At Mumbai’s protest against the Jawaharlal Nehru University attack, several organisations, students’ groups and individuals had gathered in large numbers.
Among thousands of placards condemning the attack on students and on those protesting the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), one young woman was seen holding a placard with “Free Kashmir” message. The woman, Mehak Mirza Prabhu, a city-based storyteller and performer soon became a target of internet outrage. Her photo was shared by several right-wing social media profiles, including Maharashtra’s former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Prabhu was branded as an “anti-national” woman and demands for her arrest were made on social media. The Mumbai police on January 7 filed an FIR against Prabhu under Section 153 (B) of the Indian Penal Code for “imputation, assertions prejudicial to national interest”.
In response to the outrage and the negative messages that have since been making rounds on social media, Prabhu put out a clarification in a video, explaining the poster. She said that she, like several hundred had gathered at Gateway of India in support of the students who have been attacked in universities for speaking up.
The placard, she says, was lying at the protest venue and her intentions were to only highlight the restrictions that have been imposed in the Valley for over five months.
On August 5, in an unprecedented move, the BJP government decided to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution. Ever since, there has been a large scale lockdown of Kashmir, with internet services suspended, leaders arrested and a lack of information from the area.
Prabhu in the video says that her reasons to hold the placard was not to stir controversy but to bring attention to the living conditions of those in Kashmir. “At around 6 pm, I reached the protest space… Like anybody else who believes in democracy, I too joined the protest… We were raising slogans, about various issues. We were talking about JNU, about the violence in the country…”
Prabhu says she came across a group that was painting placards and one such placard read, “Free Kashmir”. “At that point, I only thought of one thing… That we are here to speak about the basic constitutional right to freedom. And for the past five months due to internet shutdown, that right has completely gone for the people of Kashmir. If we call them our own, we should also treat them like us,” she said, further adding that the pic was taken out of proportion and that she has been accused of being a member of some gang and was paid to stand there with the poster in the protest.
On the internet, several messages floated claiming Prabhu is a Kashmiri and her intention was to “hurt” Indians. Prabhu, in the video, clarifies that she is a Marathi-speaking Mumbai resident and has lived all along in the city. “I am a story-teller. My work is available on the internet… you will get to know about my entire life on the internet.”
The BJP has strongly objected to the poster and demanded criminal action against Prabhu. Former CM Devendra Fadnavis also tweeted about the incident - "Protest is for what exactly? Why slogans of “Free Kashmir”? How can we tolerate such separatist elements in Mumbai? ‘Free Kashmir’ slogans by Azadi gang at 2km from CMO? Uddhav ji are you going to tolerate this Free Kashmir Anti India campaign right under your nose???"
To which the Nationalist Congress Party’s senior leader and cabinet minister Jayant Patil replied - "Devendraji It’s 'free Kashmir' from all discriminations, bans on cellular networks and central control. I can't believe that responsible leader like you trying to confuse people by decoding words in such a hatred way. Is it losing power or losing self control?" defending Prabhu's intention.
Even the Shiv Sena has defended Prabhu and has said that the poster spoke of the situation in Kashmir in the past few months. “I read that those who held the ‘Free Kashmir’ poster clarified that they want to be free of restrictions on Internet services, mobile services and other issues. It doesn’t mean that they advocate freedom from India,” Raut said.
Mahek Prabhu has apologized for hurting the sentiments of people but has also clarified that she had no intention of being an "anti-national" element, she simply wanted to make sure people remembered that Kashmir has been on lockdown for almost 5 months now.