On the morning of February 5, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested a 21-year-old man at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Deported from Qatar, he was identified as Muneeb Ahmad Sofi from Bijbehara area of Kashmir’s Anantnag district. A police press release described him as an overground worker of the banned militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed – a charge his family denies.
Since 2017, many Kashmiris, believed to have been sympathisers of global terror group Islamic State or inclined towards joining it, have been deported to India. The National Investigation Agency arrested them and later handed them over to the Jammu and Kashmir police for further investigations.
However, Sofi’s deportation and subsequent arrest marks a shift.
It is the first instance of the Jammu and Kashmir police directly securing the custody of an expatriate wanted for a local crime after the territory lost its special status under the Indian Constitution in August 2019. Police officials credit this to an administrative change.
In August 2019, Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special constitutional status and split into two union territories. This brought the Jammu and Kashmir police under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of the two central ministries involved in extradition matters. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which reports to the home ministry, exchanges information with the International Criminal Police Organisation or Interpol, which has 192 member countries, about individuals wanted for crimes in India. The final stages of extradition involve the Ministry of External Affairs as well.
A former director general of Jammu and Kashmir Police, Shesh Paul Vaid, said deportation and extradition formalities “become much easier when the region is directly administered by the Union government”.
A senior police officer in Srinagar, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the press, said Jammu and Kashmir police is now able to pursue the extradition of Kashmiris living abroad more vigorously compared to the past.
The police were preparing dossiers on three individuals against whom cases had been registered in the union territory, he added. “The idea is to make a complete and thorough case and forward it to the Ministry of Home Affairs and External Affairs for further action,” he said.
When asked for more details, the police officer identified the three individuals as Malaysia-based Kashmiri business leader Mubeen Ahmad Shah whose cousin was recently selected by the new US President for a top post, a video blogger of Kashmiri origin Riffat Wani who is a German citizen, and a Kashmiri doctor Asif Maqbool Dar who lives in Saudi Arabia.
None of the three are implicated in militancy cases, according to information available in the public domain. The cases registered against them pertain to statements made about the policies of the central government in Jammu and Kashmir.
Another senior police officer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, labelled the statements of these individuals on social media as “seditious”. “Anyone who makes any anti-India statement will face action,” he said.
Scroll.in emailed queries to the Inspector General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, seeking more information about the cases registered against the three individuals and asking for clarity on whether the police were pursuing their deportation and extradition. The email did not elicit a response.
Scroll.in also spoke to the relatives of Shah, Wani and Dar who live in Kashmir. They confirmed the police had contacted them, seeking information on their family members and their properties.
The second senior police officer, however, claimed while all cases were being investigated, Dar’s case was being pursued seriously for now. “His case is a priority and we have already forwarded it to the Centre,” he added.
Civil rights activists say the government’s response is rooted in an “absurd” belief that any criticism of its policies is akin to sedition or part of a conspiracy against the state. “The authorities have the responsibility to protect citizens from violence, including by groups based abroad, but courts have repeatedly said that expressing dissent or peacefully opposing the political ideology of the ruling party should not lead to criminal allegations,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of international rights body Human Rights Watch.
‘Telling the truth’
Asif Maqbool Dar, whose deportation is being pursued by Jammu and Kashmir police according to both the officers, is a medical doctor who currently lives in Saudi Arabia.
In 2020, Dar was booked in Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh police station under Section 13 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, under which an individual found guilty of advocating or abetting any “unlawful activity” could be sentenced to seven years in prison.
In video statements, Dar has called India’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir a “military occupation” and described Kashmiris supporting India as “collaborators”. In a recent video message, Dar asked Kashmiris to observe a shutdown in the wake of a two-day guided visit of a group of foreign envoys to Jammu and Kashmir.
A student of Srinagar’s prestigious Christian missionary school, Dar hails from Baramulla district. His younger brother, a militant, was killed by the security forces in 2002.
