Politicians, citizens slam crackdown on pro-Palestine protests in J&K

Authorities keen to de-escalate tensions as graffiti, slogans, demonstrations crop up condemning Israel’s action on Palestine

The Kashmir valley has a long radition of expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. (representative image)

In recent days, the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have detained and/or arrested at least 24 individuals. These include a budding artist for drawing a pro-Palestinian graffiti, an outspoken local cleric for offering prayers and raising solidarity slogans in favour of Palestine, and the two sons of a leading political personality for attending their father’s funeral.

However, after drawing flak from major political leaders and civil society pressure groups, the police had to release at least 17 young men after what it called “counselling”.

On May 15, at around 7 pm, a police party from north Kashmir’s Kupwara district knocked on the doors of the Srinagar residence of the chairperson of the pro-independence Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH), late Mohammad Ashraf Khan, aka Ashraf Sehrai, and took his two sons — Mujahid Sehrai and Raashid Sehrai  — into custody.

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A family member informed The Federal that soon after the arrest of the duo, their mother suffered a mild heart attack. “They (the police) told the family that they would arrest whoever participated in the funeral of Ashraf Sehrai, on May 7. Both Mujahid and Raashid were arrested from their residence at Baghat Barzulla in Srinagar,” the family member said.

Earlier, according to one of the members, three close relatives of the Sehrais were arrested last Friday.

War of words

Mehbooba Mufti, former J&K chief minister and president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), criticised the police action. “The PSA (Public Safety Act) is the GoI’s (Government of India) go-to method for every problem. Latest example being Ashraf Sehrai’s sons who lost their father in custody due to inadequate medical care & (and) have been arrested under PSA. In rest of India, (the) dead are being ill-treated but in Kashmir its (the) living who are made to suffer,” she wrote.

The police (Kashmir Zone) almost immediately countered Mufti in a tweet: “Both sons of Late Sehrai & (and) 4 (four) others have been #arrested for raising #antinational slogans during funeral. But, they haven’t been booked under PSA. Plz don’t spread #rumour.”

Hours later, Superintendent of Police Kupwara GV Sundeep Chakravarthy told a reporter: “They have booked the two (Sehrai’s sons) under UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) for raising anti-national slogans.”

Sajad Lone, chairperson of the People’s Conference, in a strongly-worded tweet, described the police action as “ferocious” and demanded an end to “Rambo culture”.

“And y (why) do u (you) have to do that. Which society will condone ur (your) actions. (?) They lost their father who died while being in govt (government) custody. What r (are) u (you) competing for — ferocity. Point taken. Yes u (you) do come across as ferocious, Cruel and Ugly. Now Can we have an end to this Rambo culture.”

The Federal had reported in detail about the circumstances under which Sehrai had died in Jammu in the first week of May.

Also read: COVID invades Kashmir jails; calls to release political prisoners get louder

Artists in fear

Meanwhile, on May 14, the police also detained 32-year-old artist Mudasir Gul following a pro-Palestine demonstration that broke out in Srinagar’s Padshahi Bagh locality.

Mudasir’s apparent crime was to draw a graffiti on the gates of a spill-over channel of the Jhelum, near Padshahi Bagh. The graffiti showed the face of a woman with an expression of grief, her head covered by a Palestinian flag, with ‘We are Palestine’ emblazoned across it in bold, white letters. The artist also took part in a symbolic protest along with other young men who reportedly set ablaze an Israeli flag. The protest was video-graphed and shared widely on multiple social media platforms.

The detention of Gul and other youngsters for demonstrating what is seen as symbolic solidarity with Palestine invited sharp and scathing commentary on social media from actors, politicians and others. Many argued that the law-enforcing agencies were criminalising prayers, writings, mourning, funerals and acts of solidarity to create permanent fear in the hearts of the people of Kashmir.

After he was let go, Gul told The Federal on the phone: “I am feeling a bit relieved, but at the same time wondering and asking questions: Why was I detained in the first place? Is it a crime to draw graffiti, to express solidarity, and to participate in a peaceful protest? There is a mixed feeling of fear, confusion and relief; I was about to be booked under the stringent Public Safety Act.”

Badr-ul-Salam, Gul’s brother, said the family heaved a sigh of relief. “Alhamdulillah (thank God), he (Mudasir Gul) is home.”

Long tradition of solidarity

The Kashmir valley has a long and rich tradition of expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. Many there continue to romanticise the Palestinian struggle via murals, graffiti, posters, slogans and videos. In 1967, when Israel annexed East Jerusalem, Srinagar witnessed one of the biggest demonstrations against the Zionist state.

Khalid Bashir, noted author and a former civil servant of the Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS), in his book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, talks about the anti-Israel protests held in the region way back in 1967. The Catholic Holy Family Church and the Protestant All Saints Church were set on fire in an angry reaction after the annexation of East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the police fear that the pro-Palestine sentiment could spiral out of control and turn into pro-independence protests in Kashmir. The effort is to curb large-scale demonstrations and create permanent fear among Kashmiris by raising the cost for sentiment, said political observers.

In a formal statement issued on May 15, the department said the force won’t “allow cynical encashment of the public anger to trigger violence”. “J&K police is keeping a very close watch on elements who are attempting to leverage the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disturb public peace and order in the Kashmir valley. We are a professional force and are sensitive to public anguish. But J&K police have a legal responsibility to ensure law and order as well.”

Costly prayer

In south Kashmir, popular religious cleric Sarjan Barkati, minutes before the Friday prayers on May 14, prayed for the Covid-19 patients battling for life in various hospitals and also expressed solidarity with the Palestinian women and children fighting the Israeli troops. Soon after the video of this two-minute prayer, including pro-Palestine and pro-Kashmir slogans, made the rounds on social media, Barkati was taken into preventive custody for allegedly “violating Covid-19 lockdown protocol”.

A first information report (FIR) was lodged, on the basis of which the police made some arrests, including that of Barkati. His overt prayer in solidarity with the Palestinians cost him dearly. Th police maintained that there was nothing wrong in expressing solidarity with one of the conflicting parties, but Barkati was arrested nevertheless.

The cleric had spent nearly four years in prison after his slogan-shouting during the 2016 protest wave had gone viral.

Experts observed that perhaps New Delhi believes that since August 2019 it has been successful in normalising silence and curbing dissent through stringent measures. Maybe it anticipates that the Palestinian issue could be a trigger for large-scale protests in Kashmir, they added.