Chadoora, Budgam: In her single-room home in Chadoora, a village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, housewife and single mother Haneefa Bano, 40, is anxious about her son’s current situation and future prospects.
Arshid Yusuf, 21, her only son and one of three children, has been in jail for 84 days, facing criminal charges under four sections of two laws for congratulating a cricket team. Only, it was, in the eyes of the police and Hindu extremists, the wrong team.
The police accused Yusuf and two other Kashmiri students—in what is now common violation of Supreme Court directives and a disregard of India's law and constitution—of crimes as grave as sedition, or waging war against the State.
Yusuf and the other two students, Inayat Altaf Sheikh, 20, and Showkat Ahmed Ganai, 21, are engineering students and were roomates at the Raja Balwant Singh Engineering Technical College (RBS) in Agra, western Uttar Pradesh (UP), where some students and Hindu extremists accused them of cheering for India’s arch-rival Pakistan during a T20 World Cup cricket match on 24 October 2021.
India lost the game that day and with it Yusuf, Sheikh and Ganai—who congratulated the Pakistani team amongst themselves over a Whatsapp chat and through WhatsApp statuses—their freedom.
Yusuf, Sheikh and Ganai, all described by college authorities as diligent students, were studying engineering under the Prime Minister's Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), an 11-year-old scholarship programme started by former PM Manmohan Singh to widen job opportunities for hundreds of students from economically disadvantaged families from strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
A college spokesperson told Article 14 the students' behaviour and overall performance had always been good. But they were suspended anyway after local Hindu extremists demanded their expulsion.
"But right now it’s a matter of police investigation,” said Ashish Shukla PhD, chief proctor of the RBS college. “We don’t want to talk about it."
With the arrest of these students, the hopes their families had for them were shattered, the families told Article 14.
They face an uncertain legal battle in an alien city more than 1,000 km to the south, with lawyers there having passed a resolution against offering the three young men legal representation. Their bail applications have been postponed seven times, and a lawyer who agreed to represent them has moved the Allahabad High Court.
For the poverty-ridden families, legal and travel costs are already in the thousands of rupees. They have raised money from sympathetic neighbours, taken loans from relatives, sold assets—such as a cow—and exhausted savings.
‘A Lighting Strike’
For Yusuf’s mother Haneefa Bano, who made ends meet as a housemaid and had brought up her son in poverty, his arrest felt like, as she put it, “a lightning strike”.
"I had high hopes and faith in him,” said Haneefa Bano. “I always tried to work extra hours, to give him a better education. I knew he was capable and could get a good job and also hoped that he would sponsor his sister’s education.”
During this time, she said her neighbours helped her financially. "We used some of it to go to Agra and see him," said Haneefa Bano, whose husband, a labourer, died 12 years ago.
Another single parent, Waheeda Bano, 35, mother of Altaf, who lives a 10-minute-walk away in the same village said she was “devastated”.
She told Article 14 that no one from her family had ever had occasion to visit a police station before, but that had changed after her son’s arrest.
“After their arrest we were called to the police station to give our details. We felt like we were criminals,” said Waheeda Bano. "Everyday I struggle to manage my daily routine. I cannot eat or drink properly."
About 51 km to the north in the sleepy hamlet of Shagund, in northern Kashmir's Bandipora district, farmer Mohammed Shabaan Ganai, father of Ganai, had to sell their cow, their prime asset. It was the only way the family could contribute to the Rs 45,000 that they had to raise together to pay a lawyer.
They decided to sell their cow, Mohammed Ganai said, when the family realised Showkat would be barred from appearing in his last semester exams if was not released from jail soon.
"To save him and his career, we badly wanted to bail him out," said Mohammed Ganai.
All three families know they will need more money, as the case drags on. They said they hoped to raise more money by taking loans from seeking donations from relatives.
The Dangers For Kashmiris From Cricket
Cricket matches between India and Pakistan are known for the passions they arouse. For many Kashmiri sports enthusiasts, these matches are fraught with the manifest threats, ranging from criminal cases to physical violence.
Attacks on Kashmiri students, who may cheer Pakistan or merely offer congratulations—as the three Agra engineering students did—are common. Some escape with beatings, others face criminal cases, including sedition.
These dangers to Kashmiri cricket fans tend to escalate after an escalation in hostilities between India and Pakistan, militant attacks on security forces or other political developments.
After the 24 October India-Pakistan game, the J&K police registered two first information reports (FIRs) against medical students, alleging offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, after they allegedly shouted pro-Pakistan slogans in the wake of India’s defeat that day, as Article 14 reported.
In February 2020, three civil engineering students from in the northeastern Karnataka town of Hubballi were arrested under similar circumstances and publicly heckled by lawyers and Hindu extremists after accusations of sharing pro-Pakistan content on social media. They were released after 109 days of internment at Hindalga Central Jail in Belgaum.
The three students arrested in Agra face charges under sections 124 A (sedition), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 505 (1) (B), or statements intended to cause “fear and alarm”, of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, and 66-F (cyber-terrorism) of the Information Technology Act 2000.
It has been more than two months since the Indian and Pakistan teams returned to their homes after the October T-20 game.
But the students continue in jail because their bail plea has not yet been heard by a court in Agra.
Bail Application Postponed 7 Times
The case against the three students was first listed in the Agra Central Jail Agra court for hearing on 15 December. On 11 January, the court postponed the bail hearing for the seventh time.
Advocate Madhuvan Chaturvedi, the lawyer who represents the three students, said that it was common procedure for the court to postpone bail proceedings, and that the pandemic was making matters worse.
Besides filing a bail application, Chaturvedi has also filed a petition on December 10, to move the case to the Allahabad High court in December.
Chaturvedi offered to represent the students after an Agra lawyers association said they would not.
