'Weaponising' the virus

As the government continues to punish political leaders in Kashmir, including those who have for long fought for mainstreaming of Kashmir’s polity, there are apprehensions that the authorities may be using the public health crisis to exact political allegiance.

Published : Apr 25, 2020 07:00 IST

At an   area in Srinagar declared a red zone by the government during the lockdown, on April 14.

At an area in Srinagar declared a red zone by the government during the lockdown, on April 14.

in Jammu and Kashmir, registering 314 cases as of April 16, and there was no respite for prominent leaders either in the newly designated Union territory from the witch-hunt unleashed against them following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A on August 5.

A number of former Ministers and legislators from diverse political backgrounds remain incarcerated while their families fret over their frail health and probable susceptibility to the coronavirus. Among them are former Cabinet Minister Naeem Akhtar, the National Conference’s (N.C.) Ali Muhammad Sagar and Hilal Lone, the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) Sartaj Madani and Mansoor Mir, and bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal. The government’s decision to release several others, including N.C. leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, led to the perception that the government would be relentless in assailing those who were unwilling to reconcile themselves to the changed political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. There is an apprehension that the regime at the Centre may be “weaponising” the prevailing public health crisis to break the will of the political prisoners and extract servility and allegiance.

The case of Mian Qayoom

The harshness meted out to 76-year-old Mian Qayoom, an eminent lawyer with over 40 years’ experience in practising law and president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s Bar Council, seems to point that way. Ever an indomitable and incisive voice against injustices perpetrated in Kashmir, Qayoom was detained before daybreak on August 5 and moved to Agra Central Jail. His health condition soon deteriorated, and after a brief hospitalisation in New Delhi in January he was relocated to Tihar jail. There he remains still, despite his long history of heart ailment and diabetes and recent stroke, which makes him especially vulnerable. The soaring mercury does not make it any easier for someone used to a cold climate.

Qayoom was among the first political prisoners to be slapped with the Public Safety Act (PSA), as early as on August 7, two days after the Centre virtually laid siege to the Kashmir Valley. Speaking to Frontline , his nephew, Mian Muzaffar, said: “He [Mian Qayoom] has been a diabetic for the past 26 years, he survives on one kidney, he is scheduled for an open-heart surgery, and we fear he might get infected [with coronavirus] in the absence of health care and nutrition. Leave alone defying New Delhi over J&K’s now-revoked special status, I am afraid he may not be able to practise law.”

In February, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court dismissed a petition challenging Qayoom’s detention. The matter has now been referred to a division bench, but the hearing is awaited. Muzaffar said his uncle had lost more than 10 kg of weight in the past eight months, and back in Srinagar his 70-year-old aunt was alone and inconsolable. “I have not been able to contact him ever since the lockdown was announced on March 24. When I visited him last, he asked me to get him summer clothes. He needs insulin often and survives on diabetic biscuits. I have no idea whether these have been arranged by the jail authorities,” Muzaffar said.

Qayoom has faced the administration’s suspicions before, too. In September 2017, he was summoned three times by the National Investigation Agency in connection with a case of terror-funding. Political observers perceived that episode as an instance of overt and unabashed political harassment aimed at stifling dissent.

Shah Faesal’s wife, Iram Shah, said why her husband was not being released was a “mystery”. “We were hoping that he would be released before everyone else, but it is really sad that eight months have passed since he was booked, and he is not home even in such trying circumstances,” she said over the phone from their Ompora residence in Budgam near Srinagar. She said she had not heard from anyone in the government.

Faesal quit the Indian Administrative Service in January 2019 to foray into politics. During an interview with this reporter at the time, he said: “The idea of engaging with the rest of India is that they need to understand what the problems in Kashmir basically are. I plan to engage not just with the youth of the valley but also mould the opinion of people in the country” (‘There is an attempt to weaken regional parties in Kashmir”, Frontline , January 11, 2019). In March 2019, he launched his Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement with the objective of joining the electoral fray and bringing about “change”. But as the political climate turned menacing in the aftermath of August 5, his resolve wavered. On the intervening night of August 13 and 14, 2019, he attempted to board a flight to Istanbul but was apprehended at the New Delhi international airport and flown back to Srinagar, where he was booked under Section 107 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

A habeas corpus petition filed by one of his party colleagues was later withdrawn at his request. If the intent was to mollify decision-makers in New Delhi, that did not happen. He was slapped with the Public Safety Act on February 14. Iram Shah said it had been over a month since she last visited him at the MLA Hostel in Srinagar, where he remains confined. “I am not able to venture out due to the lockdown. His younger brother, who is a doctor, does. There is no proper arrangement regarding food and even filtered water. While we are worried for his safety there, back home everyone is gloomy and insecure,” Iram said “My [five-year-old] son asks ‘where is Daddy?’ I do not know how to explain things to the child.” Momentarily overcome with emotion, she asked: “At the time of a pandemic, one ought to be with one’s family and everyone would agree to that, wouldn’t they?”

