For Kashmir Militants, Imprisonment is Luxury, Escaping a Sport 

LeT Leader Naveed’s dramatic escape last week reveals the flaws in J&K jails’ security system. 

8 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

A year-long exercise, coordinated by the best brains of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, security forces and intelligence agencies, culminated in the arrest of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Deputy Chief Naveed alias Abu Hanzalla from Kulgam area of South Kashmir in June 2014.

On 6 February 2018, Naveed’s henchmen facilitated his passage, ostensibly for a medical check-up from Srinagar Central Jail to Kashmir’s crowded SMHS Hospital. With his left hand in chains and a policeman accompanying him into the Outpatient Department, Naveed effortlessly received a loaded pistol in his right hand and escaped in no time.

Naveed’s Escape Points to Flawed Surveillance in J&K Jails

Over the last one week, this dreaded Pakistani guerrilla’s fresh pictures with the Hizbul Mujahideen militants Saddam Padder and Samir Tiger — all brandishing AK-47 rifles — have gone viral on social media. A retired police officer, with extensive exposure in the Special Operations Group (SOG), told The Quint on condition of anonymity:

Naveed is growing into LeT’s poster boy and may prove to be more dangerous than Burhan Wani.

Naveed’s audacious escape betrays a systemic failure in different wings of the State Government’s Home and Law departments. Documents accessed by The Quint reveal that Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs) and other officers had alerted former Inspector General of Police, Munir Khan, several times about what finally occurred on 6 February.

Khan claims that, in turn, he forwarded all these communications to the J&K Police headquarters, emphasising the need to streamline the system of lodging of militants and their movement from jails to courts and/or hospitals.

It was only two days after Naveed’s escape that Director General of Police, Shesh Paul Vaid, circulated a ban on the medical check-up of militant detainees at any government or private hospital other than the Police Hospital. The DGP’s Order No 697, dated 8 February 2018 reads:

... henceforth all the militants lodged at Central Jail Srinagar shall be brought to the Police Hospital, Srinagar for medical examination and treatment. They will be shifted to any other state hospital only if referred by the Police Hospital, Srinagar. 

Drastic Measures After Naveed’s Escape

The Quint has learned from well-placed sources in the government that as a cautionary measure following Naveed’s escape, authorities have started the process of shifting all 'high risk prisoners’ from Kashmir’s jails to Jammu. DG Prisons, SK Mishra, has been removed. Superintendent of Srinagar Central Jail, Hilal Ahmad Rather is currently under suspension, but has not been transferred or removed from services.

Two parallel inquiries, held by Divisional Commissioner Baseer Khan and Deputy Inspector General Prisons Mohammad Sultan Lone, are underway. Even the incompetent medical staff, overstaying for three to ten years, has been removed and replaced.

Munir Khan has claimed that the militants from Pulwama had been “continuously in touch” with Naveed, and had been visiting him in jail frequently. DGP Vaid has admitted that the conspiracy (of facilitating Naveed’s escape) had been hatched in jail.

One officer in the Jammu and Kashmir Police said on condition of anonymity:

We end up wasting a lot of time in fighting our own system. It has been completely hijacked by a meticulous network of the militant supporters and we feel helpless. Some of us are too constrained and demoralised.

‘Reign of Terror’ in Kashmir Jails

Another police officer tells The Quint:

Chief of a terror group, convicted by the SC in a murder case, visits SMHS Hospital at his own sweet will, two days before Naveed’s escape. He calls a reporter for his hour-long interview. Next day, the interview is carried on the front page of the state’s most widely-circulated daily. The convict boasts of his consistent stand (over his concept of J&K’s separation from India and establishment of an Islamic State), and his job of tutoring 150 prisoners on behalf of IGNOU. What sort of country permits such nonsense?

The middle-rank police officer asks, “Why shouldn’t the VC of IGNOU be removed? Why shouldn’t HRD Minister at the Centre step down on moral grounds?” He goes on to add, “We can’t blame others for the lapses and loopholes in our own system. How long can we dismiss it as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?”

Of the 2,600-odd prisoners, under-trials, and other detainees lodged at the state’s 14 jails, approximately 250 are militants. Srinagar Central Jail is their most sought-after place. If revelations and reports, including the one carried by The Times of India, are to be believed, inmates of this fortified jail have free access to the cuisine, literature and visitors of their choice.

The Quint learned from authoritative sources that many of the high-profile prisoners have managed to destroy entire records of their detention.

Jails or Luxury Homes?

“Two days ago, we tried to study the records of some prisoners like Dr Shafi Shariati (professor of Persian at the University of Kashmir who was arrested for his affiliation to Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, and has compiled biography of the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani). We were stunned to learn that it has all been destroyed. When we enquired further, jail staff pleaded that the records had been destroyed in the floods of September 2014. Interestingly, Srinagar Central Jail is at a higher place and it has never been marooned by floods,” revealed a senior officer of the Prison Department.

