On April 5, when Asiya Sheikh played a video that had gone viral in Kashmir, she got a rude shock. It showed an injured man, blood trickling down his face and shoulder.
“It was my only brother, Mukhtiyar Ahmad Sheikh,” she said. “It looked like a bullet had hit him in his right shoulder. We got extremely worried and started to make our way towards the jail but somebody informed us that he had been taken to the police hospital for treatment.”
Mukhtiyar Sheikh, an electrician, has been held in Srinagar’s Central Jail for nearly six months, charged with abducting a girl but not convicted.
The Sheikh family, who live in Chattabal in Srinagar’s Old City, knew nothing of the violence that had broken out in the jail at around 9.30 pm on April 4. It had quickly escalated to arson and, allegedly, the chanting of anti-government slogans.
The jail’s inmates include political prisoners and men facing terrorism charges. Until February 2018, it also housed Naveed Jatt, a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant from Pakistan who escaped police custody when he was taken to a local hospital for treatment and went back to being a top commander of the group.
Restrictions put in place after Jatt’s arrest may have contributed to tensions that led to the April 4 violence. Two versions are now in circulation about how the worst riots in recent memory broke out in the sensitive prison.
According to a statement issued on April 5 by Mukesh Kumar, senior superintendent of the Central Jail, the riots broke out when inmates lodged in old Barrack No 1 were shifted out to allow for its renovation. As part of the renovation work, the statement said, “some blind portion of the barrack was dismantled which was being used by the inmates to carry out their anti-national/illegal activities”.
The “blind portion”, prison officials explained, was the part of the barracks split into cabins with separate doors. Prisoners in the cabins are hidden from view.
“Suddenly, the jail inmates lodged in adjoining barracks raised anti-Indian slogans”, the statement claimed. Given the barracks are “old and dilapidated”, it added, the prisoners “broke locking handles, doors, window panes and ventilators and came out”. They then allegedly started pelting stones on labourers and the jail staff.
They also got hold of seven gas cylinders from the prisoners’ mess and set them on fire at different places in the jail, including near the main gate. Electric lights were smashed, CCTV cameras ripped out and newly constructed segregation walls demolished, the statement said.
The Jammu and Kashmir prisons department officials estimate a loss of at least Rs 2 crore. While there is no official count of those hurt in the riots, police officials said two inmates injured in the police action were hospitalised.
The video, which seems to have been shot inside the jail, offers a different account of the violence. “This is the situation at Central Jail,” a voice off camera is heard saying. “Bullets were fired here. Look at the condition of our youngsters here. They desecrated the Holy Quran and we protested against that. They are lying that we were on a hunger strike. That was not an issue at all. The CRPF got inside and showered pellets on us. Many boys are injured here. Almost 50-60 inmates are injured. This is the condition of one of the injured. You can imagine the condition of other persons.”
A senior official in the prisons department who did not want to be identified denied the allegation that the Quran had been desecrated. “Before the renovation work, all the stuff kept inside the jail was stuffed in boxes properly,” he said. “There wasn’t any kind of desecration at all.”
Whatever its immediate cause, the violence appears to have been the culmination of tensions that had been simmering for a while.
For days after the violence, anxious relatives of the inmates thronged the jail, only to be told by the authorities the prisoners had gone on a hunger strike and did not want to meet visitors. “For 15 days, we did not know how my brother was,” said Muzamil Ahmad, a resident of the Old City.
Mukhtiya Sheikh’s family, however, said they were not allowed to meet him at the hospital either. “My parents spent three days outside the police hospital, but they were not allowed to see him,” Asiya Sheikh said. “All they were told was he had suffered an injury in his shoulder and had been operated on. The doctors at the hospital have placed a plate in his shoulder.”
The family finally got to see him on April 19, back in the jail. “His mother met him on Friday, she said his arm was bandaged and that he looked weak,” said his uncle Nisar Ahmad Sheikh.
On April 17, the prisoners called off their hunger strike after a team sent by the district administration assured them that their grievances would be looked into. From the next day, meetings with families resumed.
A Srinagar district administration official said the prisoners have three demands. “First, they want the FIR registered against them for April 4 incident dropped,” said an official who spoke anonymously. “Second, they are against the transfer of prisoners to jails outside Kashmir. Third, they want the jail superintendent to be transferred.”
According to family members of some of the prisoners, two of the demands predate the riots. “Before the Naveed Jatt episode, meetings with relatives were long and we could even touch our children,” said a woman whose son is the prison. “Now, we are stopped at eight places for frisking before we reach the meeting area. But what meeting is that? Two iron mesh nets separate the relative and the prisoner. We cannot touch them or see their faces properly. Also, the security personnel always keep doing rounds there, so one cannot even talk privately.”
Jatt’s escape had prompted the jail authorities to move all top Pakistani militants and senior separatist leaders to jails outside Kashmir Valley. Currently, over 100 people are held for militant activities in the Central Jail, but all of them are Kashmiris. “Of the 450-plus inmates, over 300 are undertrials,” said the prison department official. “There is only one Pakistani lodged in Srinagar jail at present.”
According to another senior prisons department official, the dilapidated jail building may have compromised security and enabled riots. “Srinagar Central Jail is a building from Maharaja’s time,” he explained, referring to the Dogra kings who ruled Jammu and Kashmir till 1947. “At one point of time, it used to be a stable for the Maharaja’s horses. The structure is mostly wooden and is crumbling.”
The poet and satirist Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the area occupied by the jail once held shelters for gardeners and maintenance workers for the Badamwari Garden, built by the Mughals. “It was the second Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh who turned these quarters into a jail,” said Zareef, who lives in the Old City.
The Central Jail website mentions that it is “the oldest jail in the state, its building also bears signs of age and decay. Lots of repair and renovation is done every year to keep it in a good condition and secure.”
It is also overcrowded. While the jail officially has the capacity to hold 360 inmates, 497 prisoners were lodged there as of April 4.
The structure of the old barracks has contributed to clandestine activity in the prison, officials claimed. “In the old barracks, there is a cabin system,” said the senior prisons department official. “Each inmate sits in his own cabin while the main door is locked for the night. Each cabin has a wooden door so one cannot actually see what an inmate is doing inside. We can’t dispel the possibility of inmates having access to gadgets.”
Referring to the video featuring Mukhtiyar Sheikh which seems to have been filmed inside the jail, the official asked, “Aren’t they themselves telling people that they have a phone?”
In March last year, the National Investigation Agency seized over two dozen mobile phones from the jail during raids to investigate the revival of Al Badr, an indigenous militant group. The agency also seized SIM cards, pen drives, digital cards and an iPod. The raids took place barely a month after Jatt’s escape.
The prison authorities believe that the demolition of the cabins in the old barracks triggered the violence. “When the violence broke out, the priority was to secure the perimeter of the jail and not let anyone escape,” said a police officer posted at the jail. “More than 450 inmates were staying outside the barracks for the whole night. It was a challenge but we managed it. The situation was brought under control only in the morning.”
Construction work inside the prison provided prisoners with ready weapons. “In jails, construction work is always done at night,” the officer said. “When some of the inmates broke out of a barrack, they snatched the tools of the construction workers and broke locks on other barracks.”