Showkat Ganai just sits at home. He does nothing. The once-promising student is now worried about the mountain of debt incurred by a court case he is embroiled in. Ganai said his family had to sell farmland and take loans to match the legal expenses incurred.
Ganai is one of the three Kashmiri students who was arrested in October 2021 for cheering Pakistan’s win against India in the T20 cricket finals.
Two years later, life has completely changed for the 23-year-old.
On November 20, seven Kashmiri students were arrested and charged under the provisions of the UAPA for raising pro-Pakistan slogans after India’s defeat to Australia at the cricket World Cup finals. Condemning the students' unruly behaviour, the Jammu and Kashmir Students’ Association (JSKA) called for their counseling and cautioned that such severe charges would be “career assassination” for the youth.
On December 2, more than a fortnight after their arrest, a local court in Jammu and Kashmir granted them bail after the students’ parents, civil society members appealed to state authorities and even the PMO seeking a more lenient view.
Senior police officials dropped UAPA charges and instead charged the seven students under section 153(a) of the Indian Penal Code which pertains to hate speech.
Even as the seven Kashmiris - Umer Nazir (25), Asif Gulzar War (23), Syed Khalid Hussain Bukhari (23), Mohsin Farooq Wani (25), Sameer Rashid (22), Tawkeer Ahmed Bhat (21), and Ubaid Gulzar (21) - have got a reprieve from the draconian UAPA charges, three other students Kashmiri students are not so lucky.
The fears expressed by JKSA were not unfounded. The November 2023 arrest of the seven Kashmiri students bears a striking similarity to the arrest of the three Kashmiri students arrested in October 2021.
BOOM spoke to Ganai, and two others – Arsheed Yusuf, and Inayat Altaf Sheikh – and their families to understand how their lives changed after the October 2021 incident.
Life changing experience, don’t watch cricket anymore
Showkat Ganai said the legal expenses incurred are close to Rs. 8 lakhs per person. “That’s 24 lakhs for all three of us,” Ganai said.
So far. This is a massive amount for the families who work as labourers and carpenters.
“Two years on, the case is still going on,” Ganai told BOOM.
With the spectre of anti-terror charges looming over him, Ganai said it is difficult to find work. “Wherever I apply, I will have to mention the FIR against me and explain why I have a case against me,” he said.
In March 2022, the trio were in jail for five months before they were granted bail from the Allahabad High Court. “The unity of India is not made of bamboo reeds which will bend to the passing winds of empty slogans,” Justice Ajay Bhanot had observed while granting bail, adding that the nation’s “foundations” are “more enduring”.
However, it was another month before they were released because they were too poor to afford the bail or the surety as mandated by the court.
Ganai and two others – Arsheed Yusuf, and Inayat Altaf Sheikh – were engineering students at Agra’s Raja Balwant Singh Engineering College (RBSEC) under the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme for economically weak students of Jammu and Kashmir.
Since the fateful October night, the lives of the three students have turned on their heads. While Yusuf and Sheikh dropped out of college, Ganai went back and managed to complete his degree.
“I had to drop a year because I was in jail. But I am thankful that I got the opportunity to go back to college and complete my degree. I graduated from college six months ago in June,” Ganai said over the phone.
BOOM tried to reach out to the other two students. One of them requested for privacy, while the maternal uncle of one student said his nephew is depressed. “He dropped out of the Agra college, but joined a private college here in Kashmir,” the uncle said.
“However, he is not able to focus on his studies and is mentally disturbed. He has been in depression since his release from jail,” the uncle added. “Infact, there is tension on all three of their faces,” the uncle said.
“Pura career hi khatam hai (their career is over)”, the uncle said adding, that with this FIR, “naukri kaun dega (who will give them a job)”?
Ganai doesn’t speak much about his experience in jail only to say that he is thankful the authorities cared for them in prison. “I am thankful to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government for keeping us safe in jail,” the civil engineering graduate said. “We had security and were kept under observation,” he added.
What have you been doing ever since this incident happened? BOOM asked Ganai.
“Nothing. It was a life-changing experience. I don’t watch cricket anymore. I stay away from everything, and I stay far away from anything related to the Information and Technology Act,” Ganai said.
“I come from a very poor family,” Ganai said. He is the first in his family and village to get a degree.
“Right now, we are still paying off the loans we took from everyone in our village. Now we have nothing left. I just hope we are able to release our surety bond. Those two lakhs will go a long way,” he added.
Condemn act, counsel students
The arrest of the seven students on November 20, 2023, was like a repeat episode from two years ago. Like in the case of Ganai, Sheikh, and Yusuf, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police had invoked UAPA charges against the seven Kashmiri students.
For days, the students’ parents, and civil society had appealed to the authorities for mercy. Even Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir spoke for them saying the students must be given another chance.
But is cheering for a cricket team illegal? BOOM had earlier spoken to experts who asserted that it is not illegal to cheer for rival sports teams.
Nasir Khuehami, National Convenor of JKSA, had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drop the UAPA charges, suggesting that such a move could ruin the students’ futures. Ummar Jamal, the National General Secretary of the Association, condemned the students’ actions where they allegedly abused and threatened those supporting India, and warned them to be silent or face shooting.
“We condemn this act and behavior in the harshest of words. We are not justifying their act, but such harsh charges will result in their career assassination,” Manzoor Wani, JKSA UP chapter head, had said. Wani mentored the three students whilst they were at the Agra university, and was there for them upon their arrest in October 2021.
“Why did they have to say ‘jeeve jeeve Pakistan’? There is no place for such behavior in a civilised society. However, the issue should be resolved amicably, rather than taking it to court and police station,” Wani told BOOM.
The arrest of the seven students and the invocation of anti-terror law was met with much criticism. At the time, the police authorities defended their stance saying a “softer provision” of UAPA was applied. Section 13 of UAPA (the “softer” charge) carries a jail term of upto seven years or a fine or both.
The FIR was lodged based on a written complaint received and relevant sections are invoked as per the contents of the complaint, the police spokesperson said.
In a statement issued on November 28, the Jammu and Kashmir police termed the incident as “terrorising” and “abnormal”. The police asserted that acts of raising pro-Pakistan slogans are not new and are done “mostly on the back of separatist and terrorist networks” to show that in Kashmir, “everyone hates India”.
However, section 153(a) has replaced the draconian UAPA charges. Section 153(a) carries a jail term up to three years, a fine, or both.
The police have also invoked charges of criminal intimidation and spreading hatred among religious groups which carry a maximum jail term of three years and five years respectively.
Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.