Accounts of torture and harassment by Indian Army in south Kashmir

26 October 2019
Feroz Ahmad Ganai, a 19-year-old resident of Chandgam, and his parents have accused the Indian Army of torturing him at the Tahab army camp in south Kashmir. Masrat Zahra for The Caravan

Hajra Bano sat next to her 19-year-old son, Feroz Ahmad Ganai, and stared helplessly as a room full of reporters and neighbours waited for him to speak. On the afternoon of 22 September, they had all gathered at the Ganai’s house in Chandgam, a village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. According to the family, the Indian Army had tortured and harassed Feroz in the previous week. As he struggled to recount the ordeal, his 50-year-old mother spoke in his stead. On 18 September, Bano said, members of the Rashtriya Rifles, the army’s counter-insurgency wing, tortured her son at the Tahab army camp a few kilometres away from the village. “They tied him to a chair and inserted needles into his lips multiple times,” she said. As his mother spoke, Feroz stared at the ground in silence, his upper lip visibly swollen and discoloured, and his eyes sunken and lifeless.

Bano’s 22-year-old daughter, who requested not to be identified, recounted that on 14 September, she was sitting in their courtyard and making rotis when army personnel patrolling the streets began shouting from their main gate, asking the family to come outside. When her elder brother, Irfan Ahmad Ganai, went to the gate, the armed forces assaulted him, she said. Bano added, “They tore his shirt and pulled his chest hair,” and sobbed as she spoke. The 22-year-old woman told us that she immediately went to the gate to try and protect her brother, but “they shouted at me and ordered me to go inside.” She continued, “They then entered the house and asked my brother for his identity card and his phone.” The army seized Feroz’s phone and identity documents, and “told him to visit the camp the next day to get the identity card,” the 22-year-old added.

Feroz was reluctant to talk, but as the reporters kept prodding him with questions, he nodded along and told them specific details of the incident. His expressions and body language suggested that he was still dealing with the trauma of the incident. “My identity card was with them so they kept making me visit continuously,” he said. According to Feroz, he was one of eight men from the village who were called to the camp to retrieve their identity cards. “We used to go at 10 am and stay till the evening.” Feroz said he was tortured on the last day he went to the camp, on 18 September. “They tied me to a chair and beat me up,” he said. “A needle was inserted into my lip.” His father, who was also seated next to him, told us that he was asked to pick up his son from the camp. “When I brought him from the army camp, he was like a living corpse,” his father recalled.

According to Chandgam’s residents, the army’s actions were in response to a grenade attack at the Tahab camp on 11 September. Nobody seemed to know—or were willing to reveal—any details about the incident, but the suspected militants had reportedly escaped after the attack. Since then, the residents said, security officials had been randomly asking young men for their identity documents, and ordering them to visit the camp. They said that almost a dozen individuals, including minors, had been severely beaten, and several women from the village recounted accounts of harassment and intimidation. “We spend all day in fear and hysteria,” the 22-year-old woman said. “When the army patrols, we are not able to sleep.”

Yawar Ahmad, a 15-year-old resident of Tahab village, was said to be among those subjected to the army offensive. According to his family, Ahmad took his own life after he was tortured by the army. His sister, who requested anonymity, said that Ahmad had confided to her the night of 16 September that the army had “beaten and tortured” him earlier that day, and as in Ganai’s case, asked him to return the following day to retrieve his documents. The next day, Ahmad did not speak to anyone in his house the whole day. That night, when he started vomiting and his health began to deteriorate, his sister alarmed the family to the possibility that he may have consumed poison. Two days later, Ahmad died in Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital. According to media reports, the army claimed the allegations were “completely baseless,” and that “the boy was not detained or tortured in any manner.”

Intensive patrolling became routine in Chandgam following the grenade attack. Multiple women from the village told us that they had stopped stepping outside their homes because they feared for their safety. The 22-year-old woman told us that the army had taken to asking the men in the area for details about the women in each household in the days following the attack. Rabiya Jan, a 19-year-old resident of Chandgam, said the women in the village face a lot of oppression by the army. “The army comes to our homes and asks, ‘How many women are there in this household, what do they do, how old are they?’” Jan said. “Who can guarantee our safety now?”

