A tall, dishevelled man, roughly in his forties, walked up to *Ahmed as he sat huddled in one corner of a hallway in the crowded jail. "You, if you try to do something anti-national here, I will bash you up," he howled. Terrified, Ahmed tried to look away. The man, whose name Ahmed never found out, sauntered away chuckling and joking with other inmates in the hall of the jail in Solan, a small hill town in Himachal Pradesh.
A week ago in February 2019, Ahmed (*name changed to protect the student's identity) was just another student at a university in Himachal Pradesh, shuttling between classes, hanging out with friends and writing tests.
In the third week of February when this incident occurred, he had spent 4 days in police custody and a couple of days in jail. The inmates of the jail, Ahmed figured out, were in for a thefts, assault, robbery, and for murder.
Ahmed was in the same jail for a Facebook post he had written eight years ago cheering a cricket team. Because it read, "Come on Pakistan, you can do it."
15 February, 2019
It was a rainy morning. Ahmed, an M Sc student, had already decided to spend the day inside his hostel room in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. A day earlier, 14 February, a 22-year-old bomber named Adil Dar had rammed his explosives laden car into a bus at Pulwama, killing 49 paramilitary troops in one of the deadliest attacks on the armed forces in Kashmir.
Dar's pre-recorded video, claiming responsibility for the attack, was widely shared on social media and broadcast several times across the news channels. Protests and clashes were reported at several places. News of many Kashmiris living in different cities in India being attacked started making headlines.
Ahmed's worried parents–apple farmers living in southern Kashmir–had called him in the evening after the attack, cautioning him about the situation and asking him not to attend classes till the tension died down.
Searching for movies on the Internet, wrapping a blanket to keep warm in the winter chill, Ahmed tried not to think about the cycle of violence. As advised by his family, he tried to stay as invisible as possible to the students and faculty of his college that day. Everything will be fine in a few days, he consoled himself.
Only, his life was about to change forever.
That afternoon, one of Ahmed's classmates called him saying that screenshots of his Facebook posts are being circulated in the college WhatsApp groups. The 23-year-old was taken aback — he had not posted anything on Facebook in months. Ahmed had not checked his WhatsApp in a while to avoid more news that would make him anxious.
So hours after the posts began circulating, he checked the groups he was a part of: a screenshot of a Facebook status update he had posted in 2011 was being shared, with messages from fellow students marking him out as an 'anti-national'.
In 2011, Ahmed was 15, new to the thrills of social media and quick with updating status messages. "Come on Pakistan, you can do it", Ahmed had written during a cricket match, supporting the country's cricket team.
Eight years later after the Pulwama attack, someone in his college had singled him out, scrolled through eight years' worth of posts and screenshotted one status message applauding Pakistan's cricket team. In a few hours, he was branded 'anti-national' on various WhatsApp groups accessed by hundreds of students from his university.
Ahmed was stunned. Scared of being attacked, he quickly deactivated his Facebook account, hoping this storm of hatred would blow over.
His nightmare, however, was only getting started.
In the evening he got a call from a university official suggesting that he should not stay in his hostel due to 'safety concerns'. The official offered him a safe place in a university guesthouse, where Ahmed met another Kashmiri student, who was also facing the same situation. The duo realised that they were the only Kashmiri students studying in the university and now both were being targeted for social media posts from years ago and being called anti-nationals.
"The screenshots being circulated were of the post I had uploaded in 2011, supporting the Pakistan cricket team" said Ahmed, who is now 25–year-old. The other student was two years younger, and the post he was branded 'anti-national' for was a picture of the Pakistani national flag that he had uploaded on Facebook when he was 14.
'Just the photo of a flag', the other boy told him, shocked at what was happening to them.
Next day, police came and asked the students to go with them. "We were told that the police had come to keep us at a safe place," said Ahmed.
Once they arrived at the police station, the students realised something was wrong. It was there that they came to know that an FIR had been filed against them, booking them under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code for 'causing provocation with the intent to cause riots'.
Citing the screenshots from 2011 and 2014, the FIR, said, "It becomes clear from the post that the mentioned people are involved in anti-national activities and it is suspected that they are involved in seditious activities as well."
It turned out that three students from the same university — boys Ahmed knew by face but didn't know the names of — had filed an official complaint.
When Ahmed's family in Kashmir got the news, his father and an uncle immediately rushed to Solan and tried to apply for bail.
