Dispatches from Kashmir | Baba Umar


Parveena Jan’s life was one of middle class comfort in a suburb of Batpora, Hazratbal in Kashmir. There were pomegranate and apple trees on her lawn and a crystal clear lake just a few kilometers away to spend time with school friends during vacations. Jan’s seemingly normal life was shared with a caring father who sold jewelry in a small shop in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, a region disputed between India and Pakistan since 1947.

One morning in 1990, a year after the armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule over the region had broken out in Kashmir, soldiers of the Border Security Force searching for militants around Jan’s house picked up her father, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat. When dusk fell, Jan’s family fetched his dead body from the street. Parveena (then just eight years old) was forced to join the army of orphans the conflict would create over the coming years.

Her cries remained unheard. She internalized the trauma of her father’s murder until she married Fayaz Ahmad Wani, a government employee in Gangbugh, Batamaloo, who lived with his parents in the western outskirts of this Kashmiri district.

Wani’s family was peaceful. In the early 1990s, Fayaz’s father Nazir Ahmad Wani had migrated from the congested market of central Maisuma that has endured the worst of the armed rebellion and stone pelting since 1989, to quiet area outside of the city. He bought 2,500 square feet of arable paddy land, and erected a small house close to a rivulet abundant with Himalayan trout. Away from the urban hustle and bustle, poplar trees and vegetable gardens added to other pleasures the family had never experienced in Maisuma.

Wani married Jan in the autumn of 2005. The family felt blessed when Jan first gave birth to a girl named Maryam, now three, and then Ayesha, who is now barely seven months old.

Their familial happiness, however, was short-lived.

In 2006, Jan’s doting father-in-law Nazir Ahmad Wani died a natural death. But on July 6, 2010, her husband Fayaz was shot dead by paramilitary members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near their family’s house.

“What we know is Jan lived a disturbing life after her father’s killing. Now with my brother’s murder she is the image of distress, nostalgia, and unbearable pain. She hasn’t talked to anyone since [Wani’s murder],” Wani’s brother, Saqib Nazir, told Dispatches International.

Fayaz Wani was the fifteenth on the list of 111 people, mostly youths, who were killed this past summer. He is one of four who died in a series of events on July 6. These events began when the body of Muzaffar Ahmed Bhat, 17, was fished out of the stream running through Gangbugh that morning. Bhat lived in the same area as Wani and Jan. Locals allege he had been picked up during a patrol, tortured to death, and then dumped in the stream by the CRPF during the previous night.

When people gathered at the site where his body was found, the police and CRPF caned the protesters, lobbed tear-smoke canisters into the crowd, and opened live fire on the mourners who chanted “Azadi!” (“Freedom!”) against Indian rule in Kashmir.

In the ruckus, a bullet hit Fayaz in the neck. He worked in the Floriculture Department and was heading to his office when he passed the demonstration. The killing sparked protests across the city. In the afternoon, another young person, Fancy Jan, in the Lachmanpora Batmaloo, was shot dead by police while she was pulling down curtains on the first floor of her house. At sunset yet another Maisuma youth, Abrar Ahmad Khan, was shot dead. Along with hundreds of angry youths, he had protested the previous three deaths.

The current unrest is just a pinprick in the political turbulence Indian-administered Kashmir has witnessed since the partitioning of the sub-continent in 1947 that created India and Pakistan. Muslim-majority Kashmir triggered the first war between the newly born countries after its Hindu ruler, Hari Singh, conditionally acceded to India following a raid by tribes from Pakistan. The rules of the accession signed in October 1947 allowed India to control only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications in Kashmir. But India eroded Kashmiri autonomy by imprisoning its admired leader, Sheikh Abdullah, and appointing unpopular puppet rulers who helped extend Indian authority in the region. By 1986, India and Pakistan had fought two of the three wars on Kashmir that saw a portion of Kashmir passing into the hands of Pakistan, which is now popularly called Azad Kashmir (“Liberated Kashmir”).

In 1987, the mass rigging of a local election by the government in Indian-administered Kashmir meant Kashmiris lost the remaining faith they had in New Delhi and thus an eventual outbreak of an armed rebellion followed with ample support from Pakistan.

