“Who can I ask for help?”: PSA detainee’s wife struggles to feed children

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For years since their marriage, Ridhwana Bano’s husband, 33-year-old Shabir Ahmad Padder has stayed in an adjacent village, Larnoo, where he worked as an imam (prayer leader) at the local masjid. Bano has lived with her two children and mother-in-law while her husband visited every weekend. 

On the afternoon of 6 July 2020, a Monday, Shabir had returned to Larnoo but Bano asked him to immediately come home to Dandipora. Their three-year-old son, Hammad Padder, was unwell. “He came home and took our son to a doctor,” she said, adding that Hammad is often ill owing to platelet deficiency. 

When the two returned from the doctor, Shabir received a phone call from an unknown number, who identified himself as a police official from the Kokernag Police Station in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, said Bano. “They [police officials] told him that if he does not report to the police station, they will come home and arrest him here,” she said, adding that the caller had stated that Shabir only needed to sign a bond assuring that he would not lead prayers owing to COVID-19.

Afraid of being arrested from his home, in front of his family and neighbours, Shabir presented himself at the police station, about 11 kilometres away from Dandipora, along with his brother-in-law, Zahid Ahmad Malik. Instead of signing the bond, however, Shabir was detained and sent to a 14 day police remand.

The police assured Bano that Shabir would be released within a week. But, “on the 15th day, the police called [Malik] and asked us to come to the police station to meet him one last time,” Bano added. “They said that we should meet him before he is taken to the Kathua Jail [in the Jammu region].” 

On 7 July 2020, Shabir was arrested under the Public Safety Act, stating that on the account of him being affiliated to the now banned Jamaat-e-Islami, “you may be involved in disruption of the peaceful atmosphere and to motivate the people to work against the interests of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir & Union of India and indulge in breach of peace and tranquillity in District Anantnag.”

Mouths to feed

It was just a month before Shabir’s arrest that Bano’s pregnancy was confirmed. Besides Hammad, the couple’s oldest child is a 6-year-old girl that they named Fatima. In their last conversation at the police lockup, Shabir had told Bano that his detention was “going to last long, be with kids and take care of our unborn.” 

But for the homemaker, keeping the promise has become a Sisyphean task — with few that Bano can look up to for help. 

Sitting in their one room home with walls painted blue, Bano said that “sometimes someone gives me a little amount of money and that’s how I manage my expenses.” She broke down as she spoke of the hardships. “I ask for money from neighbors to feed my kids, otherwise they would starve to death. All that I have is this one room [the Padder family’s residence]. I don’t have anything else.”

Shabir was paid 7000 rupees for leading prayers and an additional 2000 for teaching the Quran to the children in Larnoo, said Malik, his brother-in-law. “He would spend the money to run the household. For the medication of his son, he took a loan of two lakh rupees last year,” he said, adding “but due to the Covid, he was not able to repay any of it and is currently in debt.” 

The days pass in agony but the real terror is when the night falls. “It got scarier with each passing day” and after a point she was unable to sleep, said Bano. Seeing their misery, Bano’s sister-in-law gave them a room in her house, a few houses away from the Padders’s, to spend the nights. The Padder family now only spends the day at their own residence. “After dinner, we lock this room and go to sleep there,” she said. “I feel more safe there as there are men in that household.” 

Deprived of a father

Her spirit broken, Bano now prefers to bear the backache due to the pregnancy but doesn’t want to go to the hospital alone for a checkup. The health staff, at times, ask why her husband wasn’t accompanying her as an attendant. “What do I tell them?,” she said. She hasn’t been able to take Hamad for checkup in the last six months and arranges his medication from the money donated to her by their relatives and neighbors. “If my husband was here, even if he would beg, I would have been happy with him,” she said.

Both siblings are still too young to fathom their family’s situation. Fatima knows that the police has taken away her father but doesn’t know where he is. As soon as she returns from tuitions, Fatima finishes her homework before going out to play with children her age in the village. “But,” she said, “if Abba [as she calls her father, Shabir] comes back home, I will not go out and play only with him for the whole day and not leave his hand.”

Seeing her children long for their father was painful, said Bano, who herself had been orphaned at a young age. “I haven’t seen the love of a father,” she said as she looked at her children. “I don’t want my children to go through the same.”

Left alone with the responsibility of two children, an unborn, and an ailing mother-in-law, Bano deeply longs for Shabir. “No matter who I have here, there are some things that I can tell only to my husband,” she said. “I just want the authorities to forgive him even if he has done something wrong. I take his guarantee, he will not repeat it.”

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