As the threat posed by the virulent COVID-19 pandemic is alarming with over 600,000 infections and 28,000 deaths globally, another grave concern in Kashmir, apart from the fight against novel corona virus pandemic and restricted internet, is the condition of hundreds of political prisoners languishing in various prisons across India before and after the events of August 5, 2019.
Jammu and Kashmir lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood in August last year, prompting the authorities to take several harsh measures including shutting down of all channels of communication, suspending internet services and mass arrests.
With the aim to prevent any possible civilian uprising the New Delhi government put several thousand Kashmiris, including former Chief Ministers and top political leaders of various political formations, in jail. Many were arrested under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) while others either detained under preventive custody or placed under house arrest.
Given the angst caused by the likely stage-3 community spread of the lethal coronavirus, scores of families in Kashmir are concerned about their jailed members, especially those in their old age with deteriorating health conditions.
AGED AND CAGED
One of them is the 76-year-old Mian Abdul Qayoom, who heads the Kashmir High Court Bar Association. In Srinagar, the executive members of the Bar held a meeting via teleconferencing in which they unanimously resolved to impress upon the authorities “to release all the political detainees lodged in jails in and outside Jammu and Kashmir.”
Speaking to The Federal, Bar’s spokesperson said that their president Mian Qayoom is presently lodged in Jail Number 3 (three) of Central Jail, Tihar, New Delhi. “In his advanced age he is surviving on a lone kidney, suffers from multiple ailments which include diabetes, hypertension, severe nerve damage and sixty per cent blockage in one of the heart arteries,” the spokesperson said, adding that “Due to his age and frail immune system, Mian Qayoom Sahib is more prone to becoming a victim of the deadly virus.”
Senior members of the Bar invoked the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations, saying that at present maintaining physical and social distancing are important safety measures. “It would be prudent and appropriate for the authorities to release all the political prisoners from Kashmir to save their lives from the virus.”
Earlier, Mian Qayoom was lodged in Agra Jail.
Another 73-year-old Kashmiri political leader Dr. Ghulam Mohammad Hubbi is lodged in Srinagar’s Central Jail since August last year. He hails from Chrar-e-Sharief locality in central Kashmir’s Budgam district and was arrested by the local police station on August 5, 2019.
According to the family, the authorities invoked an old FIR of 2016 to slap PSA against Dr. Hubbi which was then extended twice; first in November last year and then in February this year.
“My father is pro-peace who has advocated non-violent forms of protest all his life. When entire Kashmir was on the boil after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016, he appealed youths not to throw stones and instead urged them to hold candle light vigils,” his son Advocate Javed Hubbi told The Federal.
The incarcerated pro-independence leader Dr. Hubbi has had a long association with the assassinated Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone and his People’s Conference. He served as General Secretary of the united All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) from 1993 till 2001. Afterwards, he remained in prison in Jammu and Punjab for two years till 2003. After his release, he joined the APHC faction led by the octogenarian leader Syed Ali Geelani.
Dr. Hubbi had supported the four-point and joint mechanism Kashmir formula proposed by the Kashmir Study Group, headed by a Kashmiri-American Farooq Kathwari, based in the United States. He soon parted ways with Syed Ali Geelani after the latter had rejected the four-point Kashmir formula.
“My father was among the first political leaders to have denounced the ISIS ideology. He is a peacenik who favours negotiated settlement of Kashmir,” Javed Hubbi said, adding that “My Dad is diabetic, hypertensive and has orthopaedic issues too. We demand his urgent release.”
The family has challenged Dr. Hubbi’s detention in Jammu and Kashmir High Court. On March 18, the judgment on his final hearing was reserved by the court. Because of the Covid crisis the progress on the case remains uncertain.
Mohammad Yasin Khan, a well-respected trade leader who heads the Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), is also kept in Agra Jail since August last year. Some time back, Kashmir’s two prominent trade leaders and civil society actors Dr. Mubeen Ahmad Shah and Shakeel Qalandar were released after several months of detention.
The detained leaders from the Unionist camp include the 67-year-old Naeem Akhtar and 66-year-old Sartaj Madni from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and 66-year-old Ali Mohammad Sagar, General Secretary of the National Conference (NC).
“My father is a heart patient, hypertensive and has undergone a major shoulder surgery. During this unprecedented lockdown I have to carry food and medicines for him from Humhama to Gupkar on a daily basis at a great personal risk. I have to navigate through multiple barricades,” Ali Sagar’s son Salman Sagar told The Federal, adding that “God forbid, if I get infected how many will be in danger in the process?”
He demanded urgent and unconditional release of his father who has been slapped with PSA for “speaking against the abrogation of Article 370 and being influential in Khanyar and Sonwar Assembly constituencies to get large number of people to voting booths despite boycott calls by the Hurriyat and militants.”
Naeem Akhtar, former government spokesperson and cabinet minister in the PDP-BJP government, is also a heart patient and has undergone a bypass surgery. According to a relative, he is currently placed under detention in M5 block in Srinagar’s Gupkar, a stone’s throw away from his official residence there. “Why don’t the authorities release him or place him under house arrest at his own residence?”
On March 11, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) that “a total of 7375 persons were arrested following the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 last year.” According to the MHA, the arrested persons included pro-independence activists, youths with a history of participating in protests, political leaders and activists. These arrests were made from August 5, 2019 to 29 February, 2020.
“All but 451 have been released. Now 451 are in detention. 396 of them are detained under Public Safety Act, while the rest 55 have been arrested under CrPc 107,” the MHA had said in its reply.
However, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) contests these figures and says that according the organization’s estimates over 1,000 persons are still kept in various jails.
Khurram Parvez, Coordinator at the JKCCS, demanded urgent release of Kashmir’s political prisoners. “Kashmiri prisoners who are under preventive detention in various jails across India should be released urgently. Preventive detention is otherwise a human rights violation but in the context of Coronavirus pandemic, if anything happens to a single prisoner it will be State’s responsibility.”
Prominent pro-independence leaders who are in prisons include Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik, Muslim League leader Masarat Alam, Asiya Andrabi of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith), her husband Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) chief Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan of National Front, Hurriyat leaders Altaf Shah, Peer Saifullah and Amir (chief) Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) Hamid Fayaz and scores of JeI members and youth activists.