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Kashmir’s Nelson Mandela

CJ Werleman speaks to the son of a political dissident, still in jail after 27 years for protesting the Indian occupation of Kashmir

A rally, held in Srinagar city following the decision taken by the Indian Government to scrap Article 370 which grants special status to Jammu & Kashmir. Photo: Saqib Majeed / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Kashmir’s Nelson Mandela

CJ Werleman speaks to the son of a political dissident, still in jail after 27 years for protesting the Indian occupation of Kashmir

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“I have never seen my father under the open sky,” said Ahmed Bin Qasim, a 21 year-old Kashmiri activist and son of Dr. Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, who remains one of Indian administered Kashmir’s longest jailed political prisoners.

Having completed his PhD and published more than 20 books in prison, most of which speak to the repressive criminality of the Indian occupation, which began in 1947, Dr. Faktoo is widely and adoringly referred to as “the Nelson Mandela of Kashmir”.

I’m told the story of Dr. Faktoo by his youngest son Qasim, who was born in 1999, six years after Indian security forces arrested and detained his father, mother and elder brother at Srinagar airport in 1993.

His father, a longtime critic of Indian colonialism, was the target, but both his mother and brother, who was only a few months old at the time – making him the youngest political prisoner in Kashmir – spent the next six months in prison.

Immediately upon their arrest they “were shifted to a torture centre,” Qasim told me. “My father was subjected to third degree torture in front of my mother and infant brother”.

He was tortured because the authorities “wanted him to join the mainstream Indian politics,” said Qasim. “The politics of what India does in Kashmir; the masquerade of democracy India puts up in Kashmir. They wanted him to be a part of that”.

“Prison guards used to take my parents to torture cells leaving behind Muhammad, the infant. The only time to date I saw my father crying was when he told me how they saw Muhammad playing with his faeces on his diaper after they returned from the torture cell,” says Qasim.

But because his father refused to comply, Indian authorities “implicated him on a false crime and then sentenced to a life in prison,” he says.

“This life sentence was initially set for 14 years, but because they had no evidence and because they had nothing against him, other than his political beliefs and involvement in the resistance movement against Indian colonial regime in Kashmir, the High Court in Kashmir cleared him of all charges after seven years of his imprisonment, saying the prosecution against him had miserably failed to prove anything”.

Qasim’s father was released from prison on bail and reunited with his family but, alas, only momentarily. 

“After having been initially acquitted, my father then wrote a book about how the whole system in Kashmir, which includes the judiciary and legislature and how all these systems and institutions play the role of decriminalising or legitimising the Indian occupation in Kashmir, and how the judiciary, especially, is an institution that has only helped the Indian state buy time, and has validated the otherwise illegal detention of political prisoners and many of the other illegal acts the Indian state is committing in Kashmir,” says Qasim.

Feeling threatened by his writings, the Indian authorities again arrested his Dr. Faktoo, who has now languished in prison for 27 years.

“Now that the people have got attached to him, the prospect of releasing my father is very terrifying for the Indian state,” says Qasim. “But it’s not just him, there are other lifers who have been in prison for 20 years and 25 years. We have so many lifers who have been in prison for more than 15 years now, all because of the lawlessness of the Indian state”.

A Plagued Region

Qasim’s story and that of his father is hardly unique to the people of Kashmir. It’s commonplace. The story of Kashmir – a territory disputed by India, Pakistan and China – is one of dispossession, dislocation, separation and loss. It’s also one of prisons, detention centres and unmarked graves. It’s where critics and opponents of Indian occupation and colonialism disappear without a trace.

Today, thousands of Kashmiris remain detained and imprisoned as political prisoners, many of whom are held without charge or trial under a draconian law titled ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act’ (PSA), designed by the Indian Government to circumvent the criminal justice system – eliminating transparency and accountability.

“The text of the PSA itself violates international human rights law and standards, but even the limited safeguards provided within the law are routinely ignored, and the law misused, by executive detaining authorities and the J&K Police,” observes Amnesty International. 

Essentially, the PSA grants Indian security forces extraordinary powers, allowing them to arrest Kashmiri residents without a warrant or charge, and then detain without trial, thus placing their activities and measures outside the realm of the ordinary criminal justice process.

The PSA has been used to detain journalists, academics, human rights activists, businesspeople, lawyers, poets, children and even elected Government officials, as was the case when Indian security forces arrested thousands of opponents and critics, including chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, in the days before and after New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status on 5 August 2019.

Late last year, the Indian Government announced its security forces in Kashmir had made more than 5,000 “preventative” PSA arrests in the three-month period spanning August to November.

Hope Amid Crisis

The arrival of the COVID-19, which has infected 25,000 people in Kashmir, has given extra urgency to the need for India to release all unjustly detained political prisoners, given social distancing measures are impossible to follow in the territory’s already overcrowded prisons.

“We remind Indian authorities that all measures designed to halt the spread of the virus must respect the fundamental human rights of every individual and we call on the Government to immediately release all arbitrarily detained prisoners, including journalists, human rights defenders, political leaders and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” says Amnesty International.

With COVID-19 cases surging ever upwards in Kashmir, Qasim holds grave fears for the health of not only his father, but also his mother, who now also languishes in prison. But he, like millions of other Kashmiris, wonders what more will it take for the international community to hold India accountable for its violations of international and human rights law.

Despite this, Qasim maintains a sense of optimism in what has become a prolonged period of darkness for Kashmir, writing, “I remember on one of my birthdays, eight years back, my father gifted me perfume from prison. Every time I thought of using it, I feared it might finish, so I closed it and put it back. To this date, I have not put it on, out of this fear but on this birthday, I did. I want to hope. I want to believe he will be out before the perfume finishes.”

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