Of five years behind bars as a Kashmiri political prisoner

Activist Anjum Habib takes about the conditions in Indian women’s prisons, her work as an activist, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir

January 28, 2019 by Surangya
Anjum Habib
Anjum Habib, a Kashmiri political prisoner who was charged with Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), talked about her time in prison, the conditions in Kashmir, and her work as an activist.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Anjum Zamrooda Habib, a Kashmiri political activist. In the year 2003, she was charged with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and was incarcerated in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for the next five years. It was alleged that she was collecting money from Pakistan to fund armed insurgency activities against the Indian government in Kashmir.  We talk to her about her work as an activist, her time in prison, and the current situation in the Kashmir valley. She has recounted her time in prison and the events which led to her arrest in her book, Prisoner No. 100: An Account of My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison.

Can you tell us about the work you were doing before you were imprisoned? And do you feel your work played a role in the charges that were filed against you?

I began working as a social activist in the 1980s. In my district, Anantnag, there was a death in a dowry [a banned practice of the bride’s family giving money, gold and gifts to the groom, which many a time amounts to more than 8,000 USD] case and I complained against that. We constituted the Women’s Welfare Association, of which I was the general secretary. I was working on issues of women empowerment, education, and against dowry.  

In the early 90s, when militancy erupted in Kashmir, all issues relating to women were pushed to the back burner. Young Kashmiris picked up guns to fight for freedom, and women’s issues were not considered important in that struggle. I formed another association at that time to work on women’s issues, while also beginning work as a political activist.

In 1993, the All Party Hurriyat Conference was formed, and they gave a call for all organizations fighting on socio-political lines to unite under their banner and take the struggle forward. And I am one of the founder members of the united Hurriyat Conference. But there was no discussion on women’s issues on that platform, and there still isn’t, which disappointed me. So I tried to raise those issues in my capacity.

So in my organization, we started working for widows and initiated a program to give computer training to the children of war widows. My work came under the government’s scanner because I know how to resist and fight back for our rights, even though all our rights are trampled in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). My work was not appreciated by the government or the security agencies. What they disliked the most was the fact that I was being invited to international conferences all over the world, where I would go and talk about the different kinds of human rights violations happening in Kashmir, and the extensive level of militarization. There are 700,000 armed forces personnel and members of local police in our State.   

So you can imagine the life of a woman in the most militarized zone of the world. And I would speak out against the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, which gives the army the power to barge into our houses, break doors and windows, and put people behind bars on mere suspicion. The army will not be held accountable for these actions. There is no one to question them.

So all these atrocities are being inflicted on us because we are talking about our rights and talking about freedom; freedom from oppression, freedom from coercion, freedom from human rights violations, from illegal detentions and enforced disappearances.

We want to tell the ruling classes in India that this is a political issue which needs to be addressed. India needs to accept the reality, which is that this is a dispute; it is the longest pending dispute in this contemporary world.

So I used to visit the homes of widows, document their stories, and once a week, I would publish them in local newspapers. I kept thinking about how I could convey all that was happening – all the sadness and pain in Kashmir – to others. I felt that maybe if I published these stories in local newspapers, the world would get to know of our plight. But now I feel our pain and sadness is not even known to others in India, let alone rest of the world.  

But all these actions of mine were not appreciated by the state authorities. Even when I was arrested, I was getting my documents cleared for travelling to Bangkok, the United States, and Pakistan. I was carrying photographs, my passport, visa letters and invitation letters to all those events. But all these were not presented by the Special Cell of the police during my trial. They did not say I was going anywhere. They just said I was leaving from the Pakistani embassy, even though I was moving towards the Thai embassy for matters related to the conference in Bangkok.

A lot of people have been trapped in such fabricated cases, many of whom continue to be behind bars. I was perhaps fortunate that I could come out after five years. Otherwise, Kashmiris who are imprisoned are charged with POTA, sedition, treason, and other such charges, under which there is very little chance of quick discharge. Even now, in different jails across India, some of our children have been languishing for 15 or 16 or 17 years without a fair trial and without committing any serious crime.

The situation in Kashmir has worsened, especially in the last couple of years. Oppression from armed forces has risen on the one hand, and militancy has also gone up. You just told us that women’s issues were not a part of the conversation earlier. In the environment today, can these issues come to the fore, or have they been pushed back again?

You see the men in our community are being killed and incarcerated in different jails. So a woman’s struggle begins from there. The other issues women face also exist. It is not like they have disappeared. But when young men are being killed, beaten up, disappeared, or illegally detained for 15-16 years, then our women have to suffer a lot.

Are such cases being put on women as well?

