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J&K: When the Personal Becomes Political

The Indian state is bent on ensuring "normalcy" in Kashmir. This means it will go to any extent, including denying citizens the basic freedom of travelling to the state. A first-person account, in two parts, of how Sahba Husain and Gautam Navlakha, two activists, were refused entry into Kashmir and turned back.


J&K: When the Personal Becomes Political

Sahba Husain, Gautam Navlakha

The Indian state is bent on ensuring “normalcy” in Kashmir. This means it will go to any extent, including denying citizens the basic freedom of travelling to the state. A first-person account, in two parts, of how Sahba Husain and Gautam Navlakha, two activists, were refused entry into Kashmir and turned back.

Sahba Husain ( is a women’s activist and Gautam Navlakha ( has been a long-time c ampaigner for democratic rights.

ahba: As our flight began to descend at Srinagar airport on the a fternoon of 28 May, Gautam drew my attention to what lay beneath: the landscape around the airport was dotted with army camps, the green rooftops glistening in bright daylight of a mild summer. We wondered how much more land would thus be acquired by a force whose presence is not only an eyesore but a formidable threat to all who live in their midst. But we were arriving here for a trek in the mountains of north Kashmir and hardly able to contain our sense of excitement despite the lingering discomfort and anguish at what we had just seen from a window in the sky…a reminder that we were about to land in an extremely militarised zone, although a familiar one. We have been returning here for any number of years, a little over two decades for Gautam and half of that in my case.

As we disembarked, a police constable came running to show us the way to the arrival lounge. “Why is he showing us the way?” I turned to ask Gautam without realising or apprehending what awaited us inside. There were a dozen uniformed men who, as we learnt later, belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) branch of the criminal investigation department (CID). As I took hold of a trolley for our luggage, one of them was asking Gautam to follow him to the VIP lounge at the airport; we almost laughed in disbelief at this VIP treatment that seemed to have been reserved only for us. When we collected our luggage and looked in the direction of the “exit” Gautam told me that the deputy superintendent of police (DSP), who was until then persuading him towards the VIP lounge, had informed him that he was prohibited from entering the city. Unable to make any sense of this I demanded to know from the DSP what the matter was. He said, with a polite smile that did not at all match his words, Oopar se IG ka order aaya hai ke sir ko Budgam district mein

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dakhil hone ki ijazat nahin hai, hum toh bus order follow kar rahe hain (We have received orders from above that he is prohibited from entering Budgam district, we are only following the order).

In desperation, I heard myself telling the officer something that I have always

contested and rejected: that Kashmir is an integral part of India and we as Indian citi zens had every right to enter here whenever we wished! It fell on deaf ears even as our “citizenship” was being challenged; our basic democratic right was b eing violated, our “sense of self” eroded...

Order of Externment

Not willing to follow any verbal order, we asked for a copy of the written order which was procured for us after more than an hour. In the meantime, while we tried to make sense of the situation and reason with them, they were preparing to send us back to Delhi by the next available flight! The “order” was from the district magistrate, Budgam, who in his authority had invoked Section 144 of the CrPC to prevent Gautam’s entry! Even after reading the order when we refused to leave and said that we would wait until our lawyer’s advice, the DSP’s “polite smile” was replaced with a scowl that indeed suited his demeanour better; now it was in a loud, harsh and arrogant tone, with arms flaying, that he addressed us, “Now that you both have read the order, please obey it and do as we tell you. The only option for you is to return to Delhi, give us the money so we may purchase your tickets and send you back. We have other duties too and we cannot carry on with this headache.” Do we have to pay from our own pockets to be deported? “Of course, will the sarkar pay for you? That is not how it is done”, we were told candidly.

