n April 14, a self-recorded video of Saima Jan, a young woman cop in her early 20s, went viral on Indian social media. Jan, who was off-duty at the time and whose face was not shown in the video, was bravely confronting colleagues in law enforcement.
“Why do you bother us often and not let us live peacefully? If you want to search our house, you have to take off your shoes first,” an indignant Jan tells Indian armed forces in the video during the Cordon and Search Operations (CASO) in Southern Kashmir’s Kulgam district.
CASO is an anti-insurgency exercise often conducted by Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir. During these operations, the armed forces have been accused of destroying civilian property and targeting people including women and children.
“A few days ago, you barged into my house when my mother was alone. She was frightened,” Jan said.
As they stepped back and forth outside her house, Jan howls in anguish at the Indian soldiers: “Had militants been present here, they would have pumped bullets in your chest.”
The next day, Jan was arrested by police from her house and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The only child and lone breadwinner of her ailing parents, Jan was accused of “glorifying militancy and obstructing the government officials on duty.”
Like Jan, hundreds of people in Kashmir – journalists, activists, social media users, and government employees, just to name a few – have, over the last couple of years, been booked under UAPA. Ostensibly an anti-terror law, it instead gives the state unprecedented power to designate individuals as terrorists and throw them in jail for six months, all without being tried in a court. Punishment under the law can be extended to seven years.
Ever since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, abrogated the special status of Kashmir in August 2019, UAPA has been extensively used in the disputed region to silence those who speak against the government and criticize their policies and actions.
Since her arrest, Jan has also been terminated from her post as a Special Police Officer, a highly underpaid, low-ranking temporary job often taken by people from poor families who really need the money.
In a statement, police said Jan resisted the search party, turned violent, and uttered statements glorifying the violent actions of alleged terrorists. “She captured a video and uploaded it on social media platforms with the intent of disrupting the search operations,” the statement added.
Later, the police would say that Jan was already on their radar for alleged insurgent activities: “She is a suspected shelter point of active armed rebels, thus was subjected to search.”
Her parents insist their daughter is innocent and her rage was only triggered by the incident and is very justifiable. “What can you expect from a person after the army personnel repeatedly barged into their house with their shoes on?” Jawahar Banu, 52, Jan’s mother, told Asia Democracy Chronicles. “It was the fourth raid on our house in a year. My daughter’s pent-up anger exploded that day.”
Enacted in 1967, UAPA was primarily introduced to combat terror and proscribe known terrorist organizations. The law has been amended several times, but the latest iteration by the BJP in August 2019 empowers the state to designate an individual as a terrorist with impunity.
At the time of its enforcement, BJP said the changes in the law would make it easy for the state to deal with terrorist organizations that threaten national security. However, some provisions of the new UAPA have instead been used against government critics.
Political parties who opposed the bill in parliament described the new changes as “draconian,” fearing it could be misused against anyone who opposed the ruling party. “With the help of new changes in UAPA, dissenting voices could be declared terrorists,” said Elamaram Kareem, head of the Communist Party of India Marxist. “This will lead to large-scale harassment and injustice.”
Indeed, UAPA cases have grown steadily with time, particularly in Kashmir. From just 45 cases in 2014, the region saw a worrying spike in the UAPA complaints, reaching 255 in 2019.
Arrest for the grieving
Over the years, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, 45, had staged scores of peaceful demonstrations, demanding for the dead body of his teenage son Ather Mushtaq.
According to police, Ather was one of three militants killed by security forces on December 30, 2020 on the outskirts of Srinagar, the main city of the Indian-administered region. Wani denies this. He knows Ather is innocent. And all he wants now is for the authorities to return his son’s body so that the family could bury him in accordance with Islamic rituals at their ancestral graveyard.
But under the new policy adopted by the administration in Kashmir in April 2020, Ather was buried 70 miles away from his home, in the Sonamarg area of Ganderbal district in North Kashmir, in the presence of police and family members. According to officials, enforcing this policy was necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Contesting the police claims, families of fallen rebels think the government is just scared. Big funerals and heroic farewells accorded to the rebels by the public have been a humiliation for the Indian state. Police Inspector General Vijaya Kumar’s tacit admission, as reported by national daily The Hindu, confirmed this. He said the policy “not only stopped the spread of COVID infections but also stopped the glamorizing of terrorists and avoided potential law and order problem.”
