Wailing Kashmiri Mothers Await the Release of Their Sons During COVID-19

Mala breaks down and displays her fractured arm. She is suffering from hypertension post her son's arrest.

Mala breaks down and displays her fractured arm. She is suffering from hypertension post her son's arrest.

Thousands of Kashmiri men were arrested for protesting the scrapping of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which took away the autonomy of Kashmir, last August. They were later shifted to jails in different parts of India. Some families couldn't afford to make the trip and visit their children who were languishing behind bars.

In a jail in Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh state, about 1,650 kilometres away from his home in Budgam district in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Sahil is one such prisoner, taken in for "disrupting peace" in Kashmir. His parents Majeed and Tasleema visited him twice in the last nine months. But they cannot afford to travel a third time. "I was able to see my son thanks to the financial support of some well-wishers," a teary-eyed Tasleema said.

Police conducted a raid on the night of August 9, 2019, and booked Sahil under the Public Safety Act (PSA), seen as a "draconian" legislation often used by the Indian government.

Tasleema's voice cracked as she was narrating their ordeal. "Sahil was the bread-winner in our family. We can't survive financially without him. Things have gotten worse since his arrest," she said.

Sahil had to drop out of school and help out because his parents couldn't afford school anymore.

"My husband was ill, and the family was having a hard time. Sometimes we would manage with whatever little food we had but sometimes there would be no food at all. We had no choice but to give up on his education," Tasleema explained.

Majeed and Tasleema have four sons and a daughter, of which Sahil is the eldest. The family of seven lives in a single room. Half of it is a makeshift kitchen, and the other half, a 10x6-foot space, is where everyone eats and sleeps.

"There is no privacy. We sit, sleep, eat and live here. I have never talked about my troubles to anyone, but this arrest pushed me over the edge," said Tasleema, whose son has been in jail for nine months now.

Each visit cost Tasleema and Majeed around 30,000 rupees. "It's a Herculean task just to feed our children. We cannot afford to travel to Uttar Pradesh again. So far we have depended on the charitable nature of some friends to be able to meet our son," she said.

For two months prior to his arrest, Sahil was working as a surveyor in an automobile company. And now, the family is back in the financial quicksand, like they were before he started helping out.

The family alleges that the police added false charges to his dossier about his alleged role in the 2016 protests after the death of Burhan Wani, a commander of the terrorist organisation Hizbul Mujahideen. At the time, hundreds of civilians were killed, and thousands of them were arrested by the coalition government of the Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state under the leadership of then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

Tasleema with her niece and a younger son in a single room, they call home.

Tasleema with her niece and a younger son in a single room, they call home.

The family calls these charges "false" and "concocted."

"He was never arrested or even summoned in 2016. Even when he got the job, he was asked to submit a character certificate by the company, and the police issued it without any hesitation," Tasleema pointed out.

Speaking for the first time since this reporter began the interview, Majeed said, "I feel alone without him. I can't go out for menial jobs because of my poor health. We depend on him to support the family," he said, taking a puff from his hookah. The room was filled with smoke.

Tasleema breaks down as she sums up their agony. "This separation has broken my heart. I want my son back."

Things took a turn for the worse with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in India. With no news of Sahil's condition, they are restless during the day and sleepless at night.

Human rights bodies, politicians, bar councils and activists have demanded the immediate release of political prisoners in the wake of the pandemic that has engulfed the whole world.

The Supreme Court of India issued an order for prisoners to be released to avoid overcrowding of the jails. The Chief Justice of India directed each state to form a committee to determine who should be released. This will be determined based on their offences.

In Kashmir, 76 prisoners were released from the Srinagar Central Jail after the COVID-19 outbreak began. This includes 31 detainees and 36 under trials, all of whom were booked under the PSA.

But those who are outside Kashmir have not yet received any release.

"We knocked on every door. We were in constant touch with our lawyer. But due to coronavirus, we haven't been able to meet him for a month," Tasleema said.

There are many more like Majeed and Tasleema. 

Nadira, Faheem's Mother holds a phone with a picture of her son as its wallpaper.

Nadira, Faheem's Mother holds a phone with a picture of her son as its wallpaper.

Faheem Akram is also locked in the Ambedkar Nagar district jail in Uttar Pradesh. Some members of Faheem's family were able to see him only twice in the last nine months. Ulfat hasn't been able to catch one glimpse of her brother since his arrest.

"They should have made video calling available to the families of prisoners so that they can stay connected with their families," she said.

In a dossier presented in the court, the police termed him a "threat for the peace" and booked him under the PSA.

When 50-year-old Nadira met her son, Akram, in the Ambedkar Nagar jail, she requested the authorities to let him make a phone call. They agreed but never followed it up with action.

"I was so relieved to see that he was alive when I got there even if he was like a caged bird. I asked the jail authorities to let him call us on the phone," Nadira said.

She has succeeded in speaking with her son only once since her request. "I talked to him once on the phone for only one minute in last nine months," Nadira said, taking a sip of water.

Javaid Ahmad has a similar story. His father, who is bed-ridden, his mother and two younger sisters are waiting for his release. He is also locked in a jail in Uttar Pradesh.

The family managed to meet him twice since his arrest. But they had to empty his savings from the bakery. He was saving for his sister's wedding.

"He is our everything. He is also the bread-winner of this family. Only we know how we're managing our lives without him," his younger sister Bilkees said.

Mala holds the picture of her son, Javaid, who was the lone earner of the family.

Mala holds the picture of her son, Javaid, who was the lone earner of the family.

Javaid's mother Mala was helping him at the bakery, which has been closed for nine months since his arrest. They don't have enough even to survive. With zero income, they are at the mercy of handouts from anyone who can spare a dime.

"I am dying to see my son again. I spend all my time in tears. His arrest has broken my spirit. There's no one to help us," said Mala.

The arrest was a surprise to the family. He was at the shop when some stone pelting incidents were reported in the area. "He was never interested in protests. I am sure the police made a mistake. He was returning at the time of the incident. Maybe someone was filming it, and he was spotted in the video," she speculated.

The footage was produced in court as evidence of his involvement.

Mala has been on hypertension medication since his arrest and recently lost consciousness, which resulted in a fractured right arm.

There are many such stories of hapless families making appeals to the state government in whichever way they can. All they want is for their children to be brought back home during these trying times. That would bring them relief in more than one way.

As authorities are issuing passes to families to travel to different states to meet their relatives in different jails in India, many detainees have received release orders, and the PSA charges have been quashed. But their families are still awaiting their homecoming.