While studying medicine at Srinagar’s Government Medical College, Dar took an active part in student politics. He also had a brief stint with mainstream politics when he joined the Peoples Conference party led by Sajjad Lone. He moved to Saudi Arabia in 2014 after he found a job there. His wife is also a doctor.
“He has been politically aware from his childhood and doesn’t shy away from saying what he feels is right,” said a relative of Dar who did not want to be identified because he feared trouble with the authorities.
The police raided Dar’s house in Srinagar and questioned his parents last year, the relative claimed.
“Whenever his family and friends advise him to stop talking about Kashmir, he rebuffs them,” the relative added. “He says isn’t whatever he says about Kashmir in his videos the truth?”
FIR over a Facebook post
Business tycoon Mubeen Ahmad Shah connected the police case against him to a clampdown on free speech in Kashmir.
“They just want me to stop speaking,” Shah told Scroll.in on the phone from Malaysia. “They have silenced everyone in Kashmir and nobody is allowed to speak.”
In June 2020, Jammu and Kashmir police registered a First Information Report against Shah for a Facebook post in which he called upon Kashmiris to stop renting accommodation to non-local labourers. He was booked for sedition and provocation with intent to cause riot.
A former president of the Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, Shah runs a handicrafts business and belongs to one of the most prominent business families in the Valley. He has been living outside India since 1991, first in Singapore then Malaysia.
A known advocate of the resolution of Kashmir issue, Shah was among the three Kashmiri Muslim business leaders who had been detained under the Public Safety Act in August 2019 after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was annulled. He was imprisoned in Agra jail for four months, despite health concerns. When his family went to the Supreme Court to challenge his detention under the infamous preventive detention law, the government ordered his release suddenly without any directions from the court.
Shah’s detention came up for discussion during the US Congress hearing on South Asia human rights, held in November 2019. In Kashmir, US pressure on India was widely believed as a reason behind Shah’s release. Shah’s cousin Sameera Fazili was selected by the new US President Joe Biden as the Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, a policy organisation connected to the White House.
The Facebook post that triggered the police case against Shah had come in the wake of new domicile rules announced by New Delhi. The rules made anyone living in Jammu and Kashmir for a continuous stretch of 15 years eligible for domicile status, which enables an individual to buy immovable property and get government jobs in the union territory. Many Kashmiris suspect the change is part of the Indian government’s strategy to alter the demography of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, a form of settler colonialism in which the rulers of a territory bring non-natives to overrun its original inhabitants.
“We should think of other efficient measures as well to stop India from changing the demographics of Kashmir,” Shah said in the post. “It is most important for all Kashmiris to come together at this very important stage and collectively fight against settler-colonialism.”
Accused of sedition and provocation with intent to cause riot, Shah challenged the First Information Report in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on grounds that it violated his freedom of speech and expression.
During the investigation in the case registered against Shah, the government directed officials to compile details of his properties in Kashmir, an official document in possession of Scroll.in reveals. In October last year, Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbag Singh said his force was trying to secure an Interpol Red Corner Notice against Shah.
When asked about the possibility of deportation, Shah said: “If anything like that happens, we will see to it at that time. Why worry about that now? People might plan a lot of things but God is the bigger planner.”
Activism in exile
In 2020, Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh police station registered a case against Kashmiri-German video blogger and activist Riffat Wani under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. She was charged under Section 13 of the Act, punishable with seven years in prison.
Wani, who has more than 2.5 lakh followers on Facebook, regularly posts video commentary about Kashmir from Germany. Daughter of a self-exiled Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front activist, she originally hails from Kupwara district. However, she has lived the major part of her life in Muzaffarabad area of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir across the Line of Control.
“She must have been three years old when my brother along with his family crossed over the Azad Kashmir [Pakistan Administered Kashmir],” said her uncle Mohammad Shafi Wani, a former government contractor. The family belongs to Trehgam, the native village of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s co-founder Mohammad Maqbool Bhat.
