When an army trooper stopped Zahoor Dar at a checkpoint at dusk, started a perpetual struggle for justice and rights while he came of age in different prisons across India, where he remained lodged for nearly two years “without a fair trial”.
It was the fateful day of 21 June 2018, he said when the personnel had stopped Dar’s bike en route to school. “Where are you from?” a personnel asked. Anxious and scared, Dar replied: “Qaimoh.”
His home village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district has been a militancy hotbed. Intense gunfights were frequent and so were large-scale protests against the government. Dar was whisked away to the nearby army camp.
There, Dar alleged that he was beaten up and tortured as he was interrogated about the presence of militants. But he didn’t know anything about the presence of militants, Dar told an officer at the camp. “I even used to play Volleyball with you, sir,” he told him. “I’m a student in 11th class. Don’t you remember?”
This continued for twelve hours before he was handed over to the Kulgam police. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act the army can only detain an individual for 24 hours before presenting them to the nearest police station.
Then 19-year-old Dar was taken to a Special Operations Group (SOG) camp in Amnoo, Kulgam. There was a schedule, like a rooster, for the torture, he alleged. “Other than electric shocks, they had rollers too,” Dar recalled. “I wasn’t the youngest.”
Two months later, Dar said he was shifted to a jail in Mattan in the adjacent Anantnag district. The cell was smaller than his room, a grey ceiling above the head and an iron-rod gate. He was informed that he has been booked under India’s anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which landed him in prison for six months without trial but could keep him inside for up to seven years.
“There was a lot of torture there, everybody was worried about themselves,” said Dar. “I just cried alone. I’d ask myself: what did I do?”
The court of Principal Sessions Judge, Kulgam, granted him bail after the lapse of the 180 days time period during which, under the law, the police must produce a challan. The Kulgam police failed to do so but Dar wasn’t allowed to go home.
This was just the beginning of Dar’s trials in the court of law.
Two weeks later, on 6 February 2019, Dar was presumed to be “highly prejudicial to the security, sovereignty, and integrity of the state” by the police; the district magistrate agreed. He was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), “a lawless law” that puts the onus to prove innocence on the accused, already jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Dar then found himself in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail. In the shared cell, Dar would lie down and stare at the ceilings, or the bars, longing for home — more than 200 kilometers away.
The light was grimmer inside the cell than the indoor stadium where he had learnt Thang ta, a form of martial arts. Games drove him to school. He has represented the erstwhile state in sports tournaments across the country — and dreamt of growing up to become a trainer.
Meanwhile, the Dars, a family of farmers, challenged the PSA in the high court for six months. On 31 July 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court quashed the PSA order and directed the immediate release of the detainee.
Next week, on 5 August 2019, New Delhi clamped down on Kashmir, revoked the decades-long limited autonomy, and detained more than 7,000 persons. Dar was slapped with another PSA yet again: the dossier, a work of lazy rewriting the same grounds as the first.
Lined up in linear formation, Dar walked towards an aircraft soon to be flown out to jail in Uttar Pradesh. Everyone was crying, he said. “The boys said: ‘We will never return home’,” Dar recalled. “I only thought about my family, my mother, would I not be able to see her again?”
In Uttar Pradesh, the picture was only grimmer while back at home millions simmered under a communication blackout. Hearing his mother’s voice would have done wonders, giving him the capability to beat the heat.
His cell, which he shared with another Kashmiri detained under the PSA, had one window, carved out of the gate. It’d slide open when meals were thrown inside. That small window of time would allow sunlight; Dar would swiftly run to catch a glimpse before falling back to his side and sing himself to sleep.
After a few months, he had a mulakat (meeting). His father, holding a packet of new clothes, had grown frail, he said. “I just told him to not come back,” said Dar. “Leave me to Allah and only return when the court quashes this PSA,” he told his father.
The Kafkaesque nature of his ordeal wasn’t limited just to the detention but seeped into the courtroom too. After multiple hearings, while Dar spent six more months in jail, the high court caught irregularities in the dossier. The detaining authorities had not applied their minds, the court noted, as Dar was jailed on grounds “ditto copy of the [earlier] dossier and therefore again impugned order is liable to be quashed”.
This is a perpetual state of PSA trials in Kashmir. Thousands of youth are booked under this presumptive detention law that allows detention without formal charges or a trial. Originally introduced to curb timber smuggling in 1978, the law has been used by the state — on varied personalities from stone-throwers, politicians, activists, and anyone — to crack down on the anti-government voices.
“Almost all the [PSA] cases I have fought in the courts have been quashed in a similar manner,” said Mukhtar Makroo, the legal counsel of Dar. “The non-application of mind by the detaining authorities.”
Dar spent nearly two years in jails, changing sheets in a cell after cell, separated by geographic boundaries and united by the lawless nature of the PSA — but for what, he asked. “I have no answers. I just went to jail,” he said. “I wasn’t even a terrorist. I still have no idea why I spent two years in jail.”
Back in 2018, the police had accused him of being an “Over Ground Worker”, handling logistics for the militants. In the FIR, they claimed to have recovered an SLR rifle, which they said he had snatched from the paramilitary personnel. The police neither produced a challan nor could prove its accusations in any court of law.
Since his freedom in March last year, dented by COVID-19 lockdown, Dar has not returned to the road that leads to his school in Frisal village. The teenager has grown and the dream is gone: too scared to venture away from home, with a water bucket in his hands, he now nurtures plants at his own nursery, opened at a small rented shop in the district.
“I’m scared and so is my family. I never returned to Frisal,” said Dar. “When I see them (the government forces’ personnel), I see everything all over again. How they tortured me … I see them and I return to my home to hide.”
Though he doesn’t hold grudges. “It was my fate,” he said. “But I don’t see how they benefited from this? They just pick up boys and lock them up. This is just oppression, what else? They aim to finish our careers — and they did.”