KULGAM, Jammu and Kashmir ― On 28 June, the Jammu and Kashmir Police announced the arrest of Naseema Bano under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA, the first case in recent memory that invokes India’s anti-terror law against the mother of a slain militant.
In its statement, the J&K Police said Naseema had been arrested under an FIR that was registered two years earlier in 2018. They accused her of “recruiting at least two youth into terrorist ranks, arranging arms and ammunition, communication and logistics for terrorists and terror organisations.” Their statement reads, “Just because she happens to be a woman or the mother of a killed terrorist does not make her immune to arrest.”
Naseema’s husband and children were in Rampora, their village 60 kilometres south of Srinagar in Kulgam district, when they heard the news on social media. In a recent interview, they told HuffPost India that the 50-year-old woman, a mother to six children, was in fact arrested from her house on 20 June, one week before the news broke.
At the heart of the case against Naseema Bano is a photograph in which she is holding an automatic weapon and sitting next to her son Tauseef Sheikh, a militant with Hizbul Mujahideen, who was killed in a gun battle with Indian army soldiers in May, 2018, in Badigam village in Shopian district, around 30 kilometres from his home in Kulgam.
HuffPost India spoke to Naseema’s family members and police officials to piece together the story behind her photograph with the AK-47, which they say was clicked in the summer of 2017.
The family says that 15 men from their family have joined the militancy since it started in 1990, but they deny Naseema’s involvement and cannot fathom the arrest of the middle-aged woman at this stage.
This now infamous photograph remains in circulation. In fact, since the police announced Naseema’s arrest on 28 June, the photo was again shared across social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. A Google search with the term ‘Militant Mother’ throws up the image.
“We were not surprised when the photograph went viral, but we are now shocked after seeing how much trouble it has caused,” said Abdul Salaam, Naseema’s 60-year-old husband who grows paddy to feed his family.
Story behind the photograph
In 2018, Tauseef Sheikh had spent four years with Hizbul Mujahideen and he would try to see his mother whenever possible, said his cousin in Kulgam, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to invite attention from the J&K Police.
While not all of Naseema Bano’s family members could recall when this photo was clicked, this cousin, who is in his thirties, said the photo was captured around the Kulgam area in June 2017 and it went viral later that month.
Naseema’s family members say they still don’t know who put the photo on the Internet. They too, her daughter Sumaya Jan said, had downloaded the photograph from Facebook in June 2017 and taken a print out.
“My mother would take out this photograph whenever she would miss her son, kiss it, and hide it in her clothes,” said 32-year-old Sumaya.
Naseema’s family members did not say what happened to the hardcopy of the photograph and whether they still have it in the house.
That a photograph of Naseema Bano holding an automatic rifle was widely circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp in 2017, they said, had made them neither uneasy nor afraid.
After Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who had used social media to popularise the militancy before he was killed in 2016, the family says there was a time when militants had ceded some of their covertness.
There were photographs before this one, they said, that had captured intimate moments between militants and their families. There were even photographs of mothers of militants offering gun salutes or giving speech at their funerals.
The mother of Saddam Padder, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant who was killed by Indian army soldiers in the same gun battle as Tauseef on 6 May 2018, had offered her son a gun salute at his funeral in Shopian.
Tauseef Sheikh was 24-years-old when he was killed, his family said.
After her son was killed, Naseema’s family said that she kept to herself. “She would appear lost most of the time and would remain sick,” her daughter Sumaya said.
Trouble after the photograph
Salaam, Naseema’s husband, said the J&K Police started summoning her to the Sub-District magistrate’s office after the photograph went viral in June 2017, but she never went.
“It didn’t seem a serious issue to us at that time and so we took it lightly,” he said.
Then, a month after Tauseef was killed in May 2018, Salaam said that the Special Operational Group — the counter-insurgency wing of the J&K Police — summoned Naseema to the Sub-District Magistrate’s office.
“When we went to the tehsil, we were told that a FIR has been filed against Naseema for the photograph. They didn’t tell us under what sections she has been booked,” he said.
In response to HuffPost India’s questions about when Naseema was questioned in 2018, Gurinderpal Singh, Superintendent of Police, Kulgam, said that he had only recently taken up his post in Kulgam and he would not be able to comment on this aspect of the case.
