Rafeeqa Begum spent her life looking at the door, awaiting a return. When she died on a silent April night, she died alone. She had her sons Sarwar, 34, and Arsalan, 15, by her side; but the dreams of a final reunion were left unfulfilled.
On 24 April’s morning, standing desolated in a Srinagar graveyard, Sarwar Yaqoob was looking at his younger brother when he lowered Begum’s frail body in the grave. Arsalan neither moved nor spoke. When Sarwar picked a handful of soil, the 15-year-old brother looked up to him and asked: “Won’t he even come today? Please tell me he is coming.”
Ayaz Akbar, their father, was jailed by the government on 24 July 2017 while the National Investigative Agency still looked into his role in “militancy funding”. Six months ago, when Begum was diagnosed with metastatic cancer’s fourth stage, the doctors told Sarwar to take her home as the end neared. She knew it too. Later that night, Sarwar was sitting at her bedside when she said: “Make sure your father is here when I die. I want him to read my janaza.”
Sarwar scrambled to secure an interim bail from the court, this time citing his mother’s health and the rising COVID-19 crisis in the country; but the court denied bail. “She only wanted to see him for once before her death,” Sarwar said, in a broken voice. “I failed my mother.”
Akbar is among the hundreds of prisoners languishing miles away from Kashmir in jails across India, undergoing trial in the infamously sluggish judiciary. The family of Akbar isn’t new to his absence; Sarwar spent his childhood looking at his father, the spokesman of Hurriyat, in and out of jails frequently since 2002.
Sarwar, the eldest son, has always worried about his family’s well-being.
But now, he is scared the most for his father, imprisoned in South Asia’s largest prison complex, Tihar Jail, as COVID-19 has ravaged India, collapsing its healthcare infrastructure with nearly 4 lakh cases — officially — every day.
Congesting prisons, suffocating lives
The jail authorities have written to the Delhi government, urging to release prisoners under “emergency parole”, a practise taken up by courts since the pandemic began, to decongest the prison. Three major jails of Delhi, including the Tihar complex, have at least 190 inmates and 304 prison staff infected COVID-19. In the last week alone, at least four prisoners have died of the infection at the Tihar Jail.
India has come down crumbling under the unprecedented second wave of COVID-19. Since social media became a public display of roadside cremations and exhausting graveyards, Sarwar seldom logs in. “I’m very, very afraid for my father,” he said. “Even influential people are dying in India, I worry if my father will even get a patch of land [to be buried in] if he dies.”
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association urged the government to shift Kashmiri prisoners back to the Kashmir Valley. “In Tihar Jail, Kashmiri prisoner Shahidul Islam is Covid infected. Brain tumor patient Bashir Ahmad Bhat is very sick in prison,” a statement from the Bar Association read, adding that the health condition of other prisoners, including Ayaz Akbar, is deteriorating at pace.
However, a local news agency quoted the prison official saying that currently there are no inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. In the thirteen prisons of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), there are 4,550 prisoners lodged currently and none are infected, the agency reported.
Till December 2020, eight out of thirteen prisons had more inmates than the capacity, as per prison officials said in a Right to Information application’s reply. It was after the courts had released nearly 2,230 prisoners on parole to decongest the jails.
J-K’s biggest facility — Central Jail, in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal — is operating at 89 percent capacity 884 inmates against the intake capacity of 902. One among them is Asif Raina, a 33-year-old farmer from Kulgam.
Raina was earlier arrested by the police in February 2019 for allegedly providing logistic support to two other Over Ground Workers. After six months, he was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act on 22 July 2019. His family denied the charges and claimed his innocence.
Raina is the only brother among five siblings. After his father’s death in 2016, Raina had been the only breadwinner for the family, said his 26-year-old sister, Parveen Akhtar.
“Earlier, a male relative would come over and stay the night at our home,” she said. “But since this disease (Covid-19) everyone is scared to come.” This has forced Raina’s mother to sleep in a room alone at night.
Simultaneously, she fears for his health. “We speak once in two months and that too for a very short period of time,” said Akhtar. “He only tells me one thing: ‘Get me out of here soon, please’.”
Raina was detained a month after his marriage. Since then, his wife has been like a wanderer, Akhtar said, awaiting his return. Running extremely low on money, the family has not been able to see Raina since his lodgement in Jammu.
Mukhtar Makroo, Raina’s legal counsel, told The Kashmir Walla that in the past two months, “all of my clients are really worried because of Covid-19 and they want their [relatives] to return home.”
However, the back-to-back lockdowns since August 2019 have delayed many trials as the courtroom stayed out of bounds. “We were barely back on track when the courts shut again due to rising Covid cases,” said Makroo.
In Jammu and Kashmir’s prisons, less than two percent of all individuals arrested in militancy-related cases have been convicted. “The hope for their return is there in the families,” added Makroo, “but mine is diminishing.”
While Kashmiris prisoners’ families have alleged the violation of their rights to a free trial, the situation might be worse for prisoners with a political background. “I don’t think any court can help me,” said Sarwar on his father’s imprisonment. “It is a political detention and his release will come after political directions.”
Sarwar was coming back from the graveyard, after burying his mother, when his father called from the jail — allowed once a week. When Akbar asked about Begum, Sarwar couldn’t dodge but break down. “I told him that she has been cured for once and for all,” Sarwar recalled. “I told him she died waiting for you.”
From the jail, where Akbar is in solitary confinement, he wrote a letter to his son — a portrait of his memories of Begum and her life. But since Begum’s death, Sarwar is troubled by the question: “I might not be able to see my father even in his final times. At least I got to bury my mother near our home; if my father dies of Covid-19, he will never return home.”