Srinagar: Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, a top Hurriyat leader who was was in jail since July last year, has died at a Jammu hospital on Wednesday. He was 80 years old.
Sehrai headed the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH), a separatist party in Jammu and Kashmir. He was a close aide of the party’s founder and senior Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani. Both backed Kashmir’s merger with the state of Pakistan.
A family member said Sehrai had been keeping unwell for the last ten days and he was allegedly denied treatment at Udhampur jail where he was lodged. “He called us 10 days back and said that his condition had worsened and the jail authorities were ignoring his deteriorating health. He said he was not receiving any treatment,” a family member told Newsclick wishing anonymity.
There was no call from him for the next ten days. On Tuesday, the family received another call informing that his condition was critical and he had been shifted to a hospital in Jammu. “He had complained of breathlessness and his oxygen levels had plunged to as low as 65 but, he was responding,” the family member said.
Sehrai’s son left his Barzulla Baghat residence in Srinagar to come to Jammu – a journey of over 290 km – but could not reach his father on time. Sehrai had died around noon, a little over an hour before meeting his son.
It remains, however, unclear whether the ailing leader who had also developed bilateral pneumonia died of the Covid-19 disease. The result of his Covid test is yet to come.
Director General of Police, Prisons Department, J&K, VK Singh told Newsclick that the jail authorities had made a request to the Home Department to shift Sehrai to Jammu since he suffered from multiple illnesses and was in the “higher age bracket.” The request, he said, was even made on Tuesday, but there was no “outcome.”
“Since he was a detenue, we cannot change his location as we have to take that up with the home department so that medical matters could be attended...Udhampur jail does not have the medical infrastructure like Jammu,” Singh said.
The Hurriyat leader, according to his family, also suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes and had lost his hearing years back.
Sehrai’s death during his time in jail comes at a time when families of many other Hurriyat activists and leaders, especially those jailed outside the region, have expressed concern over the health of these inmates. Most of them are demanding the political prisoners be returned to local prisons in view of the increase in Covid-19 cases.
In a statement, the Peoples Conference Chairman Sajad Gani Lone, a separatist turned pro-India politician, termed Sehrai’s demise in incarceration as “unfortunate” and totally uncalled for. “Late Sehrai sahib was a political leader and not a terrorist and that he deserved to die in his home, amongst his loved ones,” Lone said.
According to official sources, Sehrai is likely to be buried in his ancestral village of Lolab in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Security forces, according to eye-witnesses, have increased their presence in the area where he is likely to be buried. The authorities are apprehensive that Sehrai’s death could become a “law and order” situation and therefore, have taken measures which include his burial in the frontier district instead of Srinagar amidst increased presence of forces and a few family members.
Family sources chose a “silent burial” as the authorities warned them that he could be shifted to a nondescript location in the mountains if more than ten people attend the leader’s funeral.
The TeH chairman was jailed in July last year under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) two months after his son Junaid was killed in an operation in Nawa Kadal area of Srinagar. A management graduate, Junaid, in his mid-20s, had joined the militant ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit in 2018. Months later, Sehrai was appointed as the chairman of TeH outfit, after remaining its general secretary for over a decade.
Sehrai, believed to be a close confidante of Geelani, had fought in the assembly elections on a Jamaat-e-Islami mandate from Ganderbal constituency against National Conference’s Sheikh Abdullah. The challenge to Sheikh was more “symbolic” which ultimately shot him to prominence within the anti-India constituency.
He remained a member of the Jamaat from early 1960s to mid 2000s and after Geelani parted ways with the organisation, Sehrai followed him to a more strictly political outfit--one that would steer the mass agitations in the region from 2008 onwards. Sehrai was one of key Hurriyat leaders who backed Geelani in his decisions. Geelani, who is 90 years old, also remains under arrest at his Srinagar’s Hyderpora residence for over a decade.
Since 2019, most of the separatist leaders and activists have been jailed with little or no scope of release in near future too. The separatist camp has since been almost obliterated from the ground and some have become weary.
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a tweet paying tribute to Sehrai linked the release of Kashmiri political prisoners with bilateral talks between the two countries.
He wrote, “Deeply saddened on the death of Hurriyat leader Ashraf Sehrai. He dedicated his life for Kashmir’s self-determination. Many more Kashmiri leaders are at risk in IIOJK. It is India’s responsibility to release all those detained on political grounds to create conducive environment.”