When Abdul Bari Naik was arrested on March 7, the Jammu and Kashmir police claimed he had been evading arrest since 2018. A special team of Kulgam district police had acted on “reliable information” to arrest Naik from Udhampur in Jammu region, a police statement said.
But Naik, aged 40, is no ordinary fugitive.
Last year when the coronavirus pandemic was raging, he supervised one of the three quarantine centres in Kashmir’s Kulgam district – the government-run degree college where he was posted as an assistant professor. He is still listed as faculty on the institution’s website. A college official confirmed he worked there for six years from 2015 till January this year when he was transferred to the government college for women in Udhampur.
“He teaches geography,” said an official of the Udhampur college who, like the Kulgam official, requested anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the press.
Naik’s father, Ghulam Mohiudin Naik, said his son had been regularly attending official duties. “If he was an absconder how could he be working as a government employee?” he asked. The family believes Naik has been arrested because of his public interest activism. They said he had exposed corruption in the government as well as encroachment of village land by the Indian Army.
Kulgam police declined to comment on the family’s assertions. “No details into the incident will be shared,” Gurinderpal Singh, the superintendent of police in Kulgam, said in a written reply to Scroll.in. “The accused and his family have the right to approach a competent court to contest police action.”
But contesting police action will not be easy because Naik has been booked in three cases, two of which contain offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, punishable with seven years in jail. The UAPA, as India’s anti-terror law is known, does not allow the accused to seek bail for six months after arrest. Even after the first six months are over, the bar for courts to give bail is impossibly high, say lawyers.
Activism and enemies
Abdul Bari Naik belongs to Chidder village in Kulgam district.
His family is arguably the most educated in the village. “After finishing their schooling in Kashmir, all of my seven kids have pursued their higher studies in Aligarh Muslim University,” said his father, who retired as the manager of a government-run cooperative market in Anantnag.
Naik has an impressive academic record: PhDs in both geography and women’s studies, and a post-graduation diploma in sociology and geography from Aligarh Muslim University. Besides, he qualified the National Eligibility Test held by the Universities Grants Commission to determine the eligibility of postgraduate candidates for research fellowships and assistant professor positions.
“It is natural for a person like him to raise issues of the public and talk about the welfare of the society,” said Abdul Basit, Naik’s younger brother who is an assistant professor at Kashmir University.
Naik’s activism, said Basit, was wide-ranging. From corruption in government recruitments to illegal mining, he “would use the Right to Information to expose failures of the district administration and then use social media to highlight those illegalities. He didn’t mince his words.” Basit claimed his brother’s activism led to the suspension of many officials, including a Block Development Officer.
Before joining government service, Naik’s activism had seen him gravitate towards politics. In 2014, he unsuccessfully contested assembly elections from his native Hom Shali Bugh constituency as an independent candidate. “During his campaigning, he developed a vast network of local sources who would apprise him about the local issues,” said Basit. “That was one of the reasons he had an eye on the issues faced by the people.”
Correspondence with the police
It was Naik’s activism which led to these cases, the family said.
He first learnt about them in March 2019 when the police superintendent of Kulgam issued him a show-cause notice, stating it had become “imperative to mount surveillance” on his activities.
The notice, a copy of which was seen by Scroll.in, mentioned four cases – two each from 2018 and 2019. (The police statement issued after his arrest, however, mentions only three.) The notice did not provide any further details of the cases, other than the sections of law under which Naik had been booked: defamation, criminal intimidation, assault, criminal force to prevent a public servant from discharging his duty, and charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
Levelling a series of allegations against the assistant professor, the notice said: “…you have been found perpetually instigating the students of the area against the state administration which has created law and order problems in the area of district Kulgam.”
It accused Naik of “sympathizing with the terrorists of the area and have also infused the said spirit among the youth of the area.” It alleged he was always working against “national integrity” and putting out social media content which has resulted in “law and order issues” in the area.
The notice asked Naik to report to the office of the police superintendent in Kulgam to explain why his name should not be added to a register pertaining to “bad characters”.
In a written reply submitted on March 30, 2019, Naik gave a detailed explanation for every allegation made by the police. The reply contained references that suggest he had access to the contents of the first information reports against him. (His family said they do not have copies of the FIRs. When they asked the police for them after Naik was arrested, the police did not respond, despite the law mandating that copies be shared with the accused and their families.)
One of the FIRs in which Naik has been charged under UAPA appears to have been related to Naik’s participation in the protest campaign against the proposed takeover of a playground in Redwani village by the Indian Army in 2018. The protests had forced the army to abandon its plans. In the reply to the police notice, Naik wrote: “I being the citizen and social activist went to Redwani and found that the army trying to grab the area that was directly affecting the educational opportunities and there were chances or desacralizing of a sacred place of the graveyard (sic).”
Naik added: “I requested the concerned authority either to shift the army camp to some other place or to provide the alternative space for the affected areas. So that the constitutional right in terms of the education of our children would not be put at stake. If this is an act of working against national integration, then this is the reason that an FIR has been lodged against me.”
Referring to the other cases against him, Naik gave an account of how his activism had unearthed corruption by government officials and elected village representatives, including the siphoning of funds for government schemes, land grabs, illegal tree felling – and extortion from young people who had been arrested in false cases. “If exposing the loot of public property by certain government officials is making them defame then this is the reason that an FIR has been lodged against me (sic),” he wrote.
For the Naik family, the official exchange between Naik and Kulgam police in 2019 lays bare the claims of police that he was absconding since 2018. “What else can be proof of his innocence?” said Ghulam Naik, his father.
Abdul Rouf, Naik’s brother who works as a lawyer, pointed out that the college where he was posted till January is situated near the police station where the cases against him had been booked as well as the district police headquarters where the superintendent’s office is located. “If he was absconding, would he be able to go to his office daily all these years?”
‘In-charge for Covid-19 duty’
There is another reason Naik’s family is baffled by his arrest. According to them, Naik was not an average government employee, but someone whose services were valued by the administration.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread through India in March, government institutions across the country were turned into quarantine centres to prevent the spread of the virus. In April 2020, an order issued by the District Magistrate of Kulgam notifying three educational institutions as administrative quarantine centres. One of them was the government degree college where Naik was employed.
“Do you know who was assigned the charge of the college in that situation?” asked Ghulam Naik, the father of the arrested professor. “It was Bari Sahab,” he said, using a nickname for his son. Had his son been a criminal, Naik said, the government would have never given him such a responsible duty. “There were dozens of professors there but only he was assigned the overall in-charge of the college.”
Scroll.in reviewed the order issued by the District Magistrate on April 3, 2020 – it clearly mentions Naik as the overall in-charge of the quarantine centre.
A senior official in Kulgam district administration confirmed the authenticity of the order. Naik was “the nodal officer on behalf of the college and officials of other government departments worked in close coordination with him,” he said. The quarantine centre remained operational for at least nine months, he added.
The assistant professor’s family recounted an unusual incident during his Covid-19 duty. “One day, two Covid-19 positive patients had escaped the quarantine centre,” recalled Basit, Naik’s younger brother. “The police contacted Bari Sahab to trace them and he actually helped bring them back.”
“How can the police take the help of a wanted man?” Basit asked. “Shouldn’t they have arrested him then only if he was an absconder?”