Outside the Government Guest House in this north Kashmir town, an improbable scene was unfolding. Rakesh Khanna, a member of the Amritsar Vishwa Hindu Parishad, lamenting the absence of “insaniyat”, was pleading with the guards to let him go past the black iron gates. Because inside was his friend, Aijaz Ahmed Sofi, president of the Handwara market association, now under detention.
Since the night of August 4, ahead of therevocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two Union Territories, hundreds of people, including separatists, mainstream politicians, social activists, trade association leaders, and stone-pelters have been detained in preventive swoops across the Valley. Nobody has a count of the number of detentions.
Sofi, the market association president, and son of a former legislator, was detained on August 9.
Standing at the gates of the guest house, Khanna, a former president of the Amritsar market association and a member of an organisation that had been most vocal in demanding the abrogation of Article 370, said Sofi was “a friend of 29 years” and almost “a family member”.
Khanna, a kirana and textile trader with family business links in Kashmir from his father’s time, took out his mobile phone to show pictures of himself at an RSS shakha, campaigning for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, and dismantling a Pakistan stall at a textile fair in Amritsar a couple of years ago. “Everything was going well. I camp in a rented house in Srinagar for months at a time because of my business. Things had become peaceful. Tourists had started coming. Ab saara kaam phir se kharab…,” he said.
Khanna said he was all for revoking Article 370. “But this was not the way. They should have tried to reach out to some important people. There are leaders other than mainstream politicians. Now they have arrested everyone. Desh ko mazboot zaroor banao, mein iske khilaaf nahin hoon. Par insaaniyat se kaam lena chahiye na. Why put innocent people in jail? Yeh najaayaz hai. Phir phone bhi kaat diye. See how all the markets are shut. People are suffering. Amarnath yatriyon ko bhi wapas bhej diya,” he said.
Rukaiyah, Sofi’s wife, had sent word to him for help. “That’s why I somehow got here from Srinagar, taking a lift in a private car. She and their children have been trying to meet her husband for days, but they are not being allowed,” Khanna said.
The Sofis are an affluent family. The son is studying to write the IAS exams in Delhi. The two daughters study in Srinagar where they stay at Khanna’s home. At their home, Rukaiyah said the police had come looking for her husband at midnight on August 4, and not believing her when she said he was away in Srinagar, they searched all the rooms. She said they came once more, and when Sofi returned, he went to the SP and gave himself up. “He told me, ‘I don’t have a gun, I am not underground, why this drama of raiding the house? I am going to the police station, and I will ask them to arrest me’,” his wife recalled.
The guest house, where Sofi has been detained, has been turned into a CRPF camp. At its heavily guarded gates, Khanna, wearing trousers and shirt, and sporting gold rimmed glasses, stood out. In the small crowd of Kashmiris gathered there hoping to meet those detained inside, only he cut a figure of authority. But even he sounded helpless as he made his case to the guards.
“He’s my friend, he’s like my brother, he’s a social worker, his wife is ill, his children are crying. Why are you doing this to an innocent man? What is his fault? Why have you arrested him? He hasn’t hurt anyone in his life,” he told the guards.
Sofi’s only fault, Khanna told The Indian Express, was that he had taken part in a dharna in Srinagar some years ago. “There’s a video clip of him raising slogans that resurfaced recently. Now what’s the big deal if someone raises a couple of slogans? Who hasn’t done that?” he said.
The guards told him politely that they did not have the authority to let in any visitors, and that he needed a written letter from the SHO of Handwara police station, but they agreed to bring Sofi to the gate. He stood on tiptoes behind the tall gate, only his face showing, as Khanna gave him an update on his mother, wife and children. As the two friends, one an ardent VHP member, and the other a Kashmiri Muslim who the authorities consider a threat to law and order, faced each other across the closed iron gate, Sofi broke down, and Khanna left for the police station, assuring him he would try his best to see if his wife and children could meet him.