from downplaying the contribution of towering leaders who stood tall in most turbulent situations.”

File photo of Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Justice Hasnain Masoodi with PM Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

“There is no justification for it…the mainstream leaders served the erstwhile state in different capacities,” Sharma said, adding the latest move does not match with the claims of normalcy by the BJP and comes at a time when it is encouraging a section of mainstream opposition leaders for political activity.

After the PSA was slapped on them, the real talk that dominates the private discourse in Kashmir is that if the three former Chief Ministers’ have been so dangerous that they required PSA restrictions, how were they trusted for running Jammu and Kashmir for all these decades. Similar to National Security Act, the PSA is a preventive detention law that has traditionally been used against the separatists and some chronic smugglers. It allows detention without trial for up to two years.

“Years from now, the secrecy and stealth that preceded those decisions, the snapping of communication links and arrests of thousands may pass off as a kind of statecraft unique to the world’s largest democracy, should historians be charitable,” commented The Telegraph editorially. “Six months may be too early to assess the impact of the August 5 decisions, but the portents are hardly encouraging.”

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