The last time he saw her, Mehraj-ud-din Wani assured his wife that he would soon be a free man.
Wani was speaking to his wife, Gulshan, from behind bars in Srinagar jail in Kashmir. “He was certain that he would be released,” she said. “He said that he will be home in a matter of days.”
But that didn’t happen. The 29-year-old fruit seller is still detained and has been sent to a prison hundreds of kilometres away.
Wani is one of thousands of people reportedly detained in mass arrests in the disputed Himalayan region, which has faced a security crackdown since India’s prime minister, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, revoked the Muslim majority state’s semi-autonomous status in August.
Wani’s parents traveled around 1,000km (620 miles) by bus to visit him in Agra central jail last week. “You have no idea how I arranged the money for the travel,” his father, Ghulam Nabi Wani, said. “He has changed so much physically, he has become weak and he shivers while talking.”
Wani was arrested on 9 August, during protests in Srinagar against the Indian government.
His family said he was captured after his legs were injured by pellet fire. The family said they approached the police with a bail order to release him, but officers slapped Wani with harsher charges – accusing him of offences under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows police to detain people for up to two years. Amnesty International describes it as a “lawless law”.
“You are instrumental in mobilising anti-national elements for creating havoc … your acts are aimed at keeping the state on boil in the ongoing unrest and thereby bringing secession of J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] from Union of India,” reads a government document detailing the grounds for Wani’s detention.
Wani’s family deny the charges and portray him as a quiet, peaceful family man, with a wife and three-year-old daughter who were the centre of his world. Wani was so poor, they said, that he could not afford doors and windows for his two-room house.
His father believes his son has become a target for Indian authorities because he is from Anchar — a neighbourhood that has become a symbolic outpost of resistance against Indian forces in the region.
In the run-up to Delhi’s announcement that it would revoke Kashmir’s special status, tens of thousands of extra troops were deployed to the already heavily militarised region. But one place Indian forces have been unable to control is Anchar, where students, tradespeople and housewives have rebuffed troops by digging trenches and making barricades out of rocks, water tanks and concrete pillars. Anchar has been turned into a small enclave of hope for many Kashmiris.
According to Wani’s parents, the neighbourhood’s role in resisting Indian forces has led to the prolonged imprisonment of their son.
An Indian government official, who spoke anonymously, said that decisions on detentions were being made at a local level to maintain law and order. “The detentions are preventive in nature and are being continuously reviewed. Appropriate decisions will be made based on law and order assessments,” the official said. There has been no official comment on Wani’s case.
Outside Agra central jail, families wait to visit their relatives. Some carry bags of apples from Kashmir’s orchards – a reminder of home – as well as medicines and dry biscuits. Enough snacks are brought so that gifts can be shared with the other inmates. It is understood that around 80 Kashmiris, including high-profile figures such as the president of the bar association of Kashmir, are detained inside. Most families can’t afford to make the journey to Agra, which takes up to 48 hours by bus.
One visitor, who asked not to be named, said his brother-in-law was being held under the PSA. Among families, he said, there was a feeling “of helplessness of not being able to do anything. Honestly speaking, I don’t have much faith in the system.”
The family has tried to challenge the detention in the courts, but government lawyers have not yet responded. “Until and unless the government does file a proper reply to the court, there is no way that we can counter it,” he said.
“He is someone who would always be busy working and all of sudden you are confined to [a] 10-by-10-metre cell,” he added. His brother-in-law wept when his daughter visited him. “She [the daughter] doesn’t have a choice, she has to cope,” he said.
Back in Kashmir, people lived in fear, said another relative. “Anybody can stop you, anybody can take [arrest] you,” he said. “There is no accountability. The moment you speak out you are in jail.”
Colin Gonsalves, a senior lawyer at Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, said India’s “sledgehammer approach” in Kashmir raised a host of human rights issues. “The security forces are taking extreme and vindictive steps that are difficult for the state to justify,” he said.
Wani’s parents were only able to spend 30 minutes with him last week. “He missed his daughter very much, his soul is his daughter,” said Wani’s mother, Fatima. They would have taken his daughter to Agra, but it is too far for her to travel.
“Even if they want to detain him for long, they should at least lodge him closer to home. It is very difficult for us to reach Agra. It is very far place,” she said.
“I have lost my heart,” she added. “I have my heart and soul in him.”
Originally published on www.theguardian.com