In what seemed a quick success to end New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir during the early 1990s, the armed militants were confronted by a strong Indian military whose numbers eventually rose to more than half a million. After the pro-freedom Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) announced a ceasefire in 1994, the fight against New Delhi was dominated by pro-Pakistan militant groups. The 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan further exacerbated tensions between the two countries, only to be cooled by international efforts spearheaded by the United States. The ceasefire didn’t deter then-President Bill Clinton from calling Kashmir “the nuclear flashpoint of world.”

During the past 21 years, the conflict has consumed some 70,000 lives; hundreds of thousands were left injured while another 10,000 are believed to have gone missing after being arrested. To escape violence, nearly 30,000 people have migrated to Pakistani Kashmir, while over a hundred thousand Kashmiri Hindus have also left the valley for the Indian plains and Jammu region of Kashmir.

Even though violence plummeted with the number of militants dropping from several thousand to a few hundred in recent years, more than 500,000 Indian troops remain in Kashmir. The Guinness Book of World Records in 2009 termed Kashmir “the most militarized place in the world.” India and Pakistan came close to another war after the Parliament attacks in 2001 and Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.

After the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, the militancy of Kashmir slowly subsided. From several thousand the in early 90s, the number of active militants plunged to 500 in 2010. Many believe the year 2008 set the stage for a non-violent movement. In that year, Kashmir witnessed some of the biggest peace marches. In these demonstrations, men formed human chains around forces’ bunkers to cushion any provocation from demonstrators.

The Octogenarian separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani asked youths not to pelt stones at soldiers and to march calmly in the streets. Three huge rallies were called by separatists, in which millions of Kashmiris demanded freedom; all three rallies went smoothly. The Indian authorities in Kashmir, however, scuttled the fourth rally with force. For several days the area remained under curfew. The media was gagged. Hospitals, schools, government offices, banks and markets were closed. The only signs of life on the streets were stray animals struggling to move through loops of razor wire blocking main roads, and lanes. Edgy soldiers and stone-pelting youngsters also occasionally peeked at each other.

In 2008, more than 65 people, mostly youths, were shot dead in protests. Over 2,500 sustained injuries, with 1,200 bearing bullet wounds above the waist. The 2009 Shopian double-rape and murder (allegedly by soldiers) prompted a new eruption of anger in Kashmir. In that year dozens of youth were shot dead by police and paramilitary CRPF. In 2010, troops continued to be pelted with stones, while the killings also continued unabated.

When I entered Fayaz Wani’s house, I found his mother Misra Begum sitting in a corner of the patio. She wore a traditional floral cloak and a loose white scarf. When she saw me, the old woman wiped tears from her eyes. Before she could say anything, a meek lady, who I later learned was Parveena Jan, emerged to invite me inside the modest structure.

Jan opened the wooden door of a room where Saqib, Farooq and Zaitun were playing with the fatherless children. I introduced myself and like other victims’ families which I had visited so far, I was immediately welcomed by the family members. While Saqib asked his sister Zaitun to fetch me a glass of juice, I let out a sigh in the neatly furnished room where the focal point was a large framed photograph of a gentle-faced, dark young man. The picture of Fayaz Wani, with a shyly smiling Jan, had been taken after their wedding.

Zaitun tried hard to hold the old woman’s arms but couldn’t stop her mother from beating her chest and wailing loudly. Through her sobs, her white scarf soaked in tears, Misra Begum described how during the morning that Wani was murdered, she had experienced instincts only a mother can have that had made her restless.

“It was after long time that Wani got up early,” she said. That morning, Wani, she said, had ablution, offered morning prayers, ironed his clothes and had tea.

“He hurriedly had his breakfast before heading off to work at 8:15. Fifteen minutes later he was shot in the neck and in the back. In four places. As if he knew where he had to get killed,” she said sobbing.

My conversation with the old woman ended when she was ushered into another room to grieve privately while Saqib and Zaitun talked to me. Why didn’t the troops and police restrain themselves from shooting innocent people and mourners?

Their questions were genuine. But they knew I wasn’t the right person to seek answers from.

While the bodies of both Wani and Muzaffar were being taken to Eidgah (“Martyrs Graveyard”) in the inner city for burial, police and CRPF acted as normal. Yet again, they intercepted thousands of mourners with bamboo sticks, tear gas canisters, and live ammunition.

