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‘For anything and everything’: UAPA cases are rising in Kashmir

The Anti-terror Law Is Being Frequently Invoked Against Protestors. Few Are Willing To Speak About It.

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On the morning of February 5, a grieving father led a protest march through a village in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, asking for his teenage son’s body.

The police claimed 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq was among three militants killed in a gunfight in Srinagar on December 30. But his father, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, rejected the claim. “My son was not a militant,” he said. “I just want his dead body, nothing else.”

Citing coronavirus protocols, the police had buried Ather Mushtaq’s body in Sonamarg, 120 km away. But his father, an apple trader, insisted that the body be exhumed and handed over to him.

“I want to bury him in our native graveyard so that he will be before my eyes always,” he said.

The protest march wound down the narrow paths of Bellow village, where Wani lives with his wife and daughter. It was modest by Kashmir’s standards. “Not more than 30-40 people,” said an eyewitness.

Yet, hours later, Wani and six others – five of them his relatives – had been booked under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, India’s stringent anti-terror law which prescribes seven years imprisonment for “advocating, abetting, advising or inciting the commission of any unlawful activity”.

Unlawful activity is defined vaguely in the law as any action, whether by an individual or an association, which “disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” or “causes or is intended to cause disaffection against India”.

The case against Wani was widely reported in the media. Photographs of the grief-stricken father touched a chord, prompting an explanation from no less than Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police, Vijay Kumar.

“If you are taking out a march to demand the dead body then there will be no case,” he told reporters in Srinagar on February 19, “but if you are shouting anti-India and anti-government slogans, UAPA will be invoked.”

Wani denied any anti-India slogans were raised during the march. The protestors maintained a careful distance from the police, he said. Besides, the entire protest was filmed. “Even the police were recording the protest,” he said. “Let them prove that we raised any provocative or anti-national slogan.”

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Mushtaq Ahmad Wani holds up a photo of his son during the protest in February. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

‘For anything and everything’

Lawyers say the case against Wani represents a larger trend in Kashmir – of the anti-terror law being invoked on what they say are the flimsiest of grounds.

“The UAPA is being used for anything and everything in Kashmir,” said a Srinagar-based lawyer, who is handling many cases under the anti-terror law. He requested anonymity for the sake of his clients’ protection.

“Earlier, a stone-pelting incident would invite the charges of rioting, attempt to murder or other provisions, but now even those cases are being registered under UAPA,” he said.

Last week, Scroll.in reported the case of an assistant professor who was arrested in the first week of March in cases involving UAPA charges. The police claimed he had been evading arrest since 2018. But official documents showed he had regularly attended work, including handling the responsibility of running a coronavirus quarantine centre in the government college where he was posted. His family said the cases under UAPA were an outcome of his activism – he had exposed corruption by officials and raised concerns over land encroachment by the Indian Army.

The National Crime Records Bureau data shows a rising graph of UAPA cases in Jammu and Kashmir: from less than 60 cases annually until 2015, to 255 cases in 2019, the latest year for which data is available.

“Whether it’s an OGW [overground worker of a militant group], stone-pelter, separatist, journalist or someone else, UAPA is being slapped randomly,” the lawyer said.

On March 31, Scroll.in sent a detailed questionnaire to Jammu and Kashmir police headquarters and Inspector General of Police of Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, asking them about the reasons behind the rise in number of UAPA cases in the territory. A reminder was sent to both the offices on April 5. However, the questions have gone unanswered.

Lawyers say part of the reason why the police are frequently using the law is that it enables them to detain the accused for longer periods of time without a trial. Under UAPA, investigative agencies get 180 days to probe a case, compared to 60-90 days under ordinary criminal law. This means an accused is eligible to apply for bail only after six months. Lawyers say this is part of police efforts to stifle peaceful dissent.

Scroll.in spent a month tracking down recently filed UAPA cases to examine these trends more closely. But the families of many Kashmiris booked and arrested under the law declined our request for interviews, expressing fear of additional trouble for their loved ones. Even lawyers requested anonymity, fearing the attention on their clients might lead to more cases against them.

Stifling protests

Wani was among the exceptions who spoke to us.

In the two months since the case was registered against him and his relatives, the police have neither summoned nor arrested them. He believes the registration of the case was aimed at derailing further protests – an aim that has been achieved since the family has avoided hitting the streets again. “We are now exploring options to go to the court and demand my son’s mortal remains through it,” he said.

Protests appear to be one of the main triggers for UAPA cases – as well as one of the main targets.

On March 5, Srinagar’s historic Jamia Masjid area, known for pitched battles between protesters and police, witnessed stone-pelting clashes after Friday prayers for the first time in more than a year and a half.

The next day, police started rounding up boys and young men who had allegedly participated in the clashes. “We won’t allow stone pelting at any cost,” the inspector general Vijay Kumar said in a press conference.

One of those arrested was 23-year-old Faisal Maqbool, who was booked in a case involving multiple charges – rioting, attempt to murder, voluntarily causing hurt and endangering the life of others, and unlawful activity under Section 13 of the UAPA.

Until his arrest, Maqbool’s family had never heard about the anti-terror law. “Is there any avenue to get bail in a ULP case?” his father, Mohd Maqbool Panjra asked this reporter at their home in Tujgari Mohalla in Srinagar’s Nowhatta area. Unlike the rest of India, where UAPA is the commonly used acronym for the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, in Kashmir, it is ULP.

The family, which lives a kilometre away from Jamia Masjid, said Maqbool was playing cricket at a local playground on the day of the protest.

“Nowhatta is known for protests but my son never participated in them,” said Haleema Maqbool, his mother. “He was too occupied in his livelihood worries to think about that.”