By Fayaz Bukhari
PULWAMA, India (Reuters) – Eleven days after Indian authorities began detaining hundreds of local leaders and activists in Kashmir, fearing violence after the region’s special status was withdrawn, it is unclear in many cases where they are or why they were taken away.
On Aug. 4, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped provisions that gave Kashmir more autonomy than any other Indian state, 45-year-old Shameem Ahmad Ganai was arrested in Pulwama district, his wife Fareeda said.
Fareeda said she went to find her husband the next morning at the local police station in Kakapora, but he was no longer there. “We don’t know where he is and what the charges are,” she said. “We heard he has been shifted outside Kashmir.”
Last week, Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dilbag Singh told Reuters that around 300 people had been arrested, some of whom had been taken out of the state.
But a government official, who declined to be named, said at least 500 local leaders and activists have been arrested or detained across Kashmir since the beginning of last week.
Authorities say the crackdown is necessary to prevent disorder after a move they say will bring Muslim-majority Kashmir into line with the rest of India, help the economy and end a bloody insurgency.
In the latest detention, Shah Faesal, a celebrated bureaucrat turned politician, was picked up on Wednesday, said a state government official. Earlier in the week, he had told the BBC’s HARDtalk that Modi’s government had “murdered” democracy.
Ganai, a meat shop owner, was previously arrested in 2016 on charges of stone pelting, attacking security forces with rods, and damaging government property. His family said he had taken part in widespread protests after the death of a popular militant leader.
“He was released after three months but never indulged in any protests since then. I don’t know what his fault was this time,” Fareeda said.
Pulwama, their home district, is part of restive south Kashmir, the hotbed of an armed insurgency against the Indian government that has raged on for nearly 30 years, killing some 50,000 people.
It was also the site of a suicide bombing in February that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops, which was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, and brought both nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of another war.
A mile away from Fareeda is the home of Irfan Ahmad Hurra, a 28-year-old man who teaches the Koran at a religious seminary. Weeping bitterly, his mother Jameela said her son, who was ill and on medication, was arrested on Aug. 5.
“I don’t know what his fault was. We don’t know where he is,” she said. “We don’t know the charges.”
Hurra, too, had been previously arrested on charges of fomenting trouble, leading protesters and damaging property, his family said.
At a media briefing on Wednesday, Jammu and Kashmir’s Additional Director General of Police Munir Khan told reporters that some individuals had been detained as a preventive measure, while others were arrested in existing cases or under the Public Safety Act, which allows for detention without trial.
“Some people may have also been released,” Khan said, without providing any details on the number of individuals currently detained.
India’s federal home ministry referred queries from Reuters on the number of detentions and details of cases to the Jammu and Kashmir government, which did not immediately respond.
Political leaders and officials have warned of a severe backlash against the Modi government’s move, with local resentment amplified after authorities imposed severe movement restrictions in the Kashmir Valley and severed all public telecommunications links, including mobile phones and internet.
The communication blackout has now entered its tenth day.
(Writing and additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Martin Howell and Andrew Cawthorne)