‘What Are We? Spoils of War?’ Mehbooba Mufti’s Daughter Says After Leaving Kashmir

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kashmiri Muslim women shout slogans during a protest march in Srinagar, Kashmir on 9 August. 

Iltija Mufti was placed under house arrest on 6 August, two days after her mother Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was similarly detained the night before Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of J&K’s special constitutional status, and the Modi government severed mobile phone and internet services. 

For 16 days, Mufti, who is 32, and holds no political post, and her grandmother, were confined to their home on Gupkar road, Srinagar. On 15 August, Mufti managed to sneak out a letter addressed to Amit Shah, questioning the grounds for detaining a civilian. 

Following her release a week later, Mufti spoke to HuffPost India about where Kashmir is headed after three weeks of a communication blackout and curfew, what’s it like to be under house arrest, and the time leading up to her mother being taken away on 4 August. “Truth has been the biggest casualty in all of this,” she said. “I feel like our lives are straight out of George Orwell’s 1984…” 

Mufti has asked HuffPost India not to disclose her location.

I feel like our lives are straight out of George Orwell’s 1984…

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There has been a communication blackout and curfew in Kashmir for the past 20 days. Where do things go from here?

Where we go from here depends entirely on the Government of India. They are micromanaging everything there. I believe the U.N. issued a statement saying that India needs to end this massive communication and curfew that they have imposed. It’s inhuman. It’s callous. Truth has been the biggest casualty in all of this. It’s counterproductive. It’s blocking the free flow of information… You know, I’m just ranting right now because I’m so angry.

Please go on. 

Forget Article 370, there will be a debate about it for years and years to come — whether it was legal, whether it was constitutional. I believe people have already filed petitions in the Supreme Court. But what followed after that… this curfew is unprecedented in terms of restrictions. 

Kashmir was not normal to begin with and now you have taken away whatever semblance of normalcy Kashmiris had. As I’m talking to you right now, it’s tough for me to decide where I need to begin from. 

You ask anyone from my generation, Kashmiris have seen nothing but bloodshed for the past 30 years, with these very short periods of peace. Our lives are broken but Kashmiris have still tried to build a life. You have these entrepreneurs who have set up these amazing restaurants, beautiful coffee shops, with books and libraries and stuff. What’s going to happen to all that. I’ve never felt so repressed in my life. We are being made to feel like outsiders in our own land. We are being made to feel that Kashmir doesn’t belong to us. I came from the Valley, yesterday… you are being stopped after every two minutes with the barricades and spools of wire. It’s unprecedented, it’s inhuman and it’s infuriating. It feels like collective punishment.

Kashmir was not normal to begin with and now you have taken away whatever semblance of normalcy Kashmiris had.

What do you think will happen if this continues?

The government is creating a pressure cooker situation. You’ve locked people up for three weeks, what do you think will happen? People are not being able to express themselves. When people protest in other parts of the country, you don’t fire tear gas at them. Is the anger going to evaporate? If you lift the curfew after three months, will they forget all about it?  No, they won’t. 

On this whole special status, I believe Nagaland celebrated its own Independence Day on 14th August, raised its own flag, sang its own national anthem. Why have you singled out and stripped Kashmir? In a pluralistic country, which prides its diversity, you are breaking federalism. The freedom for each state to do its own thing. A government that enjoys a brute majority is going to demote any state that it wants. Right now, the rest of the country feels that they are doing an amazing job… that it will bring in business and investment. The same thing can happen to you tomorrow. Your state can be broken into two, three, four, places. Will you feel the same way, then?

People were expecting the communication blockade and curfew to end after 15 August. Now, there does not appear to be an end in sight. Do you feel the government just wants to wear people out until they are past the point of protest.

The assumption — lets wear people out — is so insensitive. First, you snatch what belongs to them. Article 370 was not an Eid present to us. It was a constitutional guarantee. Look at the whole Kashmir problem. Do you think people are tired? Of course, they are not going to get worn out. And Kashmiris are very smart now, they are well-educated and they know what to fight for. This time, they want to protest peacefully, but the government is not even allowing that. What is going to happen will set a very dangerous trend. For three or four months, you have clamped down, you are not letting them express their anger. After three or four months, they will say to hell with peaceful protests. You can’t micromanage the way people feel. You can cage people, but you can’t cage their sentiments. 

