Released Not Freed

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Even after moving out of the special jails and from the home detentions, Kashmir politicians will be haunted by the memory of the seven months they spent almost under lock and key, reports Saima Bhat

Bilal Sultan Shah

On March 11, when Muzamil Bilal reached MLA Hostel in Srinagar, she was shocked to see the plight of her incarcerated husband, Bilal Sultan Shah. Stepping carefully into a dim-lit room dominated by an eerie silence, Muzamil could not fix her thoughts on anything. That, however, was not the worst part of the visit. She was shocked to see her husband in isolation and dishevelled. “His room was dark. All lights were off and he was lying in bed and sweating,” said Muzamil, who runs a private school in Bemina. “”.

She broke down as soon as she left the hostel. A few minutes later, she received a call from an officer informing that her husband’s bail had been approved.

Not willing to believe, she was in a dilemma. “It was his third bail since his detention, so I was unsure about it,” she said.

Last week, Shah had a panic attack. He was rushed to SMHS hospital and later to the Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (IMHANS) in Rainawari. He was diagnosed with symptoms of “extreme suicide ideation”. The doctors who treated him advised counselling sessions twice a week, besides other medication.

A lawyer by profession and a social activist running an orphanage, Shah had joined Engineer Rashid’s Awami Itehaad Party last year. As Rashid and Dr Shah Faesal came together, Shah also became part of joint Peoples United Front (PUF). Convinced by the political agenda of PUF, Shah unsuccessfully fought Lok Sabha elections from Srinagar in 2019 against winning candidate Dr Farooq Abdullah, who was also booked under stringent Public Safety Act (PSA). As this report was being filed, UT administration revoked the PSA detention of 87 years Abdullah.

A few months later after fighting his maiden election, Shah was detained during the night of August 4, hours before Article 370 was revoked and Jammu and Kashmir downgraded into two union territories. His first detention centre was Srinagar’s Central Jail where he was lodged for around two months. The court granted him bail in October, but he was re-arrested and taken to the erstwhile SKICC. Later he was shifted to MLA hostel. In December, the court again granted him the bail, but he was again re-arrested.

“At the hostel, I was always surrounded by other detainees but I did not feel like talking to them. I preferred to be in my room, alone,” Shah said.

The perplexing situation has shattered the confidence of politicians in Kashmir, claim the doctors treating them post-August 5. A leading psychiatrist of Kashmir claims that whatever their future course, the politicians detained for many months have high chances of depressive disorders.

“Psychologically they are more vulnerable. They had not anticipated the trauma”, said a psychiatrist on condition of anonymity. “People cope better with struggles but when there is dispossession, disempowerment and devastation then chances of depression are very high”. Another psychiatrist working in Kashmir for the past two decades has a different take. He says it varies from person to person and is about the attitude. “It depends on the people under detention how they would take it. Usually, people process their traumatic experience in three ways: some very negatively and they succumb to depression, some take it in a neutral way and cope up and some get positive outcomes like Nelson Mandela, that happens to a lot of people, they become better people.”

Incarcerated political leaders in SKICC.

The department of psychiatry conducted a study Psychiatric ailments among inmates of Central jail Srinagar in 2013, in which the researcher Dr Altaf Ahmad Malla and his team, found that political prisoners had least chances of contracting depression in comparison to the other inmates. The researchers attributed the low level of morbidity among militants and political prisoners to “motivation and conviction” for their jobs. This study remains unpublished for the last seven years.

However, there is a contradiction in the survey. A doctor working in the hospital says: “The study was done on those political prisoners who were separatists and militants. But the present lot comes from the mainstream background and they were not expecting such treatment. So nobody knows how they will manage their stress levels.”

The massive crackdown post-August 4 left almost all the politicians speechless. Though most of them released, caution is being exercised in expressing the dissent over the unilateral decision taken by the Parliament to downgrade the erstwhile state into two Union Territories. Reportedly many such politicians have signed a bond saying that they won’t be talking about the revocation of special status. Bonds apart, many of them have taken the route of ‘ill-health’ to stay away from saying anything.

“I am unwell and hospitalised. Doctors have advised that I should not take any stress,” said one of the politicians released a few months ago.

