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Kashmiris face sedition charges for cheering Pakistan cricketers

Indian police say online celebration 'might spoil' the nation's 'atmosphere'

SRINAGAR, India -- It was late at night, around 11 o'clock, on Oct. 26 when the mother and younger sisters of Arshad Yousuf learned that the 21-year-old -- the family's hope for a better future -- had been suspended from college, arrested by police and charged with sedition for celebrating Pakistan's T20 World Cup cricket victory over India on social media.

Arshad was suspended from Raja Balwant Singh Engineering Technical Campus, in Agra, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders Nepal.

The match took place a couple of days earlier, in the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan won by 10 wickets, its first cricket World Cup victory against India in nearly three decades. The result triggered celebrations in India's Muslim-majority Kashmir region. After celebration videos went viral on social media, police used a stringent anti-terror law to file charges against students at the Government Medical College and the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences.

The schools are in Srinagar, the main city in the northwestern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

India and Pakistan claim full sovereignty over Kashmir, but each controls only part. Until August 2019, India's constitution granted India-administered Kashmir semi-autonomy, allowing the region to have its own constitution and flag. When New Delhi revoked the guarantee, it also imposed a monthslong communication blockade on the region, arresting local politicians and activists. India says life in the region has since returned to normal, but the students' arrests seem to say otherwise.

India's loss stirred up a bevy of emotions. In the western states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Kashmiri students were attacked. On social media platforms, Mohammad Shami, a Muslim member of India's team, was accused of deliberately letting in runs. Some posters called him "a traitor and an anti-national."

Arshad and two other students, Showket Ahmad and Inayat Altaf, were taken into custody on Oct. 26 and booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code that prohibit promoting enmity between groups and make it illegal to intend to cause or act in a way likely to cause fear or to alarm the public. A section of the Information Technology Act used to punish acts of cyberterrorism was also invoked.

In Arshad's home village of Chak Pora, on the outskirts of Srinagar, college students are shocked. "We feel vulnerable after this incident," one said. "We were excited to see players playing with bats manufactured in Kashmir for the first time in any tournament, but our excitement felt flat when we heard about Arshad."

Omani players became the first World Cup cricketers to use bats made of wood from a female willow variant native to Kashmir.

None of Arshad's forebears graduated from high school with grades good enough to get into college, let alone win a scholarship. Arshad was the first.

His family members learned of his arrest on Facebook, where media outlets posted news of his arrest. They have been unable to contact him.

"We tried his phone; it was switched off," said Hilal Ahmed, Arshad's uncle. "We have not spoken to him at all and do not know what condition he is in. Arshad is in his third year of college; we all were happy that Arshad finally [would] complete his course and get a job and be able to help his mother and two younger sisters live normal lives."

Arshad's father died in a car accident two decades ago. Ever since, Arshad, his mother and two younger sisters have struggled, Hilal said.

Arshad and the two other students appeared in a court in Agra on Oct. 28. After the hearing and while being accompanied by police, they were pushed, shoved and hit with fists by a mob and some lawyers before being bundled into a police jeep and taken away.

On Saturday, a lawyers association in Agra refused to defend the three students.

This is not the first time Kashmiri students have been attacked after a cricket match between India and Pakistan. During the 2014 Asia Cup, nearly 60 Kashmiri students were suspended by a college in Uttar Pradesh after they celebrated a Pakistan victory over India. The charges were later dropped.

"We do not know what Arshad has done that became punishable," Hilal said, "but just cheering for a team's victory is not a crime. Celebrating a team's win should be taken in good spirit, and one of the best examples of sportsmanship is Virat Kohli [an Indian cricketer]. Did you see how Kohli hugged every player from the Pakistan team and congratulated them? That made a huge statement."

An attorney who practices at Delhi Court appears to agree.

"Merely cheering for another team is not a crime," Abhinav Sekri said. "It's part of your right, being a citizen of a country. Unless there were some other offending acts, it would seem that the present cases are an abuse of process.

"What the reality is will be proved in the court, but the process, for the time being, seems to a [form of] punishment."

Prashant Kumar, additional director general for law and order in the state of Uttar Pradesh, indicated that it is legal to cheer for a team.

"There is no blanket order to invoke sedition or any other charges on people who were cheering for Pakistan during the match," he told Nikkei Asia. "Invoking the relevant sections of the [Indian Penal Code] after determining the crime will be done by the local police stations."

An initial police investigation report states, "Three students of RBS (Raja Balwant Singh) college -- Inayat Altaf Shaikh, Showkat Ahmad Gani, and Arshad Yusuf -- raised anti-national slogans of 'Bharat Tere Tukde Honge' ['India will be in pieces'], 'Pakistan Zindabad' ['Long live Pakistan'], and put up anti-India slogans on social media through their WhatsApp status. These people are trying to stir tension, which might spoil the atmosphere of the country."

A marketing head of a beverage company and World Cup sponsor declined to comment on the case. Nikkei also emailed the International Cricket Council for a comment but has yet to receive a reply.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, noted that Kashmir represents a sensitive matter in India and that Kashmiris cheering on Pakistani athletes tend to embarrass New Delhi as it tries to project a narrative that Kashmir is normalizing and stabilizing.

"India shoots itself in the foot if it penalizes Kashmiris for backing Pakistani cricketers," Kugleman said, "as it just brings more attention to something it would prefer be swept under the rug. The bottom line is that in a democracy, the state has no business punishing people for their choices about what athletic teams to support."

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