For the last Eid, 24-year-old Ruby Jan had brought a checked-shirt for her elder brother, Raasik Nengroo. However, just weeks before Eid, the police detained Mr. Nengroo, yet again, on 6 August 2019, a day after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was abrogated.
Ms. Jan wandered door to door, begging officials to get her brother released but to no avail. Her father, Bashir Nengroo, a 50-year-old laborer, ran behind the Station House Officer of Yaripora, Kulgam, begging. “He has been at home only for a month,” he told the police. “Why are you taking him again?” However, the police told the family that it was precautionary detention for 15 August, the independence day. “He’ll be released soon.”
Today, a year has passed and two Eids have gone by but the shirt remains packed in the plastic it came in — reduced to a souvenir.
Ms. Jan lives one week at a time. Every Friday, Mr. Nengroo calls home from the jail in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, for a five-minute-long conversation allowed to him each week. “He asks about Mumma and if we all are doing fine,” said Ms. Jan, adding that the phone signal is always weak.
But then, there are Fridays when the phone doesn’t ring for a reason or another. “My mother is suffering a lot. She gets unnerved when he misses a call,” she said, breaking down as she spoke with this reporter over the phone. “It has been so long he isn’t at home. Just so long.”
On 5 August, the Government of India tabled a bill to reorganize the state of Jammu and Kashmir and scrap the region’s limited autonomy granted under Article 370 of the constitution. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said: “[Article 370] was used to anger the youth and separate the youth from the mainstream.”
Contrary to that, as the parliament voted for the bill in sessions, the J-K administration detained thousands of young boys and men, including students, prominent politicians, rights activists, and lawyers, fearing widespread protests against the move.
The police killed my father. He would have been alive, with me,. Now, my mother lives alone in the house with no one to take her care. [The] police are the reason.
Kashmir simmered behind the communication blackout as civil liberties were torn apart by the razor wire barricading every other street. Nearly 60 kilometers away from the capital city of Srinagar, the police raided a small hamlet near Yaripora village of Kulgam district in the south, to detain then 29-year-old Mr. Nengroo, at midnight.
Mr. Raasik’s detention was based on two earlier FIRs from 2017 and 2018, said Mukhtar Makroo, his advocate. The family bailed him out in July 2019. A month later, he was slapped with the Public Safety Act (PSA), and flown out of Kashmir Valley.
In October 2019, an 11-member team comprising advocates, human rights activists, and a psychiatrist filed a report after their week-long visit. It claimed, “more than 13,000 people have been unlawfully detained and most of them are being transferred outside Jammu and Kashmir, in order to prevent family members and advocates from appearing for them.”
Mr. Raasik’s absence is visible in every aspect of the family, including financial. After his detention in 2017, the situation at his home started deteriorating. His aged father, who limps, had to restart working as a daily wage laborer to meet the ends. Ms. Jan, the sister, too had to leave her ambitions and nursing midway to support the family, emotionally and financially.
But the Nengroo family isn’t alone.
On the intervening night of 4 and 5 August, Shehzada Bano had returned to sleep after taking her ill 3-year-old daughter to the hospital with her 30-year-old husband, Bilal Ahmad Dar. As they fell asleep in a 8 x 8 kitchen-cum-bedroom in Fateh Kadal area of Srinagar, abrupt knocks on the window woke her up.
It was the police, looking for Mr. Dar.
Mr. Dar had a police case against him from the 2008 civilian uprising, in which at least sixty civilians were killed in street protests by the government forces. However, the case was long closed and he had settled down with his wife and had two children with her.
In the preventive detention spree, barely a history-sheeter was spared. As the police dragged Mr. Dar from his bed, Ms. Bano kneeled and begged them: “Please think about us. I have two small children to look after. What am I going to do?”
None of the pleas were heard as the police whisked her husband away — children still asleep.
The Fateh Kadal police station was barely a kilometer away. From the next morning, she would walk down to the station with a child holding each hand, she said. Even that Eid, in 2019, she waited till 8 pm, she said. “They didn’t allow us to meet him until my daughter started crying on the road: ‘Baba! Baba!’”
When Mr. Dar was later shifted to Central Jail, Srinagar, the journey to see him became more tedious. Public transport was not allowed as the restrictions on civilian movement continued.
But she had bigger battles to fight: taking children to the hospital at night; feeding them warm food; paying tuition fees of the 7-year-old son; celebrating half-hearted birthdays; and taking care of herself. During the dinner, she said, her daughter would often call the father to join — looking at his photograph on the wall. When night would get tough, she would talk to the photograph too, she said.
As weeks turned into months, it became harder for her to stop the tears and keep herself together for her children. The void of her husband was killing her in parts, till she had reached her threshold: “One night, my son was watching the video [a compilation of Mr. Dar’s photographs and family’s happy moments, together] and he started crying. When I noticed him, I shook him, calling his name, “Ateeb, Ateeb.” He didn’t respond. I couldn’t bear it. I took a knife from the kitchen and slit my forearm.”
A few moments later, she was washing the oozing blood under the tap. When she would tell this to her husband later, during a visit to the jail, she would get scolded, “rightly”, she recalled that meeting.
“They beat me up for seven to eight minutes. I kept pleading: ‘Bas bas D.O. Sahab, lag gayi.’ But they didn’t stop.”
But the agony wasn’t just leaving her, she said. In March 2020, her support powerhouse, her father, passed away due to a heart attack. She explained how much her issues troubled her father. “The police killed my father. He would have been alive, with me,” she said, disgustingly. “Now, my mother lives alone in the house with no one to take her care. [The] police is the reason.”
Four days after her father’s death, Mr. Dar was released. “It had no meaning. My father won’t come back now,” she said.
