NEW DELHI – They are the three most prominent politicians in Kashmir, members of dynasties that have led the troubled region for decades. But for the last six months, they have been prisoners, detained under murky circumstances.
Very little has been seen or heard from them since August, when India stripped Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood, shut down communications in the region, and detained dozens of mainstream politicians.
Mehbooba Mufti, 60, the leader of the People’s Democratic Party, is being held at a bungalow used to house police officials. Eighty-two-year-old Farooq Abdullah’s home has been designated a jail. His son Omar, 49, is detained at a former palace that was once a police facility notorious for torture. All three are former chief ministers of the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Their prolonged detentions are a sign of how things remain far from normal in Kashmir, despite the Indian government’s claims. India has said that such measures were necessary to prevent violent protests in response to the change in Kashmir’s status. But while other restrictions on communications have been eased and several politicians released, these three key figures in Kashmiri politics are still jailed. Elections for the local legislature remain indefinitely suspended.
For nearly three decades, India has battled a violent insurgency in the region that seeks freedom for Kashmir or merger with Pakistan. The parties led by the Abdullahs and Mufti forged a pro-India path in politics and advocated for remaining inside India under certain conditions. Omar and Farooq Abdullah met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi days before the Aug. 5 announcement as tensions grew in the region.
But their political stance did not prevent their detentions alongside those accused of sympathizing with separatists. Amit Shah, India’s home minister, said in January that authorities detained the former chief ministers because they had made statements that could incite unrest.
In one of his last tweets on Aug. 4, Omar asked the people of Kashmir to stay calm and avoid violence. Mufti had said that changing Kashmir’s status would make India an occupying force in the region.
Only immediate family members are allowed to visit the three politicians. They spend their days watching news on television and reading books, including the Koran. Home-cooked food is sent daily.
The United States has expressed its concern. A senior State Department official told reporters in January that Washington had urged India “to move swiftly to release those political leaders detained without charge.”
Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the enormity of the decision to change Kashmir’s status, required measures to minimize adverse impacts. But now, he said, that period was over and it was important for the leaders to be released “to begin a fresh chapter.”
The government has charged Farooq, also a member of the current Parliament,under the Public Safety Act, a law that critics have called “draconian.” It allows authorities to detain individuals for up to two years without trial. Omar and Mufti have been detained under a provision in the Indian penal code that allows preventive arrests to maintain peace. Two local administration officials did not respond to requests for comment on the detentions. A senior police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters with reporters, said that the detentions were “completely legal.”
“Kashmir today is a police state,” said Aaliya Mubarak, Omar’s cousin and Farooq’s niece. She said the government had acted as if her cousin and uncle were “terrorists.”
Hasnain Masoodi, a member of Parliament from Omar’s party, petitioned the court to visit him and was surprised to find the normally clean-shaven Omar sporting a rough beard in October. Indian authorities want “to leave his psyche bruised and battered,” Masoodi said.
A recent photograph of Omar with a ragged, grey beard startled many in the country. Mubarak, Omar’s cousin, said he was keeping a beard as a “mark of protest.”
Masoodi and Mubarak term India’s unilateral decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy a “betrayal,” a sentiment shared by Mufti, the third former chief minister in detention, according to her daughter, Iltija.
For nearly a week after she was detained, Iltija said, she had no information or contact with her mother until she found a crumpled note in a lunch box that had been sent for her. The note said she “loved and missed us dearly,” said Iltija, 32. “Over the next few days this was our only form of communication.”
“My world has been torn apart,” said Iltija, who also had to petition the court to see her mother. “It’s been so long now that sometimes I refer to her [Mufti] in the past tense.”