He further disclosed that only one CCTV camera, controlled by the CRPF at the outer entry, functions regularly. The official added:

Inside the jail, there is no concept of barracks. Convicts never wear the jail uniform. They interact freely with the inmates and visitors of their choice. A murder convict has become a spiritual healer and he receives his devotees in a room. He is also operating a welfare fund. Prisoners continuously use their smartphones. They have access to internet, issue press releases, and operate social media accounts. No CCTV cameras or frequency jammers are functional inside. Only the leader of the prisoners decides who has to be lodged in that jail.

Jail Staff at Militants’ Mercy

Notwithstanding a number of militants having escaped from jail, courts and hospitals, an ad hoc and lackadaisical approach has existed since long. Javed Fazili, whose services had been terminated for facilitating the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Chief General Abdullah’s escape from SMHS Hospital in 2000, is now Senior Superintendent at the state’s largest jail, Kot Bhalwal. Almost all others, suspended or dismissed, have returned with court orders in their favour.

Confirmed Superintendents like Saba Shawl have been conveniently shuttling between high offices on ‘deputation’. As many as eight of the 14 superintendents are either junior officials of the Department of Prisons, or Deputy SPs hired temporarily from the Police Department.

Hilal Rather, who worked as Superintendent of Srinagar Central Jail till the day of Naveed’s escape, is a driver.

Documents reveal that the Department of Prisons started an exercise to fill up 70 posts of wardens in 2005. In 2011, some 1,200 candidates were shortlisted. Interviews and final selection have not been made in the last 12 years, which witnessed seven DGs of Prison — Mohammad Amin Anjum, Navin Agarwal, PL Gupta, K Rajendra Kumar, again PL Gupta, Dr SP Vaid and SK Mishra — come and go. Another junior jail official told The Quint:

It’s clear enough that the local officers will take instructions only from the militant outfits and their ‘masters’ in Pakistan. Let’s admit that Pakistan has more control on Indian jails in Kashmir than our government. It’s not always corruption or sympathy for the militants. They have to live and die here. Who will protect them and their families?

No Government Support

The official went on to add, “A jail official’s house was attacked, and his vehicle set on fire when police raided Baramulla Jail and recovered dozens of SIM cards and smartphones. Besides, the militants and the separatists have the best legal support. Their counsels have managed to get a court order under which Srinagar Central Jail has kept special police escort permanently available for escorting 14 high profile detainees. We have nobody to defend us. Government advocates don’t utter a word to defend our actions and orders in courts.

One SSP, who is not authorised to speak to the media, revealed that successive state governments had been engaging advocates on political considerations, rather than merit and integrity.

“Each one of them wants to grab the Home portfolio as they know that they have to do nothing there. Most of them continue as members of an advocates’ union that has been a votary of Azadi and constituent of Hurriyat Conference. Their job is to copy-paste our dossiers as an appendix of the file. Separatists and militants challenge our actions. Each respondent from the state has to pay Rs 2,000 to the counsel. At an average, they earn Rs 10,000- Rs 12,000 on each of our detention orders. All these orders are quashed by courts as our advocates stand like statues and they offer no argument to support our actions. This is the system,” said an SSP.

Documents reveal that Naveed’s lodgement at Srinagar Central Jail was in compliance with two orders from J&K High Court, and one more from the District Court, when the authorities attempted to shift him to Kathua District Jail in Jammu.

No Scope for Leniency

The decision to contest a court order by way of a Letters Patent Appeal in a Division Bench of J&K High Court or SLP in the Supreme Court, is often left to clerks in the government’s Home and Law Departments. Most of the orders in favour of the political detainees and militants are implemented immediately. None other than the Chief Minister has been the Minister-in-charge for the Home Department. Order No Home/PB-V/331 of 2017 dated 27 January 2017, issued by the Principal Secretary, Home Department reads:

In compliance with the order dated 19.11.2016 passed by the Hon’ble High Court, in the above referred Habeas Corpus Petition, the government in exercise of the powers conferred by section 10 (b) of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, hereby direct that Mohammad Naveed Jat @ Abu Hanzulla @ Munna @ Chotta S/o Mohammad Hanief Jat R/o Chak No: 421/EB Boruhwala District Vehari Multan, Punjab Pakistan, detained vide order No: 07/DMP/PSA/2016 dated 16-02-2016, referred to herein above, be removed District Jail Kathua to Central Jail Srinagar, with immediate effect.

The last order against government’s attempt to shift Naveed to a Jammu jail had been blocked by an order from Principal District and Sessions Judge Srinagar on 26 December 2017.

When asked why the government had not contested the orders from a single judge of J&K High Court or a District Court in DB of J&K High Court or Supreme Court, Principal Secretary Home Raj Kumar Goyal maintained that he could respond to this question only ‘after going through the file’.

New DG Prisons Dilbagh Singh said: “Immediately after I took over, I identified all these lapses and loopholes. I am currently in touch with the Home Department. We are going to address all these issues, including the proposal of hiring reputed law firms from outside the State to defend our cases in High Court and Supreme Court. We can’t afford leniency.”

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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