The Front advocates the independence of Jammu and Kashmir from both India and Pakistan. While it started as a non-violent political outfit in the mid-1970s, it became the first militant group of the armed insurgency that began in 1989. In 1994, its leaders announced a unilateral ceasefire and decided to pursue their goals through non-violence.
In February 2019, its current leader Mohammad Yasin Malik was taken into detention. The next month, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned the outfit for five years under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for “supporting extremism and militancy” and indulging in “anti-national activity”.
According to Mohammad Wani, he has been facing the heat over his niece’s social media activism since last year. About two months ago, he was summoned to a local police station where he was asked to fill nearly 36 columns of information about his niece, he claimed.
“Several agencies summoned me and asked me about her. I told them if I am involved in anything, they can take action against me.” He refused to name the agencies, saying it was “all of them.”
Married to a Pakistani engineer, Wani lives in Germany where she has also acquired the country’s citizenship.
With law enforcement agencies regularly knocking at his door, Mohammad Wani said he requested his niece to stop her video commentary about Kashmir. “She said we have no right over her. She said she will only stop if her husband tells her to,” he recalled.
Even hateful abuse on social media does not deter Riffat Wani, her uncle claimed. “I told her it pains me when someone abuses you on social media but she doesn’t listen,” said Mohammad Wani. “What can I do beyond that?”
‘Sold my land’
While Shah, Wani and Dar stand implicated in political speech cases, Muneeb Ahmad Sofi, the 21-year-old deported from Qatar in February, stands accused of working with militants.
In Kanelwan village in Bijbehara town, his father, mother and two siblings occupy a single room in an old decrepit five-room house shared by four families.
His father, Bilal Ahmad Sofi, 45, still has trouble making sense of the events since October when the police knocked on their door and summoned him to the police station. They questioned him about Muneeb, their eldest son who had migrated to Qatar in May, to take up work in a juice factory.
“We are very poor people,” said Bilal Sofi, a baker. “When I sent him to Qatar for work, I sold my entire land of 10 marlas (0.06 acres) in order to pay for his expenses. It cost me around Rs 1.75 lakh.”
His son was initially paid a salary of Rs 18,000 by his employer, said Bilal Sofi. Saving about Rs 8,000 every month, he had sent home about Rs 60-70,000. “I have written down every transaction,” the father said.
But the police told him that Muneeb Sofi was implicated in a “militancy case”.
Bilal Sofi said this came as a shock to him. In early 2019, the police had detained his son along with other boys from the village for 10 days, without bringing any formal charges against them. Barring this episode, his son had no brush with the police, he claimed.
Back home from the police station, Bilal Sofi said he phoned his son, who denied any involvement in criminal activity and shrugged off the police questioning as routine “verification”.
But a few days after the phone call, Muneeb Sofi disappeared from his workplace in Qatar. The family filed a missing report with the police and made desperate appeals to the government to locate him.
After nearly two months, they heard from Muneeb Sofi. “He told us he has been kept at some detention facility and they are not letting him go. Even he didn’t know where he was,” Bilal Sofi said.
While the family had no idea how to help their son in a foreign country, they continued to hear from him once in two weeks. “Last time he called he said the officials at the facility told him that he will be sent home. He also said they promised him that they will allow him to call home on the day of his flight to India.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, on February 5, the Sofi family came to know about Muneeb’s deportation and arrest through TV news reports.
A police press release claimed he was a “top OGW [Overground Worker] of the banned terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed” who was collecting money from various districts of Kashmir for the “purchase of arms and ammunition from Pakistan”. Overground Workers is a term commonly used by the police for non-combatants who provide logistical support to militants.
Sofi, according to the police, was also in touch with Jaish-e-Mohammad militant Waleed Bhai of Pakistan who had been killed in Kulgam district in July 2020.
Had his son had any links with militants, Bilal Sofi argued, he wouldn’t have been allowed to leave India in the first place. “When they issue passports and visa, they do all kinds of verifications and background checks, why did they give him a passport if he is involved in anything?” he asked.