By Meghna Nair
A news magazine once spoke about an incident from 2004 when a delegation from European Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defence Policy visited Kashmir. The delegation was led by Mr. John Walls Cushnahan and they described Kashmir as one of the “most beautiful prisons in the world.”
This is a sad reality. The civil society of Jammu and Kashmir has always been plagued with incessant problems. On one hand, there is Pakistan, constantly sending infiltrators, claiming that Kashmir belongs to them. On the other hand, there is the Indian Army, along with the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the much debated Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
The PSA is, in fact, one act that has continuously disrupted the harmony of many families and has given them sleepless nights.
The Public Safety Act
The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act is, like AFSPA, a draconian act. This was first introduced in the year 1978 and covers the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir under its ambit and the jurisdiction of the same remains under the state government.
The basic premise of this act is that the security forces can arrest anyone who, according to them is “acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order.” This law allows the government to arrest and detain people without trial for two years.
Each sub point of the acts “prejudicial to the maintenance of public order” is quite ambiguous and this has been taken into advantage by the state government and the armed forces.
As reported by change.org, the State Government authorities have imprisoned thousands of people over the years under this act. As many as five thousand people were imprisoned in the summer of 2008 alone and approximately 1,332 people were detained between 2009 and 2012.
“The state police and the army work in tandem to enforce this law. Say, if any group is mobilizing people and the police comes to know of it, they will hunt their place down at night and raid them, book them under PSA and then for years these people might rot in prisons somewhere,” Shahnaz Bashir, who teaches Journalism at the Central University of Kashmir, told NewsGram over the phone.
The list of detainees is very long and contains famous cases like that of Masarat Alam, the separatist leader belonging to Hurriyat (who was detained in 2010 and then released earlier this year in March) and is filled with the common civilians as well.
“Majority of the political prisoners of J&K have been arrested under this act. The prisons where such people are kept captive are spread all over the nation. Some people have also been kept on house arrests,” Rahul Jalali, senior journalist and an expert on Kashmir, told NewsGram.
In a report published in Kashmir Information and Research Centre, it was stated that an RTI was filed by a journalism student, Ahsan Shafi demanding the details of political detainees. The response from the state government just mentioned the number of people detained, which was 17, without giving further details.
The fact worth mentioning is that perhaps, this is the most misused law of J&K. Thousands of innocent civilians continue to rot in prison because of this act. More than five thousand were arrested during the uprising of 2008 and again many others were arrested in 2010. Minors below the age of 16 are currently behind the bars. This has been going on since the ‘90s. Many women have fallen into destitution. Some don’t even know if their husbands are dead or alive. The situation is pretty grave,” said Hashim (name changed) a resident of Jammu and Kashmir, while speaking to NewsGram.
Who are political prisoners?
Anyone who is “acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order” can be called a political prisoner.
“Political prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir are of two categories. Firstly, there are those who are classified as separatists. Separatists can be either violent or nonviolent. Their agenda remains the same- a free Kashmir. Secondly, there are the militants who resort to violence with arms and ammunition,” adds Jalali.
Ironically, reality deconstructs this definition.
“Once, there was a young man who came from Pakistan. He had all the valid papers and everything. He had come over to meet his relative. The moment he arrived, he was arrested by the police and PSA was slapped on him. He has been in custody since years. No one knows about his present whereabouts. The forces wanted to extract some shared information from him and that is why he didn’t even get a trial,” Bashir added.
The security forces can arrest anyone. AFSPA and PSA together have undoubtedly made these forces omnipotent.
A report published by the Daily Mail cited an incident wherein a twelve-year-old was booked by the security forces on charges of sedition in 2012. The boy was arrested on charges of stone pelting and attempt to murder and was also charged with involvement in the violent protests which happened after Eid prayers in Srinagar in August 2012.
“Since the AFSPA and PSA shield the security forces considerably with their ambiguities, they can arrest anyone. People can be arrested on the minor grounds of suspicion. To detain anyone easily, the forces quickly bring them under PSA. Though on paper, it is mentioned that the forces cannot detain anyone for a period longer than 2 years, the fact is, people have been arrested and kept in jails for 8 – 10 years. Majority of these political prisoners are those who protested during 2008 and 2010 uprisings,” Bashir said.
Organizations expressing solidarity with PSA victims
The people who have been worst hit by PSA are the families of the arrested people. The Act give the forces enough power to knock on any person’s door and take away anyone from that house after invoking PSA.
Once arrested, tracing the whereabouts of a person is an impossible task. The trauma hits the family members who don’t directly approach the court at first. After the arrest is made, generally no one knows what happened to the person. Most of the times, the person is termed disappeared.
“By the time they (families of the victims) do approach the court, a considerable amount of time has generally elapsed and the authorities change within such time periods. Due to red-tape and communication gaps between successive authorities, they wouldn’t know and won’t help the victims at all. Many such relatives of the victims meet in courts and that’s how they come together. One such organization created by the families of victims is Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP),” says Bashir.
Currently APDP is headed by Parveena Ahanger, whose son was picked up by the forces in early 90s and is missing till date. She has taken the cause of APDP to a global platform in the past years and was also nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
“The fact remains that there aren’t more than 200 militants in Jammu and Kashmir at present. The number of security forces in the state at present is roughly 7 lakhs, whereas the population is a few crores at the most. These are the facts given by the Army. The question is, do we really need these many security personnel?” asks Bashir.
The authorities justify AFSPA and PSA by saying that these acts are needed for the safety of the civilians of Jammu and Kashmir, as they are in a constant threat owing to the international border and militant elements. However, the suffering of the people under these laws cannot be pushed into a corner.
These cases mentioned could, to an extent, imply a type of turf war between the state and the militants where the innocents suffer, their families despair. Where is the answer, what is the solution, can anything justify it as fair?