Outside Kashmir’s Central Jail, Tales of Midnight Arrests

At around 2.30 am on August 2, two days before India revoked the special autonomous status for the Kashmir & Jammu region in the national parliament and imposed a communications shutdown across the region, Mudasir Ahmed Teli, a 19-year-old student, was picked up by police from his home in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

“They didn’t give us any reasons for his arrest and asked us to come to the local police station in the morning to talk further,” said Teli’s elder brother Iqbal Ahmed. Ahmed was waiting for his turn to meet his brother outside the central jail in Srinagar on September 7.

As Indian authorities have tightened their noose on Srinigar and other areas of Kashmir, the wait outside the central jail walls has become a dispiriting routine. Families begin arriving as early as 1 am to be allotted serial numbers to be able to spend precious time with those inside.

Official data show that 3,500 people including politicians, lawyers, and businessmen have been arrested since August 5 from across the Kashmir region. Of those, 320 have been booked under the Public Safety Act and lodged in different jails across the region. In addition, 1,500 revolving door arrests have been carried out across Kashmir involving continuous detentions and release.

Pakistan and India have contested the Kashmir area for decades, fighting three brief wars over the region and igniting concerns that tensions between the two nuclear-tipped nations could spin out of control into a holocaust.

In the current climate, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Quereshi, on Sept. 10 asked for the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch an investigation into treatment of citizens of the region, 67 percent of whom as Muslims.

"Today, I have knocked on the doors of the Human Rights Council, the repository of the world's conscience on human rights, to seek justice and respect for the people of Kashmir," Quereshi said.

But while the world seeks to deal with international tensions, at the city jail in Srinigar, there is only the boredom of sitting and waiting to be called to visit those inside and questions for many over just what it was that got them arrested.

There are times when the arrests seem arbitrary. Mudisir Teli, Ahmed said, was among four youths picked up from their homes on the same night by the police. Three were released except for Mudisir, who was charged with pelting police with stones, which his family denies. Teli was subsequently shifted to the central jail.

“The local police told us that he would be released on the day of Eid (August 12). But two days later, we came to know that he has been booked under the Public Safety Act,” Ahmed said. He had to leave his home at 5.30 am along with his parents to avoid government-imposed restrictions on public movement.

At central jail, the family had to wait for more than three hours for their turn to see the youth. They were allotted serial number 21 and would be called in at the main gate for the meeting.

The jail authorities allow only three members of the inmate’s immediate family to meet once a week, Ahmed said. “We have to wind up the meeting with my younger brother within 30 minutes,” he said.

In a public park opposite the heavily fortified jail, Mugli Begum, 70, also waited to meet her 37-year-old elder son, Muhammad Rafiq Sofi, for the first time. Sofi has been lodged in the central jail for the past two weeks, apparently because a nephew had been involved in a stone-throwing incident. Begum reached the jail with her younger son early in the morning on September 7 so that she could get an earlier serial number to meet her son. Accompanied by a brother, she brought food items and fruits for him. At around 1pm, her eyes resting on the prison gate, she was still waiting to be called in for.

The son, father of an 8-month-old-daughter and a four-year-old son, who makes his living as a mason, was arrested from their home in the Batamaloo area of Srinagar about two weeks ago and was later shifted to central jail without their knowledge. The police, Begum said, were asking not for him but for a nephew in another area, also suspected of being involved in stone-throwing incidents.

“They climbed the wall of our house at 12 in the night and barged inside the door,” Begum said. “We were terrified and my elder daughter fainted when they took him away. They said she is only doing some drama.”

Begum said her son was supposed to resume his masonry work the next morning after being out of work for weeks after a clampdown was imposed and restrictions put in place across the valley.

“I don’t know why they arrested him like that when he had done nothing,” she said. “He had nothing to do with what his nephew was doing.”

In another corner of the same park, Iqra Manzoor, carrying her infant child, was also waiting along with her younger sister and brother to meet her younger brother. Nineteen days ago, she said, her 19-year-old brother, Shahid Manzoor, works in a car wash to make a living for his family, was picked up on charges of stone throwing in Nowpora, Khanyar area of Srinagar.

After being detained in a local police station for the first two days, he was later shifted to the central jail, she said.

“He was arrested twice by the police since 2016 but in both the cases he was released from the local police station after a few days,” said Iqra. “This time he has been locked up here and we are worried they will keep him inside jail for long.”

After checking the Photostat copies of their Adhar identity cards, which are required to be shown at the entrance, the two sisters pick up their bags to come out of the park and approach the prison gate. It will be their third brief meeting with their brother since his arrest. That is life in Jammu & Kashmir for far too many.