The Centaur hotel was transformed into a gilded prison for once-powerful politicians loyal to India
It was a prison unlike any other. The picturesque venue, on the lake front in the city of Srinagar in Kashmir, just minutes from a golf course, usually functions as a palatial hotel, but for three months last year it became a gilded jailhouse for Salman Sagar and dozens of once-powerful Kashmiri ministers and legislators.
“It was a jail,” said Sagar. “The notion was given that it was five star but it was not …They put immense psychological pressure on us. They were as strict as possible.”
Sagar, an influential politician in Kashmir’s National Congress party and the former mayor of Srinagar, was among nearly 50 senior politicians who were arrested in August and held in the Centaur hotel, and later a hostel, for six months without being charged with any crime. The mass arrests followed the Indian government’s swift and brutal decision on 5 August last year to revoke Article 370, the law that had given this disputed Himalayan region a special semi-autonomous status for almost seven decades.
The Indian government argued that the mass detention of politicians was to maintain order in a region where security forces have been fighting a long-running insurgency against militants supported by Pakistan.
Detentions without trial are routine in Kashmir and have been vigorously invoked against anti-India politicians and militant sympathisers, but it was the first time the law was used against politicians who had sided with New Delhi and subsequently endured decades of insurgents’ threats and fatal attacks.
For Sagar and others loyal to India during Kashmir’s long-running conflict, the arrests and detention without cause were an exercise in humiliation. Kept under the watch of police and central paramilitary officers, some stayed in single rooms while others were forced to share and their freedoms were limited. Their main source of entertainment was pacing the hotel corridors together.
Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, during a visit to the Martyrs’ Graves in Srinagar in 2014.
Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, during a visit to the Martyrs’ Graves in Srinagar in 2014. Photograph: Danish Ismail/Reuters
“You expect there to be serenity,” Sagar said of the hotel-turned-prison that stands at the foot of Zabarwan mountain, and boasts a gym, health centre and shopping arcade they were never allowed to access. “But there was no calm there. There was only discomfort.”
He added: “We were never allowed to touch the hotel grass … we were only allowed to go down [to the common areas] for lunch and dinner. We requested to be allowed to go out to the lawns but they never allowed it.”
Sagar was among dozens of politicians finally released in February, due to the Indian government being legally allowed to detain them for only six months. However, the four most senior political leaders, two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti , and two regional party leaders, Ali Mohmmad Sagar and Sartaj Madni, have been kept in detention and recharged under India’s Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without trial for up to two years. Ali Mohmmad Sagar is Salman Sagar’s father, and they were kept in detention in the Centaur hotel together.
Sagar, who has lost 18kgs during the last six months, said he spent the first few days of detention “mourning the demise of 370”. “Then everybody was asking: ‘when will we be released?’ There was so much fear on our minds,” he said.
While Sagar was in detention, his grandfather fell ill one evening and quickly died. “I begged the police to let me see him but they did not allow and my grandfather died that evening,” said Sagar. “I felt helpless.”
He also described breaking down in tears when, on his birthday, his family came to visit and was kept waiting five hours. His four-year-old son had grown so hungry, without access to food, they had been forced to feed him Sagar’s birthday cake. “I cried so much when I heard that,” he said.
Image of Centaur Lake View hotel from the hotel’s website
Image of Centaur Lake View hotel from the hotel’s website Photograph: centaurhotelsrinagar
The detention of pro-India politicians was an addition to about 5,000 anti-India politicians, activists, protesters and businessmen who were jailed without trial in the months before article 370 was revoked. Arrests have also continued in the subsequent months.
The continued imprisonment of party leaders and the continued ban on public meetings in Kashmir has ensured that politicians on all sides remain in a state of limbo, and democratic representation in Kashmir has disintegrated, which experts fear will have disastrous long-term impacts in the region.
“Political activity in Kashmir has been reduced to zero,” said Khalid Shah, an associate fellow specialising in Kashmir at the Observer Research Foundation. “There was a robust mainstream, pro-India politics in Kashmir which is completely over, it is finished, but the government has [been] doing nothing since to ensure people are represented or political activity is resumed from within.”
‘A storm has hit my life’: the Kashmiri families torn apart by mass arrests
Shah added: “That is very scary because in a place like Kashmir, where a lot of people are already radicalised, you want politics and democracy to be a vehicle to bring people into the mainstream. So there is a fear that radicalisation will increase.”
The detentions have caused so much fear and uncertainty in Kashmir’s political circles that few are willing to speak about their imprisonment and even fewer are willing to be named. Like many others, on his release Sagar signed a mandatory bond that he would not instigate people in dissent or speak against the abrogation of the Article 370.
An influential member of the People’s Democratic Party – a Kashmir political party which was seen as cooperative with the Indian government – who was recently released from his six-month long detention and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “Everybody feels betrayed, cheated.”
“We have always taken the risk of going with secular India … our loyalty to the idea of India was questioned because the definition of that idea has been changed,” he said.
He was also among those held at the Centaur for three months, before being moved to a hostel. To pass the time, he said the prisoners read and discussed religious and political books, played cards and prayed but had never been allowed outside. He, like many held in the Centaur, also came to believe the lakeside hotel was haunted and many could not sleep out of fear of the spirit.
“I also felt [a djinn] in my room once. I could see some dark shadow on the wall, of a man, a huge man, he said. Then I switched on the light and kept it on whole night. There was a lot of talk that there was a djinn, some said the djinn did not let them sleep.”
He said the lengthy detention was “humiliating to the core” and provided him a “moment of introspection”. “There was a sense of defeat,” he said. “I saw one [political leader] crying several times because it was very humiliating. Food was very bad, chocolate or a toffee would have been a treat.”
He said at times it felt like being dead. “No one remembers you,” he added. “I felt like a bird in a cage.”
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