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Lest we forget

Amidst all the brouhaha over cross-border surgical strikes, the current unrest in Kashmir has entered its fourth month. A curfew remains in force in vast swathes of the region, following the death of a minor boy, who was injured when security personnel fired tear gas shells and pump action guns to disperse protestors in Srinagar’s Saidpora area. 

The unrest, which has claimed 84 lives including that of two police officers and left thousands of others injured, has rendered life difficult for the ordinary people. Shops, business establishments, petrol pumps, and educational institutions remain closed amidst security fears. 

The headline story from Kashmir, however, is the massive and intense crackdown conducted by the state government. In the past three months, the state police have arrested close to 7000 people in the Valley while more than 450 people have been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA)--a record number. Also, a further 1500 people are under detention across the region without any charges.

Will such mass incarceration aid the government’s desire to bring normalcy back in the region? These columns have often criticised the PDP-BJP coalition government for their inability to quell the unrest. The state government’s recent decision to ban the publication of English-language daily Kashmir Reader was yet another indicator of its recklessness and incompetence in times of crises. 

In the last three decades of armed conflict in the region, one cannot recall a time when news publications were banned. The government’s decision to shoot the messenger is reminiscent of the methods used to muzzle the press during Emergency. 

Another troubling aspect of the recent crackdown is the government’s excessive use of the PSA.  J&K government spokesman and Education Minister Nayeem Akhtar justified the arrests, citing the “unprecedented situation” that has emerged. Admittedly, there is a stark difference between the unrests of 2010 and 2016. But it does not justify such widespread use of a draconian law. Under the PSA, authorities can detain people for three months without a trial in cases where public order is disturbed. Those arrested for security reasons can be detained up to a maximum period of six months without trial. 

Detainees have no access to legal representation while incarcerated and families are often unaware of their condition in prison. Critics cutting across ideologies, nationalities and political affiliations have argued that its widespread use is in serious contravention of the right to life and personal liberty. 

Even the Supreme Court has referred to the PSA as a “lawless law”. Such a law holds little regard for due process that comes along with trials. It’s hard to win the hearts and minds of a populace if the state government continues to trample on their rights. 
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