Syed Ahmad Sayeed Naqashband leads Friday prayers (Photo by Umar Shah)
Syed Ahmad Sayeed Naqashbandi, a head priest at Kashmir’s grand mosque, applied for a passport in 2009 so he could visit Mecca as part of his religious obligation. Six years later, the 83-year-old is still waiting for his travel papers.
Naqashbandi is among tens of thousands in Kashmir waiting for basic documents. The state government cites security concerns, withholding passports from people they claim have suspected links with insurgents who fought government forces at some point in time. Rights monitors and those affected, however, say decisions to withhold passports are arbitrary and widespread — impacting huge numbers of innocent people.
Naqashbandi told ucanews.com that he went to the district court and obtained a verdict in his favor three years ago but the passport was still not issued. He then approached the state High Court.
The High Court, too, observed that he was a prominent citizen with a clean police record and said last month the documents should not be denied. "But I'm yet to get my passport,” he said last week.
Naqashbandi says he has no links to insurgents. His primary work is leading Friday prayers at Kashmir’s grand mosque and raising peoples’ issues from the podium.
“If this is a crime before the authorities then may God help this land. What greater irony could there be than a person being stopped from performing his religious obligation,” said Naqashbandi.
The state investigates the background of each passport applicant before the document is issued. In Kashmir, police also additionally investigate if an applicant is linked with activities of secessionists or in any way related to them, said a senior police officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
An Islamic insurgency, which the government claims is supported by Pakistan, began in 1987 to free Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir state from India. The insurgency and counter army actions have killed an estimated 50,000 people, including civilians.
Parvez Imroz at his office (Photo by Umar Shah)
Human rights activists like lawyer Parvez Imroz say that an estimated 60,000 people are blacklisted for the issuance of a passport. "The number has no parallel in any South Asian nation," he said.
He said passports are denied on the grounds that people connected with militancy pose a challenge to the Indian state as they could conspire against the national interests in a foreign land.
No official will openly state the reasons for rejecting or delaying an application, said Imroz. "But we know for sure passports are not issued to people related to former militants, or people who have openly spoken against government forces' excesses.”
“There are Hajj aspirants, ailing people seeking better medical facilities, unemployed youth seeking overseas jobs, and many others who are the victims of this discrimination,” he said.
The right to travel is guaranteed under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, which India has signed and ratified.
Imroz said despite having no political links he too has been denied a passport three times in the last 10 years.
“It seems that the state is collectively punishing the people of Kashmir," he said.
While multiple officials refused to comment, state police chief K Rajindra insisted the situation is improving.
“People whose passports have been withheld up to now should submit review applications and their chance of getting [a] passport are more now,” he said.
Nizzam-ud-din Bhat, spokesman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in Kashmir, also insisted the party was addressing the problem and blamed it on the previous government.
“Now, the story will be different, issuing passport[s] to militants' kin on [a] humanitarian basis is a part of [the] government’s agenda this time,” Bhat said.
But the former home minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Nasir Aslam Wani, admitted that his ministry used to reject passport applications of militants’ kin in the past and said little has changed.
According to Wani, it was also a known policy of the former government not to issue passports to militants for at least 10 years after surrender.
The previous government attempted to lessen the cooling period for militants from 10 years to five years, he claimed. “But the present government is again pushing militants’ kin to the wall and denying them the right to travel,” he said.
Noor Jehan Begum, a 73-year old woman, who lives in the Kashmir Valley, said she was denied a passport because her adopted son was once a militant.
In 2013, she filed a complaint at the High Court but the hearing has been repeatedly postponed. “Since 2013, nothing has changed. I hope I could see the holy city of Mecca before death,” Noor told ucanews.com.
But even if blood relatives were militants, how is that grounds to deny a passport, asked Khurshid Ahmad Wani, whose application was rejected because his son was a militant.
“I wonder what my religious obligation has to do with the past of my son. It is me who is going to perform Hajj and I should be allowed,” said Khurshid.
Human rights groups in Kashmir say that even families of disappeared persons are being denied passports as they hold security forces responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones.
Such is the case of Razia Sultana, 39, who wants to study abroad but was refused a passport because her family holds government forces responsible for the 1990 disappearance of her father Raja Ali Mardan Khan.
“I have some relatives in foreign countries. They invited me to study abroad but my passport application was rejected,” Razia said.
Then there are women like Jameela Rayees, whose husband fled to neighboring Pakistan along with a group of people in 1995 when violence increased. She says all she wants is to meet her husband for one last time in her life. But her application was also rejected.
Jameela, 42, told ucanews.com that she last saw her husband in 2004, some months after India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire along the border after a period of hostilities. People from both sides were allowed to assemble on either bank of the Kishenganga River separating India and Pakistan, from where they could see their separated loved ones and even toss gifts across the stream.
"I saw him on the bank of the river. I burst into tears. He too was crying. I pleaded with him to come back home," Jameela recalls.
Khurshid Ahmad Wani with a note of rejection (Photo by Umar Shah)
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches International Law at the Central University of Kashmir, said that "even to militants and anti-national elements, [a] passport cannot be denied. No one has the authority, as per law, to snatch from any person his right to travel.”
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
For those who have gone up against the Kashmir rules, however, many are simply resigned to passport denial as a form of harassment.
The passport application of rights activist Ahsan Untoo has been pending for the past three years. Untoo says he was denied travel documents for speaking out against rights violations committed by the state.
“Even the court has ordered them to issue my passport but nothing is done,” Untoo said.