Fahad Shah, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla, filed a plea at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, on Thursday, challenging his detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) since March.
In a conversation with Silverscreen India following the filing of the plea, Shah’s counsel Umair Ronga said that he will “strongly” press for action against the authorities for “illegally” detaining Shah.
“The detention order of Fahad Shah under the Public Safety Act must be quashed and I will strongly press that costs may be imposed upon the detaining authority for illegally detaining the detenue,” he said.
On March 14, a day before his scheduled bail hearing on a UAPA charge, the Jammu and Kashmir Police invoked the PSA against Shah. But, no documents on the details of the charges were produced till the evening of March 16 and hence Shah was shifted to the Kupwara jail only then, after two days of detention, Ronga tells us. “I was just told by the concerned police station that he (Shah) was booked under PSA and his lodgement was in Kupwara. Hence, we were waiting for the dossier of charges so that we could challenge the order as well.”
Ronga feels that when the ordinary law is not enough to stop an individual from doing a certain act, that is viewed as being against the State, the authorities invoke such stringent laws. But, he adds, invoking PSA was unnecessary in this case since Shah was already booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which itself is a special act.
Shah founded the online magazine The Kashmir Walla in 2009. The 33-year-old journalist has also featured in reputed international publications, including Foreign Affairs, TIME, and Foreign Policy, and is a winner of the 25th Human Rights Press Awards (2021) for explanatory feature writing for his coverage of communal violence in Delhi in February 2020.
He has been targetted by the J&K authorities since the beginning of the year and has been detained on fresh charges each time he was granted bail in a previous case.
Shah was initially arrested on February 4 by the Pulwama police under the anti-terror law and sedition charges. However, he was granted bail 22 days later by a special court. Shortly after this, he was again arrested, this time in Shopian, in relation to a case filed by the Indian Army in January 2021 against The Kashmir Walla and another news portal for reporting that a local army unit forced an Islamic seminary school in Shopian to hold Republic Day celebrations on January 26.
Shah was granted bail in this case on March 5. But, hours later, he found himself arrested again in relation to a new FIR registered by the Srinagar Police. This third FIR was filed in relation to a story published by The Kashmir Walla about a May 2020 encounter in Srinagar, quoting family members of one of the deceased denying claims made by the police. He was once again booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, making it the second time the UAPA had been invoked against him in 37 days.
The bail hearing for the third FIR was scheduled for March 15, but the Srinagar police invoked the PSA against Shah a day prior to this, thus extending his detention.
The Public Safety Act, 1978, of Jammu Kashmir is an administrative detention law under which an individual can be detained for up to two years without any trial or charge. The Act also allows for the arrest of an individual without a warrant or specific charges and often for an unspecified period.
The PSA dossier issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Police claims that Shah, through his website The Kashmir Walla, has been “propagating stories in a particular selective narrative which is in line with the ISI/Separatist propaganda.”
The dossier further alleges that he has been “disseminating anti-Indian sentiment in a very subtle manner” and accuses Shah of “legitimizing and romanticizing stone pelters and other instruments of violence.”
“You are an anti-national element under the cover of journalism and have always been found provoking, instigating gullible masses against the Government of India and Government of J&K through both electronic and print media,” it states.
On the evening of March 16, The Kashmir Walla issued a statement regarding Shah’s arrest and wrote, “Our legal team believes that Fahad’s Kafkaesque detention seems to challenge our judiciary, democratic values, and independent journalism at once. Now, they would soon approach the appropriate court to secure further legal remedies.”
There is no bail procedure in this instance, says Ronga. The only way to get a person out under the PSA is by quashing the detention order passed by the Divisional Commissioner of Srinagar.
Ronga further adds all this is just exhausting Shah and his family, both mentally and financially, and it is just another way of stopping him from criticising the government and reporting the facts.
Earlier, the three-member Fact-Finding Committee (FFC) of the Press Council of India had observed that the media in Jammu and Kashmir is “slowly being choked” by the local administration. However, the council has not really taken any solid step against the detention of journalists like Shah or Sajad Gul, who has also been in jail, Ronga points out.
He feels that all the journalist associations and councils should approach the Supreme Court together. “This is not just an attack on Fahad Shah anymore, this is an attack on the entire community of journalists. If they do not stand up and fight together, they won’t be able to do justice to the profession. This is a time for everyone to come together. Much more is to be done.”