'Is This The Famous Kashmir Hospitality?': Amarnath Pilgrimage Turns Sour For Russian Woman

23 December 2015

Srinagar: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Moscow for the 16th annual India-Russia summit, defence deals and economic partnerships will sit atop his agenda. However, it is possible that another issue may also be on his mind, one that has the potential to snowball into a diplomatic pow-wow. On 24 August, Russian national Bonetekia Zoia was arrested near Sonamarg - around 90 kilometres from Srinagar - while on pilgrimage to Amarnath. DNA reports that the 40-year-old resident of St Petersburg, who happens to be a practising Hindu - after converting four years ago, was arrested and charged under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act as she was travelling without the proper documents. The report quotes Umar Rashid Wani, Zoia's counsel as saying that she entered India from Nepal to perform her Amarnath yatra, but was 'trapped' by the police and could not be released on bail. 'I did not have surety to present on her behalf It was (also) not possible for me to get a passport because she actually had lost it somewhere in Nepal. Therefore, I had to confess on her behalf,' said Wani. The mother of two who had taken to calling herself 'Sadhu', was subsequently convicted and sentenced to a year in Srinagar Central Jail. Meanwhile, her husband Alexander Rekh issued an open letter through Kashmir Dispatch, where he promised to 'fight for the rights and freedom of Zoia'. According to Leningrad-based Rekh, it was the colour of her skin that prejudiced the police. He wrote: 'She is not a terrorist, not a murderer or a thief. All she cares about is her path to God. On the day of her arrest, she was saving herself from the harsh weather under the bridge. Her fault is that she's a foreigner; the fact that she's a white woman. Her fault was that on her way to God, she decided to do away with intermediaries in the form of local authorities; permits, certificates, fees, tariffs, monetary fees and so on. Just for that she was beaten by police during the arrest. For her indomitable will to seek God's path, she has already suffered beatings and humiliation from prison personnel and inmates. That's why in prison, they slip tranquilisers into her food. That is why she was deprived of a legal right to a phone the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. Why was she denied basic legal right; because she's a white Russian woman? Is this the famous Kashmir hospitality?' To summarise: Zoia was allegedly beaten, tranquilised, humiliated and deprived of legal rights. But that's not all. Rekh contends that his wife did not cross the Nepal-India border illegally. In fact, her 'perfectly legal document 'magically' disappeared when she was arrested.' This account is somewhat at odds with that of her counsel, who is quoted by The Tribune as saying, that when she crossed the India-Nepal border, she 'did not bother' with carrying travel documents. 'Even during the trial, Zoia confessed that she did not carry the travel documents and did not care for man-made boundaries and hassles,' he added. The case of Bonetekia Zoia comes hot on the heels of a communiqué from the Russian Information Centre (RIC) in Goa last month that India 'was not safe for Russian travellers'. This was followed by a swift clarification from the RIC that dismissed any such view. And quite rightly too. In fact, just last year, India simplified the visa regime for Russian nationals by offering electronic visa on arrivals, a move that was welcomed by President Vladimir Putin at the India-Russia summit in New Delhi in December. But back to Zoia, and whether or not her documents 'magically disappeared', the allegations against the police by a (naturally) concerned husband are serious and Modi - along with the Ministry of External Affairs - will want to defuse this situation before it spirals out of control.