Jailed Hurriyat leader Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai died on Wednesday, 5 May 2021, due to multiple illnesses, at the Government Medical College, Jammu. He was serving jail-time at the Jammu District Jail under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows preventive detention of individuals for up to two years without trial.
The death of the pro-Pakistan separatist leader in Kashmir is likely to raise fresh tensions in the Kashmir Valley, and also test the reaffirmation of the 2003 ceasefire deal between India and Pakistan, that saw both sparring countries dialling down border skirmishes along the Line of Control (LoC), and embarking on a series of peace initiatives.
‘No Medical Check-Ups Since Sehrai’s Arrest’
Sehrai, who was 77-years-old, was the top leader in the Hurriyat faction that was led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani until March 2018. In July 2020, he was detained under the stringent PSA law which remains in force in J&K’s Constitution even as its autonomy enshrined under Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019.
The PSA’s application in Kashmir has also been subjected to significant criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
“In a year since he was arrested, not a single medical check-up was carried out on him,” Mujahid Sehrai, the deceased Hurriyat leader’s son, told The Quint over the phone from Jammu. “All these months we have been shipping medicines to him in jail. Since the last one month, his health had been deteriorating.”
Sehrai, who was detained at Kot Balwal jail in Jammu, suffered from bronchitis and renal ailments. “His eyesight had also grown weaker due to surgery. And due to (constant) interrogation in jail in Jharkhand in the early 2000s, his legs had also grown weak,” his son said.
His family had also petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court last year seeking bail on account of his illness.
“The hearing date was scheduled for 16 April 2021, but there was no judge on the date of his hearing,” Mujahid alleged. “Before that, during the last hearing on 3 April, some other cases were heard by judges, but not his.”
Political Parties Clamour Against Incarceration Of J&K Leaders
Originally from a village in the border district of Kupwara, Sehrai was living in Baghat, an upscale neighbourhood in Srinagar, at the time of his arrest in 2020.
“We would talk to him once a week. During my last conversation with him, he said he was feeling very weak. He complained about the poor diet,” Mujahid said. “Yesterday (4 May), we received a called from District Jail Udhampur at around 6 PM. The caller told us that my father's situation had worsened and that he had been shifted to District Hospital, Udhampur. They told us he had a stomach upset and was suffering. Later, we learned that he was referred to GMC Jammu. We booked a ticket and immediately reached Jammu.”
At the time of talking to this reporter, Mujahid had been waiting for two hours outside the mortuary. “They have not shown his body to us yet,” he said.
Media reports in Srinagar have quoted family sources saying that Sehrai will be buried in his ancestral village in Lolab in Kupwara.
Political parties across the spectrum have joined the chorus, accusing the Union Territory administration of jailing political leaders over their ‘ideologies’ in the midst of a raging pandemic.
Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted that she was “deeply saddened” by Sehrai’s demise and urged the government to “immediately release these detainees on parole so that they return home to their families.”
Sajjad Lone, the separatist-turned-mainstream politician who heads the People’s Conference (JKPC), called him an “honest politician” who “spent decades in jail.”
“...why did he have to die in incarceration and not at his home amongst his kin and loved ones,” he tweeted. “Have we become so weak that an old infirm dying person is a threat to the State. I am not being critical. But please introspect. Sehrai Sahib was a political leader — not a terrorist.”
Why Sehrai’s Political Prestige Remains
The All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a conglomeration of different separatist groups in the Valley, in a statement, accused the government of leaving Sehrai “unattended till his condition worsened yesterday and he died.”
Sehrai was a former member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious-political organisation that was banned in February 2019 in the aftermath of a deadly suicide attack on a CRPF motorcade.
The Jamaat has been accused of supporting armed insurgency in the south Kashmir districts, where it also holds political sway. Most young men who join the militant ranks in south Kashmir often hail from families associated with the Jamaat.
Before Sehrai was arrested in July 2020, his son Junaid was killed as the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen during a long gunfight in Nawa Kadal area of Srinagar in 2020, along with Tariq Sheikh, another militant.
Junaid was a post-graduate in Business Administration from Kashmir University, and his entry into militancy has been described by police officials as a mere ‘symbolic’ gesture intended as political messaging — to stave off dissensions and splintering within the militant ranks.
Multiple media reports last year projected Sehrai as a devastated father, who, despite adversity – for, his son’s body was not returned as part of the J&K police’s new burial protocol for militants – managed to maintain a stiff upper lip.
Video clips of Sehrai pledging “resolute commitment” and “steadfastness” to the “political cause” are still flooding social media in Kashmir, as a result of which his political veneration and prestige continues to swell.
This posturing has also helped the Hurriyat tide over the credibility crisis following Geelani’s controversial resignation as the head of the APHC in the wake of a racket involving the allocation of seats to study medicine in Pakistan in 2020.
The resignation was hailed by members of the BJP as a ‘vindication’ — that the abrogation of Article 370 was finally “freeing” Kashmir from separatism.
Plight of J&K Prisoners Amid COVID
Sehrai’s death also renewed the concerns over the health of jailed leaders lodged in different facilities across the Union Territory. There are an estimated 4,422 prisoners lodged in 13 jails across J&K as of March 2021. Of these, 3923 are just under-trials. Last year, upon directions from the Supreme Court to decongest jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a high-powered committee announced the release of 4,204 inmates on bail, and 41 others on parole till March 2021.
Earlier this month, the J&K High Court drew flak for disposing of a petition demanding the availability of vaccines for prisoners languishing in jails across the UT.
Habeel Iqbal, a US State Department Fellow and a Kashmiri legal practitioner, said the government was under obligation to look after the health of prisoners.
“I attended the J&K High Court’s recent hearing and it was strange to see the Chief Justice disposing of the petition on the grounds that there were convicts among prisoners — as if convicts don’t have the right to live. During his oral remarks, he, pretty bizarrely, also said that making vaccines available in jails will create panic,” he said.
Though reports have appeared in the press claiming that Sehrai showed COVID-19 symptoms, his son Mujahid said he did not die of the virus and that his test had come negative. “He did not die due to COVID-19,” he said.
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the TOI and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)