New Internationalist

‘I still don’t know whether I am free or not’

ZahidaZahida carefully lifts a pile of quilts from the top of a locked trunk. Pulling out a set of keys from her cloak pocket, she patiently opens the lock as if retrieving a treasured possession.

What she pulls out, however, are newspapers carrying her name and photos. ‘I still don’t know whether I am free or not,’ she remarks.

When I entered the dilapidated house in a village in the south of Indian administered Kashmir, it appeared the family were used to strange faces at their door. Zahida’s old mother, dragging her feet towards me, looked at me closely as if to verify who I was. ‘Whenever anyone visits us, we are sceptical and fearful,’ she says now.

Zahida, who is in her twenties, was arrested recently. ‘Police arrived. I was surprised. They asked me to come to police station.’ she says.

Fearful of the police diktat, she went to the station the next morning. ‘About 50 police personnel surrounded me. They asked me to sign a blank piece of paper. I felt unsafe. I signed under pressure.’

Police didn’t allow her to go home and she was detained. ‘It was only the next day when newspapers reported it that I came to know about the charges against me.’

Hands in the pocket of her cloak, she extends her right leg, pulls up her trouser-leg and points at the bullet scar on her thigh. The shrinking skin, it seems, is clutching at a memory, the scar a souvenir. ‘The pain is now an extension of my body. I have been on medication since it happened. I am crippled. Doctors say it will worsen with age,’ she says.

In 2010, during an anti-India protest by civilians, Zahida was fired at by government forces. She was watching the funeral of a youth who had jumped into the river after being chased by the forces. ‘His body was recovered after a few days. We didn’t know whether to mourn or to be happy. I too was there, along with thousands.’

Forces opened fire on the mourners, killing two people and injuring 11. Having been shot, Zahida lay injured on the ground, but she says, ‘troopers didn’t allow anyone to pick me up at first, and those who tried were assaulted. But people resisted, found a wheel cart and shifted me to hospital. I had severe blood loss.’

She was operated on and referred to a city hospital. ‘I was given a medical certificate, which said I had hurt myself falling from a concrete slab, as the situation was tense. But even so our ambulance wasn’t allowed through,’ she says.

That year, her family tried unsuccessfully to register a case against the government forces. Instead, about two years later, police booked her for rioting with deadly weapons, attempt to murder and assault. The two dead people were also charged.

‘The charges are frivolous. The state targets us deliberately to create fear psychosis,’ Zahida remarks. ‘And why now, after two years?’

As with the cases of hundreds of young people, Zahida’s detention was aided by the open FIR system, which the state has ‘misused’.

Zaffar Shah, a lawyer at the Supreme Court, says: ‘Under open FIR anyone can be arrested and charged with offences which happened years before. There are no speedy trials in such cases and it takes time to prove innocence.’

Police released Zahida on bail because of the public outcry following her arrest, but not before she had spent two days in jail.

‘My condition was worsening,’ Zahida explains, ‘so my sister accompanied me to jail. In harsh winter, police denied me a blanket and even denied me necessary medication.’

Kashmir’s police chief, SM Sahai, issued a statement saying that the police ‘will not proceed further’ against her.

While the Indian press hailed this as a ‘major relief’, the family is still uncertain. ‘I don’t know whether I am out on bail, or whether my case has been withdrawn. Nothing was communicated,’ Zahida explains.

Lawyer Shafqat Hussain says that ‘not proceeding further’ means that the ‘case [still] exists and any action can be taken at any time’.

Zahida’s family says she has been asked to appear before the court. They are still doubtful about the status of the case.

Such deceit is not new. In August 2011, an ‘amnesty’ for hundreds of young people charged under the Public Safety Act (PSA), turned out to be a hoax. ‘They may have been released,’ says Shafqat Hussain, ‘but their PSA, a lawless law, has not been quashed.’ Zahida’s two brothers have also been arrested in the past; one of them was charged under the PSA and later granted ‘amnesty’.

Alongside the legal hassle and loose justice, police repression continues. ‘A cop asked me for my medical papers – which stated that I had had a bullet injury. I never got my papers back,’ Zahida reveals.

Photo: copyright Izhar Ali

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