Saturday, July 23, 2011

Kashmir 2010


The mass uprising of mid-2010 in Kashmir sent shock waves across all of India. It caught most experts on Kashmir thoroughly unawares, after they had managed to persuade themselves that the situation in the valley – routinely referred to as “troubled” – had rapidly changed for the better.

The warning signals emanating from the valley through the two years before, were evidently not heeded. It is for future historians to assess with all the wisdom that hindsight confers, whether the 2010 civil disturbances were continuous with the events of 2008 and 2009. Till a definitive judgment can be formed on the matter, it must be estimated that the 2010 events, locally called the uprising or intifada, began with the killing of Zahid Farooq in the Nishat Brane neighbourhood of Srinagar in February. But if public rage was on a low simmer following that incident, it really erupted with the cold-blooded murder of three who fell victim to the perverse system of military rewards and incentives for killing supposed “terrorists”.

Shahzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad, and Mohammad Shafi were shot down in Macchil village near Kupwara in a supposed “armed encounter” on 30 April 2010. It took the furious reaction of the local people for an official admission of error and a commitment to fix accountability for the atrocity.

As the official response took shape, people in Kashmir kept up the protests against a deployment of security forces in their area, that seemed impervious to any notion of public accountability. Maybe these dispersed and uncoordinated popular protests would not have gathered the dimensions of a full-fledged rebellion, had it not been for the killing of 17-year old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo in Srinagar on 11 June.

Different interpretations are possible, but few among those with a basic familiarity with Kashmir, would dispute that the clumsy and disingenuous official response to each of these incidents has fuelled public fury. Further, the unquestioning attitude in what is called “mainland India”, towards any official claims on Kashmir, has contributed little of value.

Civil society groupings in Kashmir affirm that the demonstrations the valley saw for three uninterrupted months since June 2010, were very much a reflection of the public mood, continuous in every sense with the eruption in 1989 of what they call the azaadi movement. The spirit and the scale of the 2010 uprising, though, have been of a magnitude not seen since 1989.

On the part of Indian State authorities , the protests were described as a Pakistan conspiracy, or alternately, a shallow and short-lived commotion orchestrated by designated terror groups – such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba. The Indian union government, after sending out signals of support to the state administration under Omar Abdullah, later seemed to turn its back on the beleaguered chief minister, characterising the disturbances as the outcome of a “trust and governance deficit”.

These arguments have taken up much public attention in recent times. But what has caused most alarm in mainstream political commentary is the discovery of a new weapon by the azaadi movement in Kashmir and a new mode of delivery. Stones thrown even with the most power, have little efficacy when facing firearms with lethal capacity. But stones have a moral capacity to shock and disturb, especially when they become the weapon of choice for a people that seem simply unwilling to accept defeat, even in the face of all the coercive might deployed against them.

The State has thought up various means of dealing with the situation, but politics has largely been absent from the mix. A parliamentary delegation that visited Srinagar in September and made the significant gesture of meeting with representatives of the so-called “separatist” political stream, succeeded to some degree, and temporarily, in cooling violent passions on the streets. The subsequent announcement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that a team of “interlocutors” would be empowered to engage with all sections of opinion in Kashmir and discuss ways out of the trap of antagonistic politics, also briefly, held some promise.

The team of “interlocutors” as finally constituted, seemed an active effort at denying the political element. In Kashmir itself, the three-member team was dismissed as yet another dilatory tactic, which would do little to address the real issues.

The simultaneous announcement by the Prime Minister, that he would ask his Economic Advisory Council to explore ways of bringing about greater participation by the youth of Kashmir in the economic mainstream, was also viewed with considerable scepticism. Every announcement of a special economic “package” for Kashmir – as a magic bullet to appease its political grievances – is well remembered in the valley as yet another futile effort to change the subject and evade the fundamental issue.

The Director-General of Police for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has drawn several lessons from the unrest, but public attention most likely would be attached to his proposals on changing “standard operating procedure” (SOP), as used by police forces in dealing with mass demonstrations.

More than 120 people lost their lives and many more were severely injured, in the highly unequal street contest that went on in Kashmir last year. Contrary to the alibi advanced on their behalf, the security forces were by no means acting always in self-defence. Indeed, the people of Kashmir believe that the men in khakhi were actively involved in the coercive effort to deter and discourage demonstrations. They showed little hesitation to preempt what they thought would be violence directed against them, by inflicting serious violence on all those who they thought capable of such actions.

Deterrence often slipped over into active repression, particularly in situations when it seemed likely that the “protest calendar” announced on a regular basis by Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani was likely to attract public support and loyalty.

A generation has grown to maturity in the turbulence of the valley’s two-decade long insurgency. And anger lurks just beneath the placid surface, waiting for an opportunity to express itself. Only the naive could have believed that the relatively high turn-out in the 2008 elections to the J&K legislative assembly constituted evidence that Kashmir was rapidly becoming reconciled to life under Indian rule.

Several Kashmir watchers within Indian civil society were completely puzzled by the events beginning June. This bewilderment also arose from the nature, scale and persistence of protests. Although the protests following the Shopian murders in 2009 and the transfer of land to a religious trust administering the annual Amarnath yatra in 2008, were no less widespread, a new vigour was manifest in the 2010 visitation.

There was also something new in the way each killing led to protests – typically associated with the burial ritual – that themselves became so threatening to the State agencies that they responded, more often than not, with disproportionate force. This in turn, set the stage for a further escalation in the cycle of killings and protests.

The idea of a fact finding team to Kashmir was mooted in August 2010. Apart from the most evident objectives such a team would set for itself in a situation of widespread human rights violations, the aim also was to talk to people and assess different shades of opinion on the origins of the problem, its present status and possible routes towards resolution. While the Kashmiri media has documented deaths and injuries through the valley’s long summer of unrest, there still were gaps in documentation, since numerous eye-witnesses to the lethal force applied by the security forces still believe that they have something to add – by way both of narrations of personal loss and considered opinions on the modus operandi of the Indian State.

What role did stone-throwing play in the protest strategies of Kashmir’s youth? How equipped were the security forces to cope with the situation without further aggravating matters? It was important in the context of the growing understanding that the security forces – far from being the solution to the Kashmir dispute, could actually contribute to its aggravation -- to understand chains of command and discover how civilian casualties are seen within the apparatus of the Indian State.

Equally important was an assessment of the status of promises made by the Omar Abdullah government, to bring human rights violators to book, to punish those who recklessly took life and to compensate – to the extent possible – those who suffered from the excessive use of force.

This fact-finding team (FFT) was in Kashmir at the end of October 2010 and met several families of those killed and injured during the period of maximum violence. The team worked out of the state capital of Srinagar, and visited villages and towns in five of Kashmir’s ten districts. Separate sessions were held with journalists and media practitioners, university teachers and students, doctors, lawyers and activists, besides officials in the police headquarters and the civil administration.

2008 and 2009: Warning Signals Ignored

Protests and demonstrations through the summer of 2010 had an intensity never seen since the first eruption of the azaadi movement, but there were perhaps warning signals available from the two earlier years. A rising level of public anger was evident in Kashmir in both 2008 and 2009, as also a response pattern in Indian public opinion marked mostly by incomprehension and insensitivity.

Mass protests in 2008 were sparked off by the allocation of a seemingly trivial quantum of land in the valley – 100 acres (or 40 hectares) – to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), a newly created trust with the J&K state governor as chairman. As evident from its name, the trust administers the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the hills to the north of Pahalgam. Till the eruption of the militancy in 1989, the Amarnath yatra used to be low-key annual voyage of piety undertaken by a few thousands. Following some years of suspension, the yatra was resumed in the mid-1990s as an officially sponsored annual ritual. With Kashmir’s more extreme political units being intent on depriving it of the support and patronage of the people – till then willingly given -- the yatra became an annual contest of wills, with the Indian State elevating it to a matter of honour and prestige.

In this manner, the yatra was moved out of the sphere of voluntary effort in which the people of Kashmir gladly participated, and institutionalised as an adversarial activity in which the Indian State and Kashmir’s most radical Islamist elements faced off annually.

Till the second term of Governor Jagmohan, who was by all accounts, including his own, possessed by a messianic vision for hastening Kashmir’s integration with India by reforming Hinduism and spreading its benign light over lesser faiths, the Amarnath yatra was always dependent on the patronage of the Kashmiri people, who saw it as a season of economic opportunity when they could give ample expression to their legendary hospitality. After the number of pilgrims literally exploded in the mid-1990s, there were concerns over the squalid conditions in which the trail was left after the devout withdrew. But except when they came under overt coercion by militant groups, the people of Kashmir continued to welcome the pilgrims and simply trusting that the environmental consequences would be overcome by the resilience of the valley’s ecological system.

Why J&K governor S.K. Sinha, a retired army general of the three-star rank and an active member of the BJP since the end of his military career, should have chosen in June 2008 – just when his term was ending -- to allocate a tract of land to the permanent tenancy of the SASB is not known. The decision was embroidered with all the necessary proprieties of popular governance in Kashmir, with the chief minister and all concerned officials signing off on it. But it is believed that this was part of a contest of wills between the governor in the last months of his tenure and the elected government in the state. It was obviously a decision that they hoped, would pass without serious scrutiny by the public.

Shortly after the land allotment was announced, Yasin Malik, leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) -- probably the most recognisable public face of Kashmir’s azaadi movement -- denounced it as part of a long-term stratagem to alter the demography of the valley. Protests broke out in the valley and the Peoples’ Democratic Party of Mehbooba Mufti – a rather reluctant partner at the best of times, withdrew from the ruling coalition in the state -- reducing the Congress(I) led government to a minority and compelling its resignation.

The land allotment was rescinded, but almost on cue, protests began in the Jammu region, escalating in little time into a blockade of the Kashmir valley, imposed with an overt revenge motive. Kashmir’s political forces retaliated by marching towards Muzaffarabad in what is called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The long-thwarted ambition to reunite the cultural topography of Kashmir, an explicit priority for every mainstream politician since Sheikh Abdullah, again became an active motif in the politics of the valley.

The State response to this action-reaction sequence did little credit to its claims as a neutral arbiter between rival camps. Neither did the Indian State enhance its credentials to being even-handed and secular in its attitude towards provocative actions by civil society actors. Protests in the Kashmir valley were brutally repressed, including through the imposition of a week-long curfew in the entire valley towards the end of August. In Jammu though, riotous mobs enjoyed wide latitude to establish their coercive will on chosen targets.

Like most cycles of violence, this too subsided after a while, partly as a consequence of political calculation on both sides. It cannot be said though, that the bitter legacy has been forgotten.

