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So near, yet so far?

Recently two Kashmiri Muslims were acquitted in the Lajpat Nagar blasts, putting the spotlight on convictions based on doubtful evidence. But when will civil society take up their cause? Paramita Ghosh explores.

delhi Updated: Jan 20, 2013 01:41 IST
Paramita Ghosh

In 2011, a ‘terror alert’ had all Kashmiris in Maharashtra under police radar for ‘potential’ terror activities.

An undeclared policy of surveillance continues in other states as well. Kashmiri students of Baraktullah University, Bhopal, say verification of admission documents is tougher for them as is getting a local SIM for cell phones.

Delhi, by all accounts, however, would be one of the worst places to be a Kashmiri Muslim in India.

On a door in a Delhi locality, saffron-seller Arif Hussain Qayoom has pencilled his name, phone number and profession with his landlord’s consent.

His fellow Kashmiris refused to follow his example even for an interview.

Students agreed to be identified as students only if mentioned by an initial; lawyers said they had to first build their reputation to voice an opinion; a businessman asked to be identified as a PR man…

What many Kashmiri Muslims outside of Kashmir seem to want is to disappear. Or transform themselves into something small. Or something else — the Kafkaesque.

A way of being in which people watch over real and imagined dangers, or shrink from pain in advance. As S, a university student, says: “I’d rather be safe than rational.”

The reasons for such irrationality lie elsewhere. A recently published Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) report, lays bare 16 case studies of Kashmiri Muslims who were framed by the Special Cell even though their reasons for being in Delhi were quite legal: for higher studies, transit, business opportunities.

The 16 cases — in 14 of which the main accused were either all Kashmiris or mostly Kashmiris — analysed by the report have all ended in acquittal.

In end-2012, the Delhi High Court acquitted two men who had been sentenced to death by a trial court in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blast case. In its judgment, it held the police responsible for “not recording the statements of vital witnesses.”

The report has been greeted, quoted and then passed into silence. So may the court verdicts. Despite such gross violation of fundamental rights of citizens by the police, an arm of the state, there seems to be a benign acceptance of their excesses as a) exceptions, b) ‘law and order’ issues and hence, in our/national interest.

The police story is helped by several factors. The media coverage of a terrorist and a terror suspect is not much different, say commentators.

Sodan, a young lawyer, says: “If newspapers keep telling me, SIMI men did this and they did that, I won’t be too unhappy if the police take SIMI men away, right? It’s the same with Kashmiris.”

To assign a ‘terrorist’ tag to a Kashmiri is easy as there is a pre-established cause — militancy. A successful counter-propaganda by the state has also made anyone questioning established narratives to be seen as a ‘terrorist sympathiser.’

This is why Muslims, in general, who support with funds or charity, victims of Gujarat riots, give no financial, material or emotional support to Kashmiris, says Adil, member, JTSA.

Managing the majority
The Kashmiris’ lack of social protection is rather glaring in Delhi. Renting an accommodation, for instance, has put them at the receiving end of a paranoia that, thanks to police harassment, has settled into a permanent anti-Kashmiri, anti-Muslim sentiment.

Qayoom’s broker spells out the laws of rejection. "They wash before their namaaz and they offer namaaz five times a day... When their family joins them, owners crib, the rent still stays the same."

The principle of ‘difference’ — us and them — has been reinforced over time by state silence to correct existing opinion, an opinion that begins from the premise that Kashmiris have willingly joined India; that post 1947 they have abused their ‘special’ position and that their politics of protest is illegal.

If the Indian political establishment by and large made the man or woman from Srinagar or Sopore into a ‘Kashmiri Muslim’, could it have been people like us who continued that opinion by remaining neutral to that narrative?

Et tu, Brute?
Kashmiri Muslims say they get packed off to Pakistan on the slightest of pretexts — even if they take interest in mainstream politics.

“Once I said that Arvind Kejriwal’s stand against corruption is good for the country,” says Salim, a trader. “It was assumed that I was making fun of India. I was told ‘why not go to Pakistan?’.”

Misinformation or lack of information has led to the criminalisation of the Kashmiri Muslim identity in popular imagination.

A social science teacher at a government school in Lajpat Nagar says he “knows nothing about plebiscite or Sheikh Abdullah” and accordingly “adds nothing” in class discussions.

Kashmir in the classrooms, confirms Mollica Dastider, assistant professor, department of political science, Delhi University, “remains a sovereignty issue”.

Irfan, a film-maker, who shares a room with non-Kashmiri roommates, says his experience in Delhi has been mixed.

An ex-student of Jamia Millia, he says: "My classmates are good guys but there will be someone who will say, as someone did last Diwali, ‘In Pakistan, could you have celebrated Diwali like this?’." Or: "Why complain now, your Maharaja gave us Kashmir."

Not really, says Ved Bhasin, a veteran mediaperson and chairperson of Kashmir Times, in an online interview to a Kashmiri website.

“The Maharaja asked India and Pakistan to sign a standstill agreement that the present arrangement would continue till he was able to decide which state he’d like to join. Pakistan accepted. But India refused and asked him to decide. Obviously they wanted him to announce his accession to India, as they thought he was a Hindu ruler… double standards… In the case of the Nizam of Hyderabad, they said people [majority were Hindu] would decide. In the case of J&K, they said the ruler [majority subjects were Muslim] will decide.”

The misconceptions about history can be corrected by acknowledging the history of resentment, says Nitya Ramakrishnan, a lawyer who has represented many Kashmiri Muslims in court.

The problem, she says, was that we have started to see security and rights as a binary when they should go together.

“No one is questioning the police’s power to arrest but even when the police know they have picked the wrong guy, they still go ahead with prosecution,” she says.

“For the last five years the special cell and the National Investigation Agency have been holding parallel investigations to no avail,” says Raja Tufail, a Kashmiri criminal lawyer who has fought 40 TADA cases slapped on Kashmiri Muslims.

“It’s a money-spinning racket... It’s difficult for citizens of the country to get redressal against wrongs and errors made by the subordinate judiciary so cases don’t even come to the High Court.”

All this heightens the feeling of alienation a hundred-fold, especially if it happens in the National Capital.

Curfew in Delhi?
Since when did our cities become conflict zones? Kashmiri students in a south Delhi university say they were under police surveillance even on-campus.

“Especially during the Batla House encounters, entering the campus or looking for accommodation, we were made to feel as if we are crossing the border,” says H, a researcher. Suhail (name changed) says his cousin, a furniture businessman in west Delhi, “had police harass him for his papers because the lights in his shop were on till late at night”.

Wajahat Habibullah, Minority Commission chairperson and former chief information commissioner of India, says he recommended Kashmiris, “like all others, to use the RTI liberally whenever they feel targetted or deprived.

Even exempt organisations under the Second Schedule of the Act are not exempt when there are allegations of human rights violation”.

So if the argument is that we have good democratic models but ‘bad’, undemocratic practices then the above statement is absolutely on the mark.

But what do we do about it?

Our resistance to existing injustices everywhere in India, particularly in Kashmir, must then be equal to the immovability of our institutions.

(With inputs from Ranjan Srivastav in Bhopal)