A year ago, as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) lost its special status in India’s constitution, Mubeen Ahmad Shah lost his freedom and turned 64 in jail. As J&K completes a year in its diminished new form, Shah’s freedom is under threat again.
Srinagar: A year ago, as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) lost its special status in India’s constitution, businessman Mubeen Ahmad Shah lost his freedom and marked his 64th birthday in jail. One of thousands arrested and held in preventive detention, he spent five months behind bars before he was freed, his family says, on US government intervention.
Shah was detained under the Public Safety Act at midnight on 5 August 2019, the day the special status of J&K was abrogated. Now, as J&K completes a year in its diminished new form, Shah’s freedom is under threat again, his story emblematic of the state of free expression, civil rights and the rule of law in the tense, troubled union territory.
As many as 5,161 people were detained between 5 August and 1 November, according to official records. Political leaders, such as former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), continue to be in detention.
A year ago, the Centre said the abrogation would create more jobs and development for J&K but that is not the reality. In addition to a lack of new jobs, Kashmiris have disappeared from the upper echelons of administration, and a controversial new domicile law gives outsiders access to property and government jobs that were previously reserved only for locals.
Announced on 1 April, the law makes non-residents eligible to receive a domicile certificate if they have resided in J&K for at least 15 years. It is this law that prompted Shah to speak up again, despite the previous arrest.
A few months after his release, on 28 June 2020, Shah, former president of the Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), wrote a Facebook post opposing the domicile law.
Shah asked people to “boycott non-locals” who planned to buy land in J&K.
“All village/mohalla/town committees of Kashmir should come together and make sure that not a single non-local lives in their areas. They should ask all non-Kashmiris to vacate and leave Kashmir,” Shah posted on Facebook.
Shah said local committees should monitor land transactions with non-locals and boycott/evict those who sell land to any non-Kashmiri. The committees should also boycott government employees who helped a non-Kashmiri gain domicile, he added.
“The social boycott against these people should be very strict. They shouldn’t be allowed to enter into the village/mohalla/town and no one should speak to them or their families or do any kind of work with them,” he said in a post that was soon shared 1,300 times.
“We should think of other efficient measures as well to stop India from changing the demographics of Kashmir,” said Shah, echoing a commonly expressed opinion after the new rules. “It’s now or never. It’s do or die. All of us have to join hands and fight now!”
The Srinagar police filed a first information report (FIR) against Shah, charging him under four sections of the Indian Penal Code (1860), including 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different religious groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation). All these sections are punishable with a jail term of two years or more.
Confirming the FIR against Shah, Superintendent of Police (East) Sheema Qasba said, “He is not in Kashmir so we haven’t arrested him yet.” Qasba did not reveal further information on the charges, asking us to SMS her the questions. She did not reply to the SMS.
Based in Malaysia, Shah manages a business of carpets, furniture, shawls and other handicrafts. He said he was unaware of the FIR against him. “They (police) haven’t communicated the charges to me. I can’t comment on the charges, till I am not told the reasons for arresting me.”
About the Facebook post that landed him in trouble, Shah said, “I haven’t written anything wrong. In my post I am not asking people to throw stones or protest on the streets. What I have written is the most non-violent form of protest, I haven’t asked anyone to take guns. If this annoys them also, then I don’t know what to say.”
Arrest For Social Media Posts: The New Norm
In 2020, more than 30 cases were registered against those “misusing” social media.
“Since 14 January, when the 2G internet was restored, 30-40 cases have been registered against those who are committing various offences by ‘misusing’ social media,” said a senior police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“Most of the people who have been booked under various sections are now living in foreign countries, and now the investigating agencies are contemplating taking up the matter with the Ministry of External Affairs for their extradition and impounding travel documents,” said the officer.
Many in J&K circumvent the social-media ban by using VPNs or websites that allow users to mask their locations. On 17 February, when the government couldn’t control the use of VPNs in Kashmir, the police issued an order asking people to stop using social media or they would be booked under the anti-terrorism law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (1967), which carries a jail term of seven years.
The first arrest was made on 19 February. Imtiyaz Ahmad Kawa, who according to J&K police had posted fake photos and news about the police damaging private property, was charged with incitement.
In another incident, a video of ailing Syed Ali Shah Geelani—a veteran seperatist leader—was circulated on social media despite a ban. Geelani’s cook and a domestic worker were arrested for posting the video via VPN.
On 20 April, photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under UAPA for uploading her professional photos on social media. Two days later, an FIR was lodged against journalist Gowher Geelani for “misuse” of social media and he was charged under the UAPA.
Shah is the latest to be acted against. He is unlikely to be the last.