For several otherwise unbiased observers, it has seemed more than puzzling that a land allotment of a mere 40 hectares was portrayed as part of a serious effort at demographic re-engineering in Kashmir. This reaction of the dissident political forces in Kashmir falls neatly into a stereotype of rampant cultural paranoia in the valley, aligned with a huge dose of political opportunism.

Looking at some of the background though, it seems not quite so puzzling. There have been politicians and commentators in high standing in Indian civil society, who have unabashedly advanced the claim that a demographic “Indianisation” of Kashmir is absolutely imperative if peace is to be brought to the valley. The suggested modes of achieving this objective have varied, but the Hindutva ideologue Arun Shourie, in the days when he was a widely read media commentator, has spoken of granting land titles to security personnel deployed in anti-insurgency operations in Kashmir, as one possibility.

Within Kashmiri civil society, there is a perception that much of their most valued territory is being encroached upon. A seemingly exaggerated figure is often heard in the valley, that no less than 1.5 million acres (about 600,000 hectares or 6,000 square kilometres) of its land is under the occupation of the security forces. This may seem alarming, since the total area of Jammu and Kashmir is just 222,000 square kilometres, of which about half is outside Indian control. Of an estimated 110,000 square kilometres that India does control, the area alleged to be under the occupation of the armed forces is 6,000 square kilometres – by any criterion, an extraordinarily high ratio.

An element of reality though, needs to be introduced and the official figure on land under military occupation is a good place to start. According to a reply by the Union Defence Minister to a Rajya Sabha question, 72,561 acres (about 30,000 hectares or 300 square kilometres) of land in all of J&K is under the armed forces. No separate estimation is available for the Kashmir valley alone. But it needs to be noted that the valley is the most densely settled, with the largest expanse of cultivable land among the three regions of J&K. And the total area of the valley is just over 15,000 square kilometres. According to the Defence Ministry, of the total land under occupation by the armed forces, 46,891 acres (about 190 square kilometres) has been hired or requisitioned “recently”. This is inclusive of about 15,892 acres (about 60 square kilometres) of orchard and agricultural lands. If the land hired or requisitioned “recently” were assumed to be entirely in Kashmir, that alone would be over 1.2% of the total land area of the valley. This speaks of a rapid and intrusive growth of the military presence in the Kashmir valley.

There is obviously greater transparency called for in terms of troop deployments in the Kashmir valley and the land that has been appropriated, not just by the three uniformed services, but also by the CRPF, BSF and other paramilitaries. Irrespective of the figures, which the government releases only with extreme reluctance, the indubitable reality is that the people of Kashmir see the presence of the military and the occupation of parts of their land – including orchard and farmland – as abiding proof that they live in a state of unfreedom. The substantive content of azaadi cannot be very easily described, but the absence of freedom is a very visible reality in Kashmir.

These basic concerns of the people of Kashmir passed the comprehension of the rest of the country, which in 2008 saw little amiss in the blockade of the valley by political forces in Jammu and indeed may have actively endorsed it as a tough and long overdue message: that offending the sensibilities of the majority faith would attract swift and decisive punishment.

Shopian rape and murder, 2009

There was great anxiety in the wake of the Amarnath land allotment agitation, over the possibility of state-wide assembly elections being held before October 2008, when they were due. After an expected postponement, the election took place in seven phases spread over November and December, drawing an unprecedented voter turnout of over 60 percent, though the turnout in the Kashmir valley itself was significantly below the average. Despite the quibbles, the final outcome was deemed to be a vote of confidence in the system.

It did not take long for the complacence to evaporate. Just around daybreak on 30 May 2009, two women, Niloufer Ahangar and her young school going sister-in-law Asiya Jan, were found dead at different spots in a stream near the district town of Shopian, 52 kilometres from Srinagar. They had gone missing late the previous evening and the stretch of the stream where they were finally found had been searched till late into the night by family members, neighbours and the local police. Tension gripped the area and the local administration promptly deployed security forces in strength in an effort to deter possible mass protests. As the numerous independent news channels in Kashmir stepped up their coverage, residents of Shopian came out on the streets, protesting what they were convinced, was a case of rape and murder, in which the security agencies were directly culpable.

The local police put out a clumsily worded press release that day which announced the two deaths but recorded that “post-mortems conducted revealed no marks on the dead bodies including private parts”. This release was reportedly withdrawn quickly, though without an alternative explanation given for the deaths. No first information report (FIR) was filed for seven days. In other words, the document that formally records the beginning of an investigation was not in existence till well after the first signs of a suspected crime emerged.

As the issue caught fire, local news channels carried lengthy reports on 31 May, involving accounts from the family members of the two women. Also featured was the official explanation, given by the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, the top official looking after civil administration in the Kashmir valley.

For various reasons, not unrelated to intrinsic credibility, the official narration on the deaths remained subdued all through this cycle of events. The news channels and print media meanwhile, reconstructed the sequence of events leading to the death of the two women, seemingly from interviews with local residents and family members. Media accounts of the tragedy – in a situation of active information denial by the local and state authorities – mutated rapidly over the first two days, while conforming to the broad template of an atrocity perpetrated by the security forces that have been deployed in strength in the valley.

A day afterwards, with state and local authorities seemingly caught flat-footed by an eruption of public anger, the police continued to insist that the two bodies bore no scars of injury at the moment of their discovery – other than bruises that may have been inflicted by being dragged into a river and colliding against rocks. This narration indicated death by drowning.

As stated by J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at a press conference on June 1, the media had been irresponsible in putting out the worst possible interpretation on the deaths. But in virtually the same breath, Abdullah also admitted that there was a trust deficit between the administration and the people of the state. This was not specific to his tenure, since it applied to much of the state’s modern history.

Under relentless public pressure, partly arising from wide coverage of the matter by Kashmir’s media, the state government finally relented and empowered a judicial commission of inquiry to determine the facts about the Shopian deaths. Meanwhile, in a replay of the “blaming the messenger theme”, the Directorate of Information in the state government issued notice to all local cable TV channels to suspend news broadcasts. As the editors and owners of the channels put it, they were summoned early in June and given a virtual ultimatum by the authorities that they needed to “behave properly”. Several were told that their relationship with the secessionist political formation, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, was well known, and that the dossiers available with state intelligence agencies provided ample grounds for their prosecution under the special security laws in force in Kashmir.

An account of the content that was broadcast by the Kashmir news channels through those days does not establish clear grounds for this extreme action against the media. The various news channels in Kashmir may indeed have only done what the authorities failed to do: take note of a serious crime and document the public concern that those responsible be brought to account.

When the judicial inquiry into the Shopian killings by Justice Muzaffar Jan submitted its report, there were special words of criticism for the media. Also targeted with rather pointed censure was the husband of one of the dead women. He was painted as a person of dubious morality and a possible criminal bent. For some reason, these engaged public attention much more than the substantive finding: that the police had failed colossally in following basic rules of procedure in investigating what was potentially a serious crime. When protests erupted over the gratuitous remarks made against the dead woman’s spouse, the inquiring judge distanced himself from them, pleading that they had been interpolated, without his authorisation, by the police. The inquiry commission’s recommendation that the policemen who were possibly involved in covering up the crime and destroying evidence be prosecuted, remains unimplemented so far. And the three special teams that were formed to investigate the crime were finally disbanded in September 2009 when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was brought into the case.

Over six months after the event, after the exhumation of both bodies, the CBI returned a finding of death by drowning. The CBI’s investigation found few takers in Kashmir as no persuasive evidence was advanced to contradict the initial post mortem findings which ruled out drowning as the cause of death and indicated sexual assault. The CBI has recommended the prosecution of the doctors, members of the Shopian Bar Association and public witnesses for tampering with evidence and misleading the police investigations. Ironically the four police officers who by their own admission allowed crucial material and circumstantial evidence to be destroyed, have been exonerated.

The Shopian deaths paralysed Kashmir for close to two months. The final outcome has almost by deliberate design, undermined any residual faith that the people in the valley may have had in the system of administration of law and justice.

Those who believed that life would go back to normal in Kashmir, despite the incendiary material steadily accumulating, were plainly deluded.

July 6 2010: violence explodes in a lethal action-reaction sequence

On 7 July 2010, the Indian Army came out on the streets of Srinagar for the first time in several years. Since being pulled out of Kashmir’s main urban areas as part of a well-advertised return to what is rather optimistically called “normalcy”, this was an admission that things were going horribly awry in the calculations of the Indian State. The decision to bring the army back into the cities was one made in precipitate haste. And the events of 6 July, which illustrated how unrest in Kashmir could explode in a lethal upward spiral of violence and resistance, seemed to have been instrumental in persuading the authorities that the pretence of “normalcy” was running rather thin, even by the normally deluded standards of the official discourse on Kashmir.

The explosion of violence on 6 July had a seemingly trivial cause: a minister’s embarrassment. Four lives were lost in the cycle of reprisal and resistance that followed. All the massive force and intimidation that the security forces brought to bear to suppress the explosion of 6 July, plainly had little impact. Rather, it showed up the security strategy in Kashmir as self-defeating, with no other recourse than multiplying the application of force. in complete disregard of human costs. And when the potential for embarrassment arose from an escalation of the human costs, a strategy of denial or blaming the victims would ensue.

6 July was recorded in Kashmir’s largest circulated English-language newspaper, Greater Kashmir, under the headline: “Bloodbath: 4 killed in Srinagar”. In what is called “mainland India”, The Hindu reported the day’s trauma under a more sober and rather sanitised headline: “Indefinite curfew in Srinagar after 4 die in fresh violence”. And the country’s largest English newspaper, the Times of India, led its front-page story on a rather regretful note: “after months of calm that had raised hopes of normalcy, Kashmir appears to be getting swept into a spiral of violence again, forcing the authorities to call out the Army across the entire Srinagar city”. The story, under the headline “Army out in Srinagar as turmoil worsens”, went on to report, on the authority of the Director-General of J&K Police, Kuldeep Khoda, that the army would “take over the entire patrolling responsibility in the city from the CRPF and police.”

The toll of the dead in demonstrations across the valley had just crossed into the double digit mark at this point. As reported by the Times of India that day: “The decision (on deploying the army) was taken after three more protesters, including a 25-year old woman, were killed in CRPF firing on Tuesday, bringing the death toll in such incidents to 14 since June 11.”

In keeping with the established pattern, the mainstream media fluffed the figures and reduced the story of human tragedy unfolding in Kashmir, to anonymous identities and actions devoid of agency. Lives were lost because bullets were fired. There was no greater enlightenment on offer. This is not to say that Kashmir’s journalists have not tried against great odds to bring to public notice, the brutal realities of life under siege and the constant threat of death -- only that their efforts have been futile, considering how the media discourse on Kashmir is organised in “mainland India”.

