The Jammu and Kashmir Police has accused a woman Special Police Officer (SPO) of “harbouring militants” and booked her under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA.
Saima Akhter, a resident of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, is the only child of her elderly and ailing parents, one of whom is battling cancer. She has been booked under Sections 353 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 13 of the UAPA in FIR no 19/2021 filed at Kulgam’s Yaripora police station. Following this, she has been dismissed from service.
But the slapping of the UAPA seemed like a second thought after a video of the cordon and search operation at her native Frisal village of Kulgam on 14 April went viral.
In the video, which Saima captured on her phone, she is heard accusing the Indian Army soldiers involved in the search operation of harassing her family by repeatedly searching her home.
As the video caused an uproar on social media, the Jammu and Kashmir Police on Saturday, 17 April, defended the slapping of the UAPA and her dismissal. In an official statement, the police said that she “uttered anti-India and pro-freedom slogans off-camera”.
They further noted that the search operation was launched following specific inputs about the presence of militants in her house, however, the woman SPO “resisted the search party and turned violent, and uttered statements glorifying violent actions of militancy”.
Video of Search Op Goes Viral
In its statement, the Jammu and Kashmir Police said Saima “captured a video through her personal phone and forwarded it on social media platforms with the aim of disrupting the search.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Police said the woman SPO was on the police radar. “She is a suspected shelter point of an active Hizb-ul-Mujahidin militant namely Aslam Dar, and the woman has been on the police radar as a suspected over ground worker (OGW), thus was subjected to search,” the 17 April statement noted.
In the 3.57-minute-long video, the SPO is heard venting her anger on security forces for laying cordon around their village “on a daily basis”. As the verbal confrontation heats up, she accuses forces of disrupting their fast in the ongoing Islamic holy month of Ramzan.
“Kashmir belongs to us. You come from outside to drive us out of our homes. Do whatever you want to do, I am not afraid of you,” she screams.
“My mother was alone last time you came for searches, and she almost fainted. Don’t you have mothers and sisters? You are thieves, s****rs,” she says, even as another woman, apparently her mother, urges for calm.
‘Even Women Aren’t Spared in Naya Kashmir’
Soon after the video went viral, the news of the action against the woman SPO prompted uproar on social media. Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted that “when it comes to cruelty even women aren’t spared in Naya Kashmir.”
Challenging the police claims, Lok Sabha MP and former union minister Dr Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference asked what was stopping the police from acting against the SPO if she was “harbouring militants”.
“If the woman was at all involved in any militancy activity, she should have been brought to justice by the authorities concerned much before the video surfaced. It was only after the video went viral that she was terminated and booked. The entire sequence of events has raised question on the whole exercise.”Imran Dar, the party spokesman
“The disproportionate action… only points to the predicaments suffered by her family in wake of intermittent night raids by the security forces. It is vindictive and uncalled for,” he said.
However, the Jammu and Kashmir Police claimed that “various media platforms” and “vested interests with malafide intentions” have tried to make the incident appear excessive – and an “overreach”.
The statement further noted,
“….being a police employee, (the accused) is bound by a code of conduct which was brazenly violated by her. Thus, the concurrent departmental action has been taken against her. It remains to be investigated whether her act was meant as a disruption tactic to aid escape of the said militant when the search operation was underway. It is, thus, requested that no heed should be paid towards those trying to paint the incident in any hue other than a criminal act.”
‘A Low Life’
Unlike what the title suggests, SPO – or Special Police Officer – is a lowly category of Adhoc, highly underpaid police official engaged in the Jammu and Kashmir Police for intelligence gathering and normal policing duties.
Most SPOs in the police force come from economically backward families who are willing to risk their lives for a shot at better life.
While most of them continue to serve in their positions without any benefits for long durations, few are inducted into the police force “after they demonstrate their value and skills.”
“One successful operation against militants is a ticket for an SPO to enter the police force which offers a healthy salary, regular promotion, good education for children, free medical care, pension and other perks,” a senior police officer told The Quint on condition of anonymity.
Saima had joined the police force a few months back. The only child of her ailing parents, she can be heard in the video complaining about repeated searches at her home.
UAPA Cases On a Rise in Kashmir
The 2019 amendment to the draconian UAPA has enabled the police to override the need for establishing membership or association of detainees held under the anti-terror law with banned groups, in order to secure a conviction.
Now, any individual can be designated a “terrorist” under the law.
According to lawyers, there has been a spurt in the number of cases filed under the UAPA by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. According to an RTI disclosure, from 48-60 cases filed per year in Jammu and Kashmir before 2015, the UAPA cases have shot up dramatically after the BJP came to power, reaching 393 in 2019, the third-highest among all Indian states, under which 881 persons were arrested.
The police invoke Section 13 of the UAPA because it is “vague and overly broad,” indefinitely ruling out the option of bail for the accused.
“Earlier, the police used to book people under the Public Safety Act. Now, most of the cases are filed under the UAPA. Even the bail applications under Section 13, on which the rigour of ‘no bail’ doesn’t apply, are not decided on merit, reducing the court to a post office,” Habeel Iqbal, a human rights lawyer based in Shopian, said.
The accused profiled by lawyers in Kashmir who have been held under the stringent anti-terror law are teachers, students, boys looking after their fruit orchards, shopkeepers, traders and even government employees.
Habeel said the accused in 90 percent of the UAPA cases get what is legally known as default bail because the police “fail to produce charge-sheet against them in the mandatory 180-day time period”.
Under Section 13 of the UAPA, a convict can face up to seven years of imprisonment for “advocating, abetting, advising or inciting the commission of any unlawful activity”.
Another lawyer, who didn’t want to be named, said Section 13 leaves a “lot of scope for interpretation,” allowing the investigators to hold a detainee in custody indefinitely.
“This (UAPA) suits the police because as soon as the court sees the charges, it refuses to apply its mind. The intent of invoking this law is to terrorise the society, to create an atmosphere of fear and subjugation,” he said.