When the four friends stood on the banks, they had a lake to cross with 26-year-old Tawheed Ali — scarred by metal pellets, and bleeding. The pellets fired from shotguns by the Jammu and Kashmir police had critically damaged his eye. The pack had a kashti (rowboat) in front of them but no time at hands.
It was the first time anyone of them would row a boat, none could swim either. But neither of it mattered to them, said one of the friends, 32-year-old Abid Hussain. “We just wanted to reach the hospital,” he said. “That was the only thing on our minds.”
As they stepped onto the first boat in Khushal Sar of Srinagar’s Zadibal area, Mr. Hussain saw the water seeping in from the bottom. The pack quickly jumped out and looked at another boat anchored nearby; it had an oar and another wooden stick. “It was in a better condition,” said Mr. Hussain, with a sigh.
Back in Zadibal, Mr. Hussain said, the pack tried every way to take their friend, Mr. Ali, to the hospital but couldn’t. Even a private ambulance vehicle inside the locality refused to ferry Mr. Ali, said Mr. Hussain. “They told me: ‘We were taking out an injured person and the police damaged our vehicle. We cannot take him’,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything. I felt helpless. We cannot fight the police.”
For the next hour, they rowed the boat in turns, in the shallow waters, full of weed, to reach an area where the police restrictions were not as harsh. Only a few minutes back, the friends were a part of the Ashura procession in the Zadibal area of Srinagar when things changed quickly.
The teargas smoke had filled the air. Mr. Ali couldn’t breathe as the smoke forced tears out of his eyes. But he knew that the elderly women and girls around him, who were watching the mourners in a limited procession only a moment ago, would be having a harder time. Amid the chaos, as he showed them an alley to escape, the police fired metal pellets at the mourners.
The noise of the firing frightened his friend, Mr. Hussain, who was a few meters away in the procession. It was the first time he had witnessed the dreaded pellets being fired from shotguns. “We were mourning peacefully, there was no stone pelting,” he said, gasping for breath. Trying to see through the smoke, coughing, he spotted Mr. Ali — bleeding. Along with another friend, he took Mr. Ali in a corner.
“Someone slapped me, brother. Someone hit me in the face,” Mr. Ali had shouted but Mr. Hussain could see that his childhood friend was scarred with metal pellets in his face. It was an unprecedented situation for him. Initially, he thought Mr. Ali was hit below the neck, but then he held his face to look up close. “It was his eye. I wanted to cry out loud. But I didn’t tell him. I kept repeating: ‘You’ll be okay.’”
If it had been up to him, Mr. Hussain said, he would have picked a rock and smashed the head of the police personnel who wounded his friend, Mr. Ali. Instead, at that moment, he wanted to take him to the hospital.
Mr. Ali wasn’t alone; multiple eye-witnesses told dozens of other mourners were also injured. Tanveer Pathan, the elected councillor representing the area in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, told The Kashmir Walla that “nearly 250 people were injured” in the police action. “People were injured by pellets and teargas shells,” he said. “The forces had made it [Zadibal] a garrison. It seemed they were there to fight a war with China.”
The police had imposed strict restrictions in the area since morning, he added. “On the way out, there were at least five barricades on the road,” said Mr. Hussain. “There was no way to take the injured out.”
So fearing a further reprisal from the police, many injured mourners stayed put inside their homes and attempted to pluck out the metal pellets, lodged in their flesh, by themselves. Videos of the aftermath, that went viral online, showed a local resident plucking out a pellet from a young man’s head using coins; another used tweezers, with steady hands, to pluck a pellet from the upper eyelid; for others, bare fingernails did the job.
“At least fifteen boys got serious pellet injuries. Five to six had pellets in eyes,” said an eye-witness, who wished to remain anonymous. “There was no way to get any injured out of that place. Nobody was even trying to go out. People were afraid that the police would arrest them.”
After the tear gas shelling, the mourners clashed with the police, multiple eye-witnesses told The Kashmir Walla, wherein the forces’ personnel also got injured. Photographs from the clash showed grave injuries suffered by a personnel on duty, with one’s forehead bleeding.
In a statement, the police claimed that their fifteen personnel were injured. It said: “The processions were taken out at dozens of places… [despite] that processions are not allowed in Covid-19 Pandemic.” The police added that it has “exercised maximum restraint despite grave provocation by the miscreants… [and despite the police force guarding the Imambaras] police was made to face violence and stone pelting. Under these testing times also Police have used only mild force to ensure their dispersal, showing maximum restraint.”
The police has also registered a First Information Report (FIR) 58/2020 “under relevant sections of law” at the Zadibal police station and an “investigation [has been] taken up”.
Meanwhile, the pack of friends had reached the other bank of the lake — from where they arranged a two-wheeler to rush Mr. Ali to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital. Others boarded an auto-rickshaw.
At the hospital, after Mr. Ali was passed through a CT scan, the nurse on duty told The Kashmir Walla that his report found: “He has pellets in the frontal bone of his head. Globe perforation, which means his eyeball has ruptured, and has suffered extra coral damage.” She added that it was early to assess if his eyesight will remain intact.
Lying on a bed in the Ward 7 of the hospital, which he shares with two more pellet survivors who were injured in police action on 29 August in Srinagar’s Bemina area, Mr. Ali withered in pain. He pulled a quilt over himself but threw it off within moments.
“Call them. Call them,” he whispered to one of his friends, lacking the strength to speak. “I’ll die. Please call them.”
His friend, wearing a green t-shirt and rage on his face, said: “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you.” With Mr. Ali’s reports in his hand, he runs away. “Don’t ask me what happened,” he said, angrily. “Ask the police. Or go to Zadibal and see for yourself. They are not even allowing us to take the injured to the hospital.”
In the next few minutes, Mr. Ali was taken into the operation theatre, a strictly restricted area. His friends will have to wait outside for a few hours, the nurse told them. But they are at peace that they were able to bring him to a hospital. “He is like my brother,” said Mr. Hussain. “We grew up together [and] obviously I’m worried if he would lose his eyesight.”
Mr. Ali, who is the youngest at home, drives a Bolero pickup for a living. By the time Mr. Ali was being taken inside the operation theatre, his family didn’t know of his injuries. “What will I tell them, and how? They will ask us many questions,” said Mr. Hussain, worryingly. “I don’t know what to tell his mother now.”
The friends are still afraid of the police. “This is a police [state], whatever they do is right,” said Mr. Hussain. “If they come to know that we are here from Zadibal, they will arrest us too.”
Additional reporting by Zenaira Bakhsh