Photographers, many of whom were also roughed up, captured the moment on film. An image which became popular showed a wooden cot in the middle of the street holding the body of a youth killed by the troops as they went about devastating the protests. Behind the corpse, irate soldiers and policemen batter the pall-bearers and mourners with sticks and batons. The mourners run for cover, except for an old man – the father of the youth – trying to save his son’s corpse from desecration, covering the boy with his arms stretched in a defensive semicircle.

In the afternoon, Wani’s picture, a short sturdy man with a blunt square face lying on the road in a blood-drenched blue shirt and black trousers, was already up on Facebook evoking sharp pledges: “Blood for blood”.

After seizing corpses from the mourners, police handed the bodies over to the families with a stipulation that the victims could only be buried in a local graveyard.

Days later, local minister Nasir Aslam Sogami visited the family with blood money totaling $100,000.00 INR (approximately $2,250.00 USD).

“But we refused to accept it. Sensing trouble, the minister left the area in hurry,” Wani’s brother tells me. The family also refused to accept another compensation package of $500,000.00 INR (approximately $11,300.00 USD) announced by politicians in New Delhi, saying “No one will ever accept money for their brother’s blood!”

After the killings, the area saw dozens more demonstrations, many spearheaded by women and children. During these protests, two things were very common.

First, police and CRPF personnel would chase away protesters and break the windowpanes of all the vehicles parked on roadsides and houses to express their frustration and fracture the will of protesters, who often pelted stones at the advancing troops.

Second, all the protests, in which women and children joined and hurled rocks, were led by Zaitun, Wani’s elder sister. Zaitun, however, says that she wasn’t such an aggressive person until her brother was murdered.

In her college days, she would join only peaceful protests. But the killing in her family turned her violent. She became a staunch critic of those who had been advocating peaceful protests.

“Where are we heading? How will you win this war? Through press statements! Ha!” she told me in a veiled reference to several pro-independence political parties, who she said have so far failed to secure Kashmir’s freedom from New Delhi’s rule.

“We have lost more than 110 people. Are we serious in getting Azadi (Freedom)? Do we have any other option left?” Zaitun says when I ask if she supports protests in which stones are hurled at soldiers and police.

I ask the same question of the mother of Wamiq Farooq, 14 at the time of his death, who was killed when a tear gas shell fired by the troops exploded on his head, shattering the youngster’s skull and scattering his brains in the lane where he was playing games with his school friends. Her reply was to open a brown suitcase. She showed me the boy’s belongings: a red tie, crimson school belt, white shirt, grey trousers, more than a dozen trophies, certificates of appreciation, academic report cards that show him topping all exams, his birth certificate and a crisp, recently-laminated death certificate.

“Do you think my son who loved watching the Tom and Jerry cartoon show was a miscreant or militant? He was shot with an intention. Until I get the culprit booked, I and my husband will continue to join demonstrations, demand freedom and hurl rocks,” Farooq’s mother says.

The police report mentions Farooq as a “miscreant who was part of an unlawful assembly” at which police had fired tear gas shells. Very few – including his relatives, neighbours, lawyers and journalists – believe this about the playful youth.

The current unrest, which caught both India and Pakistan off guard, actually stems from a series of similar killings at the beginning of 2010, including Farooq’s. These were followed by falsified encounters in the mountains near the Line of Control, where the Indian army claimed to have killed Pakistani infiltrators. These later turned out to be civilians. Then came a cycle of killings in the past summer months of over a hundred people at the hands of the CRPF and police.

It was the killing of a 17-year-old which transformed the low-intensity tension into fully-fledged demands for freedom. Tufail Ahmad Matoo, caught between stone-hurling protesters and police, was also killed by officials when a tear gas shell fractured his head. The police statement was typical. It termed the student’s death “a mysterious murder,” possibly committed by those who ferried the victim to the hospital. However, the autopsy established that the student, who was returning from school, was killed by a tear gas shell.

It took some 36 days and two court directions until the police registered an First Information Report (FIR) on July 17 and began investigating the death, but by then many more, including Muzaffar and Wani, were already dead, and the “2010 Summer Uprising” was well under way. With the government throwing separatist leaders in jail and putting some under house arrest, those who made the political statements on the streets were the rock-hurling youth.

But why would young people risk their lives to throw stones?

One youth, 20-year-old identified only as Sahil, had never hurled a stone until Rainawari, an area in the old city, received the dead body of Tufail Ahmad Matoo. Two days after his death, Sahil found himself at the front of a protest group.

