On October 6, after two months of isolation, the Jammu and Kashmir government allowed a delegation of the National Conference members to meet arrested party leaders, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah. But visitors to other political leaders detained in Srinagar say it is becoming harder to meet them.

Fifty-year-old Mohammad Abdullah was part of a motley crowd waiting outside the Centaur Hotel at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre on October 9.

Since August 5, when the Centre unilaterally stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370, the hotel on the banks of the Dal Lake has been turned into a subsidiary jail. An official said currently 33 Kashmiri leaders, declared threats to law and order by the government, are being held here.

One of them is Altaf Ahmad Kaloo, a former legislator from Pahalgam.

That morning, Abdullah, whose family have been loyal followers of the National Conference for three generations, had travelled from his village, Batakote in Pahalgam, to meet him.

“This is my second visit to Srinagar to meet Kaloo Sahab,” Abdullah explained, as he waited outside the SKICC gates. “But today, they are saying that only blood relatives are allowed.”

But even relatives were not allowed entry. Said Farooq Ahmad, Kaloo’s first cousin, who had come from Aishmuqam village in Pahalgam: “The security personnel at the gate said only brothers, sisters, wives, children and parents are allowed. They are also not allowing any food or fruits inside. It was not like this before.”

Shahnawaz Ahmad, a distant relative of Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a former legislator from the People’s Democratic Party, claimed jail authorities had sourced information on the family members of the detained politicians from the police stations in the areas where they lived. “So at the SKICC gates, they already have a list of names,” he said. “If you are not among them, you aren’t allowed.”

Tempers were frayed among those waiting to see the locked up politicians that morning. A failed visit would mean waiting for three days to try their luck again – since visitors are allowed to meet detainees only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Many visitors complained that even visiting hours had been reduced. “Earlier, visitors were allowed to visit anytime between 10 am and 5 pm on two days during the week,” said Ahmad. “Now, meetings aren’t allowed beyond 2 pm.”

A senior government official in Srinagar said more stringent rules had been formulated after concerns were raised over commotion at the hotel in a review meeting on September 19. The new rules restrict entry to close relatives and narrow the visiting hours to 11 am to 2 pm. The idea, he said, was to “streamline the meeting process”.

Anyone other than family members wanting to meet a detained leader needs to explain his purpose of visit to a magistrate posted at the SKICC sub-jail and seek his permission, the official said. “Basically, many visitors might want to meet these leaders in context of legal aid to challenge their detentions, or some property dispute, etc,” he said.

This would allow the government to keep tabs on the purpose of the meetings.

Close surveillance

Even before the rules were tightened, both the political detainees and their visitors were monitored strictly.

“You are not even allowed to carry a piece of paper. No money, no pen, nothing,” said Shahnawaz Ahmad, who had gained entry to SKICC on a previous visit when he had accompanied the wife and children of PDP leader Mohammad Ashraf Mir. “You walk inside the sub-jail only with your identity card.”

Visitors also had to be “very careful” when they talked to the jailed politicians. “The leaders have been allotted rooms inside the SKICC sub-jail,” said Ahmad. “Whenever there is a visitor, they are called to a large lobby where tables and chairs have been set up for the meetings. There are CCTV cameras all around and the security personnel keep roaming around the meeting area. It’s not possible to talk about the situation outside and politics.”

He did manage to ask Mir about his daily schedule. “Most of the time they are inside their rooms, where a TV is installed,” he said. “In the early days, only Doordarshan channels were available for viewing. Mir sahib said that Al Jazeera had later been made available. Otherwise, most of the time they are watching movies on TV.”

According to Ahmad, there is little space for the detained leaders to discuss politics among themselves. “The leaders meet only at dinner or lunch time, when they are called to the dining hall,” he said. “That’s the place where they can talk to each other. But even that doesn’t happen much because of the surveillance.”

Visitors waiting outside SKICC centre. Photo: Safwat Zargar

Political bonds?

According to the senior government official, 12 detained leaders have been released from the SKICC subsidiary jail since August 5. Of these, two detainees were released on health grounds – National Conference leader Syed Akhoon and Imran Raza Ansari of the People’s Conference. The official claimed a former PDP legislator was released from the subsidiary jail after he signed a bond.

