Agra jail where many Kashmiri detainees have been kept. | Image Courtesy: National Herald
Two-year-old Rehaan often enquires about his father Amir Shafi Bhat and is told that his Abu has gone to buy him a lot of toys. Amir, 20, who has two sisters and a sick father at home, is in Kotbalwal jail since 17 months. As the threat of COVID-19 looms large, his worried father is looking for a ray of hope and his return. Amir was the only earning hand in the family. Even as the world over cities are turning empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the village of Kareemabad in South Kashmir has been witness to such a situation since August 5 which was followed by the detention of dozens of residents.
Amir was arrested on November 10, 2018, and slapped with Public Safety Act (PSA), on the charges of working as an over ground worker (OGW) and stone pelter. The last time his father met him was on September 25, 2019.
Narrating his ordeal, Amir’s father Mohammad Shafi said, "I was called by Jammu and Kashmir Police to visit the district police in Pulwama, where I was beaten and released after spending four days in Pulwama jail.” He added, “After the incident, my mind wasn't working properly. I had to consult many doctors in Srinagar city." A resident of Kareemabad village, Mohammad Shafi claimed that he was also beaten by forces prior to his son’s arrest.
Around 300 metres away from Amir’s house, is the home of a bookseller, who used to sell Islamic books in Pulwama’s main town. He, too, has been jailed in Agra since August 7, 2019. Bilal Ahmad Dar, 30, was picked up during a midnight raid by police personnel in his house. He was booked under PSA for involvement in stone throwing incidents during 2016-17 in Kashmir.
"Every day during Magrib prayers, Bilal's son looks at his rugs and asks, 'Where is my papa? Why doesn't he come and pray?’ His ailing mother, father and his wife are badly suffering during this pandemic," Bilal’s uncle, Mushtaq Ahmad, said referring to the financial difficulties faced by the family amid the lockdown.
Bilal's four-year-old daughter Fatima Bilal and 18-month-old son Mohammad Bilal have been looking for their father ever since. “We heard in news that many prisoners were released by the government due to the pandemic virus. We are hoping the same for our son,” Mushtaq added.
Also read: COVID-19: Overcrowded Prisons Across Country a Cause for Concern
On August 8, 2019, Muneer, 20, was picked up the J&K security forces from his home in Kareemabad. Since then he is under detention outside the Valley. "It has been four months since I saw my son. We are economically shattered and we don't have enough money to pay him regular visits and the lockdown due to the virus has added to our already difficult lives,” narrates Muneer's mother Ruby Jan, with eyes gleaming with tears.
Another family in the village alleges that the government charged their son in a fake FIR and PSA for stone pelting. The family claims that he is innocent and he was jailed on a fake FIR.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, Hasnain Masoodi, a mainstream politician and a retired Justice, has written to Home Minister Amit Shah seeking the release of Kashmiri detainees currently lodged in various prisons across north India, including Uttar Pradesh’s Ambedkarnagar and Agra, and Tihar jail in Delhi.
The families of these detainees have also appealed to the government through the media for their release as they are worried about their healthcare. Zubair Pandit, brother of Mamoon, who was arrested on August 8, appealed to the authorities that his brother and other detainees should be brought home on immediate basis as conditions in prisons are especially risky for spreading infection in the current scenario.
“He is jailed in Agra and in a single barrack there are dozens of other detainees. We appeal to the authorities to bring back our sons for the sake of humanity,” added Pandit.
The parents of the detainees are worried that their children might get infected in the prisons.
The revocation of the special status witnessed the detention of both mainstream and pro-independence leadership including the detention of three former chief ministers and an IAS turned politician Shah Faisal who was later slapped with a public safety act (PSA).
While the letters and requests of many political leaders including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter’s appeal was also turned down by Indian authorities. Although the government has revoked the detention of two former chief ministers, Mufti continues to remain under detention. Besides, 31 other persons detained under different charges have also been released but a majority still remain under makeshift detention camps.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar.
Also read: ‘Humiliated and Beaten’: Kashmir Healthcare Workers Bear Brunt of COVID-19 Lockdown