Kashmir’s resistance icon Masarat Alam Bhat may be the longest-serving political prisoner in Asia after Dr Chia Thye Posh of Singapore. He has been detained 38 times under the so-called Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act or PSA (1978) for being an active member of the ongoing “War of Liberation” for the right to self to determination (RSD) in Indian administered Kashmir and has been serving imprisonment for past 24 years even without charge or trial.
Despite many years in detention for his role in the war of liberation, Masarat’s position as a leader was still unknown to most of the people in Kashmir.
It was only in 2008 he emerged as the shadow of Kashmir’s nonagenarian resistance leader Syed Ali Geelani – who until recently led All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) – an amalgam of various pro-freedom parties based in Indian-administered Kashmir.
His role in the anti-India intifada, triggered by the mass transfer of Kashmir land to the all-Hindu Amarnath Shrine board, propelled him into the public eye. Fearing his mass mobilizing political capacities, the Indian regime detained him and is being held in jails in and outside the UN-recognized disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.
The court proceedings
I was studying law when I first met Masarat. He was under police custody. It was a dull evening in 2008 that Masarat was brought in an “Army wanton” — a specially designed bulletproof vehicle for Indian armed forces in Kashmir.
Without any delay, Masarat was produced before a judge. In a jam-packed courtroom with the Special Operations Group of Indian police, the judge asked Masarat whether he was taken to the hospital for a medical checkup or not.
“Yes,” he replied, adding: “But I was unable to sleep as 10-12 officers questioned me whole last night.”
Meanwhile, a senior lawyer of the Kashmir High Court Bar Association submitted that the court may direct police to shift Masarat to judicial lockup. The judge ignored the plea and asked Masarat: “you were released just some three months ago [but] why are you [continuing] doing this [taking part in resistance politics]?”
“Mr Judge, I am not involved in any theft nor accused of any heinous crime. My only crime is [that] I am fighting for my right… I am trying to save your land which is being forcibly given to [Amarnath] shrine board.”
Before rushing to his chamber, the judge chose not to respond and ordered police to take his custody for more than ten days.
Kashmir seething with anger
On 26 May 2008, Indian and local authorities in Kashmir transferred 99 acres (0.40 km2) of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board to set up temporary shelters and facilities for Hindu pilgrims.
This caused a controversy, with demonstrations across the disputed region against the land transfer. Kashmiris demanded rollback of the transfer order as it would cause massive environmental disasters besides the resistance leadership foresaw evil plans of settling Hindus in the Muslim-dominated region.
Kashmir witnessed the largest demonstrations of more than 500,000 protesters at a single rally as Indian forces murdered over 60 people during a three-month-long anti-India uprising, due to which the transfer was finally halted.
Two years later, in June 2010 Masarat’s detention was quashed by a top court in Kashmir and he was set free.
The region was already seething in anger against a fake encounter conducted by Indian forces in the Machil sector along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kupwara district.
The LoC divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan – the region which existed before 1947 is declared a disputed territory by the United Nations until its political fate is decided by its people through RSD.
Three innocent civilians were killed and labelled as militants by the Indian army.
The Quit Kashmir Movement
Masarat immediately went underground and signalled Kashmiris to gear up for a mass anti-India uprising. A few days later, he announced the “Quit Kashmir Movement” which culminated in Kashmiri intifada 2010.
Read more: The new face of ‘Kashmiri Intifada’
Indian forces unleashed terror on Kashmiris months ahead since June, killing 120 civilians and using pellet guns the first time — maiming and blinding the innocents – which is termed as the world’s first mass blinding after the Byzantine era.
Pellet guns were first used by Israel against Palestinians in the late 1980s but were banned for they invited massive criticism from rights bodies. India, in 2020, continues to use the pellet-firing on Kashmiris.
The 900,000 strong Indian forces were losing their grip of occupation against Masarat’s slogan of “Go India, Go Back” which enveloped the whole Kashmiri landscape.
He was arrested in October that year and again booked under the PSA – termed as lawless law by Amnesty International — after months of hiding and issuing protest calendars.
Since June, Kashmir shut and opened on the call of Geelani and Masarat – the latter was assigned to design protest calendars which were released to the public through media and they would follow it.
It was during this uprising that the then administration had allegedly asked its police as to why “Masarat Alam was arrested alive and not bumped off”. Though the cop who was reported to have made these revelations later backed off from such comments.
Read more: India attacks journalists in Kashmir
A rebel by birth ended a ‘jail bird’
Masarat has been actively participating in resistance politics ever since he was a student at one of Kashmir’s elite schools. He was just 19 years old when he was arrested for the first time and booked under the PSA on 02, October 1990 for being a member of Hizbullah — an indigenous armed group fighting against India.
He was released in November 1991. However, he was again detained in 1993 which was repeatedly extended till Feb 1997. However, his freedom ended just for six months and he was subsequently arrested for the fourth time in September 1997 until May 2000. In January 2001, his fifth detention was executed and was released in August 2003 for two months.
He was again detained in October 2003 and was released in 2005.
