When downed shutters and empty streets are what defines public space, the sight of a crowd gathered at a government office is odd — and telling. A group of around 30, all men, almost all of them elderly, have gathered at the sprawling Shopian district headquarters on Thursday.
Among them, they say, they represent almost every household in the nearby village of Sindhu Shirmal. They arrived here an hour or so ago when the office opened and are waiting to meet Deputy Commissioner Yasin Choudhary. Shopian tops the list of districts in the Valley with the largest number of persons — more than 40 — detained under the Public Safety Act, and sent to jails in other states.
A day earlier, five youngsters and three elderly were picked up from Sindhu Shirmal.
The villagers, who refuse to be named, plead with the DC to help them. Choudhary is wrapping up another urgent business: with apple harvest season on the horizon, he is coordinating with growers on procurement of the fruit by NAFED at minimum support price, that has been just announced by the government.
Located about 51 km from Srinagar, Shopian in South Kashmir is the apple bowl of the Valley. Its mandi is used by apple growers from neighbouring Pulwama district as well, so that they get the Shopian tag.
Choudhary repeats his defence of “nazuk halaat (sensitive situation)” in the Valley since August 5 — ahead of the government decision to abrogate Article 370 — and calls the administration’s actions “preventive”, but assures that he will speak with police and do his best to get the five men released. He wants the villagers to keep faith in the administration.
But they are agitated. “Police come every day and trouble us,” a 61-year-old says. “If someone pelts stones on vehicles of security forces, boys from our village are picked up.”
The three elderly picked up on Wednesday were Mohammed Yakub Bhat, Basheer Ahmed Shah and Mohammed Nissar Mir. “One of them is a Haji (just returned from Haj). They suspect he is from the Jamaat but he is not,” says a 70-year-old. A villager says police detained them as they were looking for their children who are in hiding.
Struggling to contain his emotions, a septuagenarian bursts out, “We can bring the entire village with all youngsters to the DC’s office. Police can take all the time they need to question each one. But picking a few men randomly every other day, and releasing them after a few days or a week. This is intolerable.”
Plus, a villager says, they don’t know whom to turn to for help. “Most politicians, local leaders, anyone with influence among us, is in jail.”
Choudhary takes down the details of the five youths and asks villagers to return home and be patient. “Generally, no charges are pressed against anyone. No FIR will be registered,” he assures.
Later, he tells The Sunday Express that the detentions aren’t indiscriminate. “In most cases, the person picked up has a history of stone-pelting or some other issue… Generally, police do not pick up elders. In case of the three elderly, their children have an adverse history and they refused to cooperate with police.”
The Deputy Commissioner adds that he had intervened earlier to facilitate the release of several young men held for alleged stone-pelting.
In an interview to The Indian Express last week, Director General of Police Dilbag Singh had said the detentions were part of a “strategy” — to “bond” with the community. “In some 300 cases, we have used community bonds to pick up and then release stone-pelters in Srinagar alone. And if 10 people come to seek release of 10 people per case, we have successfully engaged 3,000 people. They are released the same day,” he said.
In Pulwama district, for instance, sources said, about 250 young men with some history of stone-pelting or minor criminal offences were picked up over the last one month or so. “We generally take an assurance from the village community — at times an informal bond — and let out many. Of these 250, almost 150 were released immediately based on assurances by the village. Such community policing has worked well for us. The village elders ensure that their boys do not indulge in stone-pelting or any other such activities. This sends a message to the entire neighbourhood,” said a senior police officer in the district.
While the J&K Police has not officially released any data on such detentions and subsequent release, many high-ranking police officials in Srinagar confirm that the numbers could be as high as 4,500. Under the Public Safety Act, under 300 have been arrested and sent out of the Valley to prisons in Jammu, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana.
At Shopian, hours after the villagers meet the DC, the three elders are released.