On 9 April 2017, the day that recorded one of the lowest voter turnouts in Kashmir’s electoral history, Farooq Ahmad Dar cast his vote at around 8.30 am. Dar, a 26-year-old resident of Chill Brass village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was one among the seven percent of the registered voters who voted in the Kashmir by-elections for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. Upon returning home, he told me, he had tea with his aging mother who had been waiting for him, worried. Soon after, he left on his Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle to visit a relative.
En route to Utligam village to meet his relative, on the Beerwah-Budgam road, Dar said he was suddenly confronted by the members of an army-patrol party from the neighbouring Raeyar army camp located between the Beerwah and Khan Sahib areas of Budgam. An army major, who was later identified as Leetul Gogoi of the Indian Army’s 53 Rashtriya Rifles, asked him to climb off his bike onto the road. “I didn’t want to climb off the bike but the army personnel pulled me down forcefully, dragged me on the road, and tore my pheran,” Dar recalled when I met him at his house on 17 April. His mother, Fazi Begum, who is suffering from a heart condition, sat by his side as I spoke to him. Dar continued, “Then they started ruthlessly thrashing me with batons.” When we spoke, his right arm, which had sustained a fracture because of the beating, was still bandaged, and his body, he said, still ached. Dar told me he has only gotten medical treatment from a local dispensary near his house. He said that he had not gone to a bigger hospital despite the severity of the injuries because, “I am terrified that something might happen to me if I go out again.”
Dar told me that what followed the beating will always haunt him for the rest of his life. “I can't get it out of my mind,” he said. Dar said that after he was assaulted, “my hands were tied behind my back with ropes.” He continued, “Then I was made to sit on the bonnet of the army jeep, close to the engine, and tied with ropes around my body.” Once he was tied, the army jeep sped away through the village roads, while Dar’s body was tied to the front of the car and his feet were dangling in the air. He told me he was asked not to move or speak to anyone. “If I made a slight movement, or tried to make some noise, an army officer on top of the jeep would throw small stones on my back, hurting me more,” he said. Terrified, Dar told me, he kept quiet.
He was used as a human shield and paraded through several villages for more than six hours, he said, to scare the protesters on the polling day. “I was driven for about 28 kilometres, tied in front of the army jeep, and around 17 villages were covered through the day,” Dar said. In between, he added, the army personal stopped their vehicles to have lunch. “But they didn't even give me some water to drink for all those painful hours.”
Dar said that those from the army in the jeep also clicked pictures of him as he was paraded through the villages. These pictures have not come out in the public domain yet. “Your father should see these photos on TV,” Dar recalled the one of the army personnel telling him. Dar was concerned about the fact that they had kept his phone. “It is still lying at the Raeyar army camp,” he said, adding that he had sent his neighbours and brothers to bring back his phone from there, a few days before I spoke to him. They returned empty-handed, because the army, Dar said, had refused to return the phone to them. “I fear they might misuse my phone,” he continued. “I’m not responsible for what they do with my phone.”
I asked Dar what the personnel in the jeep told him as they drove the vehicle through the villages. “They just asked me to keep quiet and not look left and right towards people.” He told me that the army officer sitting atop the jeep shouted at passers-by on the roads, “Ao, apnay bandey ko patthar maro!”—Come throw stones at your brother!
Dar’s neighbors, who were also present in the room when I met him, recounted the names of several villages that he was paraded through. These included Najan, Sonpah, Gondiporah, Aarizal, Hardponzo, Khospora, Rawalpora, Zabgul, Pethkote and Kheatrun. Dar said that hundreds of people from the neighbouring villages had visited his house since his return. Many of them also told him that they had seen him being paraded through the areas in which they lived, he said, but “they told me that they were too terrified to come forward to seek my release.”
Dar did not think he would be released. He said, “In one village, some elders dared to come near the army jeep and pleaded with the army major to let me go, but he told them that I was a stone-pelter and that they won't let me go.” He continued, “I’d given up hopes of being alive that day.”
