“We feel suffocated”: Kashmiri mothers on bearing the brunt of their sons’ detentions

Some Kashmiri mothers have learned that their sons have been moved to jails outside Kashmir. Sanna Irshad Matoo 
28 September, 2019

On 5 August, a 30-year-old Kashmiri businessman was headed to a pharmacy near Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area to pick up medicines for his mother. On the way, “there is a CRPF camp,” his mother told me, referring to the Central Reserve Police Force. “As he began to walk by the area, astation house officer,” of the Jammu and Kashmir police, “detained him, and kept him imprisoned in the local police station.” She said her son was booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows preventive custody for two years without trial or charges.

The businessman is one of thousands of young men arrested in Kashmir over the last month. The Valley has been in a state of lockdown since 5 August, when the government effectively abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted Jammu and Kashmir a special status, and downgraded the state into two union territories. The government’s announcements were followed by a heavy security clampdown, a communications blackout and large-scale arrests and detentions in the state. According to media reports, at least 4000 people have been arrested under the PSA, though residents said the figure may be far higher.

Across the Kashmir Valley, women have been anxiously waiting outside police stations for their turn to meet family members who have been detained. Some have learned that their kin have been moved to jails outside Kashmir. Over the last month, I met several Kashmiri mothers whose sons had been detained and arrested.

Every afternoon for the last several weeks, the businessman’s 55-year-old mother sat by the window in one of the rooms of her mud house, waiting for her son to return home. Her husband died a decade ago, and she lived alone with her son. He ran a small tent renting business and was the sole bread earner of the family.

According to his mother, the businessman was detained for three days at a local police station, then shifted to the Srinagar Central Jail until 21 August, after which he was moved to a jail in Agra in Uttar Pradesh. She showed me a piece of paper on which a local police officer had scribbled the address of the jail where her son is currently lodged. She said the officer had assured her that he will bear the expenses of her travel to Agra when she wants to meet her incarcerated son.

This is not the first time that the businessman has been detained. In the last few years, he spent most of his time in jails as he was subjected to frequent detentions and arrests. He had returned home only a few months ago after serving a two-year jail term, accused of stone-pelting. His sudden detention again has left his mother shattered.

“I am only alive for my son. Otherwise, I have no other reason to live,” she said, with tears in her eyes. She added that the area where she resides has a notorious reputation because it is also home to several Kashmiri separatist leaders. “Just by being a resident of this neighborhood you give them reason enough to detain you,” she said.

In Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar, a similar account unfolded.I met a 44-year-old woman who lived with her husband and four children. Usually, she set the breakfast table for six people, but on the morning I met her, a chair remained empty. Her son had been detained on 7 August.

She recalled the unease she felt when her 16-year-old son did not come home for lunch that day. Her immediate instinct had been that something was horribly wrong. When he did not return by the evening, she asked her neighbors to keep watch on her daughters, and left home with her husband to look for her son. The couple first went to the Soura police station to enquire if their son had been detained there.

“We did not find him there and rushed to try our luck at another police station six kilometers from where we lived,” the 44-year-old woman said. “We found him in their lock-up.” Their son was being held at the Safakadal police station. He was released on 30 August on the condition that he would report to the police station everyday. “There is no FIR against him but they kept him in custody for 23 days,” his mother told me. The family said that he has no criminal history, and was detained without any cause.

The 16-year-old’s father is a cab driver in Srinagar. After his son’s detention, he spent hours going to the police station everyday to secure his release. Since 30 August, he has been accompanying his son to the police station as well. This has impacted the family’s income. “We have to struggle just to put food on the table,” the 44-year-old woman said. “But I have to manage it for my family, as my husband goes to the police station with my son everyday.”

On 9 August, the first Friday after the nullification of Kashmir’s special status, the residents of Soura held a large protest march in the area. According to residents, around ten thousand people participated. The 44-year-old woman said that Soura had been closely monitored by the security forces since the protest, with an increased presence of troops in the area. “We feel suffocated now,” she said. “In the night, I hug my daughters thinking what new turmoil the future will bring for us.”

Barely a stone’s throw away is the home of a 45-year-old mother of four children. Her 17-year-old son was detained in the second week of August and also lodged at the Safakadal police station. She said the police ruthlessly beat him up. She added that 19 days after he was detained, the police moved him to a juvenile home in Harwan in Srinagar.

The 45-year-old said that her husband stays at home, while her elder son runs a small business and is the only earning member of the family. Since her younger’s son arrest, the elder son has been going to the police station everyday to get his brother released. The curfew restrictions and her elder son’s time spent away from work have caused a financial strain on her family too.

