Jails and the trauma of Kashmiri prisoners

Misery compounds for a Muslim Kashmiri prisoner as he may have to not just hear snide comments but is often abused and threatened because of the perceptions and notions about Kashmiri Muslims


Humra Quraishi

Perhaps, it is for the very first time that politicians from Kashmir are talking aloud, focusing on the prevailing ground realities in and around the Kashmir Valley. And they are doing so in the capital city, New Delhi. Earlier their talks were along the cautious strain but no longer. They are now coming out with those urgency riddled statements for the very survival and protection of the Kashmiri civilians, in the backdrop of last week’s killings of 13 civilians by the military in Nagaland.

This fact can't be overlooked that repeated promises by the Centre regarding the zero tolerance for rights violations have turned out to be hoax in Kashmir. The situation can be called more than complex as the Kashmir region is termed as one of the most militarized regions in the world, if not in the sub-continent.

What also seems worrying is the condition of the jailed Kashmiris. In my second book on the Kashmir region - ‘Kashmir the Unending Tragedy- Reports From the Frontlines’ - I have focused on this particular aspect: Life for a jailed prisoner, whether actually convicted or the under trial, is perhaps more than tough. Misery compounds for a Muslim Kashmiri prisoner as he may have to not just hear snide comments but is even abused and threatened because of the set of perceptions, myths and notions in circulation about Muslims and Kashmiris. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that the communally surcharged political climate in the country seems seeping into jails.

Those amongst us who are genuinely concerned about knowing details about the jailed in India ought to read significant books authored by senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani's My Days in Prison (Penguin), Kashmiri woman activist, Zamarud Habib's, Prisoner No 100 My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison, lawyer activist Nandita Haksar's Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal - Patriotism in The Time of Terror (Bibliophile South Asia). After one has read these books, what hits is the realisation of the dark realities connected to imprisonment and what it holds out particularly for the Kashmiri prisoner.

To quote Nandita Haksar from her book– ‘The reader will discover the horrifying world that Kashmiris inhabit: the terrifying reality of illegal arrests, dark, damp prison cells, the barbarity of the torture and the pain of a child waiting for his father to be hanged.’ She doesn’t mince words, whilst focusing on how Kashmiris can be framed to such an extent that they would find it difficult to fight the system. ‘The war against terrorism is systematically weakening the democratic foundations of our country, widening the chasm between Hindu and Muslim citizens, and allying India with the most hated States in the world - the U.S. and Israel.’

In fact, in her book -‘The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism –From The Cold War to the Present Day’ , Nandita Haksar has also very deftly webbed in letters of Afzal Guru and this includes a 10-page handwritten letter. It is relevant to point out that none of his letters tucked in the pages of Nandita’s book carry terrorizing offloads or thoughts or sentiments. On the contrary, they come across as not just philosophical but loaded with his definite views and viewpoints. To quote Nandita, ‘Though Afzal Guru had lived in the closed and claustrophobic cells of the Tihar Jail, his mind was open, and he continued to read extensively.

To quote her from this book – ‘Afzal was wrestling with the ideas of religion and nationalism. In a long letter written to me on January 8, 2008, he asked: Respected Nandita, when the Naga conflict is not Christian why conflict in Kashmir is branded Islamic. Fundamentally it is political, social and historical in nature. Robert A Pape’s book, Dying To Win, has given a sophisticated analysis of 300 suicide attacks (from 1980 - 2003) out of which 76 were executed by the LTTE. The common cause he says is political and social injustice, oppression and brute policies of the political establishment and occupational powers.’

And the sentiments and thoughts contained in the 10 pages long handwritten letter which Afzal Guru wrote to Nandita (she’d received it on January 8, 2008 ), make one sit up and hang one’s head!

Just these last lines from his handwritten letter seem enough to relay the man’s broad vision cum philosophy: ‘In the end, I request you don’t colourize or dress my words in any colour or dress except a purely responsible human concern for humanity …I am in Universe in such a way that I am myself Universe - I live in a space but I am spaceless.’

