Promulgated by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1978 to curb illicit timber smuggling, the Public Safety Act soon turned into a tool for rulers in Kashmir to silence differing voices. From elderly men to minor children, the unprecedented use of the ‘lawless law’ during this summer of discontent is nothing less than a war waged by the state against its own people.
ON a sunny afternoon this August, Nabla Begum was preparing for a nap after finishing the daily household chorus when a boy from the locality rushed to their one-room “house” built over a cowshed to bring the news that shattered the family.
“Your son has been picked up by the police…people are saying he will be booked under (public) safety act (PSA),” Nabla recalls the boys telling her in a hushed tone.
Till then, 38-year old Nabla, a resident of Rawalpora in Langate constituency of Kupwara, had no idea what PSA means but a concerned mother in her started to think of ways to get her son released.
But that was not to be.
After his detention in Baramulla police station for over three weeks, Waheed Ahmad Gojri, who was arrested on August 18, was slapped with the PSA and shifted to Kotbalwal jail in Jammu. He was one among over 100 persons who had by then been booked under the controversial law and transferred to different jails across the state.
But what brought the case into the limelight was that Waheed, according to his schools records, was a minor, a 16 year old student of Class 10. And hence, his detention under the PSA was against the basics of the law – the PSA clears prohibits detention of any state subject less than 18 years of age – which has been used arbitrarily by the J&K government in one of the unprecedented ongoing crackdowns on youth in Kashmir in more than a decade.
Kashmir is going through the deadly uprising after the killing of the rebel commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, by security forces on 8 July this year in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Since, the region has been hit by massive street protests with people renewing the call for “aazadi” (freedom), though the intensity of the protests has gone down now.
In the past four months, the longest ever recorded shutdown in Kashmir’s history, at least 95 people have been killed and over 15,000 have been injured in forces’ action – at least 1200 of them hit by deadly pellets in their eyes are facing prospects of partial or complete blindness.
While many believe that this uprising would be remembered for the sheer scale of the dead eyes resulting from the use of pellet guns by the forces, the rampant use of the PSA to book civilians and separatist activists participating in anti-state protests has now even forced the Amnesty International to renew the call for abrogation of the archaic act.
The dossier prepared by the J&K police against 16-year old Waheed says he was an “active member” of the separatist organization, Muslim League, who was found involved in “anti-state activities and provoking youth to pelt stones on forces.”
“We were told by police that he is a member of Hurriyat. We pleaded before the court for his release or his transfer to jail for children (juvenile home) here. But he continues to languish in Jammu jail,” said Waheed’s father, Abdul Ahad Gojri, a tailor.
In the past three months, Gojri has visited his son once. “I’m not financially so sound to afford regular visits. During my meeting with him, he told me that he feels suffocated in the jail. But I’m helpless to change anything,” said 40-year old Gojri.
On October 20, the Amnesty International, which has described the PSA as “a lawless law”, asked the state government to release Waheed along with another teenager from Baramulla, 16-year old Rayees Ahmad Mir, who too has been slapped with PSA and has been detained in the Jammu jail.
However, in several cases where teenagers have been slapped with the PSA, like that of Mir, there hasn’t been any follow up action despite the state high court’s direction to the government to shift them to juvenile home.
Pointing towards the rampant and arbitrary use of the PSA by the government in its bid to quell the uprising, more than 560 persons have been booked under the law in past over four months out of which 530 warrants have already been executed by arresting and lodging the accused in different jails.
As per the official figures, North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, which comprises of two police districts, Baramulla and Sopore, has seen the highest PSA detentions at 130.
On October 15, the unprecedented crackdown induced three prominent rights bodies – AI, Human Rights Watch and International Commission of Jurists – to urge J&K Government to end the use of PSA for arbitrarily detaining people, including children. Police has, however, been defending the use of the PSA, arguing that the preventive detentions have become a “necessity” to maintain law and order in Kashmir.
“It is necessary to apply the law against those who are pelting stones and leading the agitation,” Director General Police (Law and Order) SP Vaid was quoted by a newspaper as saying. “It is necessary to keep these elements behind the bars, otherwise they will ruin Kashmir.”
The PSA provides for arresting and jailing a person without trial for up to two years on mere suspicion that he/she may disrupt law and order in the state or may act in a manner prejudicial to the security of the state.
The Act bypasses all the institutional procedures and human rights safeguards of the criminal justice system in order to secure a long term detention. More than 27,000 people have been arrested and jailed by different governments on different occasions in Jammu and Kashmir under this law since its promulgation in 1978.
Silencing Separatist Voices
The law was promulgated by former chief minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in 1978 when his party National conference enjoyed brute majority in the 87-member state assembly. The explanation Abdullah government gave over the Act was that it was meant to protect the forests and would be used against timber smugglers.
But soon enough, the party in power started to use the act against the political opponents to silence them and after 90’s, when the armed struggle broke out in Kashmir, the PSA became a tool in the hands of the government of the day to silence separatist voices.
The first person arrested under PSA, according to a report in indiaopines.com, was a bus private driver, Gulam Nabi, of Batamaloo Srinagar, who was president of Kashmir Motor Drivers Association (KMDA) — a private bus drivers’ union.
KMDA had fervently supported the opposition Janata Party (JP) against Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference in the assembly elections a year earlier (1977). Since then, there had been no fullstops over its use. There could hardly be a few dozen forest-looters who might have been arrested under this law but those arrested for voicing opinions against the government runs in thousands.
“It is the most misused law that is being used over and over again by the government to detain minors, elderly and other voices of dissent,” advocate Shafakat Hussian, who has been pleading several PSA cases in the high court, told Kashmir Scan.
“It is repeatedly misused to arbitrarily detain people for long periods and the history of the PSA cases will tell you that often fresh orders are issued if the detention is quashed by the courts,” said Hussain.
The present government, Hussain says, has been “arbitrarily” and “randomly” invoking PSA against the people without following any criteria to book people irrespective of their age and health condition.
“The last time I heard from my son was when he was being taken to Jammu jail. He called and said that he was very sacred and cried for help. I am worried about his safety,” Nabla sighs.