On October 12, the Jammu and Kashmir police said that it had arrested three teachers from a school in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

“The name of the school is Siraj-ul-Uloom – we have already booked three of its teachers under the PSA,” said Kashmir police chief Vijay Kumar at a press conference in Srinagar that day. “They are Abdul Ahad Bhat, Abdul Rouf Bhat and Mohammad Yousuf Wani.” The PSA, or the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, is a preventive detention law.

“Around five or six more teachers of the school are under surveillance,” Kumar continued. For now, the other teachers had been made to sign bonds under Section 107, pledging to keep the peace. But Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom was under watch. “The school is basically affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami,” Kumar said. “At this moment, we are taking action against the individuals. If there’s a need, we will act against the institution as well”

A socio-religious organisation that started life preaching “political Islam”, the Jamaat-e-Islami was banned for five years in February 2019. The Centre alleged it was in “close touch with militant outfits” and supported “extremism and militancy in Jammu and Kashmir”.

Before Kumar spoke to the press, news reports quoting anonymous police officials had claimed that the school was under the scanner as 13 of its students had joined militancy.

When Scroll.in travelled to Shopian, we found that two of the three men arrested were not teachers. None of the men are employed by the school at present. The arrests were made months ago so it is not clear why it was announced in October. Finally, the Jamaat-e-Islami runs several schools and orphanages in the Valley – when the organisation was banned, the government had said these institutions would not be affected. But Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom, run by a separate trust, denies any affiliation with the Jamaat.

Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom, a school in Shopian district.

Naming the accused

Said Mohammad Yusuf Mantoo, founder and chairman of Jamia Siraj Ul Uloom, “We do not have any teachers by those names. None of our teachers has been arrested, ever.”

Scroll.in tracked down the families of the three arrested men. Mohammad Yusuf Wani is a 65-year-old Jamaat-e-Islami activist and former militant. He had worked at Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom some 10 years ago but as non-teaching staff at the school mess. “How can he be a teacher when he has studied only till Class 7?” demanded his brother, Bashir Ahmad Wani. The family said he had been booked under the Public Safety Act in March but released in August.

Abdul Rouf Bhat’s name is, in fact, Rouf Ahmad Dar. The 32-year-old scholar has been detained since June. The police dossier detailing the charges against him under the Public Safety Act makes no mention of Siraj ul Uloom.

The third man was first arrested briefly in July and then again in September. He had been a student as well as a teacher at Jamia Siraj ul Uloom. But the school recognised him as Abdul Haq Bhat, not Abdul Ahad Bhat.

A senior police official speaking off the record confirmed errors in the names released on October 12. Abdul Ahad Bhat and Abdul Rouf Bhat were indeed Abdul Haq Bhat and Rouf Ahmad Dar, respectively, he said. Written questions have also been sent to the police, asking about the timeline of the arrests, why they were not announced before and why the men were taken to be teachers at the Shopian school. This article will be updated if there is a response.

An ailing former militant

Wani is a free man these days. He was booked for being a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami and taken to a prison in Jammu but released from as his health deteriorated, said a family member. When Scroll.in visited Wani’s home in Shopian district’s Maldera village, the 65-year-old was in hospital. Once a divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, he has spent long spells in prison before.

“When the Jamaat was banned last year, he lay low for a while and was mostly home,” the relative added. “Police officials did come to check on him but they didn’t arrest him.” The relative said Wani had even been left alone after August 5, 2019, when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and split it into two Union Territories. It had been accompanied by a massive crackdown on activists, lawyers, politicians and youth in Kashmir.

Wani had also been a well-known preacher once. “Before his release, he gave it in writing to police that he won’t indulge in Jamaat activities,” said the relative. “He didn’t even go to the mosque after that.”

Wani and his brothers are joint owners of a number of orchards in Shopian. But his long stints in jail had meant his wife and children have often had to depend on other relatives for support. “He has two married daughters and has two sons who are studying,” said the relative. “He has had a hard life and now his health has deteriorated to a point where he cannot live without support from others.”

An Arabic scholar

Rouf Ahmad Dar, who has a postgraduate degree in Arabic from Kashmir University, lives in Shopian’s Khurrampura village. He was preparing for the National Eligibility Test when he was summoned to the Imam Sahib police station on June 6.

“They kept him there for a day – took his details, asked about his family, relatives, friends,” said a relative in Khurrampora. “In the evening, he was released.”

On June 29, he was summoned to the Imam Sahib police station again. This time, he was not released. We kept doing the rounds of the police station but they didn’t release him,” said Shazia Bano, Rouf Dar’s wife. The couple have a two-year-old daughter.

