Srinagar: The street light’s glowing orange glare has lit the gates of Kothibagh police station. A large group of shadows talks to each other in worried tones. It is 9:15 pm, Wednesday.
As the single iron door of the police station creaks open, it seems to set off a strange curiosity, and the shadows all move towards it.
The group becomes visible under the glowing orange light. It is composed of parents and relatives of the students detained at Kothibagh police station. With sadness and fear writ large on their faces, they thought the policeman who exited the door had come with a message, maybe that their wards would soon be released. Nothing of the sort happened.
For all the past month, ever since students started staging pro-freedom protests across Kashmir following the assault on the Pulwama Degree College students on April 15, Srinagar’s Sri Pratap (SP) College and SP School has turned out to be the centre of the student-led agitation due to which it has been shut down several times.
As such, most of the students arrested in Srinagar were lodged at Kothibagh police station, since it is close to the site of the arrests, which is under its jurisdiction. And all through the past month, it has become the one place most visited by distraught parents, often in groups, who stand outside its gates, beseeching for the release of their sons.
At around 9:45 pm, the nearby shopkeepers have shut their shops. Traffic has thinned out, and dogs have begun to roam the dark, empty streets. The only human activity is that of the group of parents who in small, separate groups are discussing the outcome of the day’s meeting of police officials, hoping that their anguished struggle to end the detention of their sons will succeed.
A woman in white attire, her head loosely covered with a shawl, was restless. She moved from one group of parents to another, gathering information as to what the police officials had had to say about the release of the students.
She said her son was arrested a week ago. From then on, she has made daily rounds of the police station, but in vain.
“My son is 13 years old. He was playing cricket in SP College,” said the woman, who lives in the Badami Bagh cantonment area. “When the protest started, the police grabbed him and lodged him here.
“You tell me what can I do? I have been coming here from the past one week. But my son has not been released,” she said. “He is my heartbeat. I am missing my heartbeat. If this happens to a mother, can she remain at home? That is why I am waiting outside this police station every day like a beggar. I am restless and I cannot calm it.”
Hafeez (name changed), a clean-shaven man in loose trousers, sat on a pedestal outside the station gates, facing an ATM branch situated there, talking with other anxious parents about his experiences and how difficult it was trying to secure the release of his detained son.
“My son was arrested 10 days ago. The police called my son to the station and arrested him,” Hafeez said. “They had brought all the records from SP College. When I entered the station with my son, the officer there pulled out his admission form from a large pile of students’ forms they had collected from the college. Then he arrested him and told us to leave.”
From then on, Hafeez, who hails from the Badami Bagh area, comes to the Kothibagh police station at 4 pm each day and sometimes does not leave before 11 pm.
“The police officers inside give us only assurances of his release. I come every day and sit outside the station – the sentries do not allow us to enter the premises,” Hafeez said. “On Tuesday night, I was alone, standing under the roof of this ATM. It was raining hard, and nobody was out of doors. It was a bit scary. But I managed to enter the police station. I found my son was no longer lodged here. He had been shifted to another station. I found that many students whose parents come here and wait outside had been shifted elsewhere too.”
Standing near him were three men from the Civil Lines area, who had also come to seek the release of their relative, another SP College student. They said their ward had been arrested during a protest demonstration on Monday. They said the police had allowed them to meet him, and he, like other detained students, was still wearing his college uniform.
In the meantime, as the iron door creaked once more, the parents gathered near it yet again, not daring to allow themselves hope but hoping nonetheless. A policeman in civilian clothes came out and told the worried parents in whispers what the officers were planning to do about the students’ release.
“I have come here 22 times,” said an angry father who hailed from downtown Srinagar. “They just make us wait. At 7 pm, they told us our sons would be released; now it is 10 pm. We only get assurances. Nothing else.”
“They (the police) actually want to humiliate us. For the past many days, they want to make us really feel this disgrace and indignity, even if we know its meaning. They want to punish us so that we prevent our sons from ever joining the protests again. If this police were really working for Kashmir, they would have not done this,” the father said.
As the clock struck 10:15 pm, the parents began to come to terms with the reality that their wards would not be released that night. They still wanted to give it a last try, however, when a bullet-proof vehicle came out of the gate. They surrounded it to ask the police officer when the students would be released. They got an assurance once again: soon.
As the bullet-proof vehicle leaves, the parents talk to each other, empathise with each other, share the ordeals they are going through and try to form plans for what course they could take to stop the torturous journey for the release of their sons.
The government has earlier told Kashmir Reader that not a single student was being kept inside the Kothibagh lock-up. Officials had said that even if there were some detainees, they were being kept for just two to three days and were later released after the police had counselled them.
As the parents prepared themselves for the next day’s struggle for the students’ release, the anger was visible on their faces. The sad, solitary woman disappeared in the darkness. So did the rest.
A bearded man, Shakeel (name changed), raised both his hands towards the police station and shouted: “The humiliation you put us through, may you also face it. If not here, may it be on the Day of Judgement”. Then he sped away on his motor cycle. It was 10:30 pm.
Note: Names and addresses have been withheld on request.