You can’t micromanage the way people feel. You can cage people, but you can’t cage their sentiments.

Protests in Kashmir do get violent. There is stone pelting, shooting of pellet guns, tear gas, leading to deaths and injuries. It could be a bloodbath. The government is responsible for public order. 

If the government knew that it was embarking on such a misadventure then why did they do this in the first place. How have you integrated J&K by bifurcating it? If you betray people, is there not going to be outrage. There are apprehensions that it could turn into a bloodbath, but how is the strategy that the government is presently adopting of any help? Why did they not take Kashmiris into confidence? My mother, along with other mainstream political parties, tried speaking with the Centre and taking assurances. Why did they not take the mainstream parties into confidence. I’m sorry, but you can’t amputate a man’s legs and then say let’s go trouser shopping — we have bifurcated your state, but we are going to bring in lots of development. For Kashmiris, this is a fight for their identity, culture, ethnicity and race. You cannot lure them with false promises of development.

For instance, this gender disparity thing. Let’s just assume for five minutes  that it is being done to empower women. Their own elected chief minister is saying that they are going to bring in Kashmiri daughters-in-law. What are we? Spoils of war? There could be some kind of condemnation from the Centre, an elected chief minister has made the statement… do you know how they have jeopardised the safety of Kashmiri women in other states? You are saying that we are doing all this to empower you. The biggest irony is that Kashmiris could not even hear that speech.

I’m sorry, but you can’t amputate a man’s legs and then say let’s go trouser shopping.

So many politicians, even an IAS topper like Shah Faesal have been placed under house arrest… 

I want to talk about Shah Faesal for a second. Shah Faesal was a role model for Kashmiri men and women. This man topped the civil service, was an excellent administrator, and people have looked up to him. You have taken a Kashmiri role model and you have humiliated him. What kind of message does that convey?

You were detained at your home.  What’s it like being under house arrest.

It’s like being in jail. I’ll show you photos of how they put padlocks outside my house. You can’t do anything. I was not allowed to leave. They don’t allow you to meet anyone. People were turned away from the gate. Every time I asked, who is doing this, they would say— higher ups… two people in Delhi, they are deciding all this. Nothing is in our hands.”

Who were you speaking with? 

There would be SSG (Superior Security Guards) personnel at the gate and an inspector who was their head. Initially, I thought I would not be placed under detention. I had a huge argument with them, and they said — we have orders from the higher ups because you’ve given these interviews and now you’re under detention. The funny bit is that they started suspending our staff, one by one, because they felt that they were assisting me in sending the voice notes out. 

Were you told that you are now under house arrest? 

So, the communication from my end has been all in writing, but from their end… When I was told that I’m under detention, I asked them for a written order. I said as an Indian citizen if you have taken my civil liberties then I need to have it in writing. At least, I have a record, I can approach a lawyer. They refused to give it to me in writing. What is this? Jungle Raj? There is no respect for the rule of law. 

You were just stepping out on the 6th of August and they stopped you?

I tried to leave the house and they did not allow me. They kept three women officers. Even when I told them I’m not stepping outside, but let me see the road, let me see if there is traffic, they did not let me.  That’s when they told me that because I’ve spoken with the media, and because I’m the daughter of the ex CM, I’m going to be detained as well. I was told to shut my mouth, and if I keep quiet then maybe they’ll end my detention. 

I have pictures of the padlocks and of how my luggage was scanned before I left the state. Honestly, I did not want to leave at all. My choice was that I either come out and speak with people, and I try seeking help for Kashmiris and for my mother. Or just stay jailed like everyone else. I’m here now, and I don’t know what is happening there, and I feel so useless.

Honestly, I did not want to leave at all.

Have you had any communication with your mother? 

No. Nothing. My mother was the last chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir as a state. How have you treated her?  What about the scores of political workers that you have taken. What are you punishing them for? They picked up the Indian flag at a time when people had nothing but contempt for India. They tried to bridge that gap. They have picked up members from civil society, lawyers. Do we have a number on detentions? Can I please ask them to come out with a list of people who have been detained? Where have they been detained? Do their families not deserve to know?

For mainstream politicians such as your mother and Omar Abdullah, people say, they are under house arrest for a little while, probably in a comfortable hotel, so things are not so bad. 

