Two Kashmiri families say tear-gas smoke killed their kin, police deny responsibility

Rafiq Shagoo said his wife Fehmeeda was vomiting blood when they found her. Shahid Tantray for the Caravan
20 February, 2020

On the afternoon of 17 August 2019, Mohammad Ayoub Khan and his family had returned home from praying at a mosque and just finished their lunch, when Khan heard some noise outside. Khan stepped out into his Nawakadal neighbourhood, in Downtown, Srinagar, to see what was going on. According to his family, there was a protest nearby where the police was firing tear-gas shells at the group of protesters.

 “After some time, a driver of an autorickshaw came to our home along with my father,” Mehwish Ayoub, Khan’s 20-year-old daughter, said. “He told us that my father had inhaled excess smoke. He was feeling short of breath and couldn’t talk.” In shock and panic, the family rushed toward the hospital in the same autorickshaw. “But he died within ten minutes,” Khazira, Khan’s wife, told me, sobbing as she spoke.

On 5 August, the Indian government abrogated the special status to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution. The move was followed by a heavy security clampdown, marked by indiscriminate tear-gas firing, and widespread arrests and detentions. Three months later, Amit Shah, the home minister, stated in the Rajya Sabha that no civilians had been killed in police firing in Kashmir since 5 August. He also described the situation in Jammu and Kashmir as “fully normal.” However, in a report released in January 2020, two civil-society groups—the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons—have claimed that the security forces have killed six civilians since 5 August. According to the report, of these, three people died due to “inhalation of tear smoke shells fired by armed forces.” Last month, I spoke to the families of two of these individuals.

At Khan’s house, Mehwish sat with her family, trying to contact a friend to check on her twelfth-standard board-examination results, which were due to be announced that day. Khazira and her two younger sisters also tried to make calls to inquire whether Mehwish had passed her examinations. While Kashmir had been under lockdown for the past several months, Mehwish had remained focused on her studies. With the death of her father, she said she knew the responsibility of providing for the family was on her shoulders. Soon, Mehwish learnt that she did not simply pass the examinations, she cleared it with an 83.2 percent distinction.

Khazira said she was worried about the future of her three daughters—Mehwish, Muskaan and Mehreen. “We have no one to earn as my daughter is too young to do a job,” she told me, referring to Mehwish. “I want her to study and have a better future.” Mehwish said that after Khan’s death, her mother’s condition had been fragile. “When I look at my mother and sisters, I feel that I have responsibilities now,” she calmly told me.

Khan was a woodcutter and the sole breadwinner of the household. On 17 August, the family had rushed him to the Shri Maharaja Hari Hospital. Mehwish told me that the hospital authorities refused to mention the cause of death on his death certificate. She said a doctor told her he had instructions from “higher authorities” not to do so. Soon after Khan’s death, the family filed a complaint in the Safakadal police station. They said the police verbally assured them that they would register a first information report and that the family would receive compensation. It has been over five months since his death, but the family said they have neither received any compensation nor a copy of the FIR.

The family added that they could not approach the court due to their financial strain, and a lack of support. Mehwish added, “My uncle is right now taking our expenses but how long he will help us, he has his own family. If my father wouldn’t have been killed, life would not have been complicated.”

In another neighbourhood, a few kilometres from the Downtown area, I heard a similar account. In Firdous colony, in Srinagar’s Bemina locality, the family of Fehmeeda, a 32-year-old homemaker, struggled to cope with her death.

According to Rafiq Shagoo, Fehmeeda’s husband, during a protest against the abrogation of Article 370 on 9 August, the police and security forces responded with heavy tear-gas shelling. At around 6:30 pm when Fehmeeda was in the kitchen, Shagoo said, the police lobbed tear-gas shells towards the house. Breaking through the window panes, the shells landed in the kitchen and filled it with smoke. Breathless and choking, Fehmeeda ran out of the kitchen and fell to the ground, Shagoo recalled. The family rushed to the spot. Shagoo said “she was vomiting blood” when they found her. “We immediately rushed to the hospital. After a few hours, she died.”

After the death of his wife, Shagoo, a shopkeeper in Bemina, said that he tried to logde a complaint with the local police station, but they refused to register an FIR. To get proof of the cause of his wife’s death, he asked the SKIMS hospital, where she had been taken, for a death certificate. According to Shagoo, they refused at first, in fear of the administration.  “But I kept asking for medical certificate until I finally got that.”

Fehmeeda’s patient-registration card read, “Patient is suspected to have inhaled some toxic gas” and added in brackets, “alleged tear gas.” The “medical certificate of cause of death” lists the immediate cause of death as “sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest.” In another line under a column for the antecedent cause and underlying conditions, one of three entries speculates: “Acute Lung injury (Toxic gas inhalation)”

On 20 September, Shagoo filed a case against the police in the Jammu and Kashmir high court. “In the course of the shelling, the police and security forces targeted the house of the petitioner and fired tear gas canisters towards his house without any reason,” Shagoo’s petition said. The petition recounted the circumstances leading to Fehmeeda’s death. “The deceased was cooking food and doing household chores in her kitchen at around 6:30 pm when the tear gas shells fired by the police and security forces landed in the kitchen … causing heavy smoke (toxic gas) to fill the house,” the petition said. “Due to heavy tear gas shelling, the smoke (toxic gas) quickly engulfed the kitchen and the adjourning rooms.”

Describing Fehmeeda’s condition, it added, “While on the way to the hospital, the deceased was constantly choking with blood oozing out of her mouth. The deceased spoke to the doctors complaining of extreme choking. At around 7:40 pm, while the doctors were trying to retrieve her, foam started coming out of her mouth and she died around the same time.”

I spoke to Shah Faisal, a lawyer who is representing Shagoo. “It is one of the fewer such cases filed in the court where killing occurred due to the tear-gas smoke,” he said. Faisal told me that in their reply to the court, the police have denied responsibility for Fehmeeda’s death and claimed that she was ailing.

Fehmeeda and Shagoo have two sons—ten-year-old Ayaan, and seven-year-old Mahir. A few days after Fehmeeda was buried, Shagoo took his sons to show them her grave, located beside that of his own mother. “That grave is my mothers and now this one is of yours,” he said he told them, pointing to the two graves. Tabassum, Shagoo’s sister-in-law, told me, “He doesn’t want to lie to his children, as he says tomorrow they might ask him a million questions about where their mother is.”

Shagoo, who has grown a beard after his wife’s death, said he struggled to look after his children. He added that Mahir often cried and asked for Fehmeeda.  Each time, Shagoo remained quiet. He said he had no other choice.

A 2019 Outlook report looked at how tear-gas shells posed a public-health risk in Kashmir. The report quoted an anonymous senior police official in Kashmir on the number of tear-gas shells used in the region. “Approximately one lakh-plus tear-gas shells were used in 2016 and since then around 70,000 have been used on an average every year,” he said. “We must be the biggest users of the munitions in the country.”

I attempted to contact police officials from the Bemina and Safakadal police stations. Officers at the Bemina police station declined to comment. The Safakadal police station did not respond to a request for comment.