Shopian: Until last week, the playground in Nazneenpora village of south Kashmir’s Shopian district would get filled up every Sunday with the village youth, dressed up in whites, playing cricket from dawn to dusk.
The elderly would usually sit around the field to enjoy the matches at leisure, while the younger ones would play around the sidelines and keep themselves busy, sometimes taking a dip in the Rambiar river flowing next to the field.
But nothing of this happened this Sunday, the first since the arrest of nine youths by the Jammu and Kashmir Police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for being part of a cricket match held in the memory of a slain militant commander who belonged to Nazneenpora.
UAPA is now the only Indian law that deals with terrorism after TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act) lapsed in 1995 and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) was repealed in 2004.
The cricket field, local villagers said, has been a go-to place for local youngsters mostly devoid of other sources of entertainment. And it had become even more significant of late, said Nazir Ahmed, brother of one of the arrested youths, adding that cricket was much more than a source of entertainment or a possible career goal for the local youth.
The field didn’t see much activity during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, but once the lockdown measures were relaxed, the ground had started buzzing again, especially on Sundays.
“The area often witnesses lockdown, curfews and gunfights. It’s a game of cricket that helps the youth cope. Since August last year, when all communication channels were blocked, cricket was the only thing that the village youth used to look forward to.”
Ahmed said the local children did not go to the ground this Sunday because the arrests have “created an atmosphere of fear”, with people now thinking “playing cricket on the ground might link them to the case”.
ThePrint spoke to several youths in the village, and they agreed with Ahmed.
“We hear all these rumours that more boys will be picked. Who will want to venture out or go to the cricket field now,” said one of the village youths in his early 20s, who didn’t want to be named.
On Sunday, instead of cricketers, a herdsman grazed his sheep at the Nazneenpora field, wondering where “all the boys have disappeared”.
He wasn’t fully aware of the UAPA case and the “crackdown” that have left the village, and also some nearby localities some of the arrested youths came from, shocked.
While the police accused the nine of glamourising Kashmir insurgency, their families said playing a cricket match in memory of a departed fellow villager should not have attracted such a harsh reaction.
They said most of the youths in the area had known the slain militant commander, Syed Ruban, since childhood.
Photo that landed players in trouble
Syed Ruban joined the Al Badr militant outfit in July 2018, and was killed six months later during a gunfight in Budgam.
Mohammad Hussain, his father, told ThePrint that Ruban was an avid cricket fan who would spend days playing cricket with people of his age. He said it was a photograph clicked and shared on the match day that got the players into trouble.
“The children of our village grew up with Ruban, and used to play with him before he became a militant. The winning team decided to offer prayers at Ruban’s grave. Cricket was everything to him and his friends wanted to remember him that day,” said 50-year-old Hussain, a government employee.
“Unfortunately, a picture they clicked at Ruban’s grave was shared on social media and as a result the nine people in the photograph are now in police custody,” he said.
Talking about his son, Hussain said Ruban wanted to join the Kashmir civil services after completing graduation with mathematics. Looking at his interest in studies, Urdu poetry in particular, the family never imagined he would become a militant, Hussain said, adding that things changed after his cousin’s son, Naveed Babu, who had been with the J&K Police, joined Hizbul Mujahideen. He alleged that Ruban was “harassed by the authorities” after Naveed took the step.
The Shopian district police, however, denied the allegation.
‘Was only helping the cricket enthusiasts’
The match last week had been organised by Syed Tajamul, Hussain’s other son who is among the nine arrested youths.
“My son (Tajamul) wanted to remember his brother (Ruban). He had also distributed cricket uniforms to the players and even to those who had come to watch the match. Is it a sin to remember the departed ones? Tajamul had not called for arms but was only helping the youths who are cricket enthusiasts,” said Hussain.
In a press statement ahead of the match, Tajamul had said, “I distribute these cricket uniforms as this was my brother’s favourite game. He was a talented cricketer, admired by his friends for his love for the game and talent he had got.”
The statement added, “We should encourage them lest they may fall for drugs and other social evils. Rest they are free to choose whatever field they like.”
About a kilometre from the playground is the Pashpora hamlet, where four of the nine arrested youths lived. One of them is 27-year-old Gowhar Ahmed. His mother Ameena told ThePrint that her son’s action did not warrant a UAPA case.
“They played cricket and brother of Ruban had donated the uniforms that they wore. As children, they would play together (with Ruban), and if youngsters wanted to remember one of their friends, remember the fond memories they had while playing, is that a crime?” Ameena asked.
Safia Farooq’s son Umar Farooq is also among the arrested men. While some of the families understand the seriousness of UAPA charges against their children, Safia was hopeful her son would be released soon.
“They have not allowed us to meet our sons yet. I am hoping they will permit us to meet and talk. We are hoping the boys are released soon,” Safia added.
A senior police officer said the youths had been taken into custody and are being interrogated currently.
The focus of the investigation is to find out if these youths had attempted to glamorise insurgents and the alleged motive behind doing so, said the officer, who didn’t wish to be named.