However, Mr. Dar’s detention has changed him a lot, Ms. Bano said, as her daughter, Aisha keeps nudging. She gives her a napkin that doubles as a toy doll. “[Mr. Dar] has become more caring, but more scared as well,” she said. And she is sacred too, especially at night.
“I’m afraid that they’ll come back. When I walk past the police station, I remember everything. Everything,” she said. “That raid in the night.” And so does her husband.
But no one talks about it, revealed Ms. Bano. She thinks that it would only make things harder for the family. Though Mr. Dar has rejoined his job as a salesman at a nearby carpenter shop, he hasn’t really moved on. Once, when he was walking past the police station, his son pointed at a bunker, saying, “hadn’t they had locked you up? They used to say that you would be released soon.”
Mr. Dar broke down but didn’t speak. The uniformed men are a nightmare for the traumatized family now.
When will I be free?
It is not just Mr. Dar who is afraid of the uniformed men. Or their vehicles. The 14-year-old Afaan, who wishes to go by his first name, is scared of a Rakshak too. In August 2019, Afaan had been hearing the stories of “detention, police beating, and torture.” So when he saw a police vehicle on the afternoon of 21 August 2019 outside his home in Channapora, Srinagar, he tried running away in a reflex.
“[The police] hit my neck with his gun butt and I fell unconscious,” he recalled. “I opened my eyes inside a lock-up,” Afaan said he shared the lockup with sixteen others, the eldest was a 24-year-old stranger.
Two days later, he was shifted to Sadar police station in the middle of the night. There, he said, he was called to an isolated cell, where police officers on duty were waiting. “They showed me a video of the protest and asked me to identify the people in it,” Afaan recalled. Initially, the police officials tried to lure him, he said, by offering chips. But, he said, he didn’t break and denied to give up any names. “I didn’t know any of them,” he said.
The police soon lost its temper, he said, adding that the Duty Officer asked the other police officers to bring a baton. “I was very afraid,” when he recalled the stories of extrajudicial police beating in Kashmir.
“They beat me up for seven to eight minutes,” he said. “I kept pleading: “Bas bas D.O. Sahab, lag gayi.” But they didn’t stop.”
One of his cousin sisters, who wished to remain anonymous, told that the family had pleaded to the police officials that “Afaan is a child and he has health issues. Even if you beat him up, don’t hit on the face.” Although, Afaan said, knowingly the police officials pulled his ears and slapped him.
That evening, when his father came to the police station, he remained mute: “I didn’t tell him. He would have gotten worried.”
“Resolution of Kashmir issue. When it’ll resolve I’ll be free. Then only I’ll sit at home, in peace.”
After 14-days inside the police station, the 14-year-old Afaan was let go by the police when his family showed a certificate from his school that proved him to be a minor. He was named in an FIR–wherein his elder sister claimed the charges included vandalising property and throwing stones at the government forces–and he attended a hearing in the Juvenile Court. However, the COVID-19 impact on daily life has put that case at a halt.
And the detention changed his life, too, forever, he said.
The police have asked Afaan to stay put and report at the earliest on every summon. In other words, Afaan said, the police have chained him. “Jaise mai abhi bhi unke kabze mai hun,” he said.
And this idea of accountability drives him uneasy. Hence, he likes to stay away from home; keeps a smartphone without a sim card; stays more at a friend’s place rather than the home; and wakes up suddenly at night.
On 6 May 2020, when Riyaz Naikoo, the then operational commander of a militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed, the police detained Afaan again. He wasn’t scared of beating anymore, he said, but the fact that his family will have to suffer again. However, he was let go within 24 hours this time.
“I’m afraid that they will come back,” he said in a hushed voice.
A student of the tenth standard, Afaan has been finding it hard to focus on studies, said his cousin sister, who lives in the same house. “There is no future in Kashmir,” Afaan added. “It is not just me. It is every Kashmiri. They have ruined everyone’s future. India ruined it.”
Inevitably, Afaan is bound by “the Kashmir issue”, he said. Nothing can emancipate him. But just the one thing: “Resolution of Kashmir issue. When it’ll resolve I’ll be free. Then only I’ll sit at home, in peace.”
Stuck in courts
On every phone call from the jail, Mr. Raasik wonders if the family was able to move ahead with his PSA’s quashment. But then came the coronavirus and shut the J-K High Court after the government forces’ personnel deployed and multiple employees tested positive for the virus. The COVID-19 has halted the already snail-paced hearing of Habeas Corpus petitions.
Since 6 August 2019, more than 600 habeas corpus petitions have been filed before the J-K High Court at Srinagar and till 28 June 2020, “not even 1 percent of such cases have been decided.”
In October 2019, Mr. Raasik’s father, Mr. Nengroo had to borrow money to board a bus to Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, to meet his son in jail. He went alone because that’s all he could afford. He is yet to repay the debt.
“[Raasik’s] mother cannot come,” he said. “She says that she won’t be able to see him behind the bars. It would kill her.” At the jail, Mr. Nengroo said, Mr. Raasik kept saying: “I’m innocent. I’m innocent.”
Before coming of age, Mr. Nengroo had been working hard on fields, “dreaming to make my son a big man.” “They ruined his education. What I had dreamt for him, all of it is burnt now,” he said. “All is gone. Now, it is all up to Allah.”
Mr. Nengroo’s will is breaking now. After years of his son’s imprisonment, he said, that even if he had committed a mistake worth a penny, he should return home now. But for Ms. Jan, Mr. Raasik’s sister, a long fight remains ahead. Where she needs to be strong, she said.
But, sometimes, she steals a few moments to let the sorrow sink in. She locks herself in the bathroom and leaves the tap open to cry out loud, in peace. And wait for her only brother to come back home.
The story was originally published in 3 – 9 August 2020 print edition.