Jailed for cheering Pakistan: India's crackdown on Muslim cricket fans
Fancy Jan was in the ophthalmology section in northern Kashmir’s Bandipora district hospital when somebody informed her that tensions were simmering in the Indian city of Agra on 25 October.
Knowing that her brother Showkat Ahmad Ganie, who studies in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, might be privy to what was happening, she immediately rang him. “I kept calling my brother but there was no response from his side, that is when I began to panic,” the 22-year-old told The New Arab.
“Then around 6pm my brother called back. He seemed anxious, saying he was doing fine but requested us to restrain from calling for some time as the situation seemed very volatile in Agra,” Fancy added.
"Following India's loss, three Kashmiri students were booked under sedition charges for allegedly posting WhatsApp statuses congratulating Pakistan's team"
On 24 October, the Indian cricket team lost heavily to Pakistan in the ongoing T20 world cup in the UAE. Following the game, three Kashmiri students were booked under sedition charges for allegedly posting WhatsApp statuses congratulating Pakistan’s team.
Showkat Ahmad Ganie, 25, who hails from a humble background in Bandipora’s Shahgund, was among the students suspended by the Raja Balwant Singh Engineering Technical College where he studied.
Showkat was then taken by police into 14-day judicial custody in Agra along with two more students, Arshid Yusuf and Inayat Ahmad Sheikh, both residents of Budgam, for allegedly posting a status that glorified the Pakistani victory.
The charges lodged against the trio include 66F of the Information Technology Act, which deals with the offence of cyber terrorism, and 153 A, 505, and 124A - sections that pertain to sedition or promoting enmity between groups.
The college administration maintained that the students did not express any pro-Pakistan slogans while celebrating the cricket team’s win. Nonetheless, a media campaign vilified them.
'Hatred' against students
Several lawyers’ associations in Agra, including Janpad Bar Association, Agra Advocates Association, and the Young Lawyers Association, have categorically rejected providing any legal assistance to the students accused of sedition charges.
The President of the Young lawyers' Association, Nitin Verma, said in a statement that “we will not provide any legal help to those who are involved in anti-national activity or anti-social activity”.
A video also went viral on social media in which a number of lawyers were seen kicking and thrashing them before they were dragged violently into a police vehicle after a presentation before the court.
Upon seeing the videos, where the students were being heckled, a sense of fear and panic gripped their families in Kashmir. Most of them now fear for their security.
“After we found out our brother (Showkat) had been booked under stringent laws of sedition and taken to jail in Agra, it felt like we were struck by thunder and lightning,” Showkat’s elder sister Posha Jan, 27, lamented while making desperate pleas for the release of her brother.
Inconsolable and terrified, Posha says economic conditions for their family have been terrible, so much so that they struggle to meet their basic needs. “We are so poor that we can’t even afford to visit him right now,” Posha told The New Arab.
Suffering in 'silence'
Showkat’s father Shaban Ahmad Ganie, 65, works as a labourer. According to Posha, they have spent everything, their land, gold and whatever belongings they had, to get her brother a better education. “We sent him to study with the hope he will end our poverty. Being taken into police custody has broken our back. We are devastated. His entire career has been damaged,” she lamented.
Like other family members, the father of Inayat Ahmad Sheikh, another of the students detained, is feeling resentful. Inayat’s father Mohammad Altaf Sheikh told The New Arab that “my son hasn’t committed any crime for supporting a cricket team”.
"Each time Pakistan beat India in a cricket match, the mass celebrations that erupt in Kashmir provoke controversy across India"
“One team has to lose or win in any sport, how is that an issue? After India lost the match, captain Virat Kohli hugged Pakistani players. By the logic of authorities here he too indulged in an anti-national activity, should a sedition case be filed against him?” Altaf questioned. “I apologise on behalf of my son to everyone. If they think he has committed any mistake, I request them to forgive Inayat, my son.”
In a similar tone, the mother of Arshid Yusuf, Haneefa, 45, also asked the authorities to pardon her son for the mistake he committed. “I am a widow and have two daughters to take care of... He is my only hope and the main pillar of our family,” she lamented.
'Cheering' for Pakistan
In addition to the three engineering students in India’s Agra, staff members and two members of Srinagar medical colleges in Kashmir were also charged under draconian anti-terror laws on 26 October.
The two separate cases were filed despite a fact-finding panel from the hospital confirming that students from the institute were not part of the celebrations nor were their premises used to cheer for Pakistan.
Authorities in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region have imposed unprecedented restrictions in recent years, most notably since New Delhi revoked the semi-autonomous status of the region in August 2019.
But despite the immense police scrutiny, mass arrests, and fear of being harassed and tortured, residents continue to show public support for the Pakistan cricket team.
Each time Pakistan beat India in a cricket match, the mass celebrations that erupt within Kashmir provoke controversy across India. However, this October, while the Home Minister Amit Shah was on a three-day official visit to Kashmir, a large number of residents gathered in the main streets across Srinagar city and elsewhere, setting off firecrackers and chanting slogans in favour of Pakistan, apparently trying to make a “political statement”.
For residents of Srinagar, the emotions of supporting Pakistan’s cricket team run deep in Kashmir’s history. “When India played for the first time at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir ground in 1983, Kashmiris supported the West Indies team and hooted at Indian players. Not only that, they chanted pro-Pakistan slogans as part of a protest and tried to dig the turf. Some spectators even carried banners of cricketer Imran Khan,” said an engineer from Srinagar’s old city, who wished to remain anonymous.
However, many officials within India’s Kashmir state apparatus consider supporting the Pakistan cricket team as “immoral”, and even government employees haven’t been spared by authorities. At least one female employee was sacked for celebrating Pakistan’s win in the Kashmiri Pir Panjal valley’s Rajouri district on 28 October.
According to the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, the “crackdown on Kashmiri students both within J&K and outside is reprehensible. The situation in J&K after two years of suppression should’ve been an eye-opener for the GOI (government of India) and lead to course correction. BJPs (Bharatiya Janata Party) pseudo patriotism disregards the idea of India. Release these students immediately,” she tweeted.
Another former cabinet minister, Ruhullah Mehdi, criticised the police action, saying “the battle of narratives is not fought with UAPAs (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). You (New Delhi) are making it known that you don’t have a narrative, you have failed on that end. You only have a refuge in UAPA and such laws.”
On 2 November, the women’s section of the Jammu Kashmir National Conference tried to carry out a demonstration against the “wrongful imprisonment” of the three Kashmiri students in Agra. However, they were prevented by the police from leaving the party headquarters in Srinagar.
"One former BJP lawmaker publicly called for violence against Kashmiri Muslims and all those who support the Pakistan cricket team, saying they should be 'skinned alive'"
While holding placards that demanded the withdrawal of the UAPA cases and condemned the arbitrary use of the laws against the students, the protesters said; “the Uttar Pradesh police are victimising these poor kids and their families. The innocent youth are being used as cannon fodder by the ruling party”.
Former BJP lawmaker Vikram Randhawa from the Jammu region, who has now been charged with hate speech, had publicly called for violence against Kashmiri Muslims and all those who support the Pakistan cricket team. “We have been demanding from the beginning that not just their academic degrees be cancelled but their citizenship too must be revoked. They should be beaten up and skinned alive…” Vikram said in a video.
The demonisation and arrest of students continue, despite the fact that “the college authorities gave these students a clean chit [sic] and confirmed they didn’t shout any slogans,” as former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted. “Rather than take the college assurance at face value the UP police is victimising these poor kids.”
Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Follow him on Twitter: @_umerbeigh