May issue 2002
Law of Vendetta?
When a couple was arrested on March 24 from Kud, about 100 kilometres from Jammu, with one lakh US dollars, and paraded before the electronic media with their confession of “bringing the money from Kathmandu for JKLF chairman Yasin Malik,” everybody doubted the genuineness of the case. The arrest preceded the passage of the Prevention of Terrorrism Ordinance (POTO) bill by a specially convened joint session of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha in Delhi on March 25. The ratification of POTO in Delhi coincided with the arrest of Yasin Malik under POTO from the venue of a press conference he was addressing to prove his innocence. The doubts of many were confirmed: Malik was, in fact, to be made the scapegoat for the ratification of POTO in parliament, when the bill faced rough weather the previous week in the Rajya Sabha. The skeptics base their assumptions of conspiracy on several reasons.
Firstly, the National Conference members in the Rajya Sabha from the state of Jammu and Kashmir had abstained from voting on the POTO bill, thus paving the way for its fall. The same National Conference was ready to vote in favour of the bill in less than a week’s time on March 25, a period interspersed by hectic parleys between the chief minister and chief of the National Conference party, Farooq Abdullah, and Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani, in Delhi. A bargain had evidently been struck. Several political parties and academics in the state saw the goings on as tactics of chicanery and blackmail by Farooq Abdullah. The events that followed made it clear. Farooq had agreed that his MPs would vote in favour of POTO. At the same time, Yasin Malik was arrested. Was there a connection?
A closer look at the developments in Delhi would shed more light. It is believed that the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) did not support the idea of Malik’s arrest, owing to the back-channels of diplomacy (Track II) it had opened with the secessionist leaders in Kashmir. However, Malik was seen to be a thorn in the flesh. The parallel independent Election Commission announced by the secessionist conglomerate of 23 secessionist groups, the All Party Hurriyet Conference, of which the JKLF is a member, was more or less a brainchild of Malik. The Election Commission announcement is now being seen in some circles as politically necessitated to stall any weaning away of secessionist leaders into the mainstream, rumours of which had started doing the rounds in the Valley. Whether some of them are prepared to participate in the state assembly elections scheduled in September — October or not, it is almost certain that a few of them were being involved in the back-channel diplomacy. The recently held conclave of secessionist leaders from Kashmir and those from Azad Kashmir in Dubai, which had the approval of both the governments of India and Pakistan, also adds credence to this. Obviously then, Malik’s idea of the Election Commission was not to the liking of the Centre. However, the reactions varied, with the home ministry wanting to adopt tough posturing and the PMO willing to be soft in a probable bid to improve the Centre’s tarnished credibility against the backdrop of Track-II diplomacy. The tussle between the PMO and the home ministry notwithstanding, the green signal for the arrest under POTO had come from Advani, in whom Farooq had found a new friend, and this is being seen as a ‘your enemy-my enemy’ pact between the two. Farooq was keen to sabotage the move towards a parallel Election Commission, lest his own position be threatened. Secondly, the very charges framed against the JKLF chief are questionable.
The sensational arrest of separatist leader, Yasin Malik, under POTO was based on the disclosures made by an unknown couple that they were carrying one lakh US dollars for the JKLF leader. Mushtaq and Shazia, alias Shameema, were caught at Kud on the way to Srinagar in a Tata Sumo with the money hidden in their clothes. Interestingly, there is no security post in Kud with women police to facilitate frisking of any ‘suspicious’ women. So how did they get to know that Shameema was hiding this money? Yet the duo were somehow arrested. Details of how the police came to sniff trouble are still shrouded in mystery. Mushtaq made a confession within hours of his arrest that the money was meant for Yasin. Soon after this disclosure, the police swooped in on Malik and arrested him under both FERA (for foreign exchange violations) and POTO. The police claim they have evidence, but apart from the selective confession of a couple bringing the money into the state for the JKLF leader, investigations have yet to spell out anything against him. Investigations are still going on. While Shameema and Mushtaq are in police custody with the media having no access to them, Malik is in judicial lock-up. Malik said that he had no connection with the duo though he admitted that Mushtaq was in JKLF till some years back, after which he had never met him. But, perhaps, as the top police officials claim, the onus in this case under POTO now lies on Yasin to prove his innocence. Police say investigations are in progress and they have some vital evidence. This, however, has not been made public. The hush-hush manner in which the case is being investigated, even after a ‘first-hand’ voluntary confession by Mushtaq, makes everything appear very dubious.
