Award-winning journalist Aasif Sultan made a startling journey while being locked up in jail for four years. From being an “over-ground worker of Hizbul Mujahideen”, he successfully enlisted with al Qaida affiliate Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.
As if that unlikely upgrade was not enough, he also became an over-ground worker (OGW) of The Resistance Front, a militant group formed months after his 2018 arrest.
Thus spakeo the official “grounds of detention” (GOD) for Sultan’s recent booking under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to six months, and makes bail difficult to obtain.
Sultan received bail from a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court this month after four years in a Srinagar prison, only to be booked straightaway under the stringent PSA and sent to the far-off Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.
The PSA dossier accessed by The Telegraph contains multiple surprises, at one point even appearing to echo the claim by Sultan’s family that he was arrested for his professional work.
“You came into contact with cadres of AGUH (Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind) banned outfit who motivated you to work for the outfit as over-ground worker for providing logistic support. You got rapidly motivated and worked for the banned outfit and started sharing all sensitive information regarding movement of police and security forces,” the three-page dossier says.
“Off (sic) late (you) have been found to be aiding the new self-styled terrorist outfit namely TRF (The Resistance Front) and JEM (Jaish-e-Mohammad), which are a potent threat to the maintenance of security.”
Sultan’s lawyer Adil Abdullah Pandit wondered how the journalist could have started working for Ansar and the TRF (believed to be a front for Lashkar) from inside jail.
“He entered the jail as an OGW of Hizb and was accused of harbouring its militants in the original chargesheet, but now he has been booked under the PSA for being an OGW of Ansar and the TRF. The original chargesheet made no mention of that all these years,” Pandit told this newspaper.
“How could he have joined these groups while in jail? The TRF came into being in 2019 (or later) but he was arrested in 2018.”
Sultan’s family has all along insisted that he was arrested for his professional work, saying his ordeal began after he wrote an article, “The rise of Burhan”, on slain Hizb militant Burhan Wani in 2018.
The police had so far been reluctant to admit the family’s charge but apparently not any more — suggesting the administration has shed its qualms about conceding that journalistic work too can land someone in trouble.
The dossier accuses Sultan of advocating separatism and advancing his “radical ideology” through his articles. “You have also written an article about the rise of Burhan Wani,” it says.
Pandit said: “From day one we have been saying he was arrested for that article. But there was no mention of that in the chargesheet. This time they have admitted it.”
The dossier claims that investigations had proved the charges against Sultan but he had yet been “enlarged on bail”.
But the special NIA judge had said he was granting bail because he had found “no direct evidence nor any substantial evidence on record that would have connected the accused” to the alleged crime.
Sultan had received the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the American National Press Club in 2019 and featured in Time magazine’s 10 “most urgent” cases of threats to media freedom around the world in 2020.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organisation, later ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post to express solidarity with Sultan.