On the night of November 21, prison staff at Delhi’s Tihar jail beat 18 prisoners with lathis and buckets without any provocation, an inspection committee of judicial officers said. They reported that the prisoners had objected to their pillow cases being confiscated during a search of the wards. Among the 18 prisoners were four Kashmiri inmates. To protest the assault, a general strike was observed in Kashmir on November 27 – the day the Central government’s interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma arrived in Srinagar for a second round of talks with various organisations and individuals.

All the prison staff allegedly involved in the incident have been suspended, media reports said on Friday.

Most often, the subject of prisoners does not have much resonance in Jammu and Kashmir compared to the killing of militants or the maiming of civilians during protests. . This is because of the diffuse nature of arrests, scanty coverage in the media and virtually no access to jails.

But the Tihar incident resonated in the Valley, probably because the images of the bruised and bleeding inmates, published by various media outlets, conveyed the same immediacy and directness as, say, a teenager with a belly full of pellet wounds.

The arrest of separatist leaders – all held at Tihar – earlier this year by the National Investigation Agency on charges of funding the insurgency in Kashmir had killed any chance of a meaningful dialogue, much before Sharma’s appointment in October. Operation All-Out, the security forces’ offensive against militants in Kashmir that has killed 200 insurgents so far, ran parallel to the National Investigation Agency crackdown. The Tihar episode is the final nail in the coffin for the interlocutor’s mission, especially since it has been speculated that the separatists had set the release of prisoners as one of six conditions for them to join any dialogue process.

The National Investigation Agency has arrested several separatists this year for their alleged involvement in terror funding. (Credit: Raveendran / AFP)

Incarceration, humiliation

The Tihar incident grabbed headlines for its sheer brutality. But the humiliation of dissidents is not new. A person who was summoned to the National Investigation Agency’s office in Delhi told me that his interrogation went smoothly until he was asked to take off his clothes. “I did not react and they did not persist,” he said. “I think they only wanted to convey the possibility of stripping me naked.”

In another instance, a separatist leader was made to wait outside the agency’s office for hours together over several days before being sent to prison. Barring a few, nearly all the persons the investigation agency has detained or called for questioning have spoken about the subtle humiliation they were subjected to. What will a humiliated lot talk about if at all they come to the dialogue table?

The repeated assertions of separatist leaders that Delhi’s multi-pronged, belligerent policy is aimed at forcing them into submission, therefore, ring true.

Many observers invoke the example of Sheikh Abdullah, who gave up his struggle for plebiscite and settled for the chief minister’s chair after long periods of incarceration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. However, long-term incarceration has resulted in no major ideological or political shift among the current lot of separatists, such as Shabir Shah and Masarat Alam. In fact, separatists of all hues have closed ranks and resolved not to surrender. Besides, separatism is not as centralised as it was in Sheikh Abdullah’s time. There are too many players who would have to be subdued.

Political prisoners

More than 900 Kashmiri political prisoners are currently incarcerated in jails in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country, according to state police data. In January, the state government informed the Assembly that 8,587 people, including 519 minors, had been arrested during the 2016 uprising triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. It added that 8,473 of those detained had been released.

On November 23, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti echoed the Union Home Ministry’s decision to withdraw cases against first-time protestor and stone-throwers. A day before, the state police had jailed a 21-year-old mentally challenged man under the Public Safety Act, which allows the authorities to detain a person for up to six months without trial. Two days later, a young man from Anantnag district who had been detained against the advice of the state home department developed an infection in a surgery wound. The police reportedly got the wound treated at a state-run hospital and took him to Kathua jail in Jammu the same day. But the jail authorities refused to take him in because the home department had not approved his detention under the Public Safety Act. He was released the day after news of his illegal detention was published.

These statistics and examples demonstrate the enormity of the problem of political prisoners in Kashmir. Yet, during his second visit to the Valley, the interlocutor ruled out the release of political prisoners.

The Central and state governments have announced the withdrawal of cases against first-time stone-throwers. (Credit: Danish Ismail / Reuters)

Central rule?

New Delhi’s hardline approach on this front has also exposed the absolute powerlessness of mainstream politicians in Kashmir.

The general secretary of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, Nizam-ud-din Bhat, asked the Central government on Wednesday to release political prisoners as a follow-up measure to the amnesty granted to first-time stone-throwers. He claimed this would make the dialogue a success. But does the government of India have the jurisdiction to release such prisoners? A typical dossier for detention under the Public Safety Act is prepared by the state police and signed by the concerned deputy commissioner. Other prisoners are arrested and sentenced under state laws. They can be released by withdrawing cases against them, as is being done in the case of the first-time stone-throwers. Why does the state government need to wait for New Delhi’s nod to release political prisoners? Bhat’s statement is just another empty sound bite pro-India politicians in the state habitually make.

More absurd was the chief minister’s remark that the state government had actually initiated the process of withdrawing cases against first-time stone-throwers in May last year but could not carry it forward because of the summer protests. The unrest was over by the end of the year. That Mehbooba Mufti had to wait for close to a year for the Union Home Ministry’s announcement vindicates the perception in Kashmir that New Delhi rules the state directly.

The writer is a Kashmiri journalist.