India: Re-Arrest of Kashmiri Separatist Sparks Protests

By Altaf Ahmad
2015.04.17
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150417-IN-bhat-620 Kashmiri separatist leader Masarat Alam Bhat (left) speaks to visitors at his home in Srinagar, March 12, 2015.
AFP

Violent street demonstrations erupted in Kashmir on Friday after authorities re-arrested Kashmiri separatist leader Masarat Alam Bhat, whose release from jail last month unleashed a political firestorm in India.

At least 20 police officers and five protestors were hurt during clashes between demonstrators and security personnel in Srinagar, the capital of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Associated Press reported.

Bhat was formally arrested Friday after being placed under house arrest the night before.

The protests also followed the house arrests of two other separatist leaders: Shabir Shah and Syed Ali Geelani, the senior-most leader of the Hurryat Conference party, who is in his eighties.

According to reports from AP and Agence France-Presse, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, as demonstrators threw rocks at them and burned an Indian flag.

Since the 1990s, the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley has been in the grip of a separatist insurgency, which India blames on Pakistan. For 68 years, both countries have had territorial claims on Kashmir.

Bhat was arrested for allegedly leading an anti-Indian rally Wednesday, in which demonstrators protested the killing two days earlier of a militant commander’s brother by Indian forces near the town of Tral, not far from Srinagar.

The rally also was held to welcome Geelani home from New Delhi, where he had spent three months receiving medical care.

Authorities arrested the three separatist leaders so as to stop them from taking part in a protest march planned in Tral, AFP reported.

A controversial move

On March 7, the state’s newly elected government freed Bhat from custody, after he had spent several years in jail without charges filed against him.

He had been arrested multiple times before, including on suspicion of fomenting stone-throwing protests in 2010, in which 110 civilians were killed by the state’s security forces.

The J&K government’s decision to release Bhat caused an uproar.

It tested a fragile ruling coalition formed at the state level between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that governs India.

As part of the pact, the two parties agreed to a Common Minimum Program (CMP), by which they promised to consult one another on issues including the initiation of peace talks with Pakistan and the release of political prisoners, such as Bhat, from Kashmiri jails.

After the decision to release Bhat, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, of the PDP, faced a barrage of criticism from Indian politicians.

They accused him of endangering national security and encouraging separatism by freeing Bhat, and BJP officials accused him of violating the terms of the CMP by not consulting their party on his release.

Nonetheless, according to a legal expert, the state government’s decision to release the separatist was lawful.

“It is totally legal and constitutional because all the courts have bailed him out in cases registered against him. He was detained under Public Safety Act six times and all the detention orders were quashed by the J&K High Court,” Advocate Ghulam Nabi Shaheen, a former general secretary of the Kashmiri Bar Association, told BenarNews.

“The Supreme Court of India also held that his detention orders were not sustainable in the eyes of the law,” he added. “The government was left with no option but to release him.”

PDP justifies decision

PDP officials last month conveyed a similar message in defending their decision to free Bhat.

“The government just facilitated his release legally and constitutionally. Our government is committed to restore peace in the valley and for achieving this, the release of political prisoners languishing in jails without serious criminal charges is a must,” Minister for Rural Development Abdul Haq Khan told BenarNews.

“The release of political prisoners, however, should not be misconstrued as the government’s lackadaisical approach in fighting militancy in the state. Our government will not compromise on national security in any situation,” he added.

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