"We will not provide any legal help to those who are involved in anti national activity or anti social activity,” Nitin Verma, president of the Young Lawyers’ Association, Agra, told the Press Trust of India (PTI) on 30 October.
Chaturvedi told Article 14 he believed “no one should be punished without a trial”.
On 25 December, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police sent a letter to court seeking remand for the three students who are currently lodged in the Central Jail, Agra. Police have sent students' mobile phone details to the lab for forensic examination but that report is not yet in, prolonging the case that, experts said, should never have been filed.
A Clear Violation Of Supreme Court Orders
In UP, 77% of 115 sedition cases between 2010 and 2021 were registered since Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister in 2017, according to an Article 14 sedition database. More than half of these were around issues of “nationalism”, including sloganeering and social-media posts.
Lubhyathi Rangarajan, research director at Article 14 and a lawyer who heads the sedition database project, said the colonial-era sedition law was easy to misuse because it was broadly worded.
“Anything can be offensive unless the intent is to incite violence,” said Rangarajan. “In this case, the police have to prove that. Someone can feel bad but that does not mean you will arrest them (alleged perpetrators) and put them in jail.”
"Hurting the feelings of the group is a very difficult thing to determine,” said Rangarajan. “How do you assess it? These kinds of cases are simply an abuse of the law."
Two Supreme Court decisions, Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962) & Balwant Singh & Bhupinder Singh vs State of Punjab (1962), make it plain that the sedition law can only be used when there is incitement to violence or if there was intention to create disorder. Neither was apparent in this case.
The trouble for Yusuf, Sheikh and Showkat began right after the game concluded on 24 October. Rightwing Hindu extremists assembled outside the RBS college campus demanding action against them, said a Kashmiri student who was a witness. He spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal if his identity was known.
"Someone within the college had sent screen grabs of their WhatsApp status and of a whatsapp chat in which the congratulatory messages celebrating Pakistan’s victory were can be seen," the student said.
The Agra police on 24 December sought sanction from the UP government to prosecute the three Kashmiri students. On 27 December they were arrested from their hostel, two days after college authorities suspended them, after protests by Hindu extremists.
A day later on 28 October Adityanath tweeted: "The sedition law will be invoked against those celebrating Pakistan's victory against India in the recent T20 World Cup match."
“After the T-20 World Cup match played between India and Pakistan on October 24, some anti-social elements used indecent words against the Indian team and there was a disruption of peace through anti-national remarks,” said the Hindi tweet from Adityanath’s office.
Chatturvedi, the lawyer, said it was only after Adityanath put out that tweet that the sedition charge was added to the FIR against the students.
Decision By Lawyers ‘Unconstitutional’: Experts
Experts described the decision to deny legal representation to the embattled students as “unconstitutional.”
“Saying that a lawyer won’t defend somebody is wrong,” said Rangarajan. “They cannot do that as lawyers. That is unconstitutional.”
Activists of Jammu and Kashmir Students Association (JKSA), which often works on behalf of Kashmiri students who may get into trouble anywhere outside the former state, said that they sought help from the local administration, but there was none forthcoming.
“JKSA also sent an apology letter to chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, requesting him to withdraw the FIR against the three students,” Nasir Kheuhami, national spokesperson of the JKSA. “But nothing worked.”
Another student activist, Manzoor Wani, 25 confirmed that no local lawyer was willing to represent the students. They contacted Chaturvedi, who agreed to represent them for a fee, through the Delhi-based Association for Protection of Civil Rights, an advocacy.
On 28 December, when students were first presented in the court, they were heckled by the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and lawyers from Agra.
"The behaviour of the lawyers is unacceptable & the role of the police is deeply suspect,” former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted on October 29. “With polls around the corner rather than make friends with Kashmiri students the powers that be are happier using them as political cannon fodder."
Verma, of the Agra lawyers’ association that refused the students representation, denied members of his association were involved in heckling the students outside the court.
“The day students came to the court; there was no protest from our side,” Verma told Article 14. “We only said that we won't be defending these students.” However, a video of the protest makes it clear lawyers did heckle the students.
Verma said his “only issue” with the case was that the students were involved in "anti-national" slogans and "activities."
Asked if he believed that every citizen deserved legal counsel, he said: “Ajmal Kasab (a reference to the Pakistani terrorist convicted after the attack on Mumbai 26 November 2008) also had a government lawyer and should have got one,” said Verma. “But this issue was related to an antinational thing, that is why the advocates had refused to fight the case.”
“Neither do we have any personal enmity with those students nor have we met them personally,” said Verma. “We are not from any political party, so no one should feel that we have taken such a step due to political motivation.”
Syed Safdar Ali Kazmi, an Allahabad lawyer, said a lawyer could not choose cases because “the aggrieved party was from a different religion”.
He said the WhatsApp messages and statuses of the students could have been ignored. “You have a right to speak,” he said. “Even our own Indian captain congratulated the team after they lost the match.”
‘My Son’s Career Is Ruined’
Back in Chadoora, Budgam, Haneefa Bano said that she could not initially talk to her son in jail because jail officials did not allow him to speak in Kashmiri, the only language that she knows.
Chaturvedi, their lawyer said the matter was “now sorted after he talked to jail authorities ” and the students could talk to their families once a week.
Bano said that she never imagined that her life’s “miseries”, such as not having land or property and living on the border of penury, would escalate, but that is what had happened after Yusuf’s arrest.
"He was a hardworking student who would always focus on his studies because he knew the financial problems we have been going through,” she said, adding how she had “huge hopes” of her son.
"I would think, once he completes his studies and begins a job, our miseries would end,” said Bano. “But now his career is ruined.”
(Quratulain Rehbar is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir, specialising in issues of human rights, gender and health.)