The violence of 6 July was set in train the previous day, when a minister of state in the J&K government, Nasir Aslam Wani, visited the Tengpora area of Srinagar, adjoining the Gangbugh bypass on the highway to Baramullah. He came with intent to examine the damage inflicted on civic life as a consequence of the tactics that security forces had been adopting to quell the growing tide of protests – including breaking windows and shattering household effects.

The minister’s visit was seen in the locality as a publicity gimmick. Reflecting the public sentiment, a group of young boys bathing in a canal that runs along the pathway into the neighbourhood, jeered at him. There is no evidence that any stones were hurled, though the media narrative that followed seemed without serious query, to accept that the protest against the minister’s visit followed the pattern that was becoming the defining template of that summer in Kashmir.

Subsequent events, as reported in the media, are somewhat confusing. Greater Kashmir says that Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat was one among a group of boys that was surrounded by the CRPF after protests erupted during the minister’s visit. Muzaffar for reasons yet unknown, was taken in, while the others in his group of play-mates were let off.

Other media reports have said that all boys were chased down the road by an angry company of policemen. The boys indeed, may have not been quite so innocent, and may have pelted stones at the minister’s entourage. But when pursued by the uniformed personnel, Muzaffar may have leapt into the Gangbugh canal in panic.

A quite different narrative from local sources

Muzaffar was the third child of Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a small-holding farmer in the area. As his father narrates the day’s events, Muzaffar, aged 17 at the time, was working in the fields with him till about two o’clock on the afternoon of 5 July. They both came back home for lunch, following which Muzaffar went out to bathe in the dariya (flood channel) that runs close to the highway, along the road leading to their neighbourhood.

The minister arrived on his visit of inspection around 3:30 that afternoon and was met by a number of irate protesters. Shortly after he left, a group of policemen came back into the village on what seemed a mission of settling scores. Muzaffar and his friends, still bathing in the dariya, were the first target they spotted. Muzaffar was picked up from among the group and taken away, for no reason other than the need for the police to make an example of somebody.

As word spread of another disappearance, the entire neighbourhood came out in anxiety amd gathered on the highway to Baramullah, shouting slogans and demanding Muzaffar’s release. By late-evening, the highway was choked and traffic movement paralysed. The top police officials – from superintendent to inspector-general -- turned up to negotiate an end to the blockade. Tengpora was unwilling to relent and tear-gas shells and lathi charges proved to be of little use in dispersing the massed demonstrators on the highway.

Muzaffar’s father -- Bashir -- had meanwhile visited the two police stations in the vicinity, at Batamaloo and Shergarh and been told that there was nobody answering to his son’s description in their custody. Suggestions made by the police then, as he recalls, that his son may have fallen into the reservoir adjoining the highway, while fleeing the security crackdown. As Bashir recounts that day’s incidents, the reservoir was then drained out by a group of local residents, but the boy remained untraced.

By five the next morning, the siege of the highway was lifted, in part because the protesters were in a state of fatigue. Bashir suspects that Muzaffar’s lifeless body was surreptitiously brought to the site after the crowd dispersed. When found, his body was brought in a shroud to the point on the highway where the road turns in towards Tengpora. A crowd soon assembled, shouting aazadi slogans and demanding justice for the slain youth.

Collateral damage

This was the context in which Fayaz Ahmad Wani, an employee of the state government’s department of parks and gardens, set out for work. The highway was blocked and there was a company of the CRPF advancing towards the demonstrators, but Fayaz was moving in the other direction, with no intent other than reporting for duty on time.

Saqib Nazir Wani, Fayaz’s younger brother, was by his own admission, part of the demonstration. But as he tells it, Fayaz was not -- and there is no evident reason at all why he should have been targeted in a lethal volley of gunfire by the CRPF. There were a number of others among the demonstrators who were injured in this firing, but Fayaz, hit in the neck, was the only one to die.

Dignity denied to the dead

Fayaz’s body was laid out, wrapped in a shroud, alongside Muzaffar’s. The highway to Baramullah became the scene of one of the largest gatherings of mourners and protesters that Kashmir had seen in several years. At a loss on how to deal with the explosion of rage, the police force let loose their most brutal instincts. Abdul Ghani Bhat, Muzaffar’s uncle, in an image widely publicised and seen through the valley, was kicked and beaten by the police as he kept a vigil over the body of the slain youth.

As news of the deaths in Tengpora spread, crowds came out in other parts of the valley. The most vigorous protests occurred in the Maisuma Bagh area of Srinagar, where Fayaz had been a resident with his family, till relocating to Tengpora. Abrar Ahmad, an 18-year old, was killed in the firing that ensued in this area.

All through that morning and well into the afternoon, most of Srinagar was in turmoil. In the Lakshmanpora neighbourhood within the Batamaloo police station precinct, protests began that morning after announcements were made from the mosques about the killing of Muzaffar and Fayaz. All through the morning, demonstrators and the police fought a war of maneouvre for control of the streets. At some time in the afternoon, J&K police forces facing off against protesters, charged down the main street of the neighbourhood, dispersing the crowd with several bursts of teargas.

Fancy Jan: random victim of deliberate crime

Some of the teargas shells were fired down a side street on which Abdur Rahim, a casual worker, lives. As the fumes started entering the home, his daughter Fancy Jaan noticed that they were causing some distress to her asthmatic mother. Fancy went upto the first floor to draw the curtain. The home had no windows then since a minor renovation was underway and curtains were the only protection. Fancy may have looked out of her window for a fraction of a second. She was at that precise moment, hit by a shot fired by a policeman patrolling the main street.[photo 7]

Considering the distance and the angle at which the shot was fired – not to mention the fractional instant when Fancy looked out – the possibility of the bullet hitting any live object, let alone proving fatal, must have been the most remote. Yet Fancy was hit in the chest and died almost immediately. It may have been a shot fired on impulse – with intent to intimidate rather than kill -- but it was certainly done without care for consequences,an obligation incumbent upon anyone handling lethal weapons.

It was mid-afternoon. Fancy’s family brought her down in order to take her to the hospital. They had little hope of bringing her back from the world of the dead where she already seemed banished. But just at the time the family was seeking some measure of closure, it was forced to retreat indoors by massive tear-gassing.

Fancy’s body was left on the main road, following which the security forces reportedly left in a hurry, rather than take responsibility either for the killing or its aftermath.

Unlike others caught in similar situations, Fancy’s family chose to lodge an FIR with the local police station. But they encountered great difficulties in the process. Once the news of her death spread and the protests began multiplying, officials at Batamaloo police station seemingly felt compelled to register the FIR.

Despite their straitened circumstances, Fancy’s family has disdained the offer of compensation. Fancy herself did kravel embroidery work to supplement the family income. Though her neighbourhood had frequently been swept up in the fervour of the protests engulfing Kashmir, she had herself never been an active participant. Her death in the words of her parents shows that in Kashmir, no place is safe, even the supposed haven of a “family home”.

The toll of young life

Tufail Mattoo died on 11 June 2010, just eighteen days short of his eighteenth birthday. The cause of death was identified, after much avoidable early confusion, as a grievous head injury. In Srinagar’s fevered public mood, his death soon came to be understood as a deliberate act of vendetta, of a roguish police officer seeking to stamp his authority on public demonstrators, without making too fine a point over the legality of his action.

Tufail was an only child who had spent several of his years outside Kashmir. He may have known about the politics of the insurgency in the valley, but his years in Dubai and Mumbai, where his father had establishments promoting his handicrafts, had made Tufail a pragmatist, intent on pursuing academic work and seeking a career free of the tensions enveloping Kashmir. At the time he was killed, he was on his way to his grandmother’s residence in the Nowhatta area of Srinagar, after a session of private tuition. It was a routine he had long been used to. And despite the tense atmosphere in the city that day, he thought there was little to fear as he alighted from a bus to begin the short walk to his grandmother’s home.

A demonstration was underway in the vicinity of the Ghani stadium but Tufail was reportedly some distance away. Eyewitness accounts have mentioned a J&K police contingent at the venue, under the command of Deputy Superintendent Abdul Hamid Saka – then in charge of the two adjacent police stations of Nowhatta and Maharajganj.

The record of the events that followed have tended to get a little confused. Tufail’s family believes that he was some distance away from the demonstrators but perilously close to the police contingent then gearing up for crowd control.

Certain media reports have said that Tufail was probably walking through the open field of the Ghani stadium when he got caught in the exchange of projectiles between the demonstrators and the police. As reported in the Indian Express of June 13: “Tufail .. was caught in a skirmish between a group of protestors and the police”. An eyewitness account from one of the protestors has it that Tufail “was inside the playground when they (the police) fired (a teargas shell) at him. It hit his head and he fell down”.

Three policemen then reportedly “got down from their vehicle” and one of them “kicked (Tufail’s) body and told the other two that he was dead”. Then the police personnel reportedly “fled”.

Local newspapers did not manage to uncover any further forensic details. The city was in turmoil and there was little room for analytical and dispassionate news gathering. Once the body of the young boy was received in Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital, the local authorities it seems, sought to drive a bargain with the family. The police were anxious to avoid any aggravation of the public mood and keen to see the boy’s burial concluded under cover of night. The family was adamant that they would make no such sordid deal over the boy’s death. A manner of settlement was arrived at after the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) for Srinagar at the time, Riyaz Bedar, arranged to provide all necessary information for the causes of Tufail’s death to be established. But as Tufail’s body was being taken away from the medical facility for a burial that the family intended as a private affair, it was intercepted in the Rainawari area. Angry demonstrators snatched the body from the Mattoo family, insisting on laying him to rest in the burial ground that has come to be known as the “martyr’s graveyard” in Srinagar.

The Kashmir Times reported then: “Thousands of people defied the curfew restrictions and held massive protest demonstrations. Police had to fire in air, burst smoke shells and resorted (sic) to lathi charge to disperse the protestors. Even excessive force (sic) was used on the people in the funeral procession of Tufail at several places. At some places including Zinda Shah Masjid the protestors were forced by cops to keep the coffin, carrying the body of Tufail, on road amid heavy shelling and firing in air”.

Details of the autopsy conducted into Tufail’s death soon emerged, which established that he was killed by a high-velocity projectile striking at very short range. The autopsy had used ballistics matching with a specimen provided by the local police to arrive at the conclusion that death was caused by a tear-gas shell striking at high velocity and close range.

The police for its part sought to first put out one version and then another. One held that Tufail had been fatally hurt in stone throwing by the demonstrators. Another put down the fatal injury to a brawl that the boy got into while playing cricket, during which he was supposedly hit with a wicket.

Despite the autopsy report, the police showed little urgency about registering a case. On June 18, Tufail’s uncle Manzoor Ahmad Mattoo moved an application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar, asking the police to register a case and begin investigations. The first information report (FIR) that was subsequently filed, reflected none of the findings of the autopsy and clung to the story that death was a consequence of a cricket field brawl.

