Zuna Begum crouches at the top of a flight of stairs, quietly wiping away her tears. She has just emerged from the first floor, which is under construction, on hearing her grandson Shahnawaz’s name. He was detained “over fears of outbreaks of unrest” days after the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the constitution, removing Kashmir’s autonomy. There is no official count, but as many as 13,000 are said to have been detained all over the Valley, with more than 300 arrested.
Zuna is elderly and has kidney failure. A plastic bag filled with urine hangs from her waist. She needs dialysis regularly at a Srinagar hospital, 40 km away from her home in a village in Bandipora, North Kashmir. But her grandson, Mohsin Shahnawaz Ganai, the only one in the family who earned a living as a quarry worker, is no longer at home. Zuna sits in a corner of the staircase, weeping. “I have no one. Shahnawaz used to say, ‘Why do you cry? I am your son.’ But the soldiers took him.”
Shahnawaz was detained on August 15. He was in the bathroom when a police team barged into their home. His sister Shafia, an undergraduate student of sociology in Sumbal, says the police broke their front door and then the bathroom door. “They went inside the bathroom and thrashed my brother. They would not let him get dressed. They dragged him to their vehicle and beat him again.”
She points to window panes which she says the policemen smashed. The glass panes of windows in the living room, bathroom and the house’s entrance are shattered.
Zuna Begum wept saying the security forces had detained her grandson. The family said the police would not give them documentation confirming that they had detained Shahnawaz on August 15.
Shafia says the family has been unable to get a copy of the first information report from the Sumbhal police station that will serve as documentary proof that Shahnawaz is being held by the police. “When I go to the police station, the Station House Officer tells me ‘I know your family’s condition is not good, that your father and grandmother are not well’. He sends me to the duty officer, who records the daily entries in the station, who informs me that there is no criminal complaint registered about this.”
She adds: “But I can see Shahnawaz inside the lock up. He looks traumatised and shaken.”
In Dudwan village in North Kashmir’s Kupwara, Nazma, 16, has her own memories of trauma from August. A class 11 student, Nazma says on August 9, someone who had thrown stones at an Army vehicle ran past their house, fleeing from the soldiers. Soon, over 20 soldiers entered her house, breaking the glass panes of windows with their guns. “Then they pounced on my older brother, who works as a driver and who was at home that day because of the curfew,” she says. “When we went near to stop them from beating him, they caught us and hit us and pushed us to the floor. They hit my mother with fibre sticks on her arm. The end of my older sister’s kurta tore as they pushed her to the floor. We were crying, pleading, but they did not listen.”
Nazma and her sister Bisma said they were hurt when Army personnel raided their home and detained their brother on August 9.
Nazma’s brother was taken to a Rashtriya Rifles camp nearby, she says. Her parents and other brother went to the camp, repeatedly pleading that he be released. “We were all were very scared. I waited at home,” Nazma says. “When the Army released my brother three days later, he was in so much pain. He could not lift his arm, he could not walk.”
Nazma says her family canceled her brother’s wedding, scheduled in October, after this incident.
In Pulwama in South Kashmir — where, in February, a suicide bomber rammed into a CRPF convoy, killing at least 40 personnel — residents spoke of a similar pattern of detentions, arrests and violent sweeping raids on their homes.
In Ademohalla, Abdul Ghani, an elderly man who makes rotis in an eatery for a living, says four of his house’s window panes were broken by security personnel.
In Arihal, a 24-year-old man who runs a poultry shop says Army and police personnel conducted sweeping raids in Ademohalla, Tilwana and Hergama mohalla in the first week of August. “They broke into my house, climbing over the gate at 1 am, and they held me for two hours. They thrashed me till 3 am and then left me,” he says. “In a second raid, the police detained two minors for over three weeks — Soham Ahmed Raina, a student of class 8, and Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, who is in class 12.”
In Lassipora in Pulwama, residents allege that Army personnel take them for forced labour inside their camp. “They catch 10-15 men every day and force them to work, carrying bags of construction material. We cannot refuse. They let us go by evening, but pay nothing,” says a 30-year-old man.
The detained youth at the Shopian police station.
At noon at the police station in Shopian town, police officials deny that any minor is being held there. They claim they have 15-20 youths but in “preventive detention”. At 12.30 pm, though, young men and boys, detained in two overcrowded cells, were let out for a few minutes to eat in the centre of the police station. Their families were gathered outside the gates, waiting.
‘Preventive detentions are a matter of perception’
In every neighbourhood and village that Newslaundry visited across four districts in September, residents spoke of violent raids by the police, Army or the paramilitary CRPF. Some said their family members had been detained for 40 days without criminal complaints or paperwork at police stations, making it difficult for them to approach courts protesting against unlawful detention. Family members of the detained pointed to their injuries from the raids, and the doors and windows of their homes lay broken.
