Perceptions, contradictions and dilemmas on the question need to be reconciled

Discordance on political prisoners

A month after chief minister Mufti Mohd Sayeed made lofty promises of releasing political prisoners from jails in Jammu and Kashmir and outside the state, his government not only had to re-arrest Masarat Alam reportedly after succumbing to the pressures of the Centre but it has now sought to turn the issue on its head by proclaiming that there are not more than a dozen Kashmiri political prisoners in jails within the state and across rest of the country. This is in striking contrast to the claims of separatist leaders and also various human rights organizations. While Hurriyat-G leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani recently claimed there were 500 political prisoners, several human rights organizations have the put the same at much higher number from time to time. While the present remarks of the chief minister and his government’s position on the issue may seem closer to the position adopted by the previous National Conference government, the rub lies in the different perceptions and interpretations of a political prisoner. In popular usage, the term ‘political prisoner’ denotes a person who is incarcerated for the ‘political’ nature of his ‘crime’.

However, both the detaining state and the incarcerated rebels define them for their own needs, the former to criminalise the rebellion and the latter to assert themselves and gain the legitimacy of their struggle. This contention is the essence of the struggle between the state and those rebelling against it with state depicting the challenges and onslaught to its power as ‘crimes’ to undermine the political motives. So, while for the government a vast section of the Kashmiri detenues caught on frivolous charges, for voicing their anger against their state or for their involvement in Kashmir insurgency may be ordinary criminals, for some they are either freedom fighters or victims of state repression. Many human rightsactivists would prefer to draw a distinction between detainees arrested for resorting to violence and those arrested on other charges, often fabricated and too harsh as well as unjustifiable detentions under laws like Public Safety Act. The government bid to provide some relief by removing bunkers from various areas and its proposed move to withdraw CRPF from Amar Singh Club and Centaur Hotel are welcome steps if they herald a beginning to initiate such endeavours to reduce the essence of prison that the Valley has been turned into. But on many counts, they remain elitist, making no difference to the vast milieu of population that actually bears the greater brunt of militarization. 

For the present PDP-BJP coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir, the dilemma goes beyond the varying perceptions of definition of political prisoners. The two coalition partners are in complete discord over the issue ideologically. While the PDP would want to release more and more political prisoners facing no serious offences to gain the confidence of the people create a congenial atmosphere where its desire of initiating dialogue and resolution of Kashmir issue can be possible, such a move would be unsuitable to BJP’s politics. Barring these two diametrically opposed positions, the entire Valley today is deemed to be a vast prison with excessive militarization and imposed restrictions and curbs on civil liberties where human rights abuse by security personnel and police refuses to end. The curbs on movement of separatist leaders including prolonged periods during which they have been kept under house arrest, which PDP while in opposition had been critical of, continue till today.

The PDP had also been critical of National Conference’s shocking record of arrests under PSA and for filling the jails of Jammu and Kashmir with more and more detenues. When the PDP-BJP coalition assumed the reins of the state in March, the new chief minister, Mufti Mohd. Sayeed sought to set the wrongs right by assuring the release prisoners facing no serious charges but soon gave in to the whims of its coalition partner. The latest assertion of 12 political prisoners is in striking contrast to claims of PDP leaders that hundreds of innocent youth were picked up by the National Conference government. If they have not been released in the last one and a half months, they should still be languishing in prison. PDP is thus caught in the midst of several dilemmas and contradictions. It needs to greater grit, determination and spine.