While all this was being “sorted out” the last flight from Srinagar to Delhi had already departed and the airport was beginning to take on a deserted look as there were no more passengers in the departure lounge where we had now been brought under strict security. It was instead teeming with gun-toting uniformed men and then we saw sniffer dogs being brought in; a mock drill for a hijacked airplane was about to be conducted for which the airport had to be evacuated! But before that our tickets had to be purchased for us to

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COMMENTARYcase, we were whisked past the waiting civilian vehicles, past the waiting queues of passengers, past the security check-in area with policemen on either side and finally into the departure lounge. As I turned, there were no policemen follow-ing us anymore; we were now “free” to depart! However, just in time for boarding, a young man in civilian clothes greeted us and asked us to follow him for boarding; he too whisked us past all other passen-gers with an urgency, right up to the door of the aircraft. It was on the way that he disclosed, to my question, that he was a CID officer who had been instructed to take over from where we had been left. On our way out, we were given two airline coupons worth Rs 500 by the air-port manager (“as and when we book our flights again”) and on arrival in Delhi, the first few pieces of baggage that came be-longed to us! I am quite certain these were not “orders from above”. Could it be the new-found son who had made these ar-rangements?! Gautam: Let us look at the bright side first. Sahba and I were not abused, arrested, encountered, tortured, implicated in mul-tiple cases under multiple charges, awarded life sentences, and most of all we were not separated….We were merely prevented from entering Kashmir. A private mountain trek got transformed into a political issue. Today, telephones, mail, emails, what we do, whomsoever we meet….virtually everything one does is monitored by an increasingly paranoid Indian state with, 21 investigating and intelligence agencies capable of snooping on us. Therefore, they could not be unaware of our plan to trek. And yet a personal visit was perceived by as one which could result in “a situation %CNNHQT2CRGTU#0CVKQPCN5GOKPCTQP/QFGTPKV[CPF'VJPKE2TQEGUUGUKP+PFKCYKNNDGQTICPKUGFQPVJGVJCPFVJ/CTEJCVVJG0QTVJ'CUVGTP*KNN7PKXGTUKV[5JKNNQPI6JQUGYJQYKUJVQRTGUGPVRCRGTUOC[XKUKVVJGYGDUKVGYYYPGJWCEKPQTEQPVCEVVJGEQPXGPGTQHVJGUGOKPCTT8-WOCTFXAMWOCTTGFKHHOCKNEQO

leave the next morning, we were told; an exorbitant amount was demanded from us failing which we were threatened that “you will be taken as accused by the police in a police van up to Jammu from where you may proceed to Delhi”. When we objected strongly to being treated as criminals, the DSP turned the threat into a sinister joke: “Why don’t you make good use of this

o pportunity we are providing; once we leave you in Jammu you can enter Srinagar (Budgam district) by road, who can stop you then?” We refused, paid the money for our “return journey” and were then led outside to wait until the mock drill was over.

A Mother and Her ‘Son’

While the tickets were being purchased, phone-calls were flying between the policemen and the DSP on where to put us up for the night. I overheard one of them; “Sir there is a madam with Mr Gautam (turns to me to ask yeh aapke kaun lagte hain? (Who is he to you?). And there is no place here at the airport to keep them”. We were unaware of whatever instructions might have been given but each one of the policemen maintained a rigid silence in response to our repeated queries about where they would take us from here. One of them, perhaps in an attempt to soothe my frayed nerves declared that he was like my son and I should trust him as a mother would! So, here in the midst of these surrounding policemen and what seemed like an endless drama unfolding, a new relationship was being forged with me. I wondered whether he would call Gautam a “father” if he were alone in their midst? Gender, citizenship, democracy, rights; all were distorted and wrenched of their meaning. A personal visit turned into a political farce? What do I tell this newfound son? Listen to your new-found mother? No, I had to listen to him, he said as he brought a caged PCR van and told us to get in. Does he expect me to feel proud that I had suddenly found a young cop-son who was telling me to sit in the front seat with him while Gautam and the luggage were “placed” in the back of the van along with gun-wielding men? “But where are you taking us” we protested and I, the newfound mother, told him that it was the most infuriating, humiliating experience for me and I refuse to have a son that drives his “mother” in his police van to an undisclosed location. “Please don’t worry; we’ll make sure you are comfortable”, he said.