“After my son was detained, his brother would constantly keep heading out to look for him, putting his work on hold because of which our household income stopped entirely,” she said. “At times, I have had to depend on my neighbors for food, while on other occasions, I have walked close to six or seven kilometers to buy groceries.”

She added that it is the women who have borne the worst brunt of the conflict. “While we pray for our son’s return, I have my husband, three children and myself to feed,” she said. “How can one manage under such circumstances? Only a Kashmiri woman understands her own suffering.”

As a mother of two daughters, she said that she was wary of the discourse among sections of the public that it had become easier for Indian men to marry Kashmiri women after the region’s special status was revoked.“We would never allow such a union,” she said. “We would die before we see our daughters marry Hindu men. Our land and our daughters, we will protect at all costs.”

I heard another account of a detention from the Mehjoor Nagar area of Srinagar. According to Nazir Ahmad Khan, a mason, at 2 amon 6 August, a team of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the CRPF banged on his door and asked the whereabouts of his 23-year-old son Momin Khan.

“Momin woke up and opened the door, we followed him,” Nazir told me. “As soon as he opened the gate, he was told to come with them.” According to Nazir, an informer, who was inside the team’s vehicle, identified his son as among some people who had pelted stones in Mehjoor Nagar recently. Once the team had the confirmation, they bundled Momin inside the vehicle, and took him to the Rajbagh police station. The next day, when Nazir visited the police station, he was informed that his son had been detained on charges of stone pelting.

Four years ago, Nazir had migrated from North Kashmir’s Sopore area, about forty kilometers away, to Srinagar. Hisonly daughterhad moved to the city after marriage. Months later, she was diagnosed with brain tumor. She then asked her parents to move near her so that they could meet everyday.

Nazir decided to fulfil her wish. He sold everything he owned at his native place and bought a piece of land in Mehjoor Nagar, where he built a single storied house with his son’s help. A year later, his wife suffered a kidney failure. Soon, Nazir developed health issues too, and had to stop working. Earning bread for the family then rested upon his elder son Momin, who took up his father’s profession and started working as a mason. “It was yet another tragedy for us,” Nazir said, referring to Momin’s detention. “His mother couldn’t bear the separation and her health conditions deteriorated further.”

Nazir denied that his son had been involved in stone pelting and said that Momin had in fact been with his ailing mother at the time. He took all his wife’s medical documents to the police station and showed them to the officer incharge, making the case for Momin’s innocence. “I thought he might release my son as I narrated the back-to-back tragedies of our family, but all in vain,” Nazir told me. “I literally begged for his release but they didn’t accept any plea.”

From the Rajbagh police station, Nazir said, Momin was shifted to the Central Jail in Srinagar, where he was kept for two days. Before Eid, he was sent to a jail in Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. The Jammu and Kashmir police did not respond to a request for comment on Momin’s detention.

Like the other families I met, Nazir also said that he may not be able to meet his son because of the family’s poor financial condition. “Everything seems to be over with the detention of my son,” he said. “I am not able to bear the medical expenses for my wife’s illness. It’s very difficult to meet the needs of daily life. Now everything is in the hands of Allah.”

In addition to the widespread detentions after 5 August, I also heard an account of a pre-emptive detention before the government read down Article 370. On 1 August, the Jammu and Kashmir police summoned a 25-year-old employee of a pharmaceutical company in Kashmir. He was asked to report to his local police station in the Nowhatta area of Srinagar.

According to his family, upon reaching the police station, he was detained, booked under the PSA, and then transferred to a prison in Agra. The family found out about his transfer two days after he had been moved. In 2016, the 25-year-old was detained for the first time on the suspicion of stone pelting. Though he was subsequently released, his family said that he is made a scapegoat every time the police conducts mass detentions during public protests or potential conflict in the Valley. They said he is among the first boys in his area to be detained.

“I pleaded with the local police to release my son, but they said he will return home once the Valley returns to normalcy,” his mother told me. “They assured me that he would be kept in the same prison in Srinagar till his release but without even informing us, they transferred him to Agra.”

The 25-year-old was the sole financial support for his family. His father works as a street vendor. The family said they wished to see him, but could not travel outside the state due to their financial circumstances. “I don’t think too much regarding the politics of Article 370 or the impact it will have,” his mother said. “All I want to do is to see my son. I want him here by my side. Everything else is secondary.”

Before being detained, the 25-year-old had saved some money because of which his family is currently able to get by. But they said the meagre amount he had saved will soon run out and they will struggle to make ends meet.

“Because of the restrictions, his father is sitting idle at home,” the 25-year-old’s mother said. “What do we do? Starve to death? Our neighbors sometimes help by providing us with essentials, but how much longer can we keep going like this?”