Kashmiri separatist leader Altaf Ahmad Shah’s daughter says he is denied proper healthcare in Tihar

Shahid Tantray
12 May, 2020

In July 2017, the National Investigation Agency arrested seven Kashmiri separatist leaders in connection with a case of alleged terror funding from Pakistan. Among those arrested was Altaf Ahmad Shah, the son-in-law of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is the leader of the separatist group Tehreek-e-Huriyat. Altaf has been lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail since August 2017. The jail was recently in the news as it is overcrowded, making it a vulnerable space during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May this year, Ruwa Shah, Altaf’s daughter, a media student, wrote that her father has been unwell in jail and is not receiving the medical attention he requires. Her letter is reproduced below.  

Every week, my family and I wait for a five-minute-long phone call with my 63-year-old father, Altaf Ahmad Shah, who is a prisoner in Tihar Jail in New Delhi. That is the only opportunity for my mother to hear his voice and renew her hope of seeing him a free man.

She draws sustenance from that short conversation with my father and waits for the next call. He always comforts her during the phone calls and reassures her that this too shall pass. My mother conveys his messages to me and my siblings. We repeat and discuss every word he spoke, seeking meaning and hope.

My father is a political activist, and has been one since he was in college. He was detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in July 2017 after incendiary media trials that led the NIA to imprison many Kashmiri politicians. No court has convicted him of any crime. He has been an undertrial prisoner since then. We have prepared ourselves for a long legal battle but that is a different matter.

The weekly phone call with my father has assumed a sense of urgency also because he is diabetic and suffers from hypertension. He needs insulin two times a day. Often, his blood-sugar level is not in control—it needs to be checked by endocrinologists at least one a month. He had developed a cyst on his foot last year, which was also not checked properly by a specialist. 

On 25 April, I called my mother to check if she had spoken to him. She broke down in the middle of our conversation.“Your Abu was hospitalised. He has not been well,” she told me. My father has apparently had digestion issues that could not be treated for weeks after the internal doctors at the jail checked him. All he could inform my mother was that he had constipation for many days after which he was taken to a hospital—we do not know which hospital. We do not have complete information on what happened because the phone calls are very short and one can hardly hear anything because the network is bad.

My mother had not shared the news with anyone in the family because she did not want them to slip into despair. She has been at the forefront of our battle for survival and would protect us from any bad news even when my father was home.

An agonising week passed till the next phone call with my father. Ammi, my mother, put him on speakerphone so that I could hear him through another phone. I heard his voice for about sixty seconds. It seemed to be the fastest minute of our lives and it had passed before I recollected myself after hearing his voice for the first time in months. 

He told us that the medicine he was being provided inside the jail had not worked. Doctors in the prison could not diagnose the problem without running certain medical tests. The jail doctors—junior resident doctors—told him they could not help him more. They said he needs to be checked by a neurologist as it seemed to be a neurological disorder to them. The jail authorities did not take my father to the hospital. We had filed an urgent bail petition in the Patiala House court on health grounds on 6 May, but it is yet to be considered. 

It is shocking, especially when Article 21 of the Constitution of India and various judgments of the Supreme Court make it clear that prisoners in the country have a right to health. The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the United Nations say that prisoners shall have “access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation.”

Apart from his medical condition, there is the fear of the coronavirus outbreak. Abu is kept in the high-risk ward of jail number four, with three other inmates—who are mostly convicted of hardened crimes, as informed by my father. 

The Delhi High Court has sought a report from Tihar Jail on whether there are any COVID-19 infected patients within the jail premises after a 62-year-old woman sought bail on medical grounds. The fear of the outbreak in prisons has been increasing after news emerged this month that at least seventy two inmates in Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison have tested positive with the virus. 

Although the Tihar jail authorities have released 2,962 prisoners on bail or parole to decongest the prison, I have not heard of a Kashmiri being released—I am in touch with most Kashmiri families whose kin are in the jail. The prisoners released included those who were suffering from cancer and other ailments. 

In times of a pandemic, denying a prisoner his right to health could amount to an extrajudicial execution by neglect. We are not even being updated about his medical condition despite attempting to reach the prison authorities. All we are asking for is his basic right to healthcare without any discrimination on political grounds. We are not asking for waiving his trial. He is ready to face the courts and prove his innocence.

My father worked closely with the Tehreek-e-Huriyat headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. His work was mainly with the ground-level people. My father and those arrested in the case are civilian leaders and not gun-toting combatants. I believe he is in prison because the Indian state could not change Geelani’s stance on Kashmir, to pressurise him and bring him to the table—Geelani’s entire group is in Tihar. And my father being his family is what made him a casualty. 

My father and many other leaders are accused of “sedition” and “waging war against India.” The thing with UAPA is that the state and the court already assume the accused is guilty. They already call him a “terrorist.” Someone who spent his entire life in peaceful politics, seeking a resolution to the Kashmir issue, how come he is a terrorist? 

It looks like Abu, God forbid, is already on a death row. He is being executed slowly, every day, even though he should have, for all legal reasons, been treated as innocent until proven otherwise.

Our experience did not prepare us to expect any better but there are moments where your heart still hopes that the course of events will bend toward justice. I, too, had hoped that my father would be granted bail considering his medical condition. We keep hoping that Abu will be given access to adequate healthcare, that he will be able to fight the long battle for justice that lies ahead.