Hours after reaching Solan, Ahmed's father went to search for a lawyer around the local district court. Just as he started making enquiries, word spread about Ahmed's alleged 'anti-national activities'. Before Ahmed's father could understand what was happening, dozens of lawyers had barricaded the court, preventing any local lawyer from entering the premises with the elderly man. "They wouldn't let any local lawyer represent us," Ahmed said.
"When we were produced in court, there was a huge crowd of lawyers shouting at us," said Ahmed, who was unable to comprehend what was happening. "They were shouting slogans like Pakistan Murdabad," he said.
"I was shivering with fear," Ahmed said.
After four days of police remand they were both sent to jail for 10 days and the Shimla High Court refused to give him bail, directing them back to the local court.
Both the students were finally granted bail on March 1 by the district court in Solan.
Ahmed's case is one example of how a social media post–even if uploaded years ago, when you were a minor–can land you in a jail in India, with long-term implications. At the receiving end of this frenzy, exacerbated since Narendra Modi led Bhartiya Janta Party came into power in 2014, are people from minorities, and especially Kashmir.
Fear And Humiliation
Police, Ahmed said, asked them "uncomfortable" questions about their religion and whether they had earlier received education in madrasas, referring to Islamic seminaries. "The policemen slapped us and used abusive language while interrogating us," said Ahmed. "Our hostel rooms were also searched by police. They were treating us like terrorists."
BOOM called Inspector Yashwant Singh, SHO, Sadar Solan and asked him about the allegations. He refused to comment, saying he is "busy". We will update the story, when he responds.
The response from the lawyers in Solan, however, terrified Ahmed. "I had expected that the police would beat us, we've heard numerous stories about them treating accused like that. But I did not expect the lawyers to heckle us the way they did. Their job is completely different," he said.
"In fact, I was hoping that the lawyers would see what was wrong, feel bad about us being harassed and help us, instead they turned on us. The situation was strange," Ahmed said.
"In jail we were kept with dreaded criminals," he said. "And even those criminals would call us 'anti-nationals' and verbally abuse us."
Ahmed had decided to move out of Kashmir after he finished his college to stay away from the tensions back home. "In Kashmir, our education would often get disturbed due to the ongoing turmoil," said Ahmed. "I wanted to study better and that is why I moved outside," he said.
But he had never thought this could happen with him. "It was shocking for me that the people who were good to me in my university did this to me," said Ahmed. "More shocking thing was that police were actually taking action against us, treating us like terrorists for a simple Facebook post uploded years back."
As soon as Ahmed was released on bail, he came back home and took admission in a local university.
"I couldn't stay for even a day more at that place," he said.
When Ahmed had decided to move out of Kashmir, his parents and relatives had already cautioned him about the safety. That is why, he said, he had chosen Solan–which seemed relatively safer.
But now, other than going for court hearings, Ahmed says, he never wants to, or has since then, travelled outside Kashmir. "I don't think I will ever travel to Indian cities or recommend people to do so, It is completely unsafe for Kashmiris," he said.
It has been over two years since that episode but Ahmed and his parents are yet to come to terms with the ordeal. While Ahmed has confined himself mostly to his home, his parents feel worried over the fate of the case, which has also taken a financial toll on them.
"My parents are always worried about my future. The lawyer fees, the travels, the uncertainty about my future have consumed them," Ahmed said, estimating that his parents have spent more than three lakh rupees on legal fees and will definitely have to spend more.
Ahmed himself has spent most of his nights over the past two years without sleeping. He cannot stop thinking about the two weeks in jail and police custody and shudders at the thought of being there again. "What if they arrest me again?"
He is also extra cautious with the internet and has in fact given up Facebook.
"I keep thinking how cruel the people and the system of this land is," Ahmed said. "I have not committed any crime but still I am being punished."
Salih Pirzada, A Kashmir-based lawyer said that the cases had flimsy legal ground and were simply lodged to make an example out of these students. "These cases do not fit in the sections which have been invoked. But what they want to create is a punitive process. This is a regressive policy so that people do not even venture near these things and hysteria is created around these cases. The process is punishment rather than the punishment, which is unlikely," the 31-year-old lawyer said.
A Kashmiri Outside Kashmir
Attacks on Kashmiris–particularly students–in mainland India are reported often and escalate during political developments and incidents of violence.