For weeks now, the administration has tried to persuade the detained politicians to sign bonds, which, according to some accounts, go further than promises of good behaviour.

“They very brazenly included conditions like staying mum about Article 370 and not doing politics over it,” said a senior National Conference worker from downtown Srinagar who has made multiple trips to the detention centre to meet party colleagues. “Basically, the government wants to ensure that no mainstream leader talks about Article 370 and the disempowerment of Jammu and Kashmir once they are out of the subsidiary jails. They are just telling them to sign the bonds and stay mum at home.”

According to him, the government stepped up the pressure to sign bonds before September 27, when both Indian and Pakistani heads of state addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

The government official in Srinagar denied that the bonds asked leaders to give up political activity.

“There’s a bond format under Section 107 under which [the individual signing the bond] has to ensure that he will maintain good behaviour and keep the peace,” he said. “In today’s date, these two provisions mentioned under the format of the bond, have wider connotations. But saying that the government is asking them to not engage in political activities or talk about Article 370 after their release, through these bonds, is not correct.”

But members of the People’s Democratic Party allege the administration had intimidated detainees to stop them from pursuing other legal means of release. On October 8, Ijtija Mufti, daughter of the detained former chief minister and People’s Democratic Party leader, Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted from her mother’s account: “Political detainees haven’t challenged their detention because they have been threatened with PSA [the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law] if they approach the courts.”

She alleged that “the authorities are also blackmailing them to sign ‘bonds’ under which a gag order will be imposed & political activities will be banned”.

Clearing the political stage

The detention of Kashmiri leaders has gathered more significance because the government has scheduled block development council elections on October 24. Yet most leaders who were dubbed the political “mainstream” in Kashmir because they took part in elections are either locked up or on the run. Those who are not are also distancing themselves from the electoral process, with the exception of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.

Last week, Shehla Rashid Shora, who had joined the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, announced that she was quitting electoral politics. Shah Faesal, the former Indian Administrative Service officer who founded the party and is now under detention, may soon follow.

The Congress has already announced that it will boycott the block development council elections. The National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have also expressed strong misgivings about the process. Which could leave the floor to the BJP. The party hopes to win 90% of the council seats, most of them uncontested.

‘It’s a jail’

Another visitor outside the SKICC gates on October 9 was Syed Akhoon, who had been a detainee himself until mid-September. Now, he was there on a visit, travelling in an Ambassador car and accompanied by two personal security officers provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Police.

He was there to meet Sheikh Ishfaq Jabbar, his son-in-law and a former legislator from Ganderbal. As Akhoon waited in the Ambassador, one of his two personal security officers tried to reason with the guards.

“This is how they treat such a tall leader,” said another activist, observing the scene.

Two of the visitors were from South Kashmir’s Shopian district: Rafaqat Ashraf Ganie and his younger sister Azra Ashraf. The siblings had reached Srinagar early in the morning to meet Showkat Hussain Ganie, their uncle, who had been a member of the legislative council. They were also stuck outside the gates because they were not immediate family.

On their previous visits, Rafaqat Ganai said, they had been subject to vigorous frisking. “Visitors are scanned and frisked at multiple checkpoints leading,” he said. “At the first gate, they just do basic frisking. At another gate, they make you give up everything and put your shoes through a scanner.”

Many among the crowd outside the SKICC gates claimed the government was not allowing family members to take medicines. But the Srinagar official said detainees had adequate access to healthcare.

“An ambulance has been kept stationed at the centre and two doctors visit the facility every day,” he said. Those who needed it were also taken to super-speciality hospitals for treatment, he added.

But friends and relatives of detainees are still bitter. On October 9, as hopes of meeting his uncle dimmed, Rafaqat Ganie remembered BJP leader Ram Madhav’s jibes about political prisoners in Kashmir. They were all lodged in five-star hotels and five-star guest houses, Madhav had stressed.

“It’s very easy to say that they are inside a five-star hotel,” said Rafaqat Ganie. “But it’s a jail.”