On February 5, 2021, Wani and others staged another protest for Ather just outside a mosque, after finishing Friday prayers, in his village in Pulwama district, South Kashmir. They demanded yet again: “Return the dead body of our son.” Later that day, Wani, along with his two brothers, three relatives, and the mosque cleric, was booked by the police under UAPA.
Police said they booked Wani and the others for “organizing illegal procession under criminal conspiracy and were abetting anti-national elements,” but in the end, they made no arrest.
“The mere purpose of slapping me with UAPA was to silence me. They didn’t want me to demand for my son’s body,” said Wani. “But even if they shoot me, the last words that will come out from my mouth will be ‘return the dead body of my son.’”
“Can’t we even demand the dead body of our sons? Don’t our dead loved ones deserve a proper burial and respect?” he asked.
Wani escaped jail time that day, but Naseema Bano, 57, wasn’t so lucky. On June 20, 2020, she was taken by police from her home in South Kashmir and thrown in prison for alleged violations of UAPA. Bano was accused of recruiting two youths into militancy and providing logistical support to the militant organizations in Kashmir — charges her family deny.
She was in jail for over 300 days and was only given temporary bail on May 12, 2021, for medical reasons.
Bano’s 24-year-old son Tauseef Ahmad Sheikh had joined the armed rebellion in 2014 and was killed in an encounter by Indian paramilitary forces in 2018. In 2017, Bano’s photo showing her sitting beside her rebel son and holding an assault rifle went viral on social media in Kashmir. Her family believes the photograph was the reason she was arrested.
The police said it wasn’t just the photograph that proved Bano’s criminal involvement. In a statement released to the public after they arrested Bano, they said: “Her role has surfaced in recruiting at least two youth into militant ranks, arranging arms ammunition, communication, and logistics for militants and terror organizations.”
Bano is diabetic and hypertensive, and her condition was deteriorating in jail. “As COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Kashmir, we were worried for her health,” said a nephew of Bano, who requested anonymity. “[But] we have to present her before the court after 30 days from the date of her release.”
Aside from egregious acts of injustice, UAPA also curtails some of the most fundamental freedoms in Kashmir. On March 7, Abdul Bari Naik, 40, then an assistant professor at the Udhampur Degree College, was arrested by police while in the middle of his lecture. He was soon terminated from his job and booked under UAPA.
The highly accomplished academic has two PhD degrees under his belt, passed very competitive examinations, and qualified for research fellowships and teaching positions. His family thinks that it was his social activism that put him on the radar of law enforcement.
Police said Naik was engaged in work that goes against the “national integrity.” From 2018 to 2019, four cases were filed against Naik, all under UAPA. Authorities said that he has “been found perpetually instigating the students of the area against the state administration,” in turn compromising law and order. Worse, Naik has been accused of sympathizing with terrorists, influencing the youth, police claim.
Naik’s father, Ghulam Mohiudin Naik, categorically denies the charges. “Allegations leveled against my son are concocted. The mere reasons behind his arrest are: he has exposed corrupt government officials and raised concern over the village land illegally occupied by the army,” he said.
The new amendments to UAPA have also shrunk online civic space, particularly for the media. In April 2020, two Kashmiri journalists, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra, were booked under UAPA for allegedly promoting unlawful activities online.
Zahra, a photojournalist, had posted some of her previous work on social media, while Geelani, a senior journalist and author, had expressed his opinion on his social media accounts. The authorities took these as subversive acts and accused both of them of “glorifying terrorism” and indulging in “anti-national activities.”
Because of the risks it poses to civil society, UAPA has been widely criticized by international rights bodies, citing its complex nature and vaguely defined provisions. In May 2020, United Nations Special Rapporteurs, in a letter addressed to the government of India, raised their concern over the UAPA. The letter stated that the provisions of UAPA are in violation of several international laws.
Earlier, in October 2018, the UN Human Rights Council expressed concern over the arrest of 10 human rights defenders under UAPA, pointing out that the law was being used as a pretext to silence advocacy and activism in India.
“The UAPA’s vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organizations’ confers discretionary powers upon State agencies, which weakens judicial oversight and diminishes civil liberties in the process,” the UN experts said. “We urge the Government to refrain from engaging in the criminalization of human rights defenders in general, including through the use of overly broad national security legislation.”●
Aamir Ali Bhat is a journalist in Indian-administered Kashmir. He writes about human rights violations, politics, and the environment.