Getting back to the condition of those imprisoned. Almost two decades back, in 2002, I had interviewed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s representative in the Valley - Georgios Georgantas, a political scientist from Greece, who was then posted in Srinagar as part of a four-member team of the ICRC. Under the memorandum of understanding signed between the Government of India and the ICRC in June 1995, the latter was allowed access to all detention centres and prisons in Jammu and Kashmir. The committee’s mandate was to assess the prevailing conditions in the detention centres and to look at the treatment meted out to the prisoners.

Georgios Georgantas had told me that he and his ICRC team do not go on sudden or unannounced visits to the jails and detention centres. To quote him, ‘Let me first clarify that we don’t go on sudden, unannounced visits although the visits are regular, as many as 20 to 25 in a month. In fact, it’s part of the memorandum of understanding that we can visit a place of detention as frequently as possible.’

I had queried further: Since your visits to these places are planned and not spontaneous, wouldn’t the authorities take care to present the best possible picture about the condition of the jails and the inmates?

To which he had replied: ‘Even though a two-week permission time is required, I don’t think it’s possible for the authorities to spruce up the jails for our visits because the latter can extend from a week to as long as 20 to 25 days. In such circumstances, sprucing up is simply not possible. And though there have been allegations of custodial killings and we also have reports of arrested people being missing, we cannot, in accordance with the MoU, investigate such allegations to establish if they are true or not. Also, we have explained to the people here what we can and what we can’t do so there are no false or inflated expectations from us. We have the authority to visit interrogation centres and jails; establish a connection between the detainees and their families, trace the whereabouts of the arrested persons, to access the general conditions prevailing in jails and interrogation centres. And here let me also clarify that our jurisdiction extends only to those detained because of the turmoil here and not to those arrested in common law cases. The bottom line is: We can’t interfere with the legal system.’

I had also asked him about his views of the general condition of the detainees, he’d said, ‘All I can say is that there is always space for improvement…The mental health of the detainees is a major concern for us. In fact, we have an Irish doctor on the staff here and he accompanies us whenever we visit these jails and interrogation centres. We do make suggestions to the authorities and on a couple of occasions, they have sent the detainees to the hospital or released them earlier than planned because of our intervention. Some of the detainees’ talks, some don’t. Generally, it is the educated who find it very difficult to cope with the situation. The rural people find it much easier to cope.’

I then went on to ask him if he had come across any serious instances of torture during his visits to the interrogation centres and prisons of the Valley, but he refused to comment.

Some efforts on to preserve traditions, culture and heritage of Kashmir!

Sadly whenever a community or region gets battered and shattered, there’s not just loss of lives and livelihoods but even the arts and culture get affected if not pushed into oblivion. This holds out for the Kashmir region too. And with that in the background, it was refreshing to hear that the HELP Foundation ( J&K Human Effort for Love and Peace ) run by the Valley-based activist Nighat Shafi Pandit, has set up ‘ The Gallery & Craft Centre’ at Bait ul Meras, Aali Kadal, in downtown Srinagar. The core purpose of this effort is to make the young and upcoming generations of the Kashmiris and also the non-Kashmiris aware of the heritage and traditions and culture of the region.

Several items on display are from the personal collection of the Valley-based businessman Mubashir Kathwari and also from Nighat Shafi Pandit’s own collection, but the base is fast expanding as more are getting aware of their heritage. There are also plans to hold heritage walks and talks and interactive meets and discussions.

Distractions of the day!

For us, the survivors of the day, two distractions hold out.

Katrina Kaif-Vicky Kaushal wedding with all its glitter and glamour.

Bigg Boss and the loss of sensitivities. In fact, next year, the makers should bypass stars and starlets. Instead rope in writers and authors. And then see what all gets written, far and wide!

Views are personal

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