I’m sorry, no matter how gilded the cage is, it is still a cage. And what nonsense. My mother and Omar sahab have been put into some guesthouse, which has been turned into a jail. When I say a jail, I mean they haven’t been able to speak with anybody, communicate with anybody. I haven’t been able to speak with my mother or meet her for the past three weeks. This is psychological warfare. You want to break their spirit and discredit them publicly. They also started planting stories about how my mother and Omar had a spat that was complete drivel. I know for a fact that they were separated because the government was paranoid because they would end up talking to each other. 

How does it feel to have mobile service and internet after two weeks. 

It hits me, but it also makes me more anxious because I don’t know what’s happening back home. What do I do with this Internet? What do I do with this WiFi? What do I do with this Twitter? My entire state has been incarcerated. For me, it was a very tough choice to make, but I had to bite the bullet and leave. They made it very clear that I would not be allowed to step out of the house in Kashmir.

Can you talk about the moments leading up to your mother’s house arrest?

An IPS officer came, and she was accompanied by a magistrate, and they gave us an order. And they told my mom that we need to take you, and then she was gone. This was around 6:30 in the evening on 4th August. 

You all probably thought she was going for a few days, not so long.

No, we didn’t. She took a really small suitcase with two or three pairs of clothes. We had to force her to take her medicines. Then, when we realised that she would be gone for a while, we requested that we send more stuff. It is so humiliating. That suitcase is checked once before it leaves my residence at the gate and it is checked again before it reaches her. 

I want to ask them how are they arresting and jailing elected representatives. For the rest of the country, it is innocent until proven guilty. But what about us? For Kashmiris, it is guilty until we have to prove ourselves. Why this double standard for Kashmiris? 

For Kashmiris, it is guilty until we have to prove ourselves.

Have you heard where she might be? 

I’ve been told that she might be here, she might be there, but no one has officially briefed us on where she is. I don’t know where she is and I’m worried. Keeping anyone in solitary confinement for so long is obviously going to take its toll. Kashmiris are turning to their families in this time of despair.  And my mother, a two time MP (Member of Parliament), a former chief minister, someone who believes in the idea of India, a secular democratic India, you are treating her like a criminal. Every time, we sent her luggage out, it was scanned. 

As much as you can share, what did you and your mother talk about before she was placed under house arrest? 

My mother was very very upset before she left. She felt so betrayed. She told me that I need you get a message to our Rajya Sabha MPs, and tell them to resign. And makes sure to tell them that if they don’t resign then they will be expelled?

Did you get a chance to do that.

I did. I was able to put the message out, the rest is up to them. I’m just the messenger. 

Anything else?

As stupid as it sounds, I told her that I want to come with you. I said that I will even pack my bags and she said, “Are you stupid?” Obviously, it was very emotional. My mother and I have had a very close bond. I’m very protective of her. I didn’t know they would take her for so long. I honestly thought it would be two days. I hugged and tried to accompany her — unsuccessfully.

Does it feel like a bad dream? 

Her being taken away feels surreal in a really bad way. I feel like our lives are straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, where you have an authoritarian regime that wants to intercept your thoughts and opinions. And they want to quell any kind of dissent or protest with an iron fist. I feel scared. Kashmir has become a mini North Korea. The amount of surveillance is crazy. There are drones and helicopters hovering above. There are days, when helicopters are doing surveillance, every ten minutes. 

Her being taken away feels surreal in a really bad way.

So, who is left at your house in Kashmir?

It’s just my grandmother and we have two helpers with her. I requested for a relative to come and stay with her, but they are paranoid. My grandmother is wracked with anxiety. She is so worried. She is worried about Kashmir. She is worried about her daughter the most. 

I have had shouting matches with the security guys. I have yelled. I have shouted at them. I asked them, “Is my grandmother a stone pelter, am I stone pelter?”  They are treating every Kashmiri as a potential criminal. Before he has even picked up a stone, you might be giving him a reason to pick up a stone. Don’t do that. You are alienating, demonising and vilifying Kashmiris. You can’t have Kashmir without its people.  It came to the point that I was going to the gate every day, and I was yelling, and people outside could have heard me. 

What did you yell? 

I said, “You guys are cowards.” I felt trapped. I was yelling for someone, anyone, to hear me.