PSA: Destroying lives silently

Minors arrested under Public Safety act brought to the police headquarters, Srinagar, before releasing them. The police officers, SSP, S A Bukhari and IGP, S M Sahia along with other officers presented them before the media and handed them over to their parents in August 2011.

Termed as a ‘Lawless Law’ by the Amnesty International, the Public Safety Act (PSA) has been accused to have been used by the Jammu and Kashmir government for holding thousands of people in jail without charge or trial.

As per an Amnesty International report “Estimates of the number detained under the PSA over the past two decades range from 8,000-20,000, with around 322 reportedly held from January to September 2010 alone”

PSA allowed for detention of up to two years without trial for any individual. This act has been used without prejudice in Kashmir to ‘reportedly’ prevent individuals from “acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state or the maintenance of public order.” More often than not detention orders for the detainees under PSA were renewed at the end of the two year period. Like a recirculation policy, a new PSA arrest warrant could be issued immediately after the expiry of the earlier detention period, restarting the period of detention without trial for that individual. This repetitive process seems unending for many detainees giving them minimal chance to contest the allegations against them. This policy of repeated detention of PSA detainees is like the ‘rotating door’ where the process of slapping the act on them could continue in circles.

PSA was originally put in place by late Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in 1978 and the very first victim of this act became Ghulam Nabi (then president of Kashmir Motor Drivers Association) who had ‘dared’ to contest against Shiekh in the 1977 elections on a Janata Party ticket. Whatever the act may have aimed on paper, it was seen to be used for political vendetta.

One major amendment on the PSA was done by Governor Jagmohan in 1990, which ensured that the detainees booked under this Act could be lodged in any jail in the country. Earlier PSA detainees could be located within the state, now this amendment ensured that their address and whereabouts were lost to the huge distances of India; distances which the poor of Kashmir would not be able to cover easily.

The application of PSA has not always been limited to the Kashmir conflict but to political preferences. Earlier claimed to have been aimed against timber smugglers, it was used against one and sundry in Kashmir. In the aftermath of the insurgency its application drew a wider net; from political dissent, opposition and in silencing common voices. The act (PSA) has been misused to such level that sometime back PSA was reported to have been used against class 10 kids, detained first on ever teasing and then charges modified to ‘stone pelting’. Parents claimed that their kids had been held because they could not cough enough money towards policemen for securing their release.

The rampant abuse of PSA also takes place because it offers impunity to officers who wield it wrongly. Section 22 of the PSA offers protection to erring officers who abuse PSA, from prosecution. And since such abuse is rampant, chances for PSA victims to have any recourse to justice are minimal.

For many years now militancy in Kashmir has declined to negligible levels and the incidents of insurgency related violence have come down drastically; the application on PSA to curb voices has not seen any change. Not only is the act applied in wholesale to curb voices but also to assert power of authority. This act has often been criticized by legal experts for having been blatantly misused by governments to silence political opposition and exert an iron fist on commoners. Even mainstream opposition parties in Kashmir have been voicing concern about the misuse of this draconian act and asking for its repeal along with Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

For quite some time now the political party in power has been creating an half hearted rhetoric about AFSPA revocation ; rhetoric because except for the odd occasional statements about revocation there is nothing they seem to doing about it. But even if we had to take their statements about AFSPA serious (the stress is on ‘Even If’), then why are they silent on an equally draconian law PSA, which was not only enacted by their party when in power but also has been as brazenly misused as AFSPA. In fact PSA and AFSPA seem to complement each other; one destroys lives while the detainees are supposedly still living, the other destroys lives by killing them bodily. And in both acts enough cover and immunity is available to make it a jungle law applied at will. AFSPA kills and dumps the victim under a mound of earth; PSA detains and dumps the victim to obscurity, trampling his life to forced erasure. What difference? If the political dispensation in power was genuinely serious about easing the pain of commoners it would have not only created genuine effort for AFSPA revocation but would have done away with PSA immediately, revocation of which was within its own domain only.

Facing huge criticism against the act, in April this year Jammu and Kashmir government made some amendments to Public Safety Act (PSA). Under these amendments the minimum period of detention under PSA has been reduced to six months from two years and no persons below the age of 18 years can be detained under this law.

But such amendments have fallen flat in face of criticism that the law is often recycled on people. While the duration of detention period has been decreased, the act can be (and has been) re-slapped on detainees making this a cycle of detention for them. Even the clause of ‘not below 18 years of age’ has been accused to have been misused by authorities. Amnesty International in its report pointed out towards detention of kids below the age of 18 under this law and those being lodged in adult jails (see page 23). Kids detained under PSA were being tried and lodged with adults inside J&K jails, juveniles treated as grownups. PSA was being used arbitrarily in Kashmir against all age groups, a human rights group pointed that ‘large, yet unknown, number of children have been detained under the PSA’.

Those who cry foul about AFSPA for political considerations hide the damage PSA had done to Kashmir; the silent killer that PSA has been used as. If the political dispensation has been blaming New Delhi for the pain and grief that AFSPA caused in Kashmir, whom do they blame for the unending, silent hurt and torment that PSA has caused here?

But then guess AFSPA is convenient political rhetoric for them, PSA is not.

Photo: Shahid Tantray

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