Riyaz Bedar, the Senior Superindent of Police for Srinagar at the time of the killing, had to an extent cooperated with the effort to establish the circumstances behind Tufail’s death, by providing a specimen teargas shell to the medical staff for ballistics matching. He was transferred out of his post on June 22. The investigation has made little progress since.

Early December, an 11-member delegation, drawn from an independent research foundation based in Delhi – the Centre for Policy Analysis – and diverse regional and left-wing political parties visited Kashmir. Since Tufail’s death had proved a pivotal event in the year’s disturbances, the delegation’s first visit was with his father, Mohammad Ashraf Mattoo. The suspicions of the local police and security agencies were reportedly aroused by this visit. Since then, the elder Mattoo has reported several visits by security personnel in civilian attire, who have urged him to accept the cash compensation of Rs 5 lakh on offer and withdraw his petition seeking investigation into his son’s death.

An early provocation: the killing of Zahid Farooq

Tufail’s killing was the point at which mass fury erupted in Kashmir, but a slow fuse was perhaps lit on February 5, when 16-year old Zahid Farooq was shot dead in a neighbourhood of Srinagar. Zahid’s family lives in the modest Nishat Brane suburb, just a short walk from the majestic Boulevard encircling Srinagar’s Dal Lake. Zahid had with two friends, walked down to a park abutting the Boulevard that day, with no other intention than spending some time hitting a cricket ball around. It was cold and rainy and by the time they reached the park, they found the conditions not quite right for a friendly cricketing joust. As they hung around, they saw three vehicles of the BSF halting on the Boulevard just adjoining the park. Subsequent reconstructions have suggested that there were perhaps three vehicles in the BSF convoy.

According to Zahid’s father Farooq Ahmad Shaikh – a driver with the state government’s Public Health Engineering Department – there may have been an exchange of words that followed. But it is not clear what could have set off a surge of uncontrollable rage among two of the BSF personnel, who alighted from the convoy, armed but clothed in civilian attire. The altercation, if at all there was one, led to the three boys being chased through the alleys of the neighbourhood. His two friends ducked to safety but Zahid was either specifically targeted – or he was just the single kill that the two armed pursuers were looking for, to expend their rage. A post-mortem examination revealed that Zahid was killed by one shot to his chest.

The company involved was identified as 68 battalion of BSF, using closed circuit TV footage available at a nearby camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Ballistics matching further narrowed the number of suspects, since very few had the lethal weapon in their possession that day. Interrogation finally identified constable Lakhwinder Singh (alias Kumar) as the person who had fired the fatal shot. He was soon afterwards handed over to the J&K Police. Under further questioning, he revealed that the order to fire that day had been issued by commandant R.K. Birdi, who was suspended soon afterwards and surrendered to the J&K Police in March.

Criminal prosecution commenced in April, but the BSF almost immediately moved an application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, pleading that proceedings be transferred to the jurisdiction of the General Security Forces Court (GSFC). The J&K Police argued that it had the authority to prosecute the personnel involved without obtaining prior sanction , because neither was on active duty at the time. This also, in their estimation, ruled out the jurisdiction of the GSFC, normally the forum for cases involving misconduct and criminal misdemeanour by force personnel.

On November 25, the CJM Srinagar, ruled that under relevant notifications issued by the Central Government, all BSF personnel deployed in J&K between the dates of July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010, were to be deemed on active duty at all times. On this basis, he allowed the transfer of the trial to the GSFC.The state government on 2 December 2010, filed a revision petition against this order before the J&K High Court. While the High Court initially on the first hearing of the case, stayed the proceedings before the GSFC, in February 2011, it vacated its own stay and allowed for evidence to be recorded by the GSFC with the rider that a final decision in the trial would not be taken.

An intrusive and overbearing khakhi presence

Though Zahid’s killing was initially put down to an unprovoked firing, his family was – when meeting this team in October -- prepared to concede that there may have been an act of verbal defiance by the three boys when they saw the BSF convoy stopping in the vicinity of the park. If so, the circumstances then prevailing would provide the reason.

On 31 January 2010, just five days before, Wamiq Farooq, a 17-year old, was killed while taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Srinagar. The cause of his death was then suspected to be a teargas shell fired from close range, which impacted with fatal effect on his head.

Much of Kashmir was in turmoil after this incident, but few among the local authorities had shown the slightest inclination to accept responsibility for the death of the young man. Kashmir’s youth have grown up in an environment where uniformed personnel are an intrusive and often overbearing presence. To this should be added the growing evidence that the men in uniform see themselves as unaccountable to all but their own internal chain of command.

For a generation of Kashmir’s youth, the constant presence of khakhi in their lives is evidence that they live in a regime of unfreedom. Any act of defiance against the men in khakhi or the symbols of their presence and authority, is an assertion of this deeply ingrained belief. Zahid may on that day, have expressed that widely held sentiment in a manner that invited the ire of the BSF company that just happened to halt in his neighbourhood on their way to some other destination. His killers perhaps reacted with aggravated fury to an expression of disdain by the three boys that day. It may in circumstances that pass for “normal” in Kashmir, have been considered a part of the routine of daily life. But that day for some reason, was different.

An 8 year old killed

Samir Ahmad Rah had no intent of making a political statement when he set out from his home in the Batamaloo area in Srinagar on August 2. He was all of eight years old and though the area was under curfew, few in his family saw any danger in him playing in the back alleys. A close relative of his father’s lives in the immediate vicinity and between the two households, it was assumed that a sufficiently close watch could be maintained to keep the boy out of danger.[photo8]

That day, Samir may have strayed too far from safety. A ten-minute walk from his home, he encountered a CRPF picket. His family insists that he was attacked with no provocation.

Rising Kashmir, a local newspaper, on August 3 reported, ostensibly on the basis of eyewitness accounts, that Samir may have shouted an azaadi slogan on seeing the uniformed men. If that indeed is the case, then it was obviously a child’s innocent and relatively uncomprehending emulation of a pattern of behaviour seen among elders all around. The CRPF contingent on duty though, seemed disinclined to make the fine distinctions of judgment between an informed slogan shouter and an innocent imitator.

Eye witnesses speak of Samir being administered a very violent blow across his head with a rifle butt and a lathi being thrust down his throat. The boy was then abandoned where he fell. Personnel of the J&K police happened to reach the site soon afterwards, reportedly after being told of the incident. Samir was taken to the nearest police control room and from there to the SMHS Hospital. The hospital records show him being brought to the casualty ward at 3:45 that afternoon. He was already on emergency life support and ventilation. There was no detectable cardiac activity. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was carried out, but the boy suffered another cardiac arrest at 7:25 p.m. and was pronounced dead about an hour afterwards.

Samir’s neighbourhood meanwhile was in turmoil. His father Fayaz Ahmad Rah, was resting, just having returned that morning from a few days out of town. Crowds had gathered to confront security personnel on duty. Tempers were aflame when Fayaz woke up and stepped out. Long hours of uncertainty followed, before the family came to know that the boy was dead. The neighbourhood had meanwhile erupted in protest. Late that evening water and electricity supply was cut off to the neighbourhood and cable television went off the screens.

The following day, Fayaz says, the head of the local police station visited him to express contrition and grief at what had happened to Samir. Privately, he admitted that a great wrong had been committed. Yet the FIR that he filed shortly afterwards, recorded the cause of Samir’s death as injuries caused in a stampede. Fayaz, who ekes out a modest living selling fruits off his pushcart at a nearby street corner, has refused to accept this finding. Indeed, the post-mortem report that the family still retains, mentions no injury aside from a “bruise on the occipital region, not actively bleeding”. There was no other mark of a visible injury on Samir’s body, nor any evidence of bleeding through any part of the body. On the face of things, the post-mortem findings seem to rule out the possibility that the boy was killed in a stampede.

Youth and the security forces’ aggravated threat perceptions

Through the months of Kashmir’s turmoil, a strange negative affinity seemed at work between security personnel and the youth. The men in khakhi tended to look at every young person – even children of tender years – as a threat. Where some restraint in dealing with the innocent and often erratic behaviour of the youth would be among the first lessons taught a security person deployed in politically sensitive zones, the record in Kashmir has been one of responding with maximal force at the slightest provocation. People that this team met and interacted with, were often inclined to identify the large-scale induction of former militants into the police force as a contributory factor. These former militants once functioned as active elements of the counter-insurgency operation, with overt support from the state security agencies. They now occupy official positions, often in key positions of the chain of command.

Some of these factors were in evidence in the northern Kashmir town of Baramulla on July 17, in the killing of 12-year old Faizan Buhroo. Faizan’s father Rafiq Buhroo, works as a blacksmith in Uri. He used to take the route to Uri every day but has since the recent disturbances, been compelled to curtail his daily trips. Like much of Kashmir’s population which depends on infrequent and unpredictable opportunities for work, the economic condition of this family seems fragile.

Faizan’s older sister, Rizwan, recalls that on July 17, curfew was relaxed in Baramullah since the school exams were on. Faizan, a class seven student, returned early when it turned out that the day’s exam could not be held. Along with a group of friends, he went out soon afterwards to the Azadganj-pul – a bridge newly opened across the Jhelum, that has become a site for the few recreational activities that ordinary people in Baramulla can permit themselves. The bridge is just half a kilometre from Faizan’s home, and his family felt no undue anxiety as he set off.

According to a later account they heard, Faizan and his friends while at the bridge, found a convoy of the security forces coming across in what is called a “civil truck”. When armed personnel started alighting from the truck, the children turned and started to run. Faizan saw an older boy jump into the river below, but he was no swimmer and lacked the courage to take the plunge.[photo9]

The family has since heard that Faizan and two companions who remained on the bridge, were overpowered by the forces. As his sister narrates subsequent events: “Faizan had an old injury on his forehead. They must have thought that he was a stone-pelter. He was beaten mercilessly with teargas guns and dandas”.

A boy younger to Faizan, whose identity the family did not remember, suffered a serious ear injury and had to be taken to hospital at Srinagar. Faizan was beaten on his head and thrown into the river below. His mother arrived at the scene at roughly the same time. She was told that a child had been thrown into the river, that he had been flailing his arms and showing obvious signs of distress, and that people had been unable to go to his assistance because of intimidatory tactics adopted by the security forces.

Faizan’s older brother, Faisal, a class eleven student, was meanwhile told that the child in question was his own brother. He reportedly kept this information to himself, but the family guessed the awful truth when the father arrived back at a late evening hour, and Faizan still remained missing.

