Year since abrogation of Article 370, Mehbooba Mufti, other politicians still under detention as Centre claims normalcy

Home Ministry states that Valley's top politicians were released within seven months of scrapping of Article 370, but many leaders like Soz claim they were kept under illegal detention

FP Staff August 05, 2020 07:38:26 IST
Year since abrogation of Article 370, Mehbooba Mufti, other politicians still under detention as Centre claims normalcy

Representational Image. AP

A spate of arrests and detentions followed the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status on 5 August last year with three former chief ministers coming under radar. Even as the Centre readies to observe the first anniversary of abrogation of Article 370, life in the region is far from what defines normalcy in rest of the country.

The erstwhile state -- which was granted the status of a Union Territory a year ago following the abrogation -- is yet to elect a government over two years after a split in the PDP-BJP combine led to President's rule. High speed internet is still a distant dream for residents of the Valley, while mobile connectivity too can be disrupted by the authorities on need basis.

The last serving chief minister of the semi-autonomous state, Mehbooba Mufti is still under house arrest even though the the government has seen fit to release several key opposition leaders and former chief ministers.

Mufti’s detention was extended by three months under the Public Safety Act (PSA), ahead of the expiry of her current detention order on 5 August this year. Her residence, where she was shifted in April after spending over eight months at two government facilities, has been declared a subsidiary jail.

Her former aide and ex-MLA Sajad Lone, who founded the Jammu and Kashmir People's Conference, was released from detention this week. After being taken into custody on 5 August, he was kept at makeshift jail at Srinagar's Centaur hotel, along with other leaders from mainstream parties before they all were moved to an MLA hostel. In February, he was shifted to his residence and kept under house arrest.

Controversy over claims of detentions

The curious case of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz has been making headlines recently. While the former Union minister claims he is still under detention, the Jammu and Kashmir administration vehemently claims that he is a free man.

"I continue to be under house arrest. The only thing that has changed is; a lock has been put on my gate from inside also," Soz has claimed in a statement.

However, the Supreme Court closed a habeas corpus petition by his wife after being told by the administration that he was “never detained nor under house arrest”.

The order came even as videos went viral of policemen stationed at Soz’s residence pulling him away from the boundary wall of his home as he talked to media persons. Another video showed cops stopping him from leaving his residence.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah says that Soz's story is neither unique nor unusual. He claims that 15 leaders of his party were also illegally detained like Soz.

"Soz Sahib’s plight is not unique. JKNC has gone to court because more than 15 of our colleagues are similarly illegally detained and I have no doubt the administration will claim they aren’t detained."

The party had filed a petition on 13 July in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seeking the release of 16 party leaders still under house arrest. A letter to Principal Secretary, Home, Jammu and Kashmir noted that “no order (preventive or otherwise) justifying such confinement has till date been served upon” the detained leaders.

The leaders names are: Ali Mohammad Sagar, Abdul Rahim Rather, Nasir Aslam Wani, Aga Syed Mehmood, Mohammad Khalil Bandh, Irfan Shah, Sahmeema Firdous, Mohammad Shafi Uri, Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi, Chaudhary Mohammad Ramzaan, Mubarak Gul, Dr Bashir Veeri, Abdul Majeed Larmi, Basharat Bukhari, Saifudin Bhat Shutru and Mohammad Shafi.

From among the gamut of leaders who have been arrested since the abrogation of Article 370 last year, Peoples Democratic Party’s Waheed Parra, arrested on 5 August and later booked under a preventive detention law, said "disgrace and defeat have been both personal and political”. “My work became a reason for my arrest. My dossier said I was motivating people to be part of democratisation and elections,” he told Outlook.

Even though PDP leader Nizamuddin Bhat was released from detention at the MLA hostel in Srinagar in January, party spokesman Suhail Bukhari said this week that top PDP leaders are still not allowed to move out of their houses.

"Naeem Akhtar, GN Hanjura, Sartaj Madani, Peer Mansoor, AR Veeri, all former legislators and ministers, remain under house arrest since their release from sub-jails," he said.

Peoples Conference leader Abdul Ghani Vakil and Peoples Movement chief Shah Faesal and leader Javaid Mustafa Mir are also placed under house arrest, according to party spokesmen.

Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq has also been under house arrest since 5 August, while Yasin Malik has been in Tihar jail for 18 months. Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chairman Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, who was among those placed under house arrest in August 2019, was arrested by police in Srinagar on Sunday, with sources telling New Indian Express that he was booked under PSA.

Home ministry data stated that top political leadership from NC and PDP were released in multiple batches within seven months after the scrapping of Article 370. As many as 6,605 persons including political heads, overground workers, stone-pelters and separatists were taken into preventive custody. But, 90 percent of them were released in the first three months, central government officials told The Economic Times.

A leadership vacuum created by the long absence of major leaders from parties with strong regional presence saw the emergence of newer faces. While Mufti's daughter Iltija took control of her mother's Twitter account in her absence and spoke on "issues of the common people", former PDP leader Altaf Bukhari launched a new outfit Apni Party in March. The BJP too started grooming entrants like Aijaz Hussain and Sheikh Khalid Jehangir.

The Block Development Council elections were held from 8 to 16 October last year, recording a voter turnout of 98 percent. While the PDP and JKNC boycotted the first elections to be held after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status, 109 of the 128 winning candidates turned out to be Independents. The erstwhile state, however, has not had a stable government since June 2018, when Mufti stepped down from the chief ministerial post.

Petitions say courts overlooked grounds of detention

Soz had left his residence twice in September and December 2019 after seeking permission from authorities and said that he would sue the government for his unlawful arrest, blaming the UT administration for lying to the apex court. The court stressed heavily on the omission of Soz’s travels in the petition, even as the question of the grounds of detention did not arise.

A petition challenging Mufti’s detention remains pending before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Sitaram Yechury’s habeas corpus petition challenging the detention of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami was met with conditions by the court allowing a meeting between the two leaders. The petition remains pending and was last listed on 28 January.

The case against the detention of Kashmir Bar Association president Mian Abdul Qayoom lasted almost as long as his detention period, with the court suggesting his early release and the government accepting the suggestion, while not giving any answers on the legality of the detention.

Awami National Conference (ANC) leader Muzaffar Ahmad Shah had approached the High Court on 11 September last year along with his family, alleging that they had been detained. Srinagar authorities told the court that they had not been put under house arrest. While the court did not look into the allegations of illegal detention, it passed directions to withdraw the security personnel deputed at their residence in March.

4G internet remains suspended in UT

Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor GK Murmu said that high-speed internet should not be an issue days after the home ministry said no to the restoration of 4G internet in the Union Territory. The Jammu and Kashmir administration, however, ordered to continue the curb on internet speed across the Union Territory in an order released on Wednesday that says that internet speed shall be restricted to 2G only and available on post-paid sim cards. Orders were passed by authorities on 4, 17 and 26 March restricting internet speed for mobile data services to 2G. The order has brought concerns about not being able to access telemedicine and information from the government on the coronavirus pandemic.

Slamming the Centre’s attempt to hide what is happening in the Valley by shutting down 4G services, Farooq Abdullah said, "Every country in the world knows what is happening here. Packing up media, shutting telephones down, and using your media to put false stories -- one day this will rebound on you. When you will be sitting in the opposition and you have to answer for your misdeeds," he said.

Officials, on the other hand, cited relaxations in curbs within two weeks of abrogation of Article 370 when seventeen landlines exchanges out of 96 were restored. “Postpaid mobile services were re-activated on 14 October last year, however, 4G internet services still continue to remain suspended,” an official said.

With inputs from agencies

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