As the police vehicle sped out of the airport with two of us as their “captives”, I began to think of the hundreds of ordinary, innocent citizens that are “picked up” as a matter of routine here to maintain “law and order”, to ensure that “civic amenities” are supplied uninterruptedly, to keep up the charade of “peace and normalcy” and to show the world that tourism was thriving here; so what if there were “minor hiccups” such as this one. So what if we too had come here, on this occasion, as tourists desiring to visit the mountains to trek. There are tourists indeed but one among them here was seen as a threat to tourism itself, a threat to the prevailing state of peace. How fragile is this peace, how fragile a state that (mis)uses its power and authority to prevent one from entering a part of its country, how fragile the belief that an “order from above” is enough to demolish one’s fundamental rights…Truth is not fragile, it cannot be made captive; ideas have a way to flourish even in a State that is afraid of them.

The short drive from the airport was the longest for us in terms of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment; where are they taking us, we kept wondering, silently now. And then we saw the vehicle enter the premises just outside the airport gates: JK Police Mess, Humhama! Promptly, room 14 was allotted to us; “you will be our guests tonight” we were told and ushered into the room; a guard in uniform with a gun slung across his shoulder was posted outside along with a sturdy man in plain-clothes. It was nearly 8 o’clock in the evening now. I told them not to lock the room from outside; Oh no, how can a son lock his mother? You are free now, said the new-found son. However, 10 minutes later, when a few friends came to the gate to visit us, we were not allowed to meet them, not even I, whose name was not mentioned in the “order”. “You will not be allowed to re-enter these premises if you step out; these are orders from above”, I was told.


The next morning we were back in the police van that was headed for the airport; baggage screening was waived in our

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which effects peace and tranquility in society and create disturbance to the civic amenities of people”, wrote the district magistrate, Budgam, citing S 144 of CrPC. No offence was mentioned. Mere suspicion sufficed to take this decision. To add salt to our wounds we were made to pay an exorbitant price for being deported!

The ‘Truth’

Why were they so keen to stop us? Because people like us do not “understand” the situation in Kashmir, the euphemism for not agreeing with the official version of “truth”. While the perception of truth does vary and the truth of the rulers and the ruled are different, there is also a hierarchy of what constitutes “truth”, because, all truths are not equal, and some are more important than others. We became the sacrificial lamb for sending a message to democratic minded Indians that they should keep away from Kashmir, away from “politics” and do not talk about the underbelly of “normalcy and peace”. If there was any doubt it was set to rest on 30 May, when S 144 of CrPC was declared in Srinagar. This prohibits assembly of “person/persons”, i e, a virtual ban on all forms of protests, manifestations, dharna…. Precisely the condition which prevailed for 63 years in Kashmir and caused people’s anger to erupt. Look at the paradox.

For years Kashmiris were told that they should give up armed militancy. When they did and began mass protests in 2008 it was characterised as “agitational terrorism” or “gunless terrorism” by the security forces. Hundreds of thousands of those who participated in mass protests, all of them became “terrorists”. And, therefore, legitimate targets for soldiers to even shoot and kill. This has been followed by security crackdown, coercion, arrests, filing charges, threatening to ruin future prospects of youth….forcing and pushing people into submission. Most separatist leaders are under arrest or house arrest. Nearly 200 persons are booked under the Public Safety Act, an act which allows preventive detention for up to two years. But no sooner do the two years end or the high court acquits the booked person, then he gets re-booked repeatedly… sometimes for up to 12 years. According to a written reply from the Home Department to the JK state assembly on 17 March 2011, a total of 5,255 persons including 799 students were arrested for resorting to stone pelting last summer.

Summer of 2010

The five-month-long spree of killing in the summer of 2010 was triggered by protests against the custodial killing by security force personnel, of Mohammad Shafi, Shehzad Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmed, residents of Nadihal in Baramulla district of JK, on the night of 29-30 April, three days after they disappeared. They were buried as “unidentified militants” in Kalaroos village graveyard on the LoC, and the army officers received, without any hindrance, a reward of Rs 6,00,000. (Kalaroos was one of the 55 graveyards investigated in 2008-09 by the Inter national Peoples T ribunal on Kashmir, when it was studying the phenomenon of mass graves.) If M achhil triggered public anger in 2010, the Shopian rape and murder of two young women brought people out in 2009, and the illegal transfer of forest land to a nonstate religious body fed the mass protests in 2008. In each instance protests were caused by an incident of horrible crime committed by the government forces.

