Before August 5, far from the noise of the street outside, the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre here was an oasis of calm. Built by Jammu and Kashmir’s political establishment and connected to the Centaur Hotel, a high wall and a tight security ring fenced off lush manicured lawns that played venue to many a conference and concert.
Today, it’s a “subsidiary jail”, its Reception lobby doubles up as the meeting area of a prison. Centaur is where almost the entire top rung of Kashmir’s mainstream is detained. Only close relatives are allowed but not before they have applied to a Deputy Superintendent of Police.
Like the over 50 men detained, their relatives — wives, children, mothers, sisters and parents — are all former VIPs. Until recently, their faces and names were a free pass through any official door in Kashmir. Today, they are frisked, questioned, allowed entry only after depositing everything — from handbags and phones to even sunglasses.
After extensive interviews with officials and relatives of those detained, The Indian Express has pieced together details from inside — an account of how the once political elite is now detained, their security personnel now prison guards and how they feel pushed against the wall in ways more than one.
“We never even imagined such an experience. This is not a real jail but I can fully understand how difficult it is to have a loved one inside a jail,’’ said a relative who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If you even mention my gender and relationship with the detainee, that can add to our hassle. They can refuse visitation rights. Who knows they may even shift them out? At least, he is here in Kashmir and we can go see him.”
A detainee’s relative said that for the first week, the administration didn’t allow detainees to meet each other. “At the most, they met, briefly, at mealtime because it was difficult to serve meals to so many people separately. It was difficult because other than a few, no one among the detainees has had any experience of incarceration.”
A senior leader who is detained threatened a hunger strike, a source said. “That helped,’’ a relative said. “We are now allowed to spend more time inside.”
Among those in Centaur sub-jail are dozens of former legislators, ministers and leaders of almost all the mainstream parties of Kashmir. Except the detained three former Chief Ministers, almost every mainstream politician is detained here.
“It’s a little better than a real jail. Each one has been allowed a helper. The detainees look relatively more settled but there’s restlessness as the new reality sinks in,” said the relative. “When I visited, I didn’t see any senior leaders of the NC in the meeting place. There were few junior ones though. I heard Sagar Sahib (former minister and senior NC leader Ali Mohammad Sagar) is not keeping well. There were several people talking to Sajjad Lone in a corner. I saw Waheed Para (of PDP) sitting with his family members. He was dishevelled, I couldn’t recognise him first,’’ the relative said.
Another relative who has also visited the sub-jail several times in the last week said that the government is “constantly approaching” the detainees asking them to join the new arrangement. “They prepared a document, a sort of a bond, which they wanted them (detainees) to sign so that they could be released. They want an assurance they won’t carry out any political activity, not speak against the government move, and in a way, stay indoors. I was told nobody has agreed to sign it”.
“Each one of them (detainees) has two options,” said the relative. “One is to resist; it will give legitimacy and izzat (respect) among people but the risk is too high, we will be treated worse than the separatists. Who knows whether it would be safe without security? The other option is to wait it out, see what happens.”
Another relative of a detainee says the sense is that nobody wants to come out. “That’s why nobody is approaching the court against the detention, not even the former CMs (Chief Ministers). I spoke to several of them (detainees), they are extremely worried because they aren’t able to find a simple way out of this…One leader, an experienced politician, told me there are very limited options and each one is very, very difficult. They are aware that the decision they take will have far-reaching implications not only for them but will affect their families, too.”
The relative added: “There is a lot of suspicion. I think apart from few, they talk among their own groups. They are yet to cut across party lines. Everybody is waiting to see who will break away first.”
The administration has neither withdrawn the detainees’ government residences nor their security cover. Sources said one reason could be that the administration is also weighing its options, waiting for the leaders to decide. “The focus is more on second rung and a few well-known ones. I don’t think New Delhi is interested to rope in the former CMs, especially the two Abdullahs and Mufti. That will harm their narrative that this is the end of dynasty rule. I don’t think Sajjad Lone will accept this arrangement, either,’’ a source said.
“Until now, nobody seems to bite the bait. It is going to be a long drawn battle and there will be lot of covert and overt stuff in the months to come. The downgrade of the state could also be deliberate so that statehood and not special status becomes the bargaining chip if things go south.”
There are complaints of pressure to fall in line. Said one relative of a detainee: “My (relative) has decided he won’t join the new arrangement. They have been working on him for days, sending officers who come for a chat…it’s a nightmare for the entire family, especially for children. He is firm not to join but he isn’t sure what to do next. I think some would prefer to leave the country because the cost of staying here and taking either route is so high,” he said.
The arrests of mainstream political leaders began hours before the Centre abrogated J&K’s special status, bifurcated the state and downgraded it to Union Territories on August 5. But much before that, separatists were picked up, their leadership is in jails outside the state.
Many young men picked up for participating in protests or the possibility of joining protests were ferried to jails outside J&K in special aircraft. Many of their relatives, unlike the ones in the Centaur lobby, are unaware of where they are and when they can meet.