‘Free Waqar’ online campaign gains momentum
March 29 , Baba Umar
Organisers of the global ‘Free Waqar’ online campaign launched from Kashmir to push for the release of a 22-year-old commerce student —Waqar Ahmad Moharkan—has won its first battle after Amnesty International (AI) termed the youth’s detention as “yet another depressing reminder of the lack of rule of law in Kashmir.” Waqar was reportedly captured by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police on 4 October, 2011, after they raided his Lal Bazaar house in downtown Srinagar and slapped him with the notorious Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA) on charges that include participating in protests against government forces “for three years”.
In an email sent to TEHELKA, AI’s Govind Acharya (India Country Specialist) said the “widespread and abusive use” of administrative detention like the PSA and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) “reinforces the deeply held perception in young people like Waqar that police and security forces are above the law”. “Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the J&K government to release all PSA detainees or to charge them with a criminal offence,” Acharya tells TEHELKA.
The campaigners of the first-of-its kind online movement have literary taken the internet by storm having covered all social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter. Besides, a website freewaqar.org, created to draw more supporters, is fast becoming a rage among the youth in Kashmir and outside. On entering the site, a message reads, “Waqar Ahmad is in Indian jail since 176 days, 12 hours, 33 minutes and 20 seconds”—the duration of his imprisonment advances with every tick of the clock that’s live. And then details of Waqar’s passing from various jails after his arrest, petitions, bail order, and PSA document forms the body of the web page. The campaign reminds Chief Minister Omar Abdullah of his promises of granting ‘amnesty’ to 1200 youth arrested during and after the 2010 civil unrest.
A newspaper article published by the campaigners on the web page too shows Waqar’s name among 29 other youths who were to be released by the police on CM’s orders. Operated solely online, the campaign already on Facebook and Twitter (#FreeWaqar) is being pushed forward through petition sites such as ipetitions.com and change.org. ipetitions.com, however, decided to take the petition down citing “legal issues” as key reason.
“Within 24 hours of posting our petition we had nearly 500 signatures. The site, however, wanted to take down the petition giving us 48 hours of time to download the data,” one campaigner wishing anonymity tells TEHELKA.
A petition meant for Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch (HRW) posted on change.org, however, has already crossed the 1000 signature mark. Posted by a Mumbai-based activist, the petition (reproduced from freewaqar.org) seeks AI and HRW’s intervention to “take up the case of Waqar’s wrongful, illegal and oppressive treatment at the hands of the Indian state.”
AI’s Acharya asserted such laws are “not in line with international human rights standards” and says that “We’ve repeatedly called on the J&K government to repeal the PSA and other similar administrative detention laws.”
Campaign organisers, who wish anonymity, tell TEHELKA that the campaign aims to educate people about “how Kashmir government can lie about releasing someone without actually doing it.”
Despite the courage, the campaigners fear police reprisals.
“Our efforts are not directed against anyone. We want the state to keep its word. Omar Abdullah had agreed to release him (Waqar), but instead they re-arrested him. The state chief minister had promised release of 1200 youth which he had called ‘mass amnesty’ in one of his statements. But students like Waqar are rotting in jails. Waqar was seized in Srinagar but has been detained 300 km away in Jammu’s Kotbalwal Jail. By this they are punishing the parents as well.”
It’s for the first time that an online campaign has come up seeking release of an individual. In Kashmir, online protests became a norm during the 2008 civil unrest. Angry protesters, mostly young, who would march across the streets of Kashmir demanding Azadi from New Delhi, had taken the battle to the online world too. Thousands of amateur and raw videos flashing long marches, troops’ action and killings went viral forcing the government to pull down some of the videos from YouTube that it considered were “highly critical” in nature. The challenge was thrown once again during 2009 protests over the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian province. And then in 2010, the civil unrest leading to the killing of over 125 people, mostly youth, at the hands of government forces, re-ignited the virtual campaign in Kashmir.
In Waqar’s case, the online battle is being fought using all forms of art. For example, on goanimiate.com, an animation ‘Faking Democracy-Free Waqar Now’ posted by ‘Kracktivist’ has already drawn more than 270 views. The two-minute-long animationposted on 16 March simulates an interview of an NBA player who is a supporter of Free Waqar Campaign and explains to the interviewer the rationale behind supporting the online movement.
With such anger brewing, how are the police looking at the campaign?
“We always monitor such activities,” a top police official tells TEHELKA over phone. He claimed that Waqar, apart from pelting stones, might also have participated in updating the prominent Facebook Kashmiri Community page Aalaw (The Call)—known for its fiery pro-Kashmir and anti-government posts, which went through many unsuccessful attempts at being blocked before.
“The investigation is on. We’ve found Aalaw was run by a group of four youngsters of which Waqar might be a part. We’re not 100 per cent sure but we are waiting for further details,” he claims adding, “The new campaign could be a part of the same tirade against the state.”
Caught in the crossfire, with the online campaign on the one hand and police warnings on the other, Waqar’s parents feel any sort of “malice” will hurt their son directly or indirectly. “Our family isn’t a part of this campaign. We don’t even know who is doing it. Their intentions may be good but yes, any malice will affect my son. I only want my son free. But look at the irony… I dropped my son to the police station on the promise that he’ll be released after brief questioning. Six months have passed, he still remains in detention,” says Waqar’s father Khursheed Ahmad Moharkan.
The elder Moharkan says if Waqar was leading stone pelting for three years, then what about lakhs of youths who pelt stone on Kashmir streets even now? He also mocks the charges slapped against Waqar. “Now that he (Waqar) is jail, stone pelting still takes place in Kashmir. Who are these people? Does my son incite them from jail? The police theory falls flat here. I am begging before them (police). They (police) better stop projecting my son as Osama bin Laden.”
Waqar’s father is, in the meanwhile, looking forward to 9 April when the state government will file objections in the Srinagar high court against the petition he has filed seeking quashing of the PSA against Waqar. “Let’s see what they have to show against my son. Myane Tarfe Chu Khudah (I’ve God on my side),” he says before hanging up the phone.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
- Free Waqar Now (kractivist.wordpress.com)
- Open letter to ipetitions.com on Censorship (kractivist.wordpress.com)
- Kashmir’s health department cracks whip on private nursing homes (kractivist.wordpress.com)
- Grave concerns over security laws in Kashmir (kractivist.wordpress.com)