The whole town was by this time alerted and the local administration and army command base stepped in with offers of assistance. The army provided a boat manned by experienced deep-water divers to help in the search. Faizan’s body was purportedly found on July 20 and handed over to his family at 5 p.m. that day. The family feels that he was actually found some time earlier and the local administration may have delayed handing over the body to dress up some incriminating evidence.

Faizan had a bleeding injury from the nose when his body was handed over to the family. They could also see three injuries on his head, of which one was particularly severe and could have been caused by a gun butt.

For the three days since Faizan went missing, thousands of Baramulla’s residents had been keeping a vigil night and day on both sides of the Jhelum. The day his body was discovered, the assembled crowd, along with numerous others who came, took out a procession through the town, ending at the district headquarters. The size of the demonstration reportedly numbered about tens of thousands.

Security forces on duty at the district headquarters opened fire on the procession, injuring around 30 and killing one. Faiyaz Ahmad, a labourer who joined the procession as he was returning home at the end of the day, died on the spot of a bullet injury in the chest.

Baramullah’s residents have since come to know that the most active role in Faizan’s beating and subsequent death, belonged to somebody known locally as Kaka Mir. He was once a militant, then a prominent practitioner of counter-terror under official supervision. He now is an officer in the J&K Police, as part of the Special Operations Group (SOG).

An alienated youth

Data that this team has been able to gather, shows that perhaps 27 of the 112 persons reported killed in civil disturbances in the valley in 2010, may have been under 18 years of age. This team was able only to access a limited number of these case studies for constructing detailed narratives. But among the large number of cases surveyed in Sopore and Anantnag, of families that had lost young members in the recent turmoil, several were willing to proclaim that their children had been willing participants in the demonstrations – that they knew as they went to join in the public protests, that they may not return home alive.

Attack and killing on Pattan hospital premises: urgent need for accountability

The historic town of Pattan in Baramulla district, situated on the highway to Srinagar, is just a few kilometres from the village of Palhallan, which has attracted a disproportionate measure of repression since the current phase of mass civil unrest began in Kashmir. Palhallan was under a virtual siege for over two months, shut away from public attention, only beginning to emerge into the light around the time this team visited.

Doctors and other staff at the Pattan hospital vividly recall July 30, when armed personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forced their way into the hospital early in the evening, shortly after several injured civilians had been brought in for urgent medical attention. They shattered windowpanes, broke down doors and destroyed vital medical equipment, while hospital staff were thrown into a state of sheer terror. Surgeons performing urgent life-saving procedures in the casualty ward and the minor operating theatre, were alerted to the incursion of armed forces and warned to stay indoors.

When he heard the violent thumping on the door of his surgical ward, the more senior among the two surgeons on duty then, judged the risks of not responding to the demands of the armed intruders greater than actually opening the door. He was then attending to between ten and twelve patients on an urgent basis, besides which the casualty ward was packed with the numerous volunteers that had brought in the patients, in the absence of ambulance and stretcher services. His recollection is that there were then about five volunteers within the ward for every patient. A possible panic by the assembled crowd within the casualty ward could potentially have proved fatal for the seriously injured patients under his care.

The moment he opened the door, the senior surgeon found three rifle barrels thrust into his chest. He kept his composure and managed to avert further danger by explaining that he needed to return quickly to urgent life-saving tasks. As he turned to go back into surgery, he saw the CRPF men roughing up numerous other staff and bystanders within the hospital precincts. A car belonging to the hospital’s chief medical officer was smashed in the process as was a recently acquired ambulance.

Other members of the hospital staff recall that the CRPF men then made their way to the women’s ward where they broke down the door before the terrified staff withdrew into an adjacent room. But for a shopkeeper from the neighbourhood who happened to be on the premises at the time and locked the staff in, drawing the wrath of the intruders on himself, the women staff of the hospital fear that they too might have been seriously endangered. Likewise, three doctors are reported to have locked themselves inside a bathroom to avert danger.

Eye-witness accounts of the day’s events at Pattan cannot naturally offer a full reconstruction, since every account is confined within the limited canvas that any particular individual could see. And much would have been obscure to any individual’s gaze in those frenzied moments, when everybody was looking out for his or her own safety. There is however, an account by a family from the village of Palhallan which demands attention, since it points towards a crime that should shock the conscience.

Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh, like several other residents of Palhallan, had been taking part in protests against the security forces since the cycle began with Machhil encounter in April 2010. On the afternoon of July 30, he set off to the spot assigned for the protest, accompanied by his 12-year old son, Adil Ramzan Sheikh. Mohammad insists that he always kept the little boy at a safe distance from the epicentre of the demonstrations. But on July 30 though, the boy seemingly escaped the attention of his father.

At around 3 pm, Mohammad was informed by telephone that his son Adil had been taken to the Pattan hospital with a gunshot injury. He was told that a bullet had grazed his shoulder and the wound was bleeding profusely. But soon after Adil was admitted in the Pattan hospital, his wound staunched and an intravenous (IV) drip administered, his father recounts – based on the narration heard from others present there - the CRPF personnel raided the premises, ripped out the IV cord from Adil’s arm, pulled him off the bed and shot him dead at point blank range.

Mohammad asked his informant to bring back Adil’s body for burial. With the roads closed by a heavy security blanket, the body was brought back late evening by some people who carried it on their shoulders. Mohammad reported seeing one wound on his son’s upper back and another wound in the lower chest that seemed to have been caused by a bullet fired at close range. Adil was buried the same night. The family does not have any papers relating to the case. There has been no FIR registered, nor does the family know if a post-mortem report exists.

As the doctors at Pattan hospital recall it, the boy they received for treatment that day was already grievously injured and offered at first sight, little hope of survival. The circumstances in which Adil suffered the fatal wound remain a matter of conjecture. Doctors think that he could have been admitted to the ward as a case not requiring immediate attention and administered the IV drip. In the turmoil and confusion caused by the CRPF intrusion, he may possibly have been one of many who fled for shelter. Several patients admitted to the ward at that hour are known to have fled when the wrath of the CRPF descended on the hospital, some of them leaping out of the windows. And then, according to various eyewitnesses who have given their accounts to the doctors, Adil may have run towards the compound wall of the hospital which adjoins a school, where he could have taken the fatal bullet from a CRPF firearm.

Whatever the truth about the events that led to Adil’s death, there is little question that Pattan hospital on July 30 suffered an attack which by all acknowledged covenants, puts the CRPF and all other elements party to it, under the cloud serious criminality. This constitutes a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law, which necessitates an urgent and impartial investigation.

From all available accounts of the day’s events, it appears that protests in Pattan began late afternoon on July 30 after news was conveyed of a police firing in the north Kashmir town of Sopore, some 20 kilometres away. Passions were raw after two protestors who took to the streets that day were reported killed in Sopore. When protests in Pattan escalated, with people from Palhallan participating, the forces deployed at the site opened fire. As reported the next day in Greater Kashmir, as many as 90 may have been injured in these rounds of firing. Protesters in retaliation, reportedly attacked the police station and sought to set it afire.

Given the severe restrictions on movement in place then – not to mention the various curbs on communication links and the virtual blockading of the press – there have been mixed and varying accounts of the Pattan hospital attack. While Greater Kashmir, reported the attack on the hospital in some detail, it identified the boy who was killed that day as 14-year old Mohammad Rafiq Bhat.

The other two English-language dailies published from Srinagar, Kashmir Times and Rising Kashmir, have registered the incident in Pattan in their editions of July 31, though without agreeing on the precise sequence of events. Kashmir Times reported that security forces had attacked the hospital, ransacked it and beaten patients and staff. Rising Kashmir did not have this detail. Both newspapers however, agreed on the identity of the 14-year old boy who was killed at the time, reporting his name as Mohammad Rafiq Bhat. [photo 11]

A report on the news portal Rediff ( which may well have been sourced from a news agency within Kashmir, reported the event as follows: “An unruly mob also attacked and torched a portion of the north Kashmir Pattan police station, 30 km from Srinagar on Friday evening. Security forces had to resort to firing to quell the mob, killing a teenager identified as 14-year-old Adil Sheikh on the spot”.

Within weeks, the reporting had been transformed, with Adil’s death being ascribed not to a randomly fired bullet at the protest site, but to a cold-blooded murder within the hospital compound. Greater Kashmir in a report on the travails of Palhallan on October 6, over two months since the event in question, reported that eight persons from the village had died in the course of the “ongoing unrest”, among whom the first was “twelve-year old Adil Ramzan Sheikh (who) was shot by troopers in sub-district hospital Pattan on July 30”.

The fact that the Jammu and Kashmir Police has filed charges against a few of its own men, apart from some army and CRPF personnel (as mentioned to our team by Director General of J&K Police, Kuldeep Khoda), is an acknowledgment of numerous instances of the illegitimate and excessive use of force through Kashmir’s long summer of turbulence. The incident at Pattan on July 30 falls within the majority of cases where serious investigations have not been undertaken. In the circumstances, security forces have repeatedly breached the red lines which should not be crossed under any circumstances. Medical personnel, ambulances and other facilities have been repeatedly targeted when they should be under all applicable rules of engagement, exempt from the slightest threat of the use of force.

Pattan doctors recall that on September 6, they were unable to respond to urgent calls to deploy staff to the medical post in Palhallan, after numerous injuries were suffered in the village in a clash between protesters and security forces. Victims had to be transported through dirt roads running at a considerable distance from the highway, rendering a ten minute transit time into something closer to two hours. In the circumstances, many preferred to take the casualties through to Srinagar directly. Two lives were perhaps lost that day because of delayed medical care.

Though the staff of the Pattan hospital are outraged at the July 30 attack, they are discouraged from pursuing remedies because of the widespread climate of impunity. They have not sought an intervention by the doctors’ association, because they are aware of its futility. And the quest for criminal prosecution is laughed away. “Who should we file an FIR against?”, asks a witness to the attack: “against all of India?”.

Palhallan Under Siege
Saqib, a 13-year old in the orchard village of Palhallan in Baramulla district of Kashmir, knew Adil Ramzan Sheikh, a slightly younger boy killed on July 30, in circumstances that remain contentious.

He struggles to cope with the abrupt disappearance of a young playmate, but has no serious doubt that the future of Kashmir lies in azaadi. Like most Kashmiris, he is aware of the various options on the menu: between a return to the 1953 situation, a fuller accession to India or Pakistan, or just plain azaadi. And he is able to recite out aloud -- almost like a catechism -- that the commitments made by “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru”, necessarily mean that India owes Kashmir the right to decide between these options.

What possibly could azaadi mean to Saqib? A major criterion emerges a little while into the conversation: azaadi means in part, to be free of “Major Sharma”, the local army commander who made it a regular routine to swagger into Saqib’s school in the company of other soldiers from his unit -- all displaying lethal firearms -- to threaten children that they participate in protest demonstrations only at enormous risk to their lives.

