Shameem Ahmad Ganai’s only view of the outside world from his prison cell was a tiny window high above his head. He couldn’t reach it to see the seasons changing from summer to autumn. Other than cleaning his toilet and eating the meager rations of 100 grams rice, four chapatis (flat breads) and a tiny bowl of cooked pulses a day, he had little to do.
“We couldn’t call home from prison. They wouldn’t give us a newspaper. We didn’t know what was happening in Kashmir,” recalls Ganai, a 43-year-old butcher who spent more than six months in a prison in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, 832 miles from his home in Kashmir. “They wouldn’t give us anything even if we would ask for it.”
Indian-administered Kashmir valley was turned into a de facto military garrison on Aug. 5, 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi abrogated the special status or limited autonomy of the region, contested by both Pakistan and India.
To impose the decision over the population of 12 million people, mostly Muslims, the government deployed at least 38,000 additional troops, blocked all communication channels including the internet cutoff, cable television and phones, and arrested more than 600 people under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), which carries a maximum of two years imprisonment without trial. Passed in 1978 by the state government to control timber smugglers, the law has been used arbitrarily over the years to crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups.
The Indian government said that it arrested “different persons at different points of time for the sake of national interest.
When police raided Ganai’s house in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district a few days before Modi’s announcement in August 2019, they promised his wife, Farida, that he would be back in two days. “It is for his safety,” they told her.
After the communication blackout and the imposition of a curfew, Farida had no idea where her husband was. He was soon booked under the PSA, with the police accusing him of being “involved in anti-social and anti-national activities thereby posing a severe threat to the public order, peace, and tranquillity.” But Ganai says he is not affiliated with “any political party or anyone else. I still don’t know why they arrested me.”
Along with many other detainees, Ganai was moved to a prison in Lucknow. His family was not informed.
Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer based in south Kashmir’s Shopian district who has represented many PSA detainees, told VICE World News that the judiciary failed them. “Justice delayed is justice denied’ is an age-old cliche but holds good in these types of cases,” says Iqbal, alleging that the court has dismissed several habeas corpus petitions, which challenged arbitrary detentions on “trivial, bizarre, and poor reasoning.”
With Ganai gone and Farida busy searching for him, their livestock starved to death. As leaves began to fall from the trees with the passing of months, fear pervaded their community, with people staying indoors, hopeless about the future.
The Ganai family hired a lawyer, who argued there were no grounds for detention. But while his family was struggling in the courts, Ganai was struggling to survive in prison. “There is a hell within a hell called the bottom of hell,” says Ganai. “Similarly, there is a sub-jail within the Lucknow jail where Kashmiris prisoners are held. We would rarely sleep. We were worried for our families.”
After ten weeks in prison, without Ganai’s family knowing his whereabouts, a local policeman tipped them off about his location. His brother travelled to meet him but they couldn’t even hug and were separated by transparent glass. His brother told him how Kashmir had changed, and that his wife and five-year-old daughter, Sahiba, were suffering alone during the clampdown.
“I didn’t have money when I was brought to the prison,” he says. “I was given clothes—a trouser, underwear, and undershirt, for Rs 350 ($5), which my brother paid later.”
For the first ten weeks, Ganai says, he couldn’t wash properly as he wasn’t given soap. When he complained about the lack of resources, authorities took his blankets away. The prison did not respond to multiple requests from VICE World News for comment.
Advocates say that families of PSA detainees have to face many hardships, both physically and psychologically. Families have trouble visiting because they are sent to jails far away from home, and phone calls or interactions with lawyers are limited.
While Ganai was in Lucknow jail, his wife sold her jewellery for a living. She would look at the door every day hoping her husband would return.
Even now, Ganai struggles to recall the dates and time of his imprisonment, as the memory fades. While locked up, the only way for him to keep a time log was a rough sketch on a wall. “I kept a record of days, made a calendar in a way. I used a nail to inscribe days on the wall of my cell,” he says.
A detainee’s way out from prison is to challenge the detention order in court. But this takes time. For Ganai, it was ultimately successful, but only after six months and two weeks behind bars.
His lawyer pleaded before the court that Ganai was not given any “compelling reason” for him to be detained. The court agreed, eventually ruling that Ganai was not given any details by the authorities. It ordered his release.
In 2016, Amnesty International India, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists said that the PSA violates international due process standards and should be repealed. But courts in Kashmir are still hearing PSA petitions for detainees held in August 2019.
After his release, Ganai headed home in the middle of the pandemic. He has tried to move on from his ordeal but believes that Kashmir will not be the same as long as arbitrary detentions are the norm.
“Today, they took me, tomorrow they will take you and then somebody else,” he says. “I’m grateful to Allah that I am alive.”
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