What happened after
Naseema Bano’s family and the police have different accounts of what happened after her initial questioning about the photograph.
His wife was questioned about the photograph, but she was not arrested at that time. Salaam said, In July 2018, he claims, the J&K police informed them that the charges against Naseema had been dropped and they did not question her after that.
“We were so relieved because we thought there is nothing to worry about now,” he said.
Salaam can’t be sure but he believes the charges were dropped in the backdrop of militants warning the J&K Police to stay away from their families or face grave consequences if they harass their families.
Tauseef was still an active militant at that time.
In one incident in 2018, 11 policemen in Kashmir were abducted by militants for almost 24 after the J&K Police arrested the 70-year-old father of then Hizbul Mujahideen chief Riyaz Naikoo and allegedly set ablaze two houses of militants in Shopian district of south Kashmir. In another incident in 2018, Hizbul Mujahideen threatened to target the families and homes of policemen and soldiers in response to the security forces allegedly vandalising the homes of suspected local militants in Pulwama district.
But last month, after announcing Naseema’s arrest, the Inspector General of Police for Jammu and Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, told The Hindu that she had been evading arrest since 2018.
Singh, Superintendent of Police, Kulgam, said, “Over the past two years, we have been building evidence against her. We have been collecting technical as well as human intelligence.”
At three in the morning on 20 June, Naseema’s family members allege that a joint team of Indian army soldiers and police personnel raided and ransacked their house.
Two female members of the family said they were brutally beaten during the raid. “They thrashed me with an iron rod several times and I was crying for help. They also beat my sister in law,” said Insha Jan, Naseema’s 18-year-old daughter.
Insha, who accused the security forces of robbing them of money and jewellery, said, “They kept our belongings in the lawn and threatened to burn it all.”
The J&K Police, however, refuted these allegations.
“It is an attempt on their part to get away with the situation and nothing of that sort happened,” said Singh, the police officer.
Singh said the police were also trying to locate Naseema’s daughter, 20-year-old Rafi Jan, who, he said, “is also involved,” in militancy related activities, and “ran away” after the police arrested her mother.
Naseema’s family said that Rafi ran away after the raid because she was frightened. “She was sick that day and had not eaten anything for two days. She got scared and ran away,” said her sister Insha.
When this reporter met with Naseema’s family on 28 June, it had been more than a week since she was detained in Khanabal Police station, around six kilometers away from her home.
“She is a patient of hypertension and diabetes. Someone from the family visits her with medicines every day,” said Sumaya. “It’s our bad luck that she has to face jail at this age.”
Since 1990, when the militancy erupted in Kashmir, at least 15 members of Naseema’s extended family have picked up guns, and all of them have been killed in different gunfights with Indian security forces, police and family members say.
Ibrahim Sheikh, Naseema’s brother-in-law, was the first militant from the family who was killed in a gunfight with the forces in 1997, her family says. Her brother Abbas Sheikh is still an active militant with Hizbul Mujahideen, Singh said.
Police officer Gurinderpa Singh alleged that “the family controls one of the biggest Over Ground workers (OGW) network (of militants) in south Kashmir.”
Salaam, Naseema’s husband, says that he is the only male member of their immediate family who is not in jail. Their other son, Farooq Sheikh, was accused of supporting the militancy and arrested in November, 2018, five months after Tauseef was killed.
“Because my son was a militant so our family became an easy target,” Salaam said. “Now, my whole family is in trouble.”
Family versus Police
Naseema Bano’s family denies her involvement in the militancy.
“After the death of our brother Tauseef , my mother never went outside. She doesn’t even have a phone. How could she recruit militants or arrange money for militants?” said Sumaiya, her daughter. “Yes, we have a history of militancy at home but that doesn’t make my mother a threat to this country.”
Police officer Singh said the police have “proper evidence” against Naseema and her daughter Raafi Jan.
“We didn’t arrest her when the photo went viral initially. We needed a thorough navigation regarding this case,” he said.
Salaam, Naseema’s husband, said, “Even women are not safe in Kashmir. We don’t know how she would be treated in jail.”