This fact-finding team had no opportunity to meet “Major Sharma” but was able to assess that he loomed large in the consciousness of the residents of Palhallan, all through the months of Kashmir’s turmoil. As the village suffered a comprehensive lockdown for weeks together, Major Sharma’s iron first stirred fear within its residents, who hesitated in giong about their usual routines for fear that they may invite an unpredictable and violent retribution.

October 24, when this team visited Palhallan, was the first day in many that the village was exempt from heavy-handed restraints on movement. These severe restrictions were imposed since an upsurge in protests on September 6 was met with ruthless fury by the security forces. A virtual lockdown of civilian movement was soon afterwards declared in the village. All points of entry and exit were sealed by Indian army units and J&K police deployed in force within the village.

It has not been easy to reconstruct what happened on September 6. The Rising Kashmir report the following day, has recorded a statement issued from the Kashmir range police headquarters -- within at the most a couple of hours of the bloodshed -- acknowledging that lives had been lost and injuries suffered. The Kashmir range police headquarters then went on, reportedly, to commit itself to an inquiry that would fix responsibility for the loss of life that day.

Rising Kashmir also reported though, that within two hours, another statement came out of the same source, which claimed that two senior police officials – the Inspector-General for Kashmir range and the Senior Superintendent for Baramulla district – were passing through the highway when their convoy was blocked and pelted with stones by demonstrators from Palhallan and Pattan. The trouble erupted at the point where the highway forks towards Palhallan. Police and other security men then dispersed the demonstrators but found that force had to be applied to “prevent mobs from merging into the police party”. The demonstrators were on this account “chased” away from the spot where they could have posed a danger. This, in the sanitised narration of the security agencies, resulted in injuries to three, who later died.

This team met Altaf Ahmad Wani, a civil engineering graduate in the class of 2005 from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar -- now employed with a project consultancy firm in Baramulla town. Wani commutes to and from his place of work regularly by public transport. As he returned from work on September 6, he found that the road leading into Palhallan was blocked where it intersected with the highway. He took an alternative route in as a precaution, but as he walked home, found his path meeting with another, down which security forces, firearms at the ready, were in hot pursuit of a group of protesters. Wani sought to flee from the danger but was struck by a bullet on his left leg, just above the ankle. His bone was shattered and he had by the end of October, undergone the first of many rounds of surgery to repair the damage. There was little possibility that he would be able to return to work before four months. Despite being in evident pain, Wani did not let his immobility interfere with his sense of hospitality. He was visibly disappointed that this team chose to decline his repeated requests to enjoy a round of refreshments. As the team took its leave of him, he had his family fill up a bagful of walnuts to take away.

Khan Javed, on his way back from a sawmill in Pattan, also took a bullet in his leg at the same time. A blood vessel was cut just below his knee and he had to have a vein and skin graft from his other leg to repair the damage. He was taken to a hospital in Srinagar shortly after suffering his injury as his immediate family remained immobilised two days because of restrictions on movement that allowed no exemptions.

Declared a “model village” in April this year and designated for special attention in terms of funds allocation, Palhallan was under curfew for a length of time difficult to assess. Local residents claim that the village was under complete closure since at least September 8, only seeing the first glimmer of an opening late in October. Media reports put the duration of the closure at about the same.

The official account though is different. On October 23, Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of J&K Police, claimed at a meeting with this team, that Palhallan was not under any form of closure, merely under heightened surveillance to check the movements of “undesirable” elements.

Khoda concedes that Palhallan does have ‘genuine’ grounds for grievances. Intake from the village into the state administration for instance, has been way below par. Against one employee for every 25 individuals in the rest of Kashmir, the average for Palhallan was just one in 150. The allocations in development and welfare too may have been below the state average.

The residents of Palhallan could not possibly disagree more profoundly. In the local narrative, the village’s contribution to the ongoing movement is a matter of some pride. And this stretches back through the two decades that Kashmir has been in a state of active insurgency. Ghulam Mohammad Waza, a villager who lost a son in the recent phase of disturbances, estimates that roughly eighty “martyrs” to the struggle lie buried in the village graveyard. The eight who have been killed since the current phase of protests began in Kashmir valley, are part of a wider continuum.

The killings of September 6 in Palhallan came after a week of relative quiet in the entire Kashmir valley. Three demonstrators were killed that day – one from Palhallan and two from Pattan -- and several injured. Harsh restrictions on movement prevented several of the wounded from reaching medical attention.

Though the official account suggests that the lethal firing followed intolerable provocation and a possible threat to the security of senior police officials, Palhallan residents think that the motive of the shooting was quite clearly to puncture the morale of the civilian demonstrators. The day’s hartal – as determined in the protest calendar drawn up by the Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani – was formally declared over at 2 p.m. and the village was about to resume its normal activities. The shooting, they say, was designed with deliberate intent, to destroy public fealty towards Geelani’s protest calendar.

Following the events of September 6, Palhallan became the focus of much of the protest mobilisations in the valley. On September 17, Geelani announced his protest calendar for the week to follow. A prominent place was reserved for a “Palhallan chalo” call the following day, when people were exhorted to march toward the village to register their outrage at the loss of life and express solidarity with those affected.

Palhallan residents recall that the conduct of the security forces became increasingly lawless and overbearing following this. Raids into the village, forced entry into randomly chosen houses, the roughing up of boys and young men who were identified as possible participants in the protests, and the destruction of household property and assets – including the shattering of furniture and windowpanes -- were common all through the day preceding.

To these tactics of intimidation was added a fresh ingredient of terror through the night intervening between September 17 and 18, when the forces kept up a steady din as they discharged firearms in regular fusillades to warn the village of the dire consequences that lay in wait, if they were to take part in the protests.

The mood in the village was inflamed on September 18 and closure as enforced by the security forces, was absolute. But Palhallan’s residents were intent on seeking to go about their business as if nothing was amiss. Ghulam Mohammad Waza, who makes a living as a cook at traditional Kashmiri banquets, set out around noon that day for Pattan where he had an engagement. Travelling with another eighteen villagers, he travelled through the fields adjoining the village, reaching Pattan after a trudge of one-and-a-half hours.

The next few moments are vividly imprinted in Ghulam Mohammad Waza’s memory. He had just finished lunch and begun work when he was minded to call his son Ali Mohammad, just to check that all was well. He was told by a rather agitated Ali Mohammad, that a young man from a neighbouring house, Ansarullah Tantry, alias Munna, had just been shot dead.

The news was grim, but Ghulam Mohammad Waza was by this time inured to hearing tales of sudden and unexplained deaths. Yet he says, nothing could have prepared him for the telephone call he received a bare ten minutes later, which conveyed the grim news that his son too had fallen to a bullet.

Munna’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Tantray had seen his younger son Naeem Mohammad badly hurt in the September 6 protests. On September 18, he says, Munna was one among a group who gathered in the local mosque for afternoon prayers. He recalls that without the slightest provocation, the mosque was surrounded by security forces who ordered all the worshippers out. This peremptory diktat by the security forces, he says, was accompanied – seemingly for effect – by a few bullets aimed at the door of the mosque and a tear gas shell hurled to make the exit route as painful as possible. Munna, says Ghulam Mohammad Tantray, came out through a door on the side to avoid the tear gas fumes. But he then made the fatal mistake of thinking that the wrath of the security personnel had been exhausted. He was the first of the worshippers to emerge and as he walked towards the front of the mosque to retrieve his footwear, he was reportedly shot dead on sight.

Ali Mohammad Waza then emerged from another mosque in an adjoining mohalla and walked towards the spot where Munna had fallen, perhaps to retrieve his body. He too was shot dead.

At the time that this team visited, school-going children in Palhallan were gearing up for their term exams. These had long been delayed and it was obvious that Palhallan’s children were making a laboured effort to shut out all the turmoil and suffering seen from up close, while they turned their attention to scholastic matters. The resilience of civil society in Kashmir has ensured that morale has stood up despite the debilitating closure that the village has been put through. But any complacence about the spirit of resistance being extinguished, would be grossly misplaced.

Agencies of repression

For a population of 5 million in the Kashmir valley – formally known as the Kashmir division of J&K state – India has military and paramilitary troops deployed in numbers that remain a closely guarded secret. Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of Police for J&K, was kind enough to reveal to this team, that the number of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel deployed numbers 58 battalions in the Kashmir valley. A recent media report by a journalist known to be intimately connected to the security and intelligence agencies, puts the army deployment in counter-insurgency operations – under various formations of the Rashtriya Rifles – at 32 battalions.

Taking an average battalion to be about 1,000, this amounts to 90,000 armed persons – already near what the British raj needed in terms of European administrators and military officers in order to maintain itself in a land of 300 million.

The figure of 90,000 is of course a serious under-estimate, since it only covers the army deployments that are designated to be on active counter-insurgency operations. There are more deployed in patrolling and static guard duty, not to mention the many at the border with Pakistan, including those manning artillery and air-defence units. People in Kashmir believe that there is probably one armed person of the Indian army and paramilitary for every 12 of their number.

Irrespective of the precise figure, which the government releases – if at all -- only with extreme reluctance, the indubitable reality is that the people of Kashmir see the presence of the military and the occupation of parts of their land – including orchard and farmland – as abiding proof that they live in a state of unfreedom. The substantive content of azaadi cannot be very easily described, but the absence of freedom is a very visible reality in Kashmir.

The uprising in Kashmir, after the heavy-handed response that it first elicited, led to some loud thinking within official circles about the possibility of thinning the heavy security presence and allowing the normal rituals and routines of civilian life some unimpeded space. Earlier talk about withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) subsided rather rapidly, and even the few verbal concessions to the need to bring down the visible and obtrusive presence of troops in Kashmir, has invited some rather revealing responses.

Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai’s full intent in January this year, when he declared a possible reduction of 25 percent in force levels in Kashmir within a year, as a “confidence-building measure”, is not clear. It may have been an offhand thought put out in a moment of reflection before an academic audience. It may have come out of a deeper process of consultations within duly constituted official bodies. While announcing this at a public forum in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, Pillai also proposed that residents of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (or Azad Jammu and Kashmir as it is known in those parts) would be granted “unilateral six-month entry permits” for meeting family members on the Indian side.

Within hours, the general who heads the Army’s northern command came up with his own opinion: that a troop cut would not be feasible given operational requirements in the Kashmir valley. Army chief of staff, General V.K. Singh meanwhile, put in his assessment that troop levels would have to be reviewed in Unified Command Headquarters for Kashmir, based in Srinagar.

