RTI activists from Mahiti Adhikar Manch have strongly condemned the detention of Raja Muzaffar Bhat, Right to Information (RTI) Activist from Jammu & Kashmir, known personally to many core national RTI users.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat was picked up from his home on August 5, 2019 – the day of the abrogation of Article 370 at 3 AM by the Jammu and Kashmir police without any reasons given for his detention. He was told he would be released in a couple of days, but was only released three months later. He is not a stone thrower or terrorist, or even a terrorist sympathizer. All he did was to use the Right to Information Act to regularly expose misdeeds of the administration.
Detained without reason
When the area Station House Officer (SHO) knocked on the door of Raja Muzaffar Bhat at 3 AM saying he had orders to detain him, Muzaffar told his wife and parents to tell his two kids that he was going on a trek and would be back soon, he said to The Indian Express.
Three months later, he was still on the ‘trek’, in detention at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar, from where he was released only on October 28.
Bhat, not only an RTI activist, but also a columnist, an erstwhile politician and a former dental student, gave a detailed account of the convention centre turned sub-jail, where following the government’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status, activists and politicians were lodged in a bid to ensure ‘national security’.
After spending four days at the Chadoora police station, Bhat was shifted to the SKICC. “It was packed with lots of young boys who had also been picked up on August 4, and the number of CRPF personnel in that police station was amazing. They kept me and the Budgam district Congress President Mohamed Maqbool in a separate room,” Bhat recalled.
He remembered the terrifying stone-pelting that took place when he and Maqbool were being shifted to the SKICC. “There was so much stone-pelting, we were inside a bulletproof vehicle, but it was still terrifying,” he said.
The day after he was picked up from his place, said Bhat, he was taken to the magistrate for extension of his remand, “The magistrate was very confused as to why I had been detained, but clearly there were orders from the top, and he extended my remand by two days. I have no idea how my remand was extended after that. Magistrates from some districts would come to SKICC to extend the remand of one or two detainees, but not from my area. In most of our cases, no one was taken to the magistrate, nor did any magistrate from our concerned areas come to SKICC,” he said.
Together in helplessness
On reaching SKICC he found over two dozen political detainees already present at the venue. “Hakeem Yaseen (ex- PDP minister), Waheed Para (youth president and spokesperson, PDP), Sajad Lone (president, People’s Conference), Imran Raza Ansari (former minister), Ali Mohamed Sagar, Mubarak Gul (ex-MLAs, National Conference)… a couple of days later, Naeem Akhtar (former minister) came, then they brought Shah Faesal (former IAS officer and leader of J&K People’s Movement),” Bhat said.
Bhat and Shah Faesal were both involved in J&K’s RTI movement. J&K got its first RTI Act in 2004, a year before the central legislation and Bhat and Faesal had fought for the amendment of the legislation for it to reflect the provisions of the central Act. As a consequence, the 2009 J&K RTI Act was even stronger than its central counterpart, as it included provisions for time bound disposal of appeals. Faesal later moved to join the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) but later quit to protest against the Union government not taking action against the unabated killings in Kashmir and the lack of a sincere reach out from the government.
Bhat recounted how he saw them for the first time having dinner together in a hall. Prior to that they were served meals in their rooms. Housed on the first and second floors of the SKICC, the detainees were put up two in a room. He was housed with Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Basheer Ahmed Peer at first, but was later moved in with former PDP minister Mukhtar Ahmed Bandh.
Yet, with all the misery in the atmosphere, Bhat felt sorrier for his fellow prisoners than he did for himself. He said, ““I was the only non-politician in that group. As an RTI activist, I have raised some political and social issues. As a columnist, I wrote a couple of pieces against scrapping Articles 370 and 35-A. But much as I could not understand why I had been detained, I felt more sorry for my fellow prisoners. They were the ones who had raised the Indian flag in Kashmir, risked their lives by being on Delhi’s side, and yet this was their situation.”
He also spoke of a veteran politician, who had told him how he would be in the front row at every Independence Day and Republic Day function in his district. Yet, despite being such a nationalist, he was detained.
They all felt back-stabbed he said, speaking about the government’s arbitrary decision to go ahead with the abrogation without any discussion.
In a gilded cage
The SKICC which is run by Air India’s Centaur Hotel, became a virtual cage for Shah and his mates. The newspapers came in irregularly, but when they did, there was no news about the events on the ground because the government had imposed strict media restrictions. There was TV, but that too blocked out most important information. They relied on books given to them by their families who were allowed to visit them once a week.
Path to release
Bhat said that he and some other detainees did think of approaching the court to get it to quash their detention, apply for bail or file a habeas corpus petition. But the treatment meted out to Farooq Abdullah, who was detained under the Public Safety Act, had them scared. If the same was done to them, they wouldn’t be eligible to apply for bail for the next six months.
Even the arrest of Finance Minister P Chidambaram had them question their standing in front of the government.
Bhat was released on October 28 without having to sign off on any conditions, except for presenting himself before a magistrate on November 10.
Bhat said in all these years, he and his wife Fozia had tried not to discuss politics, or the violence and protests in Kashmir, in front of their eight-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “We wanted to give them a secure environment. But my detention has changed things. Now, Kashmir’s entire history book has been opened before them by the State. A new generation has learnt about things they never knew,” he said.