Why is Tauseef Bhat in jail?

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Digital Media | 04/09/2016
He is a young Kashmiri man charged with sedition. His offence? Sharing a cartoon showing India being swept by a broom on Facebook.
GEETA SHESHU reports on his ordeal

Pix: From Bhat's Facebook page.

A 25-year-old Kashmiri youth is languishing in a jail cell in Durg, Chattisgarh. His crime: he liked and shared a Facebook post of a cartoon that allegedly depicted India as a mouse being swept by a broom. He did not create the cartoon, or comment on it. But his act was pounced upon by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist who complained to the police.

Google maps tells us that Sopore is a good 2,102 kms from Durg but  for  Tauseef Ahmed Bhat, his hometown has shrunk, not in the words of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali,  into a “mailbox,…a near four by six inches"
but into the cell where he has been confined for the past month on charges of sedition. 

Bhat’s nightmare began when he was arrested on August 3 from Sagar railway station in Madhya Pradesh. He was about to board the Jammu-Tawi Express to his hometown in Sopore, Jammu and Kashmir.

A few days ago, a charge sheet was filed in the case in the Durg sessions court but his frightened family has not be able to organize a bail application for him. The fear of the charge of sedition is so great that, leave alone the youth’s father and brother who came to Durg after getting news of his arrest, even his friends have got scared and either fled for Kashmir or stayed out of sight, according to a social activist, Dr Muzzamil, who has been trying to help the family.

 

No country for Kashmiri youth

Bhat could have been your average youth holding forth on Facebook, liking and sharing photos and posts, gifs and cartoons, commenting on all and sundry, even on political and social events far removed from his life as an events promoter with Vivo mobiles in Durg. According to reports, he first came to the town in 2009 to study in Rungta College of Engineering and Technology in Bhilai, one of several Kashmiri youths who made the town their home.

But for the local VHP activist who pounced on Bhat’s post on Facebook, it was an  example of what ‘Kashmiri’ youth were doing to the ‘country’. The FIR (a copy is with The Hoot) says the Facebook post made fun of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and says  that the manner in which ‘Kashmiri youth like Bhat came to study and work in Durg suggested a grand design to destabilise India’.

"For the local VHP activist who pounced on Bhat’s post on Facebook, it was an example of what ‘Kashmiri’ youth were doing to the ‘country’."

Ironically, Dr Muzzamil says that Kashmiris moved to Bhilai because they found the social environment peaceful and the local residents friendly and accommodating. Bhat, who went back to Kashmir to do an MBA, then chose to return to Bhilai to work in the mobile company. But now, after his arrest, Kashmiri youths in Bhilai are very wary.

Kavita Krishnan, the politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), who comes from Bhilai, says, “What is scary is the pattern. There are many Kashmiris in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. Members of the Bajrang Dal are using the arrest to ratchet up animosity against Kashmiris.”

She went on: “The minute we got to know of the arrest, some of our members went and met the police. We even submitted a memorandum citing the Bombay High Court judgement in the Aseem Trivedi case and expressing our concern for his safety since there was a custodial death in another case in that police station the same day.” Krishnan also got in touch with lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Arshad Khan to provide legal assistance to Bhat.

Khan, who had earlier met the youth’s father and brother, had hoped that, with the filing of the chargesheet, the process of filing for bail could be initiated without delay.

“I have read the FIR and it is a very weak complaint. You’ll laugh if you read it, it is so absurd. Devashish Ghosh, who describes himself as a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist, filed a complaint that a cartoon showing India as a mouse being swept by a broom was posted on Facebook and liked by this youth. There is no violence or call for violence. This youth was not the creator of the cartoon and he didn’t even comment on it, beyond liking it. How is this sedition?” asked Khan.

Khan also questioned the police investigation. “It doesn’t even have a copy of the Facebook post, only of Tauseef’s profile. And the investigating officer, Rajesh Sahu, was under a cloud in another case. He was transferred the very next day after the arrest because he sent a doctor who was charged in a cheating case to hospital instead of sending him to judicial custody” he said. 

The date for the remand came up on August 17 but no one from the youth’s family turned up. “I am waiting for instructions from the family. Everything is prepared from my side. They have not come back to me and I can’t understand why they are not moving for bail,” he said, bewildered at the family’s reaction.

However, Dr Muzammil explains that the father and brother are simple people who do not speak Hindi. They could not understand the legalities of the case.  Nor was any help forthcoming from Vivo.  Bhat lost his job after being arrested.

He also feels that reports of how the police arrested Bhat have merely contributed to his demonization. Newspaper reports (in italics) quoted police officials like Amresh Mishra, SP, Durg: Ahmed had graduated from Rungta College of Engineering and Technology in 2012, and had been a frequent visitor to Bhilai since. For the last few months, he was working in Bhilai with Vivo mobiles. A complaint was registered against him yesterday and he left immediately on a train that connects Durg and Jammu. We notified the railway authorities and identified the bogie he was travelling in. Madhya Pradesh Police assisted us.”

The report went on as if Bhat was a dangerous person: Madhya Pradesh Police confirmed that they acted on information from police in Durg. Sachin Atulkar, SP Sagar, said, “We got information about this person from Durg police. There was no resistance during arrest, and nothing objectionable was found on his person.”

Chhattisgarh has a number of youths from Kashmir who have been studying and working in the state. “For them, it has been a peaceful and conducive state to study in. But lately, they have been facing a lot of negative comments and reactions. Local people, especially from the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, openly say that they should not come to Chhattisgarh. After Tauseef was arrested, they made comments in the police station that non-Kashmiris cannot buy land in Kashmir, so the Kashmiris should go back,’ said Dr Muzammil.

Apart from confronting this dangerous propaganda, the issue is also about how Kashmiris can voice dissent, says Krishnan. As it is, the government talks of mainstreaming Kashmiris but such cases will further curb their freedom of expression, she felt. “How does one expect these youth to express themselves? They can’t take up guns, they can’t throw stones. And if they show their anger at what is happening in Kashmir in these Facebook posts, they are charged with sedition,” she says.

 

Using sedition to target anyone you oppose   

This is the third instance of sedition this year – or the expression of disaffection, hatred or enmity to a state - being pressed for online speech, the first two being for a Facebook post on an army officer killed in Pathankot and the other, a WhatsApp message on the Jat agitation in Haryana. Whether the range of messages, videos, cartoons, memes, gifs etc that are exchanged, hotly debated, liked or shared in a digital medium - should attract provisions of sedition is the question.

According to recently released data by the National Crime Research Bureau, at least 30 cases of sedition were lodged in 2015 and 47 in 2014, when the organization began documenting crimes against the state as a separate category. There are at least 20 reported instances of sedition recorded in 2016 by The Hoot, to date.

As the recent sedition case against Amnesty International for its meeting on Kashmir revealed, one can utter the ‘K’ word at one’s own peril. But targeting a large, famous, international organization that can defend itself is one thing. To target a young man like Tauseef Bhat who is a long way from home and family, to frighten him, to upset his parents, to make him lose his job and to take away a good chunk of his life - given the years it will take to clear himself of the charge of sedition - is altogether more vicious. 

 

 

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