The detention order against Dar, detailing charges under the Public Safety Act, is dated July 1. “They didn’t tell us anything about the PSA till mid-August,” said Shazia.

The family said he had no ties with Siraj-ul-Uloom. Even the Public Safety Act dossier compiled by the Shopian police calls him a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami but does not mention him being a student or teacher of the school. It does mention three first information reports registered against him at the Imam Sahib police station. They include a range of charges, from rioting and unlawful assembly to attempt to murder. In one of the FIRs, he has also been charged under the Arms Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But, according to the family, he had never been arrested, or even summoned, before June 6.

The “grounds for detention” document, compiled by Shopian district magistrate Yasin Choudhary, identifies Dar as a “hardcore Over Ground Worker (OGW), motivator” who “harbours deep hatred for the Indian Union and law enforcement agencies” and “believes in cessation of UT of J&K from union of India”. “Overground worker” is a local name for non-combatant members of militant groups, usually tasked with arranging logistics.

Dar’s family is incredulous. “He was always studying,” said Shazia. “He’s even passed his BEd. He was studying in Srinagar and usually stayed there. Days before his arrest, he had even packed his bags to leave for Srinagar.”

Dar also had an undergraduate degree in Arabic from Lucknow, said the other relative. He added that the only group Dar had signed up for was the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, a non-political students’ organisation. “They would go to different schools and hold talent hunts and quiz competitions,” said the relative. “He quit the organisation in 2017 to focus on his studies.”

While the family has challenged Dar’s detention in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, hearings have been delayed by the pandemic.

The former teacher

Unlike Wani and Dar, 32-year-old Abdul Haq Bhat of Shopian district’s Sangrena village had been a student as well as a teacher at Siraj ul Uloom. His family say he was first picked up in late July, when the police and army conducted a joint raid on their house.

“It was around 12:30 in the night,” said his wife, Shagufta Bano. “They took him away with them. He was released after six days, on the first day of Eid ul Azha [August 1].”

But when he was summoned to the local police station on September 14, he did not return, his wife says. “When he didn’t return by evening, we went to the police station,” she said. “They told us that he would have to remain in custody for the night. We met all the top police officials in the district over the next few days but he wasn’t released. Then one day, when we went to meet him, we were told that he had been booked under the Public Safety Act.”

For a month, she said, her husband was imprisoned in a police camp at Imam Sahib. It belongs to the special operations group, the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s counterinsurgency wing. “A few days ago, he was shifted to Pulwama jail,” said Shagufta.

So far, Bhat’s family has not been provided with a copy of his Public Safety Act dossier and detention order as mandated by the law in order to challenge the detention before the court. “We haven’t hired a lawyer yet but we are thinking about it.”

Bhat, a hafiz-e-Quran – the epithet given to one who has memorised the whole Quran – stopped teaching at Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom in 2018 because of family constraints. “We don’t have a man in the house apart from him,” said Shareefa Begum, his mother. “When he was at the school, he would stay there for days. It was difficult for us alone at home without him.” With her only son in custody, she lives with her daughter-in-law and her six-year-old granddaughter.

After he gave up his teaching job, Bhat set up a grocery shop outside his house. The family owns apple orchards but Bhat is unable to tend to them personally. “He was badly injured in an accident in 2010, a tree fell on him,” said his mother. “When he did not get better here, we took him to Delhi and then to Pune. He eventually got better but his health was never the same. After multiple surgeries, he has grown weak. He can’t even walk a kilometre to check on his orchard.”

After Pulwama

Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom has been under the security scanner for years. Interest in the school quickened after the Pulwama suicide attack in February 2019, which left 40 men from the Central Reserve Police Force dead. Initial investigations had suggested that one of the main architects of the attack had been a student there.

He was 17-year-old Sajad Ahmad Bhat, who had joined the Jaish-e-Mohammad days after the attack. According to the National Investigation Agency, the explosive-laden Maruti Eeco used in the attack was owned by Bhat. A resident of Marhama village in the Bijbehara area of Anantnag district, Sajad Bhat was killed in a gunfight with security forces in June 2019.

“He only studied here for three years, until Class 7,” said Mantoo. “After that, he went to some other school. Then he worked as a mechanic for some time. Then, he went on to join militants. How is the school responsible for that?”

School authorities said security agencies had presented them with a list of 11 former students who had joined militant ranks, not 13, as mentioned in news reports. Unlike what reports suggested, Ahmad said, there was no recent spate of students taking up arms. “The truth is the 11 former students who went on to join militancy is the total number of students who have chosen that path since the school was established in 2000,” he explained.

Mantoo added another caveat. “And it’s not that these former students joined militancy while they were studying here,” he said. “They joined years after quitting the school. Four thousand students have graduated from this school since 2000. We have 650 students enrolled at present.”