Traditionally, the women would harvest the apple orchards surrounding the village from September onwards. Since 5 August, when the Indian government removed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and put the region on lockdown, there has been little scope to visit the orchards—and for Chandgam’s residents, lesser still since the grenade attack. In fact, the fear among the village residents is such that some women said they would often peep through the windows to make sure that army personnel were not coming to their homes. The residents accused the army of throwing stones on their tin sheds and gates during their patrol. “No one does stone-pelting from here, but they do it to harass us,” Bano said.

Jan is one of dozens of women in Chandgam who have not left their homes since the increased army deployment in the village. “We cannot go outside in the evenings,” she said. “Whenever we discuss something, it reaches the army. The next day, they come and ask us, why did you say this.” Jan is studying in the twelfth grade and had to appear for her board examinations this year. But the last date for submitting the form had already passed in August, and Jan chose not to sit for the exam. She told us she had no choice. “If I go out I have to take my brother or father along, but they are also not safe. How could I have put my family’s life at stake?” Jan asked. “When we are not able to sit in our homes alone without our father and brothers, how could we move out and submit our examination forms?”

The Indian Army did not respond to an email seeking their comments.

Women have recounted stories of harassment and intimidation in other areas of Kashmir, too, though most of them have gone unreported. In the Soura area of Srinagar, Fehmeeda War, a 25-year-old woman, told us that she was detained for over nine hours on 14 September, after she had gone to buy medicines for her two-month-old daughter.

Fehmeeda War said that she was separated from her infant child and detained at the Soura police station for nine hours. Masrat Zahra for The Caravan

That morning, she first went to a hospital for the medicine, accompanied by her sister and her sister-in-law. As the hospital did not have it, the women decided to go to another shop near the Soura police station. On their way, War and a few other women got into an argument with an apple vendor because he was working instead of marking his protest against the arrests that took place in Soura the previous night. Soon, a crowd assembled at the spot, and during the argument, some of the women began throwing the apples at nearby vehicles. This prompted the police to take action, she said.

“Suddenly, the police reached the spot and beat us.” She said they beat her sister-in-law on the legs with a stick, which caused her to fall. They were all running when a police officer pulled her back, beat her, dragged her on the ground and took her to the Soura police station, she told us. While the police attacked all the women, War said that she was the only one who was detained. The police took her to the Soura police station, she said. War also noted that she was arrested by male police officers, and that she was detained in a men’s lock-up that had around a dozen men inside. War’s infant, however, was separated from her mother.

According to War, when she requested the police to return her daughter, or even be allowed to meet her, they told her, “If your baby dies, she will be brought here.” When she protested, War said she was verbally abused and beaten by the police officers in the lock-up as well. “They told me that they will send me to a state outside,” she added.

According to War, when her sister-in-law, Shugufta War, arrived at the police station to try and rescue her, the police officials beat her as well, and hurled “obscene abuses” at her. She told us that her old mother was also pushed by a police officer. “Since then, she hasn’t been able to walk properly,” War said. It was only after a large group of locals from Soura’s Anchar locality thronged the police station in protest that she was finally released, at 8 pm. The Jammu and Kashmir police did not respond to phone calls and an email seeking their comments.

Multiple women from Anchar told us that whenever there was any medical emergency in their households, they would ask the men to remain at home because they feared that they would be arrested. Yet, as War’s account indicated, there was no guarantee that women would not be arrested either. Abida War, a 30-year-old resident of Soura, told us that this time, women have been subject to large-scale arrests and detentions as well—in a significant departure from the previous years of unrest in Kashmir. “We have a fear psychosis about security forces now,” she added. “We always feel unsafe.”

Quratulain Rehbar is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. Her Twitter handle is @ainulrhbr.

Masrat Zahra is a photojournalist based in Kashmir.