Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is not the only law—as the chief minister Omar Abdullah would make us believe—that provides for ‘lawlessness’ in Jammu and Kashmir. People of the state have suffered equally (nay more) under yet another draconian law known as Public Safety Act (PSA). The JK chief minister has contrasting positions on the two controversial laws. His abhorrence for AFSPA is a public matter. He, in fact, indulged in verbal brawl with army over the law in 2010/11, and campaigned, though unsuccessfully, through press and political media for the withdrawal of this law that gives powers to armed forces to operate in civilians areas.
On the contrary, his love for PSA, however, is more resounding. On October 1, he squarely rejected the demand for repealing PSA. He evidently had no reason to offer in favour of continuation of this law, so had little choice but to sound blunt. “There was no proposal or need for revocation of Public Safety Act”, he told the state Assembly, which was in session. Amnesty International, in one of its reports in 2011, called PSA a ‘lawless’ law. Omar Abdullah’s power-partner Congress’s state President Saifuddin Soz, in recent past, called PSA more dangerous than AFSPA.
PSA provides for arresting and jailing a person without trial for two years on mere suspicion that he/she may disrupt law and order in the state or may act in a manner prejudicial to the security of the state. The Act bypasses all the institutional procedures and human rights safeguards of ordinary criminal justice system in order to secure a long detention term. More than 27,000 people have been arrested and jailed by different governments on different occasions in Jammu and Kashmir under this law since its promulgation in 1978. According to official records (as revealed in the state Assembly last week) 9329 persons have been detained in 13 jails of the state since 2002.
By its own admission as many as 1127 persons have been arrested and jailed without trial under PSA in Omar Abdullah-led government in the past five years. Even minors have been not been spared. Faizan Ahmad (14) of Anantnag, Asif shakhsaz (15), Sajjad Mir (16), Naeem Ahmad Dar (14)—all from Srinagar—and Adil Khan (14) of Sopore to name a few, include among scores of minor boys who have been jailed under PSA since Omar Abdullah took charge of the state in 2009. Most of them were booked for stone pelting.
Militancy has drastically been down in Kashmir over the past some years. But this period has witnessed a resurge in street protests. Young boys could be seen in the frontline of these protests. It is anybody’s knowledge that the government largely controlled these protests by massive use of PSA against protestors. The PSA gives the State wild powers to crackdown on dissenting voices.
The order of the detention under the PSA cannot be held to be inoperative or invalid on the grounds of technical issues, vagueness, nonexistence of one or more grounds or that the grounds are irrelevant, or the officer had no territorial jurisdiction to make such detention (section-10A of the Act). The government has powers to restrict or stop circulation of any documents in and out of the state and may seize those documents to prevent entry. The Act also empowers the government to declare any area as prohibited or protected and can restrict entry thereto. Interestingly, PSA has impunity provision as well. Section 22 of the Act states that no suit, prosecution or any legal proceedings shall lie against any person for anything done or intended to be done in good faith in pursuance of this Act. This is almost similar to the impunity armed forces enjoy for their actions under AFSPA.
Omar Abdullah’s love for the PSA perhaps stems from the family lineage the law has with. The law was promulgated by the chief minister’s grandfather Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1978. The hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani and late Abdul Gani Lone were members of the State Assembly then. “We (Geelani and Lone) opposed the Bill tooth and nail. We painted the copies of the Bill black and protested in the House. But Shaikh Abdullah got it passed on the strength of the brute majority his party National Conference enjoyed in the Assembly”, Geelani, some time back told this writer. The public explanation Shaikh gave over the Act was that it was meant to protect the forest cover of the state and the Act would be used against timber smugglers.
But the first person arrested under PSA was a bus private driver Gulam Nabi of Batamaloo Srinagar. He was President of Kashmir Motor Drivers Association (KMDA)—a private bus drivers’ union. KMDA had fervently supported the opposition Janata Party (JP) against Shiakh Abdullah’s National Conference in the assembly elections a year earlier (1977). Since then there had been no full-stops over its use. There could hardly be a few dozen forest-looters who might have been arrested under this law but those arrested for voicing against the government runs in thousands. In pre-militancy era, when political dissent was restricted to contesting elections and opposition to government policies, the frequency with which the Law was used is daunting. Jamaat-e-Islami—the principal opposition party then—was the main target of the Law. Its leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Ashraf Sahrayee, Qari Saifuddin, Hakeem Ghulam Nabi and others would be picked up on mere press statements, and jailed for years. Syed Ali Geelani, as stated by his close aides, has been jailed under PSA for 103 months since the Law came into force in late 70s. Ashraf Sahrayee, another Jamaat leader has spent 112 months in jail on different occasions. Shabir Shah is reported to have spent over 130 months in jail under PSA.
So is the case with other hundreds of political activists and leaders. Masarat Alam Bhat has been jailed under PSA more than half a dozen times since 2010. His release was ordered by the courts several times but before he is released the police, at the behest of the government, slaps him other case and detains him under PSA. Even those arrested by central forces, using AFSPA, finally trap in PSA. There are thousands of people—young and old—who have spent years in jails under this Act. It should not surprise anyone to say that the National Conference leadership enjoys using this Act against its rivals. And much to their joy, no other chief minister has used it so arbitrarily as the Abdullahs — Shaikh Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah.
In 1987, Farooq Abdullah used PSA arbitrarily against his political rivals who had gathered under Muslim United Front (MUF) to oppose him in the Assembly elections. The elections were not only largely rigged by the state administration to the advantage of the National Conference but the government also made a massive use of its administrative power to detaining opposition MUF candidates, leaders and activists under PSA. Keen political analysts believe that this proved watershed in changing the perceptions in Kashmir, mostly among its younger generation, who later took to armed movement. Mohammad Yousuf Shah, a MUF candidate from Amirakadal constituency in Srinagar, turned into Salahuddin to head the largest militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen. Salahuddin is 67 years old now but he stills heads not only Hizbul Mujahideen but is also Ameer (chief) of Muttahida Jihad Council—a united platform of over a dozen militant groups based in Muzaffarabad (PoK). He is known as the symbol of Kashmir militancy.
Omar Abdullah has surpassed all the family records. His indiscriminate use of PSA against people—young and old, minors and otherwise—has made the world bodies like Amnesty International to cry. It was due to protests by the Amnesty that some minor boys were released by Omar government. Senior Supreme Court lawyer and BJP leader Ram Jethmalani once blasted Omar Abdullah’s government as “Nazi outfit” for making excessive use of PSA. Interlocutors’ group appointed by central government during 2010 summer agitation in Kashmir too had voiced their concern over misuse of the provisions of Public Safety Act. In their report, while the Interlocutors argued that that PSA was being used ‘less frequently’, they recommended that the Act’s sweeping powers make it open to misuse, and should be amended accordingly. The Interlocutors also recommended that the period for approval of detentions be reduced from 12 days to four days, and that juveniles should not be held under PSA.
But Omar Abdullah is little to listen to anyone on the issue. PSA is his family legacy. No one would do away with one’s legacy. But it is most likely that he might resort to his song on AFSPA withdrawal. Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir are scheduled next year. Parliamentary elections would also be held that year. Omar Abdullah needs a song for elections. AFSPA is readily available one.
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Image Source: Public Safety Act