Less consequentially, but with the symbolic importance that it represented a viewpoint that portrays itself as the “nationalist mainstream”, the J&K state president of the BJP, Shamsher Singh Manhas, came out with his own opinion: “It is an open fact that India’s administration over Jammu and Kashmir is based on presence of armed forces here. So if there is troop-cut then neighbours like China Pakistan and Afghanistan won’t sit silent. Such decision will prove detrimental to the integrity of India”. Manhas also virtually rubbished the proposal to allow entry permits for Kashmiris on the other side of the Line of Control, on the grounds that the requisite climate of trust with Pakistan could never be established.

The final word on this series of exchanges came when Defence Minister A.K. Antony clarified that the 25 percent target for troop reduction would apply only to the CRPF and other paramilitary forces, not to the army.

It does not take great sagacity to see that civilian political control over the armed forces, a principle central to democratic governance, is under pressure in Kashmir and indeed, could soon start eroding. The shift in the balance of power in matters of immense political sensitivity, was apparent soon after the Machhil killings in April last year. As Kashmir’s uprising raged and prime minister Manmohan Singh scheduled a visit to the valley, chief minister Omar Abdullah observed that Machhil cast a shadow of doubt over every supposed encounter involving the elimination of terrorists. A greater sense of accountability was needed, if necessary through amendments in AFSPA. A PTI report quoted Abdullah as then saying: “Obviously there will be serious repercussions and doubts will emerge. J&K police is flooded with such complaints and enquiries about encounters are now going back more than five-six years and in some case even eight years”. The problem in part, arose from the impunity that AFSPA afforded: “because it is built for the armed forces, Army is the judge, jury and the hangman. Therefore, there is absence of transparency as a result of which people have lost faith in the system”.

The army command for its part, affirmed its commitment to transparency in all cases involving the right to life. It promised its cooperation in the Machhil killings inquiry and swore allegiance to any decision on AFSPA by the political leadership. Beyond this ritual obeisance to civilian leadership, the army command did assert its own will, by reminding the public that AFSPA was a necessary legal cover for armed forces personnel engaged in anti-insurgency operations.

A further intervention from the uniformed forces came with the army chief of staff General V.K. Singh, advancing the public alibi that the necessary legal action against persons behind Machhil could not be initiated because of the infirmities of the criminal justice system in Kashmir. Responding to a question on why the army was blocking legal proceedings under applicable criminal law, General Singh was quoted as saying: “I don’t know how much you are aware of the legal system in the Valley. There are various pressures out there. You are aware of Mian Abdul Qayyum, who was president of the Bar Association and is now in detention. He has been rabidly anti-Indian … With this kind of situation, what kind of justice would we expect or legal provisions would be followed, is the question mark. And that is why as per the laws and procedures laid down, we would like to complete our inquiry before we come to a conclusion”.

Impunity the rule

If Machhil was about an alarming distortion of the system of rewards and incentives for armed forces serving in Kashmir, the killing of 17-year old Zahid Farooq in the Nishaat Brane area of Srinagar in January last year, was about security personnel being carried away by a fit of vengeful rage. There too, the prosecution has lost its way in the labyrinth of the justice system, with the BSF intent on exploring every diversionary tactic available.

Police in Kashmir believe that the Machhil and Nishat Brane killings will be a departure from the past pattern, since they have found a way to cut through the thicket that could impede the course of justice. If past experience is any indication, this is either bravado or quite simply an effort to deflect public scrutiny. A similar display of unswerving purpose was staged for public consumption after it emerged that five innocent civilians had been killed by the army in the Pathribal encounter of March 2000. It was proclaimed as retribution for the thirty-four members of the minority Sikh community who had been killed just days before, and evidence that the army had the will and ability to identify and retaliate against those responsible for terrorist crimes.

The crude fiction was soon exposed. But its authors remain unpunished, and needless to say, Chhattisinghpora has vanished into a blackhole of historical memory.


The penchant that army personnel have shown for speaking up in public on governance issues, is vivid illustration that politics is rapidly making way for a purely military calculus in Kashmir policy. And despite the ritualistic obeisance to the virtues of transparency and accountability, the refusal by the uniformed services to be subject to the judicial system in the valley, speaks of the deep investment they have made in the indefinite sustenance of the prevailing climate of impunity.

Add to this the complaint that this team encountered with few exceptions -- that Kashmiris in every other part of India are constantly made to feel like aliens who do not belong, as potential terrorists who should be watched over – and the shallow pretence that Kashmir is like any other part of the country is decisively blown apart. The Director-General of Police for J&K admitted that this was a serious issue, responsible for much ruffled sensitivities in Kashmir. And the Union Home Ministry recently conceded the point when it sent out a circular to all state governments, urging that prevalent attitudes towards Kashmiris, marking them for special scrutiny and suspicion, be changed. This extraordinary measure, reportedly, followed the advice of the three-member team of interlocutors who have been given the mandate to engage with a cross-section of Kashmiri society, to explore possible ways out of today’s crisis.

Truth-telling and accountability

There have been in recent times, certain startling admissions made about official culpability in serious human rights violations, by senior civil servants who served in Kashmir through the years of most serious militancy. An instance would be the revelations by Wajahat Habibullah, about the 1993 assassination of Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, a respected medical practitioner in Srinagar and one of the leading lights of the JKLF. Unfortunately, there has been very little accountability for much of what followed, all of it under the watch of individuals who have recently suffered an awakening of conscience.

There was for long an active strategy followed by the Indian State of silencing voices of reason in Kashmir. When this policy ran its course, the state evidently changed tack and began arming an extremist fringe to fight on its behalf. From the mid-1990s on, the counter-insurgency strategy deliberately sought to arm insurgent elements that had since disavowed the azaadi objective, in part in response to financial inducements, for the rest under torture.

Kuka Parray, a former Ikhwan-ul Muslimeen militant, played a major role in enforcing the will of the Indian State when general elections to the J&K state assembly were held in 1996, winning himself a seat in the process. He fell out of favour soon afterwards, lost his seat in the 2002 elections and his life in an ambush – conducted in Kashmir’s remembered history by men in police uniform – in September 2003. He remains the canonical case study of a militant who ostensibly saw the light and decided to fight India’s cause against the jihad, never making too fine a point of distinction between preemptive terrorism and preventive police action.

Another case came to light in 2010 when the name of Ghulam Mohammad Mir was listed in the Republic Day honours as recipient of the Padma Shri. It was an identity that mystified even the most knowledgeable observers of Kashmir and was only revealed after several days to belong to a man popularly known as Muma Kanna. And it was a name that in his native village and the wider area, had “become synonymous with extortion, torture and extra-judicial murders”. The national award confered on this person, as the Kashmiri journalist Muzamil Jaleel observed, “came as a rude shock”. With “zero tolerance” for human rights violations then being declared policy, the award was read as an “open endorsement” by the Indian State, of Kashmir’s “brutal past where private militias had become notorious for extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion in the name of counter-insurgency”. “It also exposed a fundamental disconnect between Kashmir and New Delhi. Awarded for public service, Kanna is only viewed as a public tormentor in Kashmir”.

The terms “STF” and “SOG” are used interchangeably in Kashmir, as synonyms for an apparatus of repression, accountable seemingly to none and able for the most part, to script its own rules. Several recent instances when the police force were held to have used disproportionate force, involved personnel of the Special Operations Group (SOG) which is also referred to as the “Special Task Force” (STF), though no such police formation is officially in existence. The three deaths in the Batamaloo area on July 6 were put down to the proclivity that the Deputy Superintendent of Police in charge of the area had for imposing his will, if necessary even at the cost of human life. [photo 16]

In various other atrocities, this team found that the SOG’s seeming willingness to apply maximum force almost as first recourse, was widely held to blame. The SOG has had a controversial career since it was constituted in 1994 and equipped with vastly improved firepower during Farooq Abdullah’s tenure as chief minister between 1996 and 2002. Its formation coincided with the strategy that was beginning to acquire a definite shape around then, of setting militant against militant and throwing the might of the State behind one side. At some point, it is believed that several of the militants who had turned apostate and agreed to fight the battle on behalf of the State authorities, were brought into the police force as SOG personnel.

The SOG was disbanded during Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s chief ministership, but reinstituted following the return of the National Conference to authority in 2008. It has added a new dimension to the impunity enjoyed by the security agencies in Kashmir. This higher freedom of absolute impunity that they claim is seen as a continuing affront in Kashmir, one among the many modes by which their freedom is denied.

Absolute impunity the norm

The near absolute impunity enjoyed by security forces for egregious human rights violations is in many ways a function of the legal framework that they function under, which ruthlessly abridges the fundamental rights to life and liberty, and imposes severe restrictions on the rights to free speech, assembly and association.

Security forces in Kashmir are equipped with extraordinary powers of detention, arrest, search and seizure and operate under a very low threshold in the use of lethal force. These extraordinary powers are granted under laws, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, the J&K Disturbed Areas Act, and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990. These statutes provide immunity to those exercising powers under these laws, which confer on them the presumption of good faith. No prosecution can be initiated against forces in Kashmir without the prior sanction of the concerned government.

The global campaign and advocacy body, Human Rights Watch, observed in a 2006 report that: “In addition to facilitating impunity, laws in force in Jammu and Kashmir encourage the security forces to use excessive lethal force in dealing with law and order problems, to commit arbitrary arrests, and to detain suspected militants in violation of the right to a fair trial. These laws on their face are contrary to international policing standards, particularly the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and violate the due process provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.

The legal framework within which security forces operate in Kashmir makes it extremely remote – or a virtual impossibility – that personnel of the armed forces could be held accountable under general criminal law for offences relating to illegal detention, torture, excessive or criminal use of force, disappearances or extra judicial killing.

There is only one known case in which the Indian government has granted sanction for prosecution: the disappearance and murder of human rights lawyer, Jalil Andrabi in 1996. The army officer responsible, Major Avtar Singh, of Unit 103 of the Territorial Army, was however, allowed to leave the country before sanction was granted, rendering the remedy ineffective. Recent reports of Avtar Singh’s arrest on 20 February 2011 in California, in a case of domestic violence, once again placed the spotlight on the seriousness of purpose of the Indian government in addressing the issue of impunity. But after the initial flurry of activity when there seemed to be a pretence that extradition proceedings would begin, the trail seems to have gone cold.

The possibility of a political settlement in Kashmir is inextricably linked to issues of justice and accountability for human rights violations.

Death as proximate reality

On 31 January this year, two sisters -- Arifa and Akhtar -- were dragged out of their one-room home in Sopore’s mohalla Muslim Peer and shot dead by unidentified gunmen. The following day, the town witnessed sporadic demonstrations and some expressions of public grief at the killing of the two young daughters of a daily wage-earner. The state authorities issued a strongly worded condemnation, which was a virtual challenge to the militant groups to spell out a clear and unequivocal position. The JKLF condemned the act and the groups yet to foreswear violence and believed to be controlled from Pakistan – the Hizbul Mujahedin and the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba – denied involvement.

