From politicians to activists to children, India is running out of space for its prisoners
Around the Soura neighbourhood of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, civilians have dug trenches and built wood, tin, and barbed wire blockades. Standing next to a bonfire near one blockade on Aug. 20, Farhan Mohammad, a 26-year-old local whose name has been changed, warned, "When the forces will come for us, which is for sure, dozens will die."
These young men have sealed all the entry and exit points of their area, which is home to at least 500 families, in the hopes of protecting the civilians inside from arrest by the Indian Army. Since Aug. 5, when New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 and Article 35A of Indian Constitution, these activists watch the area all day and night.
They have their work cut out for them. Just prior to the cancellation of the articles, New Delhi sent 38,000 troops to the region to curb expected mass civilian protests. Those joined the to the existing half a million already there. Security forces made quick work of arresting and detaining prominent politicians, business people, activists, and lawyers.
Such arrests only further alienate Kashmiris, especially the young, who could turn to more violent means of protest in future.
About 400 of the thousands of people arrested are locked in makeshift jails around Srinagar. One of the jails is located in the Centaur Hotel inside Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre on the banks of the picturesque Dal Lake. It houses Mukhtar Ahmed, a regional political leader, who, according to his family, was arrested on Aug. 7 at around 1:30 p.m. when police officers came to the family's home in Tulsi Bagh, Srinagar.
The arrest, one member of his family said, was smooth. The police officials were offered tea. After they drank it, they put Ahmed's father, Muhammad Khalil, a veteran politician and ex-minister, under house arrest. Ahmed was taken to a local police station in south Kashmir. His brother, Mohammad Shafi, had been able to visit him and was relieved to confirm that he is doing "fine."
That doesn't mean that the family is at peace with his arrest. "These actions are undemocratic. India is not a democracy anymore," Shafi said. "My brother has rights under Indian Constitution—the state doesn't even tell us under what charges he has been arrested."
Locked up in Kashmir are also Omar Abdullah—the head of the National Conference party, the state's oldest mainstream political front, which has sought to guard the state's partial autonomy—and Mehbooba Mufti, the head of the Peoples Democratic Party, which had pushed for even greater autonomy. They're joined by Shah Faesal, the leader of a new party, launched in March: the Jammu and Kashmir People's Movement, which is the only party to challenge the detentions in the court.
Currently, the Indian authorities have declared that the atmosphere in the region is not conducive to political activities. Thus, it is unlikely that democratic political voices will be allowed to regroup any time soon. At the same time, the Indian government has also shut doors for any engagement between Srinagar and New Delhi. It is yet to be seen how arrested leaders like Abdullah and Mufti will react to developments once they are released.
According to an AFP report, one district magistrate said that at least 4,000 people had recently been arrested and booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows government to detain any person above the age of 16 without a trial for two years. One person detained under that law is the south Kashmir-based editor Qazi Shibli, 26, who, according to many reports—including from the Kashmir Walla, where I work—was taken in after he leaked information in a tweet thread regarding the movement of troops prior to New Delhi's Aug. 5 announcement.
Sitting in his home in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, Shibli's younger brother, Qazi Shoaib, explained that his brother, who was detained on July 25, "was initially taken to Police Line in Anantnag and later shifted to the Sherbagh police station." He's lost track of his brother since then. He worries that, with authorities running out of space in prisons in Kashmir, some detainees booked under the Public Safety Act may have been "flown out of the valley in military aircrafts" and taken to prisons in other parts of India. That is a prospect that has long faced detainees under the act, especially as India has run out of prison space in Kashmir.
Officials say Shibli is lodged in Central Jail, Srinagar. But "he is not there," Shoaib said. "We checked. They said, 'He might be taken to a jail in Agra [Uttar Pradesh].'" Shoaib asked his brother Qazi Umair, who lives in New Delhi, to check in Agra. But the jail administration said that they never heard of him. "He might be in Varanasi [in Uttar Pradesh] jail," they suggested. Meanwhile, Shibli's website, the Kashmiriyat, posted an article with the headline, "Our editor has been arrested, please help us find him."
Rohit Kansal, New Delhi's spokesperson in Jammu and Kashmir, neither confirmed nor denied the alleged detentions. He said, instead, that "a few detentions have been made to prevent law and order situations."
Just a couple miles from Shibli's house, Fayaz Ahmed Reshi sat next to a mud wall of his house. He said that his 15-year-old son, Fahaddulah Reshi, was picked up by Jammu and Kashmir police on Aug. 25 at around 11:45 in the morning from the road outside his home and taken to a nearby police station.
"There were other boys on the road as well. When forces' vehicle came, everyone ran," Reshi said. "My son didn't run. He didn't do anything wrong." Fahaddulah Reshi is being held at the Sherbagh police station in Anantnag, but the exact charges are unclear.
"He is small kid," said Reshi said. "He didn't do anything. He cannot understand why he is locked up in a jail."
Back in Soura, around midnight on weekday in mid-August, someone was trying to remove parts of the barricade. Suspecting Indian troops, the young local Farhan Mohammad and five other young men ran towards the blockade with stones in hands.
"Whoever it was ran away," said Mohammad on coming back. "But this civilian siege won't last long." He believes, on an individual level, that the people of Kashmir are getting fatigued as well. "This is a long fight. Fatigue is there," he said. "But we will fight till we are free."
He said that people like him, who feels the loss of identity after the revocation of the special status, are left with no other option but "resistance." Kashmir may erupt, but not this time. Many believe so, but only time will tell what will happen in this unpredictable region.
Yashraj Sharma is a features writer and assistant editor at the Kashmir Walla. He has written for Vice, Ozy, the National, and others.