“Tufail’s death shocked everyone in the area. Students like me felt helpless. What is the option left when even pallbearers are tear gassed and fired at?” he asks.

The first day of stone-pelting scared him. The next day, with other boys, he says he felt like “buffalo soldiers at the front.”

Other youths like Sahil were inspired by the violence to practice violence. Owais War, 17, of North Kashmir’s Kupwara, was ready to throw caution to the wind and get back on the streets to chase his dreams of Kashmiri freedom, even after being hit by bullets in the torso, hours of an interrupted ambulance drive to hospital, a couple of perforations in his intestines and three hour-long surgeries. “I’ve weathered the worst,” he says. Nothing is going to scare me now.”

On the afternoon of August 2, 2009, the student was rushed to Srinagar’s main hospital after police and paramilitary CRPF shot his uncle Khursheed Ahmad War, a driver by profession, and pumped a bullet in War’s abdomen, barely half a kilometer from their house in Shumnag in Kupwara district.

The pair had gone to attend a marriage ceremony in a nearby village, not knowing a cavalcade of troops and police cruising down the road would target them.

During surgery, doctors partially removed the victim’s colon. The feeling of a hot bullet entering his soft skin solidified War’s stance on the conflict in Kashmir.

“Kashmir was a separate entity before 1947. The United Nations became the arbitrator of the conflict that ensued later. If India denies this, we have every right to protest,” he says. “And if they shower bullets, what option do we have? We can pelt them with stones only,” War adds. He mentions that his father allows him to join protests.

I met another youth who was “baptized” in the fire on the same day. For him too, bullets are no deterrent to protesting.

21-year-old Hilal Ahmad, son of labourer Abdul Majeed, was hit by a bullet in the abdomen in southern Kashmir’s Bijbehara when police and the CRPF intercepted hundreds of peaceful protesters coming from Jablipora village to the main road.

Ahmad, who is studying science, participated in the August 2, 2009, procession to offer funeral prayers for a youth killed in a neighbouring village.

“Police tear gassed the mourners first. As we retreated, they along with CRPF charged in. They went berserk and broke window panes and doors. They also beat up many people with bamboo sticks and gun butts,” he recalls.

Later, around 9:00 in the morning, Ahmad heard loudspeakers from mosques announcing another phase of peaceful protests.

“Some 300 or 400 people gathered this time,” he says.

But as soon as the procession drew close, the troops and police again halted the gathering crowd with tear gas shells. Those leading the crowd retaliated with stones.

“Then they fired at us,” Ahmad says, “and the result was this.” He shows me a large bullet wound on his abdomen and a mark left by a bullet that brushed his right arm.

Ahmad felt the heat of the bullet and blood continued to gush out but he ran back into the retreating crowd knowing fully that falling down in front of the troops would mean no immediate hospitalization.

“I ran back towards the crowd till I hit the ground,” he recalls.

The incident has strengthened his will. Ahmad says he will start joining protests and shouting slogans against India and its troops as soon as he can.

“But I’ll not hurl stones. I almost got myself killed,” Ahmad says. He is, however, quick to add that many of his colleagues may not continue with peaceful protests if they are cane-charged, tear gassed or fired upon.

“I guess Indian responses to out-of-control crowds is milder than countries like Pakistan, the United States, or China,” Inspector General of the Kashmiri Police S. M. Sahai says.

But he is quick to add that the police are looking into the aspects of faulty training that may have led to deaths.

“Mistakes happen. But laws in every country allow reciprocal violence to the extent of taking lives,” the police official says. “What I think is this: Separatists didn’t incite the youth. But they were unable to control them. And you can imagine what can happen when more than 60% of the population comprised of youth aged between 15 to 30 come on the streets to protest.”

The police action couldn’t stop youths from taking the battle into cyberspace. Thousands of youngsters who choose to stay off the streets are waging a virtual war against New Delhi and the state government. In one case, supporters of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani replaced the photo of Mahatma Gandhi on bank note with that of Geelani, added the slogan “Go India! Go Back!” and renamed the Reserve Bank of India the “Reserve Bank of Kashmir.”

