Why is J&K police still holding the Handwara girl in custody?
On 4 May, the father of the schoolgirl from Handwara whose alleged molestation by an army man led to protests, and killing of five people, recently was controversially suspended by J&K's Roads and Buildings Department, where he worked as a coolie.
His sin: he was in the "protective custody" of the police along with his daughter and so couldn't attend to his duties.
"He is on unauthorised absence from the duty and has been suspended," the executive engineer of R&B's Handwara division told a local newspaper. "He has not been able to report to duty for the past sometime. We have withheld his salary."
Later, however, Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara Kumar Rajiv Ranjan asked the executive engineer to explain why he "acted swiftly against the father. "In case of Roader Worker R/o Handwara, you and your office acted swiftly which shows malafide intention on your part to keep the Handwara incident boiling".
Ranjan has since issued a statement to the press that the father has not been suspended.
The girl's continued "protective custody" has generated a public outcry. Her legal status has become a bone of contention between the police on one side, and her family, separatists, civil rights groups, State Women's Commission and mainstream opposition parties on the other. Leader of Opposition Omar Abdullah has asked Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to explain "what is happening to the Handwara girl".
The police is facing fire for forcing the girl to give a videotaped statement with her face uncovered and then circulating the video on WhatsApp and social media. In the video, the girl denied she had been molested by the army man.
The video was later officially released by the army, albeit after blurring the girl's face.
Although her parents have publicly sought the girl's release and even moved the high court in this regard, the police has refused to let go of her, ironically claiming they were holding her "at the request of the parents".
This has bred public resentment in the valley. The civil liberties group Coalition of Civil Society is at the forefront of the demand for the girl's release.
"The girl is a complainant, not a criminal. How can police keep her under protective custody for so long? It is now over three weeks," CCS convenor Khurram Parvez told Catch. "Whether she alleges the army molested her or not, that is immaterial. She should be allowed to go home."
State Women's Commission Chairman Nayeema Mehjoor has similarly drawn severe criticism from the civil society for her "partisan role" in the matter. She is being accused of not doing enough to have the girl released.
Mehjoor has rubbished the allegations, and criticised the police. "When the girl was in the police station, she was asking for help and not for a video of her which would be circulated," she said, adding the police should not keep the girl in their custody. "If her parents are asking for the withdrawal of the protection, then the police should do it."
The police, however, continue to hold on to the girl, fanning public anger. Over the past few days, the hashtags #InSolidarityWithHandwaraGirl and #FreeHandwaraGirl have started trending on Twitter.
Suhail Ahmed, an expatriate Kashmiri, posted a video in support of the hashtags. "I stand in solidarity with the girl in Handwara," he said in the video, adding that whosoever videotaped her statement should never have made it public. "I believe it becomes imperative for the state and the rights groups to press charges against the person who revealed the identity of the girl."
Interestingly, among those who have expressed support is a Palestinian student from West Bank, Ghadeer. "I stand in full solidarity with this little school girl, along with the Kashmiri struggle for its emancipation from structures of domination," she posted on her Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the girl's parents recently met a group of journalists in Srinagar after "giving a slip to police". "Police is controlling all our activities. They don't even allow us to attend the hearings at the high court in Srinagar. We have been stopped on our way," said the father. "We appeal to the state government to rid us of the harassment and free our daughter".
Speaking about their time in custody, the father said, "We were first kept at the police station for two days. Then we were moved from village to village and kept at different houses with police personnel in civvies standing guard."
He claimed they were frequently spat on by the police personnel who seemed to cast aspersions on his daughter's character, and held the family responsible for the consequent mayhem. "On the first day at the police station, they spat at, slapped and abused my daughter. My daughter told me this," he said.
The parents, who consented to being audiotaped by the journalists, contradicted their daughter's statement that she had not been molested. "She apparently gave that statement under duress," the mother said. "Once free, our daughter will again give the statement before court and things will be clear."
The father added that he would urge his daughter to tell only the truth "whatever that may be".
When told that his daughter had stood by her statement before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, the father insisted it was not true. "I accompanied her to the judge, but I was made to sit outside. I was called inside when she had already finished giving her statement," he said.
Asked why he wanted his daughter released from "police protection", the father said he would prefer the protection of the people of his village than that of the police. "All these days police was protecting me and my daughter. What about my other family members? They were at home," he said. "If police frees my daughter, I will go back to my villagers and discuss my problems with them. All of them have my good at their heart."
The mother said her daughter's reputation had been tarnished. "The police made her video without her father and mother being present. It was circulated with her face uncovered," she said. "She is now known to one and all. I am worried for her future. What will become of her now?"
Meanwhile, the army and the police have failed to submit their reports to the officer heading the magisterial inquiry into the Handwara killings. "It will delay the inquiry and we won't be able to submit the report within the stipulated time," an official involved with the probe told a local newspaper.
Also, the army, in its affidavit to the court, has virtually blamed the police for mishandling the girl's detention and the video statement. "Nothing has been done by the respondents (the army) with malice," army spokesman Major KS Suresh said, explaining their release of the girl's video to the press. He said the army was not involved in the "creation of the video". "We only released the video which was already existing on various social media."