So what about justice for the 125 killed between June and September 2010, the 1,500 cases of firearm/tear gas shell/pellet injuries, 500 cases of severe beatings and 38 instances of blindness caused by bullets or p ellets or marbles used as projectiles in slingshots used by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) since 11 June 2010, and death of eight children due to torture? How many FIRs record security force personnel as accused for crimes committed last summer? How many of them are being investigated? In how many cases have charge-sheets been filed? How many are being prosecuted and how many convicted? In response to a notice issued by the JK High Court in a public interest litigation filed by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik for prosecuting the killers of 117 Kashmiris in 2010, the state government told the Court that most of those killed were either “hardened criminals”, or “miscreants ….”. So was it alright to kill them?

Bashiruddin Commission

The Justice Bashiruddin Commission was set up in June 2010 to look into 17 out of the 125 deaths which took place during June-September 2010. The CRPF refused to depose before him because being an armed force of the Union, a state-constituted commission of inquiry does not have jurisdiction over them. As for the Machhil fake encounter case the trial is proceeding at a crawl. Apart from paying “blood money” to families of those killed in 2010, little else is being done. Instead the very forces which were responsible for the crimes of the summer of 2010 are “counselling” Kashmiri college and

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school youth as part of their “Winning the Hearts and Minds” outreach and to counter the “well designed cons piracy” behind stone pelting. Prabhakar Tripathi, commander of CRPF, described their initiative as “brain draining” of youth to help them “dream big and earn more”. He explains “(t)he mind of the youth are fragile and they get easily attracted to something. We have been trying to make them understand the difference between right and wrong through our counselling programme” (Rising Kashmir, 1 March 2011). What about other confidence-building measures? Scrutiny reveals that only 39 out of 400 odd bunkers in Srinagar have been removed and 30,000 army and paramilitary forces out of 6,67,000, withdrawn.

Consider the WikiLeaks disclosure about rampant torture in JK. Under a “limited mandate” the International Council of Red Cross in 1995 could visit prisoners in jails, but it was barred from visiting the interrogation centres such as the notorious Cargo Building (Humhama) near Srinagar airport, not far from where we were detained. The ICRC shared data for 2002-04


with US diplomats, which showed that 45% of 1,491 detainees/prisoners interviewed by them in 177 visits, were tortured (The Hindu, 18 December 2010). Thus the hostile nature of the Indian military presence is not make-believe but remains the overarching lived reality of the people.

Militancy is said to be in decline. There are no more than 488 militants, according to the director general of JK Police. Speaking about the presence of the large security force in JK, he said that the “presence of forces in different areas is not proportional to the number of militants….. (it) has to be viewed in the context of the potential of militancy to strike in any area…” (The Hindu, 4 January 2011). All this while we were told that when militancy comes down, troops would be phased out. The goal posts have shifted to aborting the “potential of militancy to strike”. This requires continued control over the public and private lives of people, in order that the objective of counterinsurgency operations, to “transform the will and attitude” of the people, is met.





As mentioned, all truths are not equal, and some are more important than others, even when they are sought to be suppressed. So, do we commit a crime as Indians when we expose the truth of mass graves, fake encounters, torture, disappearances, rapes… experienced by the Kashmiris, who are our own people, in an “integral part of India”? Is it a crime to remind ourselves that the Declaration of Human Rights 1948, in the third preamble states that if rights are ignored, governance will become tyrannical and the response would be rebellion. In other words, resistance is an inalienable right which comes into play when the State, which monopolises the means of violence, employs it in a partisan manner, not to protect people but to force them into submission by giving up the idea of azaadi. Therefore, it is no wonder that it becomes a crime when one supports referendum, the universally accepted democratic and peaceful method for ascertaining people’s will. But it feels good to know that authorities do fear truth.





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