Meanwhile, a faction of the APHC had engaged in dialogue with the then Indian government led by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. In a meeting, Singh had agreed to review all cases where Kashmiri prisoners were held under the draconian PSA and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (POTA).
He was released only to be arrested again on April 22, 2007. This detention order was quashed by Kashmir’s top court in October 2007. However, this marked the first time that the family of Masarat challenged an order of detention. Until then, he refused to make a plea before any Indian court.
As a result, he spent twelve out of the fifteen years between 1990 and 2005 under preventive detention without any criminal charge or trial.
The then Kashmir government failed to conduct a single trial before any court of law against him nor could the government attribute a single criminal act to him other than conjectures and “far-fetched” grounds of detention order “based on imaginations”.
Masarat was booked under six detention orders one after another from April 2008 to April 2010 until he was released for six months and later re-arrested under the thirteenth detention order in October 2010 – after leading the 2010 anti-India uprising.
‘Keep him out of circulation’
The massive use of the PSA against Kashmiri anti-India protestors led Amnesty International to do an extensive report.
“The report is based on research conducted by an Amnesty International team during a visit to Srinagar in May 2010 and subsequent analysis of government and legal documents relating to over 600 individuals detained under the PSA between 2003 and 2010,” the report stated.
“The research shows that instead of using the institutions, procedures and human rights safeguards of ordinary criminal justice, the authorities are using the PSA to secure the long-term detention of political activists, suspected members or supporters of armed groups and a range of other individuals against whom there is insufficient evidence for a trial or conviction – to keep them out of circulation,” Amnesty said.
To keep him away from the public eye, Masarat was detained under 20 detention orders for the period until 2015 since October 2010.
Masarat leads a pro-freedom group known as the Muslim League and in the past was also designated as secretary-general of the APHC by Geelani.
Nationalist Hindu groups want Masarat dead
In 2015, he was briefly released for 45 days after the top Kashmir court cancelled his 33rd detention order on 08th March 2015 but the ultra-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP created a ruckus in the Indian parliament against his release and India’s comprador ruling class in Kashmir rushed to arrest him once again for attending a pro-freedom rally in Srinagar – the capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir.
Musarat has been in jail since then. Even some nationalist Hindu groups had announced awards for those “who would kill Masarat” ringing alarm bells among his fans.
In November 2020, Kashmir’s top court — Jammu and Kashmir High Court — quashed his 38th PSA detention order and directed the authorities to release the 49-year-old resistance leader with a condition: “if he is not required in any other case.”
Masarat’s 38 PSA detentions since 1990 have made him the longest-serving political prisoner, not only in Kashmir but in the whole of Asia after Dr Posh who was detained for 22 years since October 1966 without trial under the so-called Internal Security Act of Singapore.
Posh was accused of conducting pro-communist activities against the government, he was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial and subsequently placed under conditions of house arrest for another nine years.
Masarat has remained outside the jail for merely 54 months since 1990.
Masarat’s relentless resilience
Jails couldn’t break the will of Masarat Alam. His fight for the liberation of Kashmir continues. He is spending his time reading and making notes on what he reads and understands. His interests include both politics and Islamic studies.
In 2016 when Burhan Wani, the rebel militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter with Indian forces, Kashmir rose up in arms against the Indian rule. Tens of hundreds of innocents were jailed.
Masarat was languishing in a jail in the Kathua district of the Jammu division of the disputed region. To verify the situation in jails, I had a chance to visit Masarat with a team of Kashmir High court Bar Association.
When the bar team visited Kathua jail, Masarat came out from his jail barrack carrying a diary and a book authored by Edward Said.
I asked Masarat whether we should raise his case at the Asian Human Rights body because he had already been jailed for some 21 years.
I gave references to Dr Posh and Bhagat Singh – who was the liberation hero of India’s freedom struggle against the British.
His response struck me: “We have very less time. I am not interested in awards for spending this much of time in jail. Let us discuss the petition which an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) backed-think tank has filed before Supreme Court of India to set aside Article 35-A which safeguards citizenship rights of Kashmiris.”
The BJP government of India on August 05, 2019, removed Article 35-A along with Article 370 which granted minimal autonomy to the disputed region under India. Now, the disputed region is open for any Indian to come and buy land and get job opportunities thus threatening the Muslim-majority character of the region.
“What you see in Kashmir is Indian occupation… And occupations are not resolved. Occupations are ended. India must go back, that’s it,” he told India’s renowned Caravan magazine in one of his few interviews with media.
Masarat is married since 2007 to Zahida Bhat. The couple has no child. He was home for just 11 days at the time of his marriage as he was followed by Indian agencies for arrest.
His specially-abled sister died in 2016. He was not allowed to attend her last rites. He is currently imprisoned in India’s Tihar jail in New Delhi.
Besides, hurting his core relations, Masarat was a known business family in Srinagar’s downtown area. They were cloth merchants – the business was badly hit due to his politics which refuses to accept Indian sovereignty over Kashmir.
But, Masarat has no regret!
Nasir Qadri is a lawyer and leads the Islamabad-based Legal Forum for Kashmir. He is currently pursuing research on Kashmir and international armed conflict. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of Global Village Space.