Another politician said on condition of anonymity that they are scared to say anything. “We are scared after being in detention for so long. If we start saying something, they will book us again,” he said.

One of the recently released politicians spoke to Kashmir Life for 30 minutes, sharing his jail experience. After two minutes of dropping his call, he called back asking not to publish anything of the conversation. “Maybe they will re-arrest me,” He said, and dropped the call.

While talking about the days of detention, one recently released politician said that they got an opportunity to understand each other better. Coming from diverse ideologies and party backgrounds, they had a common thread of discussions. “Mostly we used to study books related to religion and politics with Nelson Mandela’s biography topping the list. We shared these books as well,” he said, adding their favourite past time was to watch Turkish TV series Ertugrul.

“We used to discuss the situation in Kashmir, India after CAA and the world. Believe me, there have been moments when we cried seeing the condition of Muslims in India,” said another politician on condition of anonymity.

Lamenting the indifference of the administration which once they managed, he added: “The approach of the administration towards us was very bad. There were a dozen CCTV cameras in SKICC and more than a dozen at MLA hostel. But still, they used to raid our rooms continuously and harass us. Don’t know if they were asked to agitate us.”

Let alone Individuals, even the political parties as a unit don’t talk about anything specific beyond welcoming the internet connectivity or seeking the release of their top leadership. There is no word on the political front, except for the BJP.

For the release of top leadership, only three petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. But later one, filed by the friends of Dr Faesal was withdrawn by his family but two are presently before the court.

Defying the reluctance, Iltija Mufti, daughter of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti condemned the action of the government. She also took over the twitter handle of her incarcerated mother and continues to criticise the dispensation, both in the UT and Delhi.

Later a group of women also held a protest against the stripping of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and arrests; however, they were arrested and lodged in Central Jail. Their release came after a day when they signed a bond under section 107 of the CPC pledging to “maintain peace and good behaviour.” The group included Dr Farooq’s sister, Suraiya Abdullah, and daughter Safiya Abdullah.

For about six months, the Abdullah family did not do anything and preferred silence. However, in February 2020, Sara Abdullah Pilot, another daughter of Dr Farooq immediately after her visit to her brother’s detention centre approached the court against slapping of PSA on Omar. She urged issuance of a writ of habeas corpus for authorities to forthwith produce Omar before the apex court and set him at liberty.

Sara, a social worker, married to Congress’s Rajasthan stalwart Sachin Pilot, made a public appearance on February 14 after the court issued a notice to the UT administration on her plea and decided to hear the case. During the same event, she was quoted saying: “We are here because we want all Kashmiris should have the same rights as the citizens of India and we are waiting for that day.”

Her case was listed on March 5 but a day earlier she was informed that due to the Holi festival and unavailability of judges in SC, the case was shifted to March 18. Earlier also, the Supreme Court judge excused himself from hearing a plea by Sara. Now after COVID-19 fear looming across the country, the SC judges are planning to extend their Holi holidays.

Iltija has also filed a habeas corpus petition in the apex court challenging the detention of her mother under the stringent PSA on February 5. The court has set the next date of hearing on March 18.

“The slapping of PSA on her has been done on impulse and I am waiting for the next hearing,” she recently told The Hindustan Times.

The statistics from the home ministry reveal that 7357 persons were taken into preventive custody by the state apparatus since August 2019. This was told in the ongoing parliament session. The list is diverse and includes top nine politicians including three former chief ministers; two of them even served the union ministries. Others are stone-pelters, miscreants, over-ground workers, sympathizers and separatists. The process of releasing the detained politicians in phased manner started in November but as per the figures of union ministry, as of now, 396 people out of the total 451 are booked under the PSA.  There is no word about how many of them are mainstream politicians.

A file pic of PDP and People’s Movement leaders at SKICC.

Meanwhile, there was a protest and a resolution was passed in Delhi. As the Parliament session is going on in Delhi, eight opposition parties, including six non-Congress parties, have sent a joint resolution to the BJP-led Central government, demanding the immediate release of all political detainees in Kashmir.

Under the Narendra Modi government, the resolution said, “democratic dissent is being muzzled by coercive administrative action, which has threatened the basic ideals of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as enshrined in our Constitution.” New Delhi has so far released senior Abdullah. One can expect that the release of others is also on cards.

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