Also, within the first week of police remand, the ailing JKLF chief, who had undergone surgery of the ear twice recently in the United States of America, was allegedly beaten up by police officials during interrogation. The blows have affected his hearing power and he is said to be suffering from serious infection of the ear and throat which doctors say could pose a serious threat to his life. Yasin Malik, immediately in protest against the inhuman treatment, had gone on hunger strike and demanded a fair probe, following which he was admitted to the hospital in Jammu, where his condition deteriorated as the police kept the entire affair a secret in a bid to cover up the torture inflicted on Malik in police custody. The matter came to light when Yasin’s sister managed to get permission through a sessions court to meet him. It was on the intervention of some human rights activists, namely Tapan Bose, Ram Narayan and Ashok Agarwal, that the director general of police Ashok Suri assured that he would order an inquiry against the accused police officers if the medical reports proved that serious damage had been caused to Yasin’s ear since his last surgery. It was also agreed to send Malik to judicial custody and accord him better treatment. Malik called off his hunger strike on the eighth day. But three weeks hence, the inquiry has yet to see the light of day. One of the accused police officers, SP Manohar Singh, is said to be Farooq’s blue-eyed boy and top police officials are already working overnight in a bid to make him escape the noose. When the human rights activists met Malik in hospital, the latter claimed that the said officer was pressurising him into making a confession about the money in question in the case. If the evidence claimed by police is strong, why the forced confession?
Thirdly, why the charges under POTO? Is Malik guilty of possessing dollars that were never found on his person or for creating terror? But terrorising with what? Yasin Malik was one of the first youth in the Valley to take up guns in 1988. But, he was also the first, soon after his release in 1994, to announce a unilateral ceasefire as he gave up the gun. Strangely enough, while men who surrendered before the security forces were rewarded both with jobs and their ‘illegal’ guns that were returned as a reward, Malik in turn got several months in prison. Moreover, several of his associates, who too gave up the gun like him, died either at the hands of rival militant organisations or the security forces, perhaps for the folly of giving up the gun. And, now he gets the POTO for reiterating his stand on the need for talks on the Kashmir issue. Even if Malik is guilty of being the probable recipient of the money that was recovered in Kud, does it make him guilty of terrorist activities? In normal circumstances, he should have been tried only for violation of foreign exchange regulations. A human rights activist, on condition of anonymity, says if Malik is a terrorist, are these POTO supporters angelic by any standard?
Yasin is not the only one to be arrested since the POTO bill was passed at the Centre. The state police’s arrest of a Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) leader from Udhampur for his alleged links with the Khalistan Zindabad Force, a secessionist organisation based in the Punjab, is also being seen as political vendetta. The PDP is led by former union home minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who claims that his party could be a viable alternative to Farooq’s National Conference.
Several other arrests have been made under POTO in the last four months. The total number of cases registered in Jammu and Kashmir are 106 (a total of 147 in the whole of India). But so far POTO in Jammu and Kashmir is still an ordinance under which all these cases are being operated. It still needs to be ratified by the state legislature for framing adequate laws to deal with cases registered under it, after which it would become POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). The minister of state for home affairs, Khalid Najeeb Suhrawardy, says that work has already begun on reviewing the ordinance and what would be the final shape of the Act. He elaborated that Special Courts would be created very soon for POTO cases, and guidelines for simplification and categorisation of cases would be made. To ensure that the law is not misused, authorisation from the home department would be considered mandatory before going ahead with registering any case under the new law.
Suhrawardy, however, outrightly rejects the theory that POTO is being used a weapon by the ruling party to settle scores with political opponents. “It is not true. The APHC or anybody else is no threat to us. The militants are a threat to our lives because our political workers are being killed in the Valley,” he agrees. Considered to be very vocal against human rights violations in the state, this young minister, however, agrees that though the law is not very good, circumstances demand that it should be used.
Some other National Conference leaders are more vocal in their criticism of POTO, which gives the authorities unlimited powers to frame charges against anybody with little evidence. In fact, one of them sarcastically calls it the ‘Promotion of Trauma and Oppression’ against innocents. Suhrawardy is aware of this and dismisses such opposition to the law as ‘mere apprehensions’. In the same breath, while trying to put at rest all speculations about the ruling party being divided over this issue, he says, “The National Conference, as a party, is democratic in nature and so there will be reservations against POTO. But most of us understand that the situation is so dire that we need deterrent laws to deal with the problem.”