The woman who has never stepped out of her neighbourhood is now familiar with the comings and goings of Delhi’s Tihar jail. She now knows the different district courts in Delhi. She is being exposed to all of this because of the atrocities being inflicted on us by the Indian state. Kashmiri women are gaining political maturity because of all of this, and not in a healthy environment, which would have made me happy.   

How was your time in prison affected by your identity of a Kashmiri Muslim woman?

See, the Indian government has no plan of resolving the Kashmiri issue. They believe in “might is right,” force, pellet guns. We want a peaceful solution through talks. But they send more troops, more barbed wires, more lethal weapons and more automatic weapons. This hate mongering is coming from Delhi. What will the Indian government do with so much hatred in their hearts towards Kashmiris?

So this situation does indeed affect the conditions inside prisons. Whenever a Kashmiri is caught, the media labels them a terrorist. When I was imprisoned, the media declared that a traitor had been captured. The media presents a social activist or a political activist or a human rights activist as a terrorist. I am based in Kashmir. So people in the rest of India were not familiar with me or my work. Even the other women who were in Tihar Jail did not know me.

But I was introduced to Indians and my fellow inmates as a traitor. So that is the narrative which continued. There is already so much hatred towards Kashmiris. Our youngsters are not safe in any other Indian State. To be a Kashmiri Muslim is considered a big crime in India. If a Kashmiri is caught, no one in India considers the possibility of them being innocent. They assume that we must be guilty of something.

So even the jail authorities were hostile towards me, as were the other inmates. But I spent five years behind bars. So gradually, the others became familiar with my temperament, and the hostility towards me slowly decreased.  But I faced considerable amount of hardship in the first few years. I faced a lot of hatred.

You were imprisoned on terror funding charges in 2003. Since then, various other terror funding cases have been filed. Under the current BJP  (Bharatiya Janata Party) government in particular, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has lodged many such cases. Do you see any difference between the conditions that existed during your arrest and the conditions now?

This current government led by Narendra Modi has spread so much hatred amongst Indians for each other that Kashmir comes far down the line. We are used as an election stunt. Now that elections are approaching, Modi will say that our State is harbouring terrorists and that India is losing control of Kashmir.

But India has waged a war against the unarmed civilians of Jammu and Kashmir. We are not warmongers. Since 1947, for the past 72 years, we have been demanding that this dispute be resolved peacefully. The kind of hateful environment that the rest of India is suffering under the RSS-BJP rule is something we Kashmiris have been suffering for the the last 72 years.

Look at what this government did in Rasana with the little girl. They are trying to communalize the environment there. They are pitting residents of J&K and Ladakh against each other. Moreover, this government feels that whoever does not support its rule is an enemy.

The issue of Kashmir is a dispute which can only be resolved when the government of Pakistan, the government of India, and the people of Jammu & Kashmir sit together and talk.

Finally, can you tell us about the work you are doing now? After your release you formed an organization, the Association of Families of Kashmiri Prisoners. What is the condition of Kashmiri prisoners?.

In J&K, we have a legislation called the Public Safety Act. If someone is charged under that, their trial does not begin for the longest time. Our misfortune is that Kashmiris are often charged with multiple counts of the Public Safety Act, with the number going as far as 30. In some cases, just as someone is about to be released, new charges under this act are filed against them. They are not allowed to come out.

Secondly, all over India, Kashmiris are targeted through the filing of sedition charges against them. Even in the recent case in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where students were charged with sedition, 7 of the 9 students are Kashmiris.

So when I formed the Association of Families of Kashmiri Prisoners, my motive was to find out the whereabouts of the young Kashmiris lodged in prisons. Because in some cases, there was no information about the location of imprisoned Kashmiris.

For instance, there was the case of a ninth grade boy who was picked up from his school by the army and later handed over to the State police. His tongue had been cut off before he could speak for himself in court. You can imagine what must have been done to him in the interrogation center. He was kept along with Pakistani prisoners, and he was labelled a a dumb Pakistani, even though he was a Kashmiri.

There are many such cases. So my only aim was that the lives of such Kashmiris be protected.

During my stay in prison, on a court hearing date, I met other Kashmiri prisoners who complained that no one was speaking up for them. We promised each other that whoever would get released first would work for other Kashmiri prisoners. So the Association of Kashmiri Prisoners was a promise I made to another Kashmiri prisoner when I was behind bars.

I also collected data on these forgotten prisoners and got it published in a booklet. As part of my work, I would go meet these prisoners, sometimes during their court hearing dates. I would go to their homes and meet their families to express solidarity and share their grief, because I had been through a similar ordeal. When I visited the families, I was reminded of my mother. I felt that if someone had visited my home, my mother would have felt similarly happy.

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