The New Definition Of Home
At least 25,000 Indians have received a domicile certificate after the central government defined new domicile rules.
The new law defines eligibility for domicile: anyone who has lived for 15 years in J&K or who has studied for seven years and appeared for class 10/12 exams in an educational institute here.
The law further expands the definition of domicile to include, “children of those central government officials, all India Services officers, officials of the PSUs and autonomous body of central government, public sector banks, officials of statutory bodies, officials of central universities and recognised research institutes of central government who have served in Jammu and Kashmir for a total period of ten years or children of parents who fulfil any of the condition in sections”.
Navin Choudhary, an IAS officer from Bihar who has worked in J&K for more than 15 years, was among the first to receive a domicile certificate, which went viral on social media. When asked why he had chosen to be a resident of J&K, Choudhary said, “This is my personal matter, I won’t reply to this.”
Kashmir’s political parties say the new domicile law will bring demographic changes in J&K. National Conference (NC) leader and Lok Sabha MP from Srinagar, Dr Farooq Abdullah told The Wire that the domicile law “is illegal and unconstitutional and it is not acceptable to the people of Jammu and Kashmir”.
The vice-president of the NC and former chief minister Omar Abdullah on 26 June tweeted: “All our misgivings about the new domicile rules in J&K are coming to the fore. We in @JKNC_opposed the changes because we could see the nefarious design behind the changes. The people of J&K on both sides of the Pir Panjal Mountains will be the sufferers of these domicile rules.”
The Detention Time Machine
Shah came to Srinagar from Kuala Lumpur in March 2019 to attend his sister-in-law’s funeral. He fell ill and had to prolong his visit and in July, his father-in-law died so his trip was extended further.
“It was my birthday the day 370 was abrogated,” Shah recalled. “The police came at 12 in the night and picked me up and kept me in Ram Munshi Bagh Police Station and after three days they shifted me to the Central Jail Srinagar and from there I was taken to Agra Central Jail.”
A dossier prepared by the district administration in Srinagar to detain Shah accused him of “anti-national activities”.
The dossier outlined the grounds for detention: “Dr Mubeen Ahmad Shah is a leading businessman who for sometimes has emerged as one of the most staunch secessionists having secessionist ideology. The subject believes that J&K state is a disputed territory and it has to be seceded from the union of India and with this ideology the subject has been found indulged in various anti-national activities by giving proactive and highly objectionable statements.”
It said Shah “advocated this ideology” in meetings, seminars and in the media.
“...the subject has been found glorifying the death of Burhan Muzzafar Wani and spreading hatred against the union of India,” the dossier said, accusing Shah of sharing “highly objectionable propaganda against the Union of India” and “disaffection among the masses against the Union of India”.
The dossier said Shah possessed “considerable clout” in “secessionist circles” and used his influence “for creating large scale violence by instigating the disgruntled elements to resort to violence and create an atmosphere conducive for secessionist elements to propagate the secessionism”.
The dossier said: “...he devised programmes/ rallies with secessionist elements, which created large scale law and order problem during these agitations. The subject in the ongoing unrest has been found giving proactive speeches/statements and devising programmes with the secessionist elements aimed at causing large scale violence and due to these proactive speeches/ statements disgruntled elements resort to stone pelting on security agencies and commit other illegal activities so as to achieve the goals set by the subject.”
Given these reasons, the district administration said, it had “become imperative” to apply the PSA.
Shah denied the allegations against him. “I was the vice president of the Action Committee against Land Transfer, which was formed to fight the transfer of land to Amarnath Trust created by civil society groups having all trade organizations and the bar association members as well,” said Shah. “We successfully fought the order against the government and the then government revoked the order.”
In 2019, the former president of the KCCI was arrested—for his involvement in the agitation of 2008.
For over four months, Shah said, he shared a cell with Mian Qayoom, president of the Bar Association, and Yasin Khan, president of the Kashmir Traders & Manufacturers Federation. Shah’s nephews, cousins and other relatives who are settled in the United States, he said, “had gone to meet the US government and it was only after their intervention I was released on 7 December 7, 2019”.
Prison changed him, Shah said. “I had lost 20 kg because all we were served were boiled vegetables with no taste and the four-month stay in jail had left me traumatized,” he said. “I was in Delhi after my release for my psychological treatment.”
Arshie Zuhar, a lawyer at the J&K High Court, said the fact that Shah resided in Malaysia complicated the investigation. “The FIR per se doesn’t constitute or establish any offence, it's a mere trigger to commence an investigation and to verify and establish facts. The question would be the mode and cooperation of investigation between the two countries.”
(Shafaq Shah is an independent journalist based in Srinagar)