Political veterans

For the families of the PDP’s Naeem Akhtar and N.C. general secretary Haji Ali Muhammad Sagar, the advanced age of the two leaders deepens their fears and anxieties. Haji Sagar’s son, Salman Sagar, president of the Youth National Conference and Srinagar’s former Mayor, said he was confident of a compassionate hearing in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on a petition challenging his father’s detention. “We expect the court to give a favourable ruling,” he said over the phone from Srinagar on April 15, a day before the hearing was scheduled. But his hopes were dashed: on April 16 the court allowed the government an additional 15 days to file its response.

Salman was frustrated over the absurdity of the charges against his father. The PSA dossier stated that the detainee [Haji Sagar] was able to garner votes during troubled times and that proved he enjoyed a formidable support base and could influence people. “How ironic is that?” Salman said.

“Until yesterday New Delhi wouldn’t tire of lauding us for ensuring a turnout in elections. How has that now become anti-national, a ground for imprisoning an avowed pro-India politician?”

In November 2019, this reporter had noted a similar feeling of pain and despair coalescing into belligerence during interactions with the families of several political prisoners. A senior PDP leader’s relative had said: “We had always offered to mutually work with the government on areas of agreement rather than remain fixated with antagonistic sentiment. Why should we do that now?”

The pandemic has muted that combative rhetoric. Iram Shah said Faesal would not take a line contrarian to New Delhi’s. “I am not sure he will continue politics. He might go for higher studies once he comes out,” she said. The families of other detainees are similarly irresolute, either reluctant to discuss politics or careful with their words. The question on everyone’s mind is: Is the government using COVID-19 to browbeat opponents?

Naeem Akhtar was a prominent face in Mehbooba Mufti’s Cabinet. His daughter, Shehryar Khanum, was worried that his indifferent health made him vulnerable to the virus. “My dad has had an open-heart surgery, he has stressed kidneys and is hyper-tensive. We are worried, not so much for medical facilities as because of the virus. My father would be a sure casualty because of his co-morbidities if he, God forbid, catches the disease,” she told Frontline .

She complained of the poor facilities at M-5 hut on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, where Naeem Akhtar is detained along with two others.

“The government does not provide them any assistance as per the jail manual. They are on their own for food and other essentials. The three of them are visited by their families, and that multiplies the risk of infection. All this when they have done no wrong to deserve detention in the first place.”

Salman Sagar had a similar grouse: “I have to travel 14 km to deliver him [Haji Sagar] food every day. The authorities declined my request for a travel permit, and it is very difficult to cart your way out through the checkposts. This government is unable to make any distinction between who is a part of the mainstream and who is a separatist.”

A family member of a detained leader, who refused to be named, said it was clear that those who were unwilling to come to a political agreement with New Delhi were at the receiving end: “It is not that an interlocutor from New Delhi drops in with a written pact and asks one to sign it. But there have been persistent efforts to assess one’s political resolve, often in the veneer of a casual chat. And that decides one’s fate.”

New Delhi’s misplaced antagonism towards the “unionists” has put fetters on the imagination of many young politicians.

Many of them fear that the government may soon be left with a political wreck that can take many years to rebuild. Waheed Ur Rehman Para, a spokesperson of the PDP, is under house arrest in Srinagar. He said that many people like him had opted for democracy and non-violence even as seesaw battles between pro-India and anti-India elements raged through their adolescent years. “Kashmir is the only region where 8,000 people sacrificed their lives to uphold the Indian Constitution,” he said.

“In Uttar Pradesh and other politically fractious hotspots of the country, one sees people dying in riots. But in the Valley, the N.C. and the PDP lost 5,000 and 1,000 party workers respectively for carrying the message of India.”

He said he was flustered by New Delhi’s reluctance to allow Kashmir’s mainstream leaders any operating space. “Whatever we had so far struggled for, whether self-rule or autonomy, it was within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. While the government maintains that Article 370 impeded Kashmir’s integration with India, it is clear that abrogating it has not yielded any positives,” he told Frontline .

His message: “India ought to be reconciliatory.”

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