At Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC), a young woman in red kameez salwar, handed a folded paper to a security personnel standing behind the main gate.
Since the abrogation of Article 370 and the ensuing political crisis in Jammu & Kashmir, The Centaur hotel at SKICC, which normally hosts top official functions and meetings, has been converted into a ‘jail’. With a few exceptions, all leaders of the Valley’s mainstream parties, their activists, and even some relatives of former J&K ministers and MLAs, have been held there since 5 August.
No Word Yet On When The Detainees Will Be Released
Days have become weeks, and yet, no word on when these detainees are going to be released. Scandalous, and sometimes funny, rumours are doing rounds in the Valley about the political slug fest taking place inside the ‘jail’. Under normal circumstances, the woman at the gate, the daughter of a senior PDP leader and minister in the former PDP-BJP government, may have gotten unhindered access to SKICC.
Now, like any ordinary citizen, she has to pass through multiple security checkpoints and surrender her belongings before entering.
“Kis se milna hai?” the security guard asked the woman in an emotionless voice, opening the chit.
“**** sahib se,” the woman replied quietly. Accompanying her was a boy who looked about four years old, who was being held onto by another woman, probably his mother. The security guard, after scrutinising the paper, asked the women to wait, and disappeared into a small wooden cabin behind the gate where other police officers were stationed to facilitate the entry of visitors.
‘Not Far from Home’
The detention of some 40 to 50 top mainstream leaders, including former MLAs who worked as ministers in the cabinets of former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, has been justified by the J&K administration, as a ‘preemptive measure’ to thwart any law and order problems.
Prominent among those held at the ad hoc ‘jail’ — a prized property flanked by the Dal Lake on one side and the lush green Zabarwan hills on the other — are National Conference stalwart Ali Mohammad Sagar, PDP ideologue Naeem Akhtar, separatist-turned-mainstream politician Sajjad Lone, Shia cleric Imran Ansari, and former IAS officer Shah Faesal.
Speaking with a select group of reporters at the Raj Bhavan in Srinagar, J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik said on Wednesday, 28 August, that the detainees, many of whom live on the upscale Gupkar Road (which is barely a kilometer from SKICC), are being provided all possible facilities, and that they are “not far from home”.
“We are taking good care of them. The longer they remain in ‘prison’, the better it is going to be for them. They can use it (detention) for fetching votes once they are set free,” Malik said, without giving a timeline as to when these leaders were going to be released.
Growing Anxiety Among Detainees
According to family members, some of the detainees at The Centaur are struggling with diseases like diabetes, while others have ‘special needs’, which have prompted their kin to queue up at the gate with permission letters, and wait for their turn to meet.
At least six relatives of political leaders detained at the hotel, who spoke with The Quint on the condition of anonymity, highlighted the growing sense of ‘anxiety’ and ‘concern’ among the detainees.
“Things are not as rosy as they look from the outside. No matter the facilities, a jail is a jail,” a relative of Farooq Bandh, son of former PDP leader from Pulwama, Khalil Bandh, who is among the detainees at the hotel, said.
The permission for meeting the detainees is issued by the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar district. The permit letter, addressed to the ‘jail’ superintendent, explicitly mentions the names of relatives who may be allowed to meet a particular detainee.
“Their movement is restricted. They can’t meet their friends or anyone outside family. And only one-on-one meetings are allowed,” the relative of Bandh, who recently switched to the National Conference party, said.
A Curious Appearance
As relatives queued up at the SKICC’s entrance on Wednesday, a man in his sixties, with an unkempt beard and dirty clothes, arrived at the SKICC on a bike. Bearing a distinct stink of rot, he told a paramilitary trooper to let him meet former J&K assembly speaker and senior National Conference leader, Mubarak Gul.
His appearance agitated the trooper who tried to scare him away by clutching at his automatic assault rifle. “We have already told you to bring a written application,” the trooper shouted at the man.
“But where is the paper? Do you have the paper?” the man turned to me.
“Come, write on my head. Come, come….. Now go away, you madman,” a cop yelled, turning away the angry elderly man.
An ‘Abundance’ Of Medicines, Cigarettes And Fruits
According to sources at SKICC, medicines, fruits, and cigarettes are being brought in abundance for the detainees. “Once in a while, they (relatives) also bring clothes and other daily-needs items,” the sources added.
After waiting for some 20 minutes, it seemed that the minister’s daughter had received security clearance to meet her father, because the cop, who had taken her permit papers, emerged from the wooden cabin with a smile, and started walking towards her.
As he came closer, a private car came to a halt on the road outside. Without turning off the engine, a young man stepped out of the car with a box of pomegranates.
“These are for Ashraf (Mir, minister in PDP-BJP government) sahib. He has been advised by doctors to take pomegranates regularly,” the man told the cop, who refused to entertain the request, and turned to the women.
“Deposit any money, bank cards, mobile phones or any other gadgetry here, or keep them in your car,” he told the minister’s daughter, who seemed to be familiar with the drill.
At this point, the unkempt man on the bike again surfaced at the gate. He seemed unstable, as he pushed his right hand and attempted to snatch the permit papers from the hands of the minister’s terrified daughter.
Curiouser And Curiouser
“You should have got the paper with you,” the woman told the unkempt fellow in a matter-of-fact manner, pulling her hands away.
“I should have got the paper with me?” the man repeated with eerie calmness.
As the minister’s daughter and the accompanying woman (and child) went through the security checkpoints, the disheveled biker seemed to have given up on the quest to meet senior National Conference leader, Mubarak Gul. The bike whizzed past the gate and disappeared behind the tall poplar trees lining the road.
“These ‘items’ were the only missing pieces from this political chessboard, as if we didn’t have more important issues at hand,” the cop standing at the gate said.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk.)