On the morning of 26 June, Mohammad Yaseen Bhat, a 46-year-old government employee in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kulgam district, was getting ready to go to work when his four-year-old son, Nihaan Bhat, insisted on accompanying him. At first, he tried to deter his son—the youngest of three siblings—but ultimately agreed to his request. Mohammad, his brother-in-law Nisar Ahmad Mir, and Nihaan drove to his workplace in Anantnag district’s Bijbehara town. Mohammad told us that after dropping him off, Mir and Nihaan were headed to the picturesque Padshahi Bagh area for a picnic while he worked. Around noon, Mohammad heard gunshots. He said Mir called him and informed that a bullet had hit Nihaan in the chest. The four-year-old died within minutes.
According to the Central Reserve Police Force, militants had attacked a party of the troops present in the area and ended up shooting Nihaan as well. At least two other children—who were also lone sons of their families, like Nihaan—have died in Kashmir within the first six months of 2020.
These deaths are no anomalies—children have long been among the many casualties of the Kashmir conflict. Between 2003 and 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir witnessed at least 318 killings of children, according to a report by the civil-society group Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. Of these, the report noted, “extensive use of tear-smoke shells and pellet shotguns resulted in killings of at least 16 children.” Even last year, eight children were killed and seven were maimed, according to the United Nations’ latest report on Children and Armed Conflict. Notably, on 5 August 2019, the Indian government effectively abrogated Article 370, following which several accounts of excesses by the security forces—including those directed at children—emerged from Jammu and Kashmir.
The violence that children in Kashmir endure is just one way in which their lives are endangered. According to Khurram Parvez, JKCCS’s programme coordinator, the mental health of children across the Valley is deteriorating because they witness brutal violence regularly. “Overall, the situation has been constantly the same for the past years,” Parvez said, referring to child rights in Kashmir. “And there’s no indication of things improving.”
The UN report noted that the casualties were mainly caused by the “torture in detention, shootings, including from pellet guns, and cross-border shelling.” On the evening of 4 May, CRPF personnel at Handwara’s Wanigam area—in Kupwara district—exchanged gunfire with militants. When the firing began, about seven members of a family were ploughing their field nearby, according to one of them, Feroz Ahmad. The family ran towards their home, located about two kilometres away. Upon reaching, Feroz said, they realised that his cousin Hazim Shafi Bhat, who was somewhere near the field during the firing, had not made it back home. The family was worried. More so as Hazim, a 16-year-old seventh-standard student, had a physical disability. “His hands would shake while writing, and his tongue would totter on speaking,” Feroz said. Around the time of Iftar that night, Feroz called a journalist he knew to inquire about his cousin’s whereabouts. Feroz said the journalist immediately informed him that Hazim had died in the gunfire.
The family wanted to bury Hazim in the local graveyard. However, the police refused. They said that they feared a crowd would gather and flout the restrictions placed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. He was buried at a graveyard reserved for foreign militants in Sheeri, an area in the neighbouring Baramulla district, about forty kilometres away from his home. “We were around twenty family members, accompanied by the local tehsildar. We buried him ourselves and offered funeral prayers,” Feroz said. “You can’t imagine what the family is going through.”
Fifteen days after Hazim’s death, Indian security forces and militants engaged in a gunfight in Srinagar’s Nawakadal neighbourhood, on 19 May. The confrontation led to the death of two militants and left a trail of destruction, reportedly damaging at least a dozen houses. After the clash was over, in the evening, several locals had gathered at the site to see the destruction. Among the locals were Basim Aijaz, a 14-year-old seventh-standard student who lived near the neighbourhood, and some of his friends. An explosion occurred at the site during their visit, causing one of the structures to collapse and injure Basim.
Basim’s father, Aijaz Ahmad, who drives a load-carrier for a living, was working at the time. At 8 pm, Aijaz said, he received a call informing him that his son had injured his foot and was admitted in the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar. When he reached the hospital after four hours, he saw that his son was wrapped in bandages, suffering from severe burn injuries. “He spoke to me, even with his mother,” Aijaz told us. Within 24 hours, on Shab-e-Qadar—an auspicious night in Islam—Basim died.