According to Ahmad, the profile of the school alumni was the best answer to anyone raising questions about the kind of education it provided. “We have dozens of students who are doctors, engineers, gazetted officers serving society at different levels across Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. “We also have students who went on to join the police and the army. If this school was involved in indoctrination and anti-national activity, why would we have students whose parents are currently serving in the police, army, BSF and other forces?”

Sajad Ahmad Bhat, who joined Jaish-e-Mohammed days after the Pulwama attack. (Picture released by security agencies)

‘Scientific and Quranic education’

School authorities said they had already presented evidence that they were not affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami. “When the Jamaat was banned last year, officials from the local administration did come here to investigate,” explained Farooq Ahmad, the school principal. “We presented all our details – property and income tax files – before them. They were satisfied and the school continued to function normally. If they wish to know anything about this institution or need any kind of document for their investigation, we will cooperate with them. We have nothing to hide.”

Jamia Siraj-ul-Uloom started as an all-boys middle school in Hillow village in Shopian’s Imam Sahib area. It was set up on the property of a famous Sufi saint, Peer Gul Mohammad, who had left it to a trust called the Siraj Ul Uloom Educational Society. “The trust was established in 1992 and the foundation for the school was laid down in 1998,” said Mantoo. “From 2000, we started classes for middle school. Eventually, it became a high school, then a higher secondary and now it’s a college.”

There are four people on the board of the trust: Mantoo himself, Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, former Peoples Democratic Party legislator from Shopian, Ghulam Nabi Mir, a retired bureaucrat, and Abdul Rehman Malik, a retired lecturer.

On its official Facebook page, the school defines itself as an educational institution “imparting Quranic as well as scientific knowledge”. “We have a curriculum like any other school and university in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Ahmad. “We are affiliated and recognised by both the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education and Kashmir University. The only additional thing we teach here is the Quran and Arabic as a language.”

While the school relies on public donations to fund the education and hostel charges of orphans, it also charges a decent sum as tuition, hostel and mess fees. Besides, it earns an estimated Rs 10-11 lakh a year from the apple orchards on its grounds. “The total amount of land endowed to the society is 131 kanal [16.4 acres] , out of which 30 kanal [3.75 acres] are apple orchards,” said Mantoo. “We are registered with the Income Tax department and also enjoy exemptions under the Income Tax Act.”

The school, located in troubled Shopian district, is surrounded by security installations. In a one-kilometre radius around the school, there is an army camp, a police station, a CRPF camp and a camp of the special operations group, the Jammu and Kashmir police’s counter-insurgency unit.

“We cooperate with them every time,” said Ahmad. “Sometimes, they would demand a list of teachers and students and we duly provided it to them. During our annual functions, we send invitations to everyone in the administration as well as the police and army. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t.”

Mantoo also asserted that the school cooperated with security agencies. “Be it the Criminal Investigation Department, Counter Intelligence Kashmir or the Intelligence Bureau, we cooperated in their investigations always, they always left satisfied,” he said Mantoo.

At times, policing by security forces was intrusive. “Whenever the law and order situation was volatile or there were apprehensions of trouble, the security forces would order us to not read prayers or the Quran on the loudspeaker,” said one school functionary, speaking off the record. “We always complied. When the Babri Masjid judgement was announced recently, all the mosques, including ours, were asked to not use loudspeakers for prayers or sermons.”

Demarches from Delhi

A top leader in the former Jammu and Kashmir state government told Scroll.in that the Central security agencies had repeatedly flagged religious schools in the Valley for allegedly encouraging militancy. “But when the state’s own agencies checked, they didn’t find any adverse report on these institutions,” said the leader, who did not want to be identified. “So, there was no reason to take any action against them.”

An assessment of local militant recruitment by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, accessed by Scroll.in, also suggests that local agencies did not think religious schools were a driving factor. Studying 100 local youth who had joined militancy in eleven months of 2017, the analysis had found that only 2% of the recruits had received religious education at a madrasa, darsgah or a religious school. The percentage of policemen joining militants that year was also 2%, the analysis found.

In Imam Sahib, reports about the security net around Jamia Siraj- ul-Uloom have spread gloom. “Everyone here feels that the government wants to shut down this school and hand over the massive infrastructure to the army because the school is at a strategic location,” claimed a local in Imam Sahib who did not want to be identified.

Others are indignant that the school is under scrutiny because some of its students joined militant groups. “From Christian missionary schools to government and army schools, militants come from all kinds of backgrounds. Why aren’t they talking about those schools?” asked an elderly resident of Sangrena. “Didn’t some boys quit the army and police to join militants? Will they take action against them as well?”