Police invoke ‘minor’ offence to arrest the boy 7 years later

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SRINAGAR: After the February 14, attack on paramilitary men that claimed the life of 49 troopers, the Kashmiris especially students and business community outside valley were attacked by the mobs forcing them to return Kashmir. Many businessmen and students returned however, some of them stayed despite the prevailing situation in various states of the country.

The bus carrying Kashmiri students heading towards home last month. Pic courtesy: Khalsa Aid  

In 2012, when Aqib Rasool was a 12-year-old boy growing up in Kashmir, he uploaded an image of the Pakistani flag on his Facebook profile photo. Seven years passed and he was arrested by the police in Himachal Pradesh for “anti-national” activity, media reports claimed.

On February 17, this year, Rasool — now 19 — was jailed by the Himachal Pradesh police after a group of fellow students at the YS Parmar University of Forestry and Horticulture in Solan demanded his arrest in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing on February 14. He was booked under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code for ‘causing provocation with the intent to cause riots’. The FIR, which HuffPost has a copy of, said, “It becomes clear from the post that the mentioned people are involved in anti-national activities and it is suspected that they are involved in seditious activities as well,” HuffPost India reported.

When Rasool’s family tried to apply for bail, local lawyers barricaded the district court and refused to let any lawyer represent him. Police and university authorities both confirmed the news of the lawyers’ boycott. On February 27, after 10 days in jail, the Shimla High Court refused to give him bail, directing them back to the local court. On March 1, Rasool was finally granted bail by the district court in Solan. But his ordeal is not over. He still has to stand trial, the report mentioned.

Rasool isn’t alone. Peer Zada Tabish Fayaz, a 21-year-old M Sc Student at the same university, has suffered the same fate — he too was arrested for supposedly provocative posts made between 2011 and 2014, when he too was a minor.

When Rasool’s family tried to apply for bail, local lawyers barricaded the district court and refused to let any lawyer represent him.

Khalsa Aid groups volunteering for the help of Kashmiri students in various parts of the country last month.

Rasool and Fayaz’s arrest come at a time when young Kashmiris studying across India have to bear the brunt of the jingoistic hysteria drummed up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party to detract from his government’s failure to prevent the horrific February 14 suicide bombing that resulted in the death of 49 paramilitary troopers. Arresting people for Facebook posts and Whatsapp messages have become a matter of routine. Yet, even in this increasingly absurd times, Rasool and Fayaz’s cases stand out.

The case of the two young men illustrate how ‘nationalistic’ mobs have overwhelmed every single institution — state-run colleges that are supposed foster an atmosphere of tolerance and a respect for speech, the police who should have protected them from the mob rather than arresting them, the lawyers who must ensure that every accused has a right to a defence, and the District and High Court who are sworn to uphold the principles of the Indian constitution.

“How can they call him anti-national? He was a child, a kid!” said Mudassir, Rasool’s brother. “He has participated in everything from Independence Day to Republic Day and other nationalistic events with full vigour in college. How can they suddenly declare him anti-national?”

“It seems the justice system is blind,” Mir Yasir, Rasool’s cousin, told HuffPost India.

Choudhary Ali Zia Kabir, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network, told HuffPost India that uploading a picture of any country’s flag cannot be considered an offence at all.

Fayaz’s posts, Kabir said, were written when he was a juvenile. “As they were children, their responsibility stands diminished,” Kabir said, saying the police should have considered this before arresting them.

Assistant Sub Inspector Ramesh Chandra, who is overseeing the case, said that the posts were from several years ago. But the boys were arrested anyway, and their phones and laptops have been sent for forensic analysis. Now the matter is caught in India’s notoriously slow-moving legal system, suggesting it could be years before the case is finally dismissed, HuffPost India reported.

“They could have slapped him, scolded him, suspended him even? But throw him to jail?” Mudassir, Rasool’s brother told HuffPost India. “His life will be destroyed, what will happen to him now?”

AN ANGRY MOB OF STUDENTS

Soon after the Pulwama attack, a person familiar with the events at Rasool’s university told HuffPost India, a group of students sought to target the Kashmiris in their midst. What followed reveals how right-wing groups are taking advantage of India’s crumbling legal system, where the process itself is the punishment.

Kashmiri students who had fled from various colleges of India having a night stay at Gurdwara in Chandigarh last month.

“They scanned the length and breadth of social media accounts of all Kashmiri students they knew in order to come up with an excuse to attack them,” the person told HuffPost India, asking for anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Assistant Sub Inspector Ramesh Chandra, who is overseeing the case, said that the posts were from several years ago. But the boys were arrested anyway, and their phones and laptops have been sent for forensic analysis.

On February 17, the university wrote a letter to the local police station warning them of escalating tension on campus. “The students are gathering on and off, trying to find these two Kashmiri students,” the letter stated, painting a terrifying picture of a mob. “The Students’ Welfare Officer has expressed that he will not be able to ensure the security of these Kashmiri students for long.”

The letter, which HuffPost India has accessed, confirmed that the tension was over Facebook posts written between 2011 and 2013. The university wrote to the local police, alerting them to escalating tension in the campus.

The letter mentioned a ‘commotion’ so intense ‘over old Facebook posts of Kashmiri students’ that the students’ welfare officer (SWO) informed the university authorities that he ‘has shifted the two students to a secret place in the university anticipating a security threat to these students’.

The letter made no mention of the “agitating” students, and if the university took any action against them. Rather than protect the Kashmiri students, the university tacitly chose the side of the mob.