Since August 5, several accounts and news reports have emerged of Kashmiri men being tortured in detention. But at the Army’s 15 Corps headquarters in Badami Bagh, Srinagar, a military spokesperson denies all allegations.
“We raided and detained them as a precaution so they do not hurt themselves,” says a spokesperson of the lieutenant colonel rank in the Signals regiment. “If I detain you and send you to another agency from here, someone may think it is a violation but someone else may think it is a security concern, this is a matter of perception.”
He adds: “Preventive detentions is a lesser evil, and the proof of the pudding is in the relatively few instances of violence since August 5.”
Asked about allegations of torture inside military camps, his senior, a spokesperson of the rank of colonel, denies it: “We have been able to confirm that people were tortured in only two cases instances, both from the same village in South Kashmir.”
The lieutenant colonel adds: “We are thinking of taking actions such as filing ‘counter-FIR’ against international media outlets such as the BBC for showing false information.”
Roads have been largely deserted since the Indian government removed Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy in early August.
In an interview last month, Director General of Police Dilbag Singh said the police had detained “about 3,000 persons” as a preventive measure and arrested “a few hundreds”, but many had been let off after their families and neighbours signed “community bonds” pledging that the detainees would stay away from protests.
“We pick them, counsel the boys, and leave them,” Singh claimed. “We do not believe in first information reports.” The police had not registered offences, he said, out of concern for the boys’ careers, which would be marred if they had a criminal record.
Singh denied any violence had occurred during police raids.
A history of arbitrary detentions
Authorities have for years used various forms of arbitrary detention in the Kashmir valley, including under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978, which allows the police to detain anyone to prevent them from acting in any manner “prejudicial to the security of the state or the maintenance of public order”.
Unlike police custody, a person detained under the PSA need not be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of being held. The district magistrate has to place the detention order within four weeks before an advisory board. The magistrate issues orders to hold those detained initially for three months, then often extends this detention for three months at a time without producing new evidence — using it to detain people for months and even years. A July 2019 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that though India’s Supreme Court has described the system of administrative detention, including the PSA, as a “lawless law”, authorities in Srinagar continued to use it.
Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, chairperson of the J&K Right To Information Movement, says an advisory board designated to review the detention orders within four weeks had approved 998, or 99 per cent, of the 1,004 PSA orders between April 2016 and December 2017.
“But in a RTI query we found that in the same period the Jammu and Kashmir High Court admitted 941 cases quashing PSA detention orders and quashed 765 — or 80 per cent — of the orders that the advisory board had upheld,” says Rasool. “The court quashed PSA orders as it found them wrong on grounds such as violation of constitutional provisions, procedural lapses, and lack of fresh facts to justify detention.”
Parvez Imroz, a senior human rights lawyer in Srinagar, says while the PSA does not allow the detention of minors, authorities continue to detain even children, claiming they are not minors. According to a report in The Indian Express, a few families have now approached the high court with habeas corpus petitions against the latest detentions after August 5. The petitions are for their relatives who they say are minors being wrongly held under the PSA.
Beatings and pepper spray
The arbitrarily extended detentions, and repeated targeting of youth and family members of those once named in PSA cases, make it difficult for the community to counsel the youth. According to Ghulam Rasool, 70, a resident of Bandipora who retired from the state transport services, it’s become a “cycle of punishment”.
Posters promising development near an Army checkpost in Ganderbal, Central Kashmir.
“There are boys from our village who were detained under PSA in 2016, and later released,” he says. “I and others in our local mosque committee counseled them to focus on work and their families, and to avoid violent protests. They had kept a low profile. But now, after August 5, the security forces again picked them up under PSA, making it a cycle of punishment.”
In Manz Mohalla in Hajin block in Bandipora, Waseem Khan is a student of class 11 at Safapora Higher Secondary School. He says he and his brother Mushtaq were illegally detained and beaten inside Sumbhal police station between August 6 and 13. Waseem claims the police did not let them go until his older brother Javid — a quarry worker who had two PSA cases slapped against him before they were quashed by the high court — appeared before them on August 11.
“The security personnel broke into our house around midnight on August 6,” Waseem says. “When they did not find Javid, they first threatened to take my father and beat him. Then Mushtaq and I went with them in a convoy of 15 to 16 vehicles. The next morning, police officials took me and my brother to a room and hit us repeatedly on our legs, back and hips. They thrashed us again at noon and at 3 pm. An official kept repeating, ‘Bring Javid’, ‘You cannot go till you bring Javid’. He would not let us say anything, he beat us repeatedly.”
