Jailed For WhatsApp Status: Three Kashmiri Students' Struggle To Be Free

While granting bail to the students, Justice Ajay Bhanot observed, "Unity of India is not made of bamboo reeds which will bend to the passing winds of empty slogans."

When three Kashmiri students celebrated the win of Pakistan cricket team in a T20 World Cup match against India, they didn't know their families would need to sell their home, to get them out of jail.

Five months after they were arrested on sedition charges, the Allahabad High Court granted bail to the Kashmiri students - Inayat Altaf Shekh, 20, Arsheed Yusuf, 20, and Shokat Ahmad Ganai, 21 - on March 30.

Four days later, the students are still in jail as their families struggle to put together Rs 2 lakh each to furnish bonds.

"I have no money, I have spent all whatever I had on legal fees. I am a poor man, no one is ready to help," Shahban, father of Shokat, told BOOM as he broke into sobs. "I immediately need 2 lakh rupees. I will pay it back as soon as I am back in Kashmir even if I have to sell my house."

While granting bail to the students, Justice Ajay Bhanot observed, "Unity of India is not made of bamboo reeds which will bend to the passing winds of empty slogans."

The court granted them bail on the grounds that the application by the students holds merit and the submission made by their counsel "could not be satisfactorily disputed".

Their lawyers argued before the court that they were "falsely implicated" on the basis of "student rivalries over trivial issues".

When Cricket Became A Sedition Case

The three students pursuing engineering degrees at the Raja Balwant Singh Engineering Technical College (RBS) in Agra had allegedly put up status on their WhatsApp accounts celebrating Pakistan's victory. The FIR, filed allegedly under the pressure of Hindu extremists, also said that the trio raised pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans after the match — the allegations students say are baseless —to instigate civil disorder in the country.

The police invoked harsher provisions of the Indian Penal Code including sedition (124 A), promoting enmity between different groups (153-A), and provocative statement (505 (1) (B)). Moreover, the police also used section 66-F Information Technology Act 2000 accusing the students of committing acts of cyber terrorism.

The last five months have been a struggle for justice for the families of the three students.

"They jailed them for a WhatsApp status that was in no way harmful. Arsheed has no criminal record nor is he interested in politics. He doesn't even care about cricket. It is just our bad luck that we had to suffer this much," said Bilal Ahmad Dar, Arsheed's uncle.

"Very good boys" who are "responsible", "hardworking" and "intelligent" were some of the adjectives the families used to describe the young boys.

Arsheed is the eldest son in the family. His father, who was a labourer, died in a road accident 12 years ago. His mother works as a part-time house help in the neighbourhood to help the family make ends meet. "We all look up to him with the hope that he will change the fate of his poor family," said Dar. But the ordeal of the last few months, he said, has "shattered" their dreams.

Similar sentiments were echoed by the family of Inayat Altaf Sheikh whose father is a carpenter. "He is the eldest son in the family. He is loved more than the rest of the children in the family," said his uncle Shabbir Ahmad.

Inayat and Arsheed hail from Chadoora, a town in the outskirts of Srinagar city in Jammu and Kashmir.

After passing their 12th class in science stream in 2018, both Arsheed and Inayat secured admissions in an engineering college in Agra under the Prime Minister's Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), a program started by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011 to provide scholarships to students from J&K. They left their homes in 2019, months before the Modi government revoked the special constitutional status to Jammu and Kashmir in August and enforced an unprecedented military lockdown to stymie chances of any public revolt.

Showkat Ahmad Ganai who is in the last year of his degree had joined the college a year earlier. He too comes from a financially marginalised family in Hajin area of north Kashmir's Bandipora district. His father Mohammad Shahban Ganai is a farmer and his elder brother a labourer. He is the first member in their family who has been to college.

Mohammad Shahban Ganai

Sold Cow To Pay Legal Fees

Shokat Ahmad Ganai had a job offer when he was arrested.

Manzoor Wani, a 25-year-old Agra based student activist associated with Jammu Kashmir students Association (JKSA), said Ganai had gotten a job offer of Rs 6.5 lakh pa from a company. "He was supposed to join an internship in his 8th semester and after completion he would have landed in this job," said Wani.

Now, finding a job looks bleak.

The last five months have been a daunting period for the families. Besides waging legal battles, they knocked on every door— from local councillors to the Prime Minister— to get their sons released. Ganai's parents were forced to sell their cow, an important asset for the poor family, to pay the legal fees.

"Each family must have exhausted around 2 lakh rupees— legal fee, travel expenses— in the last five months," said Shabbir, Inayat's uncle.

After the police case, they were suspended from college which was under pressure from Hindu extremist groups even as the staff vouched that the students did not commit any "anti-national act".

The families have been assisted by JKSA who helped them rope in lawyers after the bar association in Agra court announced that no lawyer should represent the students. Infact, the students were heckled by the lawyers and members of rightwing group when the police first time brought them to the court for hearing.

The behaviour of the Agra lawyers evoked public condemnation with former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah calling it "unacceptable" as he also questioned the role of police. Abdullah had said in a tweet that the Kashmir students case was being used as a "political cannon fodder" in the run up to the polls in Uttar Pradesh.

The high court bail order also raises concern on lawyers denying professional help to the students. "Lawyers have an oath inscribed in their consciences to assist the cause of law under all circumstances and to serve justice to all those who seek it at all times," the court said.

On 28 october 2021, a day before Abdullah's comment, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tweeted: "The sedition law will be invoked against those celebrating Pakistan's victory against India in the recent T20 World Cup match."

After this tweet the police added 124-A section in the FIR against the students.

Shabbir thinks the media hype around the case scuttled their chances of a relief as the Yogi government was riled up. "I was told by lawyers in Agra that criticising Yogi made things worse. They said the statements of Kashmiri politicians provoked the chief minister to be harsh."

The JKSA besides legal help also approached the administration on behalf of the families seeking release of the trio on humanitarian grounds. The group wrote an apology letter to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister but there was no response. It also appealed to the Prime Minister for relief.

Their bail hearings in Agra court were repeatedly getting postponed. In early December, the students moved directly to the Allahabad High Court for bail.

Shabbir who met the trio last on March 29 said they have been kept in a separate room away from the rest of the inmates. He said, "The jail has taken a huge toll on them. They have become physically and emotionally weak. When I hugged my nephew last time, he did not leave for 10 minutes and cried inconsolably. He asked how long they would be kept in jail. "

The next day, the Allahabad High Court entertained their bail application ordering their release on furnishing a personal bond and two sureties each.

While the bail has come as a huge relief for the families, the students are still behind bars.

Meanwhile, Shokat's father Shahban and Inayat's uncle Shabbir have been camping in Agra for the last one week to secure the boys' release, while scrambling for money.

Updated On: 2022-04-04T15:42:19+05:30
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