Suchet Attre, the public relations officer of the university told HuffPost India that they did not file a police complaint against Rasool or Fayyaz, but informed the local police about the Facebook posts. Following the arrest of the boys, Attre couldn’t say if the university has attempted to reach out to the family or help them with the legal processes.

Attre said a student, who he refused to identify, contacted a lawyer called Neeraj Bhardwaj who filed the complaint against the Kashmiri students. The letter the university sent urged the police to assess the threat, deploy security at the campus and asked the police to ‘examine the facebook contents of the posts of above students and take necessary action as per law if needed.’

Attre said, “We informed the police for the sake of their (Kashmiri students’) own security. Now some student knew a lawyer and he lodged a complaint. It is completely within his right to do so.”

“If someone is studying in India, he is having aids from India and everything from India. And then he is saying ’we love Mujahideen, long live Kashmir, long live Pakistan, my heart beats for Pakistan, so what was the remedy with us? I could have done the complaint I did that and police took its action,” Bhardwaj told HuffPost India. “Now it’s up to the courts.”

When HuffPost India asked him if he realised that the students were only teenagers when the posts were uploaded, Bhardwaj suddenly clammed up. “It is more like that you are interrogating me right now?” he said.

He claimed the Kashmiri students told their fellow students that such killings were normal in Kashmir, and happened often. The FIR or the university letter, however, doesn’t mention the students making any such comments, HuffPost India reported.

 A MOB AND A MISSING TEENAGER

On February 17, the day the university sent the letter to the police, Rasool made a panicked phone call to his elder brother Mudassir, who lives in Bandipora.

Rasool said a mob had gathered outside his hostel and was looking for him.

The aftermath of arson in Janipur Jammu last month. KL file Image

“He said, he has been asked to stay inside by the student welfare officer,” Mudassir told HuffPost India. “‘Anyway, I have a project to submit, I will try finishing that’, he told me and disconnected the phone,” Mudassir added.

Sometime later, Rasool texted Mudassir saying he was being moved to another hostel, as there was some trouble in the one he was living in.

An hour later, Rasool called again. This time, he was frantic and was on the verge of tears. “He told me that the police had arrived at the university and they were taking him and the other kid away.

“He told me that the police had arrived at the university and they were taking him and the other kid away. So then I asked him to hand the phone over to the police officer,” he said. The officer, Mudassir said, assured him that Rasool is safe and the only reason he was being taken away is that people were agitated in the campus and it was becoming dangerous for the two to stay there.

“When I asked for the officer’s number, he said I can keep calling my brother on his phone,” he said. A few hours later, Aqib’s phone became unreachable and next day morning, the weeping teenager told his brother that he has been arrested.

“It was like a bolt of lightning. He was crying and kept asking us all to come down and get him out,” Mudassir said. It took them a day to organise resources and on Tuesday, two days after Aqib was arrested, his cousin Mir landed in Solan to get him bail.

By then, the two had been produced in a district court in Solan and was remanded to judicial custody for three days, the report mentioned.

A LAWYERS’ BOYCOTT

By the time Mir reached Solan, word had spread that two Kashmiri students had been arrested for ‘anti-national’ activities. He struggled to find a lawyer to represent Aqib and Solan’s bar association boycotted him and vowed to not allow any local lawyer to move a bail application in the district court.

Not just that, Mir was told that when Rasool and Fayaz were produced in court, a mob of lawyers attacked them, leading the police to take them out of the premises for a emergency entrance. “I couldn’t muster courage to go to the court and seek a lawyer after that. I was terrified,” said Mir, who tried to get others to convince a lawyer to represent Rasool, reported HuffPost India.

A site of the blast at Lethpora Awantipora in which 49 CRPF troopers were killed on Feb 14, 2019.

The post mentioned in Bhardwaj’s complaint and consequently mentioned in the FIR, was one written by Fayaz: “Kashmir on boil. Four attacks in 3 days. Long live Muhaihideen Long Live Kashmir. It seems yesterday India was missing home conditions in south Africa. RIP India. Pakistani flag once again proudly being displayed in Srinagar. India occupied Kashmir. And Delhi still says Kashmir is an integral part of India. Ha, in your dreams. We will never accept Indians decision of moon sighting. We accept only Pakistani decision as our hearts beat with Pakistan our mind blow with Pakistan.” ASI Chandra told HuffPost India that 10 posts, all written between 2011-2014 by Fayaz were submitted along with the complaint and only one post of by Rasool.

Mudassir, Rasool’s brother, said that even if putting up a picture of Pakistan as a display picture in unacceptable in the current political scenario, the boy did it when he was 12 and had no understanding of the political implications of it. Living in the incessant cycle of violence in a conflict zone, Mudassir said, made it difficult for young boys to form discerning opinions.

“That’s why we sent him to study there, to get out of Kashmir and see the world. What have they done to him?” Mudassir said. Mir, Rasool’s cousin, said the accusations against Rasool were deeply hurtful.

“We know what militancy does. I lost my father when I was three, militants killed him. Accusing us of supporting militants, on the basis of something he said as a child is a grave injustice,” Mir told HuffPost India during a telephonic conversation.

He said that local lawyers had asked him to get a local guarantor from Solan to get Aqib bail. “I showed them my Aadhaar card and everything. But they told me you’re a Kashmiri, you have to get someone here. You keep saying one nation, we are one country? Then why this discrimination?” he said, HuffPost India reported.

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