“When I was tied in front of the army jeep, it hurt a lot,” Dar told me. “My hands were tied behind my back throughout the journey,” he continued. “I thought I will die, such was the pain I was going through.” Dar said he was paraded through rough roads, which made his journey even more turbulent and painful.
As Dar recounted his ordeal, his mother brought and spread out the torn, muddied pheran he was wearing that day. “Look what they did to my son,” she said, holding up the torn garment in her hands. “Look at the condition of his clothes. What would have happened to him that day?” she asked, looking visibly upset.
Apart from the lunch-break that the army personnel took, Dar said he was “driven through the villages without a break from the morning till 4 pm.” He was then taken to a CRPF camp in Hardponza village in Budgam district. There, he said “I was tied with ropes once again, to a chair. ” He continued, “Then, after an hour, I was taken to [Raeyar] army camp where I was tied on a chair and detained for few more hours.”
Dar said he was finally released from the Raeyar army camp, which is around six kilometres from his house, at 7 pm that day. “I was terrified and couldn’t believe what had happened to me and how I came home alive at the end of that day,” he told me. He told me that his brothers learnt that Dar had been taken to the camp, and went there with the local sarpanch to secure his release. Dar’s grieving mother was waiting to see him outside the camp when he was released. He said she hugged him tight and wouldn’t let him go. She told me she was in tears and could not believe her eyes. “Since then, I sit close to him at home and do not let him go far from my sight,” she said.
The entire incident has instilled a sense of fear in Dar that continues to persist. “I can’t sleep at night,” he told me. “I fear for my life,” he continued, “They can come again to take me or even kill me.” The questions Dar raised revealed the sense of fear that had gripped him. “Who will know here if they come in the dead of the night? Who will save me then?” He added that he had become more worried after videos and images of him were circulated on social media. Dar said he had not moved out of his house for over a week, since the day of the polling. “I’m even terrified of going out to buy some medicine,” he said.
The circulation of the photos and videos that Dar was referring to evoked both public outrage against the army and support for it. On 14 April, Mehbooba Mufti, the chief minister of the state, issued a statement seeking a police report on the “unacceptable” incident. Mukul Rohatgi, the attorney general of India, stated that there was “nothing wrong” with the army major’s decision and that “if it has to be done again, it should be done again.” In an article published in the news website The Quint, Gautam Moorthy, a retired lieutenant general of the Indian army and sitting member of Kolkata bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal, also defended the army major’s decision. He wrote, “I, unabashedly, support his action and commend him for his ‘out-of-box’ thinking that led to not even one hair being harmed on anyone’s body.” Anil Chopra, a retired air marshal and sitting member of the Lucknow bench of the tribunal posted on Twitter on 12 April that “any self respecting nation should have shot 100 stone pelters by now.” The post was later deleted. A retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army, HS Panag, condemned the incident. He wrote that the image of Dar tied to the jeep would forever “haunt the Indian Army & the nation.”
As per a statement published on Mehbooba Mufti’s official page on Facebook, on 16 April, a first information report was registered against unnamed army personnel for offences of illegal confinement, kidnapping and criminal intimidation at Beerwah police station on 13 April. Ghulam Qadir, Dar's brother, said that Dar was summoned to the Sub-Divisional Police Officer's office in Magam town in Beerwah on 24 April to record his statement. The army has also ordered a court of inquiry to probe the incident, giving it time till 15 May to conduct the probe.
A Pashmina-shawl seller and an occasional labourer, Dar had been voting in earlier elections as well, he told me, “hoping for better days ahead.” He believed that participating in elections could address at least some of the problems the Kashmiris faced in their villages—such as poor roads and the lack of basic facilities including electricity and clean drinking water. “I also voted for peace,” Dar continued, “Now I’ve lost all hope.”
“Look what they did to me even after I’d voted and showed them the voter ink on my finger,” he said, emphasising that he had never been involved in any stone-pelting or protests against the army. “I will never vote again now.”