Over the years, due to the unending cycle of violence and the attendant lack of development, hundreds of students moved out of Kashmir, enrolling into colleges across the country. Thousands of Kashmiri students have been facilitated to avail opportunities of higher education under the Prime Minister's Scholarship Scheme.
However, with hopes of getting better opportunities, comes the unique struggle of being a Kashmiri outside Kashmir. The slightest political rumble has direct, and sometimes, violent implications on the lives of these students.
The Jammu and Kashmir Students Association (JKSA) was formed in 2016 to help Kashmiri students in trouble and over the past few years a staggering number of requests for help have been about students facing violence, anger or legal action for social media posts.
The group currently consists of nearly 450 volunteers–mostly the students studying in different states of India. JKSA has opened up helplines for the students in trouble and coordinates with the authorities to help them.
Nasir Khuehami, JKSA's 25-year-old co-founder, was a student at government degree college in Bandipora in northern Kashmir in 2015 when he left his degree in the middle and joined a college in Uttarakhand. "Our education would get affected due to the regular shutdowns and uncertain situation," said Khuehami, who was hopeful of a better future at his new college.
But soon, he realised Kashmiri students were facing a lot of issues outside and there was no one to help them, prompting him to start a student help group in Uttrakhand. Later, in July 2016 when Kashmir was engulfed in an unprecedented crisis after the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani–nearly hundred people killed during protests and thousands more injured–there was a crisis-like situation for Kashmiri students studying outside due to the communication restrictions, like internet shutdown in the valley. Students were not able to communicate with their family and many were running out of money. "More concerning were attacks on Kashmiri students. Six students were thrashed by some people and later detained by police," said Khuehami.
Khuehami, who aspired to be a journalist, wanted to help students. He and other students jumped in and took up the issue with the administration and ensured their release. "Besides we coordinated with other students in distress," he said.
Following the Pulwama attack in 2019, as Kashmiri students were attacked at many places, the group with the help of local activists and administration helped hundreds of students to return to Kashmir or provided them safe temporary accommodations.
A War Over Cricket
In October this year, three Kashmiri engineering students were suspended from their college and later arrested in Agra for allegedly sharing 'pro-Pakistan posts on WhatsApp' after India lost the T-20 World Cup match against Pakistan.
The three were booked under IPC Sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 505 (1)(B) (with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public), and 66-F of the Information Technology Act for allegedly sending WhatsApp messages "against the country".
When JKSA received this distress call, they tried the usual routes to help the students — local administration and other government institutions. However, no one was willing to help this time.
Like in Ahmed's case, several lawyers in Agra refused to take up the case and when the students were being produced in court, they encircled them and heckled them.
JKSA then coordinated with a lawyer based in Mathura, who took up the case. The court has refused to grant them bail and the students have been in jail for over a month now.
The families of the three students are devastated. All the three students were studying on the Prime Minister's Scholarship Scheme.
BOOM had spoken to several former Supreme Court judges who said that there is no law that bans anyone from cheering for any team other than India. "This government may have used it (sedition) more, but every government has misused it," Former Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta told BOOM.
Haneefa Bano, who is in her mid forties, was hopeful that miseries of her life will end once her son Arshid Yousuf completed college and earned a degree. However, Arshid now languishes in jail, facing an uncertain future. The 20-year-old was among the three students arrested in Agra.
Bano was able to provide her son with basic necessities and education with great difficulty. After her husband died in an accident, Bano borrowed from relatives to put her son through school.
"I would rely on the help of my relatives," said Bano. "Arshid worked hard and wanted to help me."
But with the arrest of Arshid, Bano is frustrated and helpless. "I am not able to understand what crime he committed. He has been a hardworking student," Bano told BOOM, her eyes welling up with tears.
It has been weeks since Arshid was thrown into jail and Bano has not been able to meet him because she has to save the little money she has for the long legal battle ahead. There is no money left for her to travel.
"I am not able to sleep and eat properly since my son was arrested," said Bano.
Khuehami and his JKSA are trying to be a "bridge" between Kashmiri students and authorities but they see a worrying trend.
"Kashmiri students are getting increasingly attacked because of the perception being created in mainstream media against Kashmiris," he said. So cheering a cricket team can land them in jail, without bail for months on end.
"If one can cheer for England which has subjugated India for two hundred years why can't people cheer for the Pakistan cricket team?" It's a question Pirzada has not found an answer to while fighting cases for young Kashmiris thrown into jail over similar accusations.
Aakash Hassan is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. He can be reached at @AakashHassan on Twitter.
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