When the area SHO knocked on the door of Raja Muzaffar Bhat at 3 am on August 5 and told him that he had orders to detain him for “a couple of days” at the local Chadoora police station in Budgam, the RTI activist told his wife and parents to tell his two children that he had gone on a trek and would be back soon.
It would be nearly three months before he returned from the “trek”. Bhat was released on October 28 from detention at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar.
Speaking to The Indian Express earlier this week, Bhat provided the first detailed account of the convention centre-turned sub-jail, where politicians, arrested following the government’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu & Kashmir under Article 370, were lodged.
The SHO who detained him was carrying a satellite phone, said Bhat. He showed no written orders. “He kept saying uper se orders hain”.
Bhat was shifted to SKICC after four days at the Chadoora police station. “It was packed with lots of young boys who had also been picked up on August 4, and the number of CRPF personnel in that police station was amazing. They kept me and the Budgam district Congress president Mohamed Maqbool in a separate room,” Bhat recalled.
As he and Maqbool were being shifted to SKICC, Bhat said, the police convoy was attacked by stone-pelters on the main road to Srinagar. “There was so much stone-pelting, we were inside a bulletproof vehicle, but it was still terrifying,” he said.
When he reached SKICC, there were already over two dozen political detainees there. “Hakeem Yaseen (ex- PDP minister), Waheed Para (youth president and spokesperson, PDP), Sajad Lone (president, People’s Conference), Imran Raza Ansari (former minister), Ali Mohamed Sagar, Mubarak Gul (ex-MLAs, National Conference)… a couple of days later, Naeem Akhtar (former minister) came, then they brought Shah Fesal (former IAS officer and leader of J&K People’s Movement),” Bhat said.
His first sight was of them having dinner together in a hall. “They told me that was the first time they had been allowed to eat together. Before that, they were being served meals in their rooms,” Bhat said.
The detainees were lodged in rooms on the first and second floors. “We were barred from going to the ground floor. There was a bridge connecting the two buildings. Many of us would walk on this bridge, or just stand there to soak in some sun,” he said.
The detainees were put up two to a room. Bhat was with PDP’s Basheer Ahmed Peer at first, and later with former PDP minister Mukhtar Ahmed Bandh. By the time Bhat was released, the meals had become entirely vegetarian. “There was non-vegetarian food at first, and even the vegetarian was good food, but I think they may have been worried about cost,” Bhat said.
The 42-year-old activist had studied to be a dentist, but gave up his practice due to his involvement in J&K’s RTI movement, in which Shah Fesal was also active before he joined the IAS. J&K got its first RTI Act in 2004, a year before the central legislation. Bhat, Fesal and others campaigned to have the J&K legislation amended to reflect the provisions in the central Act. In the event, the 2009 J&K RTI Act was even stronger than its central counterpart, as it included provisions for time bound disposal of appeals.
One of Bhat’s earliest RTI successes was to get judges of the J&K high court to declare their assets. Through RTI, he also managed to get a 45-year-old widow a tin shed under the then Indira Awas Yojana in Hanjura village, got 20 water pipelines extended to another village in Budgam. Most recently, he had been in a long battle with J&K Bank to get it to declare its NPAs, huge loans to business houses and management of other assets after the bank was brought under the ambit of the RTI Act.
Bhat, who briefly flirted with a political career with an unsuccessful attempt at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as an AAP candidate, said he was the “odd one out” at SKICC.
“I was the only non-politician in that group. As an RTI activist, I have raised some political and social issues. As a columnist, I wrote a couple of pieces against scrapping Articles 370 and 35-A. But much as I could not understand why I had been detained, I felt more sorry for my fellow prisoners. They were the ones who had raised the Indian flag in Kashmir, risked their lives by being on Delhi’s side, and yet this was their situation,” Bhat said.
A veteran politician narrated to him how he would be in the front row at every Independence Day and Republic Day function in his district. “He was such a nationalist, he told me he would never miss a single salaami parade on August 15 or January 26. He told me he could miss a namaaz but not these functions. His father and brother were killed by militants. A grenade was thrown into his home. For him, his detention was totally beyond comprehension,” Bhat said, recounting his conversations with fellow detainees.
Bhat said it was good to see all the politicians sitting together and discussing the situation. “The mood inside was one of anger, being let down by Delhi, of being back-stabbed. They could not believe what had happened, and how the government could have done what they did without discussing with them, without Farooq Abdullah, without veteran politicians like that,” he said.
The day after he was picked up from his place, said Bhat, he was taken to the magistrate for extension of his remand, “The magistrate was very confused as to why I had been detained, but clearly there were orders from the top, and he extended my remand by two days. I have no idea how my remand was extended after that. Magistrates from some districts would comes to SKICC to extend the remand of one or two detainees, but not from my area. In most of our cases, no one was taken to the magistrate, nor did any magistrate from our concerned areas come to SKICC,” he said.
The detainees had no access to national newspapers. “When the local newspapers resumed publication, we used to get them irregularly, but in any case there was no news, no views in them about what was happening. We had TV, so we could watch the news,” he said. The employees at SKICC, which is run by Air India’s Centaur Hotel, would relay whatever information they had. “From their body language, we could see they were helpless too,” Bhat said.
Shah Fesal and Sajad Lone had got books through their families. “We shared the books. Apart from watching TV, we played cards sometimes,” Bhat said.
After a month, families were allowed to visit on one day of the week. “We heard that Sajjad Lone’s sister had protested outside SKICC, and after that, one family member was allowed to visit. First it was on a Sunday, then that was shifted to Saturday, and later Wednesday,” Bhat said.
At first, some detainees thought they would approach the court to quash their detention, or apply for bail, or put in a habeas corpus petition. “But after what happened to Farooq Abdullah, everyone got scared that if they applied for bail, the government would slap the Public Safety Act on them. That means no bail for six months,” Bhat said.
The manner of former Finance Minister P Chidamabaram’s arrest also sent a chill through the group. “He was a hardliner on Kashmir in the Congress, and we saw on TV how they treated him, and he hasn’t been given bail yet, so hamari toh kya aukat hai?” Bhat said.
A couple of days before his own release, former PDP minister Imran Ansari, former PDP MLA representing Batmaloo in Srinagar, Noor Mohammed Sheikh, NC member and chairman of the Anantnag Municipal Council Hilal Ahmed Shah, and NC leader Mohammed Saeed Aakhoon were released. Bhat said he did not have to sign off on any conditions before his release, except for presenting himself before a magistrate on November 10.
Last week, the remaining detainees were shifted from SKICC to the MLAs’ hostel in Srinagar.
Bhat said in all these years, he and his wife Fozia had tried not to discuss politics, or the violence and protests in Kashmir, in front of their eight-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “We wanted to give them a secure environment. But my detention has changed things. Now, Kashmir’s entire history book has been opened before them by the State. A new generation has learnt about things they never knew,” he said.