he death of senior pro-freedom leader Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai after developing pneumonia in Udhampur Jail has yet again laid bare the miserable conditions inside the prisons where Kashmiri political prisoners are lodged. The short duration between the time he was considered worth medical attention and his death at Government Medical College (GMC) Jammu speaks volumes about the prisoners’ sufferings. Given his medical history, the authorities cannot pass off the event as a mere medical mishap. Just some 10 days ago had he called his family to inform them that he is losing eyesight and finds it difficult even to stand up and walk. He even depended upon his family to send him the essential medicines.
There are no reasons to expect the condition of other Kashmiri political prisoners as different. Dr Ashiq Hussain Faktoo alias Qasim Faktoo, the longest-serving political prisoner from Kashmir, is said to be lodged in the same room as that of Sehrai. Both were ill over the past few weeks and doctors had suggested getting their COVID-19 test done only to be denied with a flimsy excuse that it might create panic in the prison.
Aftab Hilal alias Shahid-ul-Islam tested positive for COVID-19 last week in Delhi’s Tihar Prison Complex, a place where a woman inmate died on Wednesday due to the virus. 57 out of 444 women inmates have tested positive for the virus so far in Jail No. 6 of the high-security prison where Kashmir’s women political prisoners like Asiya Andrabi et al continue to languish since 2018.
The frantic appeals by the families of Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik have also echoed enough. Stories of other less-known prisoners like brain tumour patient Bashir Ahmad Bhat are no different.
Sehrai’s death in custody is not the first of its kind. In December 2019, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, 65, a member of banned religio-political organization Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, died in a prison in Uttar Pradesh. No family member had visited him or even spoken to him after his detention in July 2017.
Equally painful are the accounts of prisoners whose kin die back home while they are denied a chance to see them one last time. Muhammad Yaseen Dar of Budgam came to know about the death of his wife only after his release on August 9, 2020, after a year of detention. The wife of Ayaz Akbar died of end-stage cancer last week in Srinagar. She was declared terminally ill six months ago but the family could not get him released on parole up to the last moment.
It is no secret that the prisons in India are overcrowded. Though the Supreme Court of India last year directed states to set up High-Powered Committees to decide which inmates could be temporarily released, the criteria did not work well in the favour of Kashmiri prisoners. The prisons continue to run above their capacity, threatening their lives.
Kashmiri prisoners have been the worst victims of India’s apathetic judiciary. Their pleas go unheard due to absent judges and adjourned hearings. The reduced functioning of courts due to the ongoing pandemic has only worsened the scenario. What is even more troubling is that while most of the pro-India politicians in Kashmir detained after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, were released one by one, the State continues to look upon the other political prisoners through a narrower prism and subject them to a political vendetta.
While the situation remains grim, the government must not abdicate its responsibility of safeguarding the lives of prisoners and ensuring their welfare. The adage ‘Extremis malis extrema remediaʼ (desperate times call for desperate measures) could not have been more relevant.
Access to health care is an inviolable right of every citizen which includes the prisoners of the State. India’s own constitution gives them the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. While the prisons must be decongested to prevent further outbreaks, the prisoners need to be considered for COVID-19 testing and vaccination on a preferential basis.
Restricting the interaction of inmates with jail staff is also important as they are the only possible carriers of a virus into the prisons and can contribute to the spread. It is also imperative that accurate data on the extent of infection, testing and vaccination, as well as the status of medical infrastructure in prisons, be made public.
While the ultimate demand would be the unconditional release of all the political prisoners of Kashmir to engage with them on a political field, the government, for now, must release them on emergency parole. Until they return home, the government must make them feel at one.
The responsibility of any further incident and the consequences will lie squarely with the State. While India has to its credit an unpardonable failure to contain the second COVID-19 wave, failing to protect the lives of those entirely at the State’s mercy will amount to a war crime.