Waseem adds that among those held along with him that week in Sumbhal police station, the youngest was a class 8 student who was released after three days.
Waseem’s father Saifudin tells Newslaundry that a team of Army, police and CRPF personnel told him if he did not hand over his children, he would have to go with them. He alleges that the soldiers broke down the door of their house and smashed the window panes. “As they held my arm and started to take me away, my daughter tried to hold me,” he says. “First they hit her with sticks on her pelvis, and then they sprayed something between my collar bones and in my face. It felt like my skin had burnt away. It was terrifying. I could not see anything for two or three hours afterwards.”
Court documents show Javid Ahmad Khan was first detained for a month in Sumbhal on August 10, 2016 and then held in a prison in Udhampur in Jammu for eight months. After the high court quashed this case on December 21, 2016, the police booked him in a second PSA case on March 23, 2017, imprisoning him again in Jammu. The second PSA case was quashed by the high court on August 11, 2017.
Subsequently, Javid returned to work, his oldest brother Tareekh says. “But now they have booked him again,” he says. “Last time they had detained me illegally in Hajin police station till they found and put Javid in preventive detention and this time they took my youngest brothers, Mushtaq and Waseem.”
Saifudin, who runs a small shop, says the litigation to free Javid the last time cost ₹1 lakh, which the family could not afford. He also says while his sons were held by the police, he was required to pay ₹100 daily for their meals.
A never-ending punishment
Weeks after the government lifted curfew from most areas in the Valley, roads remained deserted and shops shut as a mark of public protest against the dismantling of the region’s relative autonomy.
As a few shops selling bread, vegetables and other essentials opened for an hour in the evening in a village in Bandipora, people huddled in small groups on the streets. A few students and young men gathered in an ice cream parlour, chatting behind half-closed shutters.
Graffiti on the wall of the district hospital in Bandipora.
Adil, a class 10 student, is the nephew of the ice cream shop owner. According to the group, Adil was detained from his house by the security forces at 3 am on August 7.
Waqar Younis, pursuing his first year of a radiology technician course in Srinagar, says like many youth in his village, he has experienced the arbitrariness of detentions firsthand. He was detained for four days in 2018 because his name matched that of someone the police had identified as having thrown rocks during a protest. “I told them I am a serious student, I had scored 83 per cent in my class 12 exams. They realised the next day that it was someone else, but they still kept me inside the police station for four days without any paperwork,” says Younis.
Among those taken away over the past month, Younis is most worried about the detention of his school junior Zahid Basheer. A student of class 10, Zahid, 15, sometimes works in the limestone quarries in the village.
Younis says: “Zahid did nothing, except he had long hair that flowed down to his shoulders. He had spent ₹2,000-3,000 on styling it. He was shauqeen, fond of dressing up; he changed clothes two-three times daily. Days after the hartal was declared, we were all sitting together and some Army soldiers were nearby. Zahid boasted about his hair to the boys, saying he looked like ‘Sameer Tiger’. The same night, the security forces detained him.”
Sameer Tiger was the nom de guerre of Sameer Ahmad Bhat, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was killed by the security forces in Pulwama last year.
Zahid’s paternal uncle, Ghulam Ahmed, teaches at a school in Ajas, a village in Hajin. He confirms that the family has filed a habeas corpus petition in the high court against the wrongful detention of Zahid under the PSA. “He had nothing to do with any violence,” says Ahmed. “He is a fashionable boy, like a Bollywood actor. His cupboard is full of dozens of small shampoo and perfume packets. He had styled his hair a certain way, that is his only fault.”
Ahmed says the security forces damaged their house and first detained Zahid’s father, an irrigation department official. The father was released five days later after Zahid went to the police station on August 12.
Younis says being named in a PSA case makes it impossible for the youth to subsequently resume their old lives. “Once the forces get after you, they will not let you study or sleep or be in public places, or breathe any sigh of relief. Then such a boy with PSA is forced to flee.”
Sameer Bhatt, 22, agrees. An undergraduate student in Sumbhal, Sameer says his older brother Naser was detained for the first time in 2008, after an agitation broke out against the killing of 14 protesters by the security forces. Naser was again detained in 2017, and for a month in 2018.
“Today, they have revived those old lists. They assume that those who threw a rock once in 2008 would have today become famous militants, ‘ultra legends’,” says Sameer. He says after his brother was named in a list of stone throwers, their father was beaten ruthlessly by the Army. “This is our routine, our daily lives: of being beaten, abused, detained, slapped. This has become common.”
He adds: “Since I was born, I have witnessed only this — curfews, strikes, bullets, raids, detentions, beatings. I am yet to experience what an atmosphere of peace feels like.”
All photographs by Anumeha Yadav.