As witnessed during and after Iran’s presidential elections, the Internet and social networking sites are proving an effective battlefield for political struggle and information warfare. In 2008, a video uploaded by a group of young men in Kashmir went viral amongst Internet users sympathetic to Kashmir’s movement across the world. The video featured a collage of photos depicting “violence against civilians by troops” set to Chris de Burgh’s song “The Revolution.” Hundreds of similar videos flooded YouTube and Facebook.

Recently a video showing three bodies lying in a pool of blood on the lawn of one of the victims’ houses drew condemnation and “revenge” remarks against police. The cops had earlier dubbed the victims “arsonists and miscreants” who were killed while damaging public property.

In an email interview, Nasir Patigaru, the first person to upload this video onto Facebook, discussed the ordeal he had to undergo and how he learned about the video that was to counter police discourse on the killings.

“I remember a strict curfew was in place. I got a call from a close friend about a video that would prove the three youth were not pelting stones and shot in cold blood,” he says. His friend tried to upload the video on YouTube but struggled to change its format.

“We shared it. And after changing its format I immediately uploaded it on my Facebook wall without thinking about the repercussions,” Patigaru says. Seven days later, a caller identifying himself as a Facebook friend complimented him on the video’s popularity and wanted to meet him immediately.

“I wanted to meet him after the phase of curfews ended. But he insisted I see him that day. At the end of our conversation he identified himself as Deputy Superintendent of Police of the area. Then I got another call from a person identifying himself as the area’s [police official],” says Patigaru, who works as a psychosocial counselor with a non-governmental organization in Kashmir. “I agreed to meet them. I had no choice.”

The net-savvy student called a policeman friend to tell him the entire story. Patigaru’s friend suggested he should not visit the police station, fearing “torture” and charges from the infamous Public Safety Act. It offers extraordinary powers to police to arrest and detain a suspect without charge or trial for as long as one year.

Patigaru followed his instructions and didn’t visit the police. Instead he fled the valley for the plains of Jammu in the southern parts of the state. Police raided his house several times, but stopped chasing him after a few weeks.

While New Delhi has tried to engage Kashmiris through its three-member group of interlocutors, the move has received a cold response from pro-freedom and pro-Pakistani leaders who claim that political negotiating is a futile exercise designed to “buy time”.

“India wants a temporary peace but we want a permanent solution,” said Umar Farooq, Chief Cleric at one of the valley’s largest mosques and leader of a faction of separatist the group Mirwaiz.

In a recent statement, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani said, “Without any ambiguity, the people of Kashmir demand Azadi.” He was reacting to the statement of Radha Kumar, one of three interlocutors for Kashmir, in which she said the roadmap for Kashmiri independence will be ready in six to nine months.

“If there is genuinely a need to prepare a roadmap regarding Kashmir, it should be a schedule for the withdrawal of the Indian Army,” Geelani added.

Geelani, who sees the appointment of interlocutors as an “attempt to pass time” said, “As far as the roadmap for resolution of this issue is concerned, it has been made way back,” he said, referring to the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir. “It has been made by India and Pakistan together with the international community”.

Castigating New Delhi for crushing non-violent protests in Kashmir with force, the Chairman of the pro-freedom group the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Mohammad Yasin Malik, warned that state repression would push Kashmiri youth towards militancy.

“Till 2007, our movement had the gun as its reference point. In 2008, Kashmiris adopted non-violent means, as urged by the world community. We stood to our commitment, but, in return, we received more than 70 dead bodies of our young ones in 2008 while more than 110 Kashmiris were killed during the last five months.”

He said the world and India should have respected “our transformation” but instead “our young ones are being killed, chased, arrested and hence pushed to the wall.”

India has always maintained that Kashmir is an “integral part” of the country, while Pakistan’s sees the entire state as its “jugular vein” and the “unfinished business of the 1947 partition.” According to the experts, both countries have lost the support of Kashmiris.

“The view that the secession of Kashmir will trigger a process of dismemberment of India is not well-founded. If Pakistan could survive and compete with India after the creation of Bangladesh then why can’t India survive and prosper once relieved of the Kashmir headache?” asks Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches international humanitarian law at the University of Kashmir. “Indian nationhood is not too fragile to not be tied to the association with Kashmir.”

Author’s Note: This article was written during the 2010 Summer of Unrest in Kashmir and is being published for the first time in Dispatches International.

Baba Umar is a correspondent with Tehelka magazine at Delhi.

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