On the night of 30 April, government forces showed up as part of what appeared as a normal midnight showdown to hunt for militants in the Sheikhpora area of Muran village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. But the raid and subsequent detention ended up dragging a howling minor, Shahid Reyaz Thoker, 12, out of his bed. The masked government forces, armed with automatic weapons, didn’t explain much to his pleading parents and swiftly whisked away the wailing juvenile in an armoured vehicle.
By daybreak, it was known that Thoker was among at least two dozen boys “picked up” by the forces during nocturnal raids in his village. The mass detention was part of a large drive to arrest hundreds of youths ahead of polling for the third phase of the Anantnag parliamentary constituency next week.
“If he [Thoker] was a stone-pelter, they could’ve come in the day,” said Bilal Ahmad Yatoo, the boy’s cousin, “Why did they need to come at 1 am and drag him by his hair? It just tells you about where we live and what we go through here. This is insane and utterly humiliating the way the forces are treating us, in our own homes.”
The spree of arrests in poll-bound Pulwama and Shopian districts follows a similar pattern of illegal detention of youth by forces in Kashmir, ahead of polls. But what has complicated things is the detention of large number of minors during nocturnal raids.
A few hundred metres ahead of Thoker’s place, Sajad Ahmad Sheikh was fast asleep, when the armed forces arrived on a midnight crackdown spree. He too was dragged out of his bed and bundled into an armoured vehicle. “He has nothing to do with any incident of stone-pelting,” Mohammad Dilawar Sheikh, Sajad’s father, said, while vouching for his son’s innocence, “He is a kid and has never participated in any protest. I don’t understand why they are humiliating us like this. Won’t such measures only escalate tensions here and push youths against the wall?”
The family members of these detained minors say their sons were sent to a juvenile jail in Srinagar.
“There are no minors in our custody,” said Senior Superintendent of Police, Pulwama, Chandan Kohli, “The arrests are not only for the elections but there are so many things going on. But, let me tell you, we have passed strict orders that no juvenile is to be arrested.”
The “crackdown on dissent” for the purpose of “conducting peaceful polls”, as many see it in Kashmir, sent more than 40 people — mostly youths — behind bars from south Kashmir’s twin districts on Thursday. Around 38 persons were reportedly detained from Tahab and Chewakalan villages of Pulwama. Similar raids rounded up around 20 youth from Shopian’s DK Pora and Vehil areas.
In the past three days, over 150 youths have been arrested in wake of the elections.
For the final phase of polling in the Valley, Shopian and Pulwama will be going to the polls on 6 May. For over 5.22 lakh electors, as many as 695 polling stations have been set up across the twin districts, which are part of the Anantnag parliamentary constituency. Voting will take place between 7 am and 4 pm.
Earlier, the Election Commission of India, at the request of the state authorities, decided to conduct polling for the restive Anantnag Lok Sabha seat — spread over four districts: Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama — in three phases. Anantnag and Kulgam already went for polls, drawing a lower turnout.
However, in a new twist on Thursday evening, Shopian’s district magistrate, ahead of polling, promulgated Section 144 of the CrPC in the district from Friday for a period of one month “to maintain peace and tranquillity in public life and to avoid danger to life and property”.
According to the order, no assembly or congregation shall be allowed without the prior permission of the district magistrate.
Notably, after 2016, Shopian has emerged as one of the new hotbeds of militancy in Kashmir. Dozens of local youths were killed after picking up “anti-India” guns, while many are still on the prowl.
On Thursday, Hizbul Mujahideen posters surfaced in poll-bound districts, threatening to ‘kill those who cast a vote’ in the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls in Kashmir. “We have information that the army might force you to cast votes, but everyone should understand that they need to make a choice. Those who cast a vote on polling day in Shopian will be killed,” reads one of the posters, pasted at several places on walls and electric polls.
The poster has also asked parents to not send their wards to army goodwill schools. “Our commander Riyaz Naikoo has told you time and again to desist from polls but some people don’t listen. The time is over now, we will act against them and put their videos in public,” the poster warns.