As with numerous other killings engineered by faceless individuals and groups that claim to act in the cause of azaadi and arrogate to themselves the right to punish those deemed guilty of transgressing a rigid moral code, this most recent crime did not initially attract the kind of wide public condemnation as the Shopian killings in 2009.

On the first Friday following the killings, Sopore shut down in belated, though unanimous protest. Women took to the streets in one of the first public protests against a killing attributed to the militants. And a representative of the separatist Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arrived in Sopore to express solidarity with the protests.

That very night, 24-year old Manzoor Ahmad Magray was shot dead near his village in the Handwara area of northern Kashmir. The army admitted to the killing but insisted that proper rules of engagement had been followed. The youth had been given adequate warning to turn himself in after he walked into a night-time ambush. Since he chose instead to flee, the army had adequate cause to shoot to kill.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah would have none of it. He travelled from the winter capital of Jammu to Handwara to meet the family of the slain youth and spoke out in unusually strong language against army tactics. The J&K police have been ordered to treat Manzoor’s death as a case of murder and to investigate accordingly. The family has meanwhile advanced its own claim: that Manzoor was picked up from his home and shot dead by the army.

As Kashmir’s biting winter slowly gives way to the spring thaw, the various actors on its political stage prepare for a new round of contestation. Unlike all other parts of the country, some of these players bear arms and bring that coercive power to the bargaining table. Firepower from the so-called “secessionist” side is nowhere near matching the greater ammunition that the Indian State deploys. And all evidence is that little has been learnt from Kashmir’s long years of turbulence.

By way of conclusion: reflections on the current situation

The 117 people estimated to have died in lethal crowd control actions by the security forces in Kashmir, the scores that have been permanently incapacitated and the hundreds that have been grievously injured, have all been victims of a highly unequal street contest that went on for four months in the valley. It cannot by any stretch of imagination be said that the security forces who took on the demonstrators and inflicted such damage were acting in self-defence. Their endeavour could more accurately be described as one of actively discouraging demonstrations through a strategy of shock and awe.

All through the four-month long killing spree, questions were raised by various groups and opposition parties critical of the strategy of facing down street demonstrations with lethal gunfire. While the Indian State kept repeating that dialogue was the way forward, its agencies and representatives on the ground seemed to be actively suppressing all such possibilities by responding with massive force to every demonstration. So-called “non-lethal” forms of crowd control that were introduced testified not so much to humane intent, but to the State’s willingness, in its eagerness to avoid the political fundamentals, to reduce Kashmir to a laboratory for testing every new apparatus of control that took its fancy.

People in Kashmir are accustomed to seeing the police go berserk in face of rising protests. What sets the events of 2010 apart from the past, is the absolute “free-hand” that the police and security forces assumed in dealing with the demonstrations. This is amply evident in the incidents at Pattan and Palhallan recounted here, as also in the attacks on funeral processions and the numerous instances when particular individuals were picked out for acts of targeted retribution.

There is a clear case that most deaths and grievous injuries were caused by deliberate intent. Kashmiris are certainly right in questioning why similar protests across India are treated differently and they alone seem fair-game for trigger-happy policemen. It is becoming an irrefutable case, that this is an outcome of deliberate policy, an indubitable consequence of the culture of impunity that has flourished over the decades that special security laws such as AFSPA have been in force. Peaceful assemblies are criminalised under the law, and under the over-broad characterisation of situations when it is fair to shoot with intent to kill, any threat posed by “weapons” or of “things capable of being used as weapons”, could be met with lethal force: meaning that a stone could be treated as a weapon under this law.

New directions in the Kashmir movement

Developments over 2010, coming in the wake of the turmoil of the two preceding years, have changed the landscape of the azaadi movement. The voices for azaadi have become stronger indicating the preference of a majority of Kashmiris, particularly among the youth, to visualise a future where their state will maintain equidistance from both India and Pakistan. In that sense the ideology of an Islamic state and one that will merge with Pakistan has receded. This may also have a connection to the worsening internal situation in that country.

Quite paradoxically though, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has been a staunch supporter of the merger of J&K into Pakistan and the most recognisable face of the Islamist side to the Kashmir movement, has emerged the acknowledged leader today. It is evidently not his political doctrine that has catapulted him to this position, but rather his position within Kashmir’s political landscape as the one politician who has refused to talk terms until the fundamentals are addressed.

As Khursheed Ahmad of Palhallan mentioned to this team: “we welcome even Omar Abdullah when he said in the state legislative assembly that J&K had acceded but by no means merged with India, we also welcomed Yasin Malik when he came to our village during his Safar-e-azaadi campaign”. Stirring at the roots of this increasingly widespread public attitude is the yearning for freedom and the bitter resentment that is increasingly voiced, at military domination by India.

While rejecting the demand of Omar Abdullah for revoking AFSPA and not even acknowledging the five-point formula advanced by Geelani, New Delhi took its own counsel when the agitation became an acute international embarrassment, sending an all-party delegation to Kashmir to assess the ground situation. Despite the reservations of the principal opposition party, members of the delegation met with Geelani and other Hurriyat leaders, such as Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The brief hope that a political approach towards Kashmir would finally prevail over the militaristic course, was belied when a team of “interlocutors” was announced for gauging the entire range of public opinion in Kashmir, without any seriously credible political figure in it. The interlocutors began their exertions in Kashmir in October, but have failed in establishing their credibility with the larger public.

What lies in store for the Indian state in Kashmir? A distinct feature of the situation across the valley after more than four months of turmoil has been the manner in which the name and identity of each person killed or maimed is known across the community. Everywhere this team went, it was not difficult at all to locate families that had suffered loss and bereavement. Every incident has become a part of public memory. Every attack has been memorialised. At some places, banners have been put up declaring the killed person a “martyr”.

A failure of the political imagination

“Kashmir” as conceived in the Indian political imagination is an inheritance of the distant past. As an issue – and not a dispute as the Indian official establishment never tires of underlining -- “Kashmir” is about little else than cross-border mischief by a neighbouring, inimical and envious state.

Kashmir’s current generation was assumed, by implication, not to have a stake in the legacy of a partition in the Indian body politic, effected over sixty years back. Images of the last year in Kashmir speak of a generation that refused with furious insistence, to accept this invitation to forget the legacy of the past and partake of a supposedly glitzy future of a “shining India’.

This is the generation that was born, or grew out of infancy, after Kashmir’s insurgency erupted in 1990. In Curfewed Nights, an acclaimed account of growing up through the years of strife in Kashmir, Basharat Peer talks about boys moved to join the militancy by impulses that they could not quite describe, of a generation that learnt the basic alphabet by rolling strange and alien words off their tongues, such as “frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest and torture”.

Basharat’s book has gained prominence after a U.S. edition was published in 2010. India has had access to Basharat’s work at least two years before the U.S. edition was published. Yet the truths that it documents – of torture, human shields, and families traumatised by their children’s political impulses to join the insurgency – have remained a message that the “establishment” has simply failed to grasp.

For most of India, it has seemed beyond strange to hear slogans of azaadi resonating through the long weeks of street protests in the valley last year. It has been emotionally troubling – for some, deeply offensive -- to view wall graffiti in all parts of Kashmir, ordering India out with all the baggage that it has brought along. What possibly could be the meaning of these battle cries, which for those weeks of turbulence were on every Kashmiri’s lips?

Beyond the sheer implausibility of an azaadi demand, it is in the perception of most Indian citizens, beyond permissible political sloganeering to seek a breakup of what they consider the sacred topography of the nation. This is a land that was retrieved from colonial oppression, secured from planned balkanisation and built up as a homeland where all could live under a constitutional order. To permit the people of Kashmir to pursue their dream of azaadi would be to begin the rapid unravelling of the nation state, with constitutional governance collapsing and life reduced to a state of anarchy.

Late in October last year, a day-long conference was held in the national capital under a banner proclaiming azaadi as the only way forward in Kashmir. Lost in the din that ensued and repeated demands that the more prominent participants in the conference be booked for sedition, was any effort to engage with the issues raised in day-long discussions that were for the most part, conducted in a tone of rational civility.

Aside from the perception that a pathway towards azaadi had to be found to bring peace to Kashmir, which they shared and endorsed by their presence on the same platform, there was seemingly little else in common between the participants in the conference. And even azaadi would have meant different things for each of the participants.

Azaadi as an ideal is impossible to argue with, since individual liberty and the protection of group rights are essential guarantees of the Indian constitution. If the people of Kashmir have for all the years of the Indian republic -- and with rising insistence over the last twenty years, argued that they do not enjoy the freedom they were promised – the knee-jerk reaction would be to brand them all as unworthy citizens who need to be disciplined with an iron hand. The more considered reaction would be to reflect on how true India has been to its sworn republican values. How has Kashmir become an exception within a constitutional arrangement that guarantees the basic rights for all? How is it that Kashmir has become a zone of unfreedom where the liberties promised by the Constitution are no more than a chimera? And how do all Kashmiris continue to be stigmatised as disloyal and worthy of no more benign mode of governance than the jackboot?

Since Kashmir erupted two decades ago, the Indian State and the wider public have had ample time and opportunity to debate these issues and seek rational ways out. That they have failed to take that path is testimony to the tyranny of unreason in discussions about group rights, particularly when they involve persons of the minority faith. Increasingly, the debate is drowned out in shrill recriminations by ultra-nationalist forces, which have caused sufficient damage to the body politic in “mainland India” with their medievalist programme of righting imagined historical wrongs.

Kashmir’s wounds run deep but could still be staunched. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently spoke in terms of instituting a “truth and reconciliation” commission to address past abuses and chart a course forward for Kashmir. The proposal fell flat for obvious reasons. Standards of truth-telling in the Indian political establishment and its agencies – particularly those that operate in Kashmir – are yet to achieve any level of public credibility. And a people cannot be asked to reconcile themselves to a recent history of repression when they are unconvinced that the political leadership at all levels has the will to establish full accountability and institute safeguards against the recurrence of these abuses. Tired gestures like doling out packages – variously labelled “economic” and “political” – will no longer work. The people of Kashmir have spoken out clearly and unequivocally in favour of a political dialogue that will involve all parties with a stake in the future of their state. And the Indian State needs, as it sets about this dialogue, to establish its serious intent.

This would require, minimally, a substantial reduction of the military presence in Kashmir, the withdrawal of all special security laws that establish a climate of impunity for the security agencies, the release of all persons detained under these laws, and credible investigations into the recent killings. Rhetoric about the need for justice in Kashmir has long since outlived its utility. The current situation calls for concrete, observable and irreversible actions.

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