On the afternoon of 31 August 2016, a man in his fifties sat outside the intensive care unit in the Trauma Centre, a special wing of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a government hospital in Delhi. Dressed in a pheran, Abdul Rashid was pouring over pages from the day’s Times of India. His eyes were locked on a photo of a young man throwing a stone at a police van in Kashmir.
Rashid’s son, Rauf Ahmad, a constable with the Jammu and Kashmir Police, was admitted in the ICU. Ahmad was among the security-forces personnel who were injured in an attack by militants on 15 August 2016, in Nowhatta in Kashmir, about two hours before an Independence Day parade was due to start in the area. A commandant from to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was killed during the attack, and eight other CRPF personnel were injured. In a 16 August report published in the Indian Express, the CRPF Inspector General Atul Gerewal said of the attack: “Militants were engaged by CRPF and police teams, two militants were killed.”
That same morning, militants had attempted another attack, in the Uri region in Kashmir, but were foiled. Just over a month later, on 18 September, at around dawn, four militants attacked Uri again. Eighteen security personnel were killed in the ambush.
During the attack on 15 August, bullets had hit Ahmad in the neck, paralysing him. He was brought to Delhi that evening, and put on life support. Ahmad’s cousin, who requested anonymity, said that Ahmad’s windpipe and oesophagus were severely damaged. On 31 August, I spent a few hours at the hospital with Ahmad’s family, and a few other security personnel. Nearly two weeks after I met his family at AIIMS, on 13 September 2016, Ahmad succumbed to his injuries.
Ahmad’s cousin works as a schoolteacher in Kashmir. While I was talking to him, Rashid reached the part of the paper that carried a story about his son, along with their photographs. Ahmad’s cousin was not pleased by the report. “They shouldn’t have carried my uncle’s picture at least,” he said. But Rashid was unfazed. He agreed to let me take a photograph of him. When I set-up the camera, the cousin immediately stepped out of the frame.
The cousin recounted that, a day before my visit, another journalist had come to visit them. But the journalist asked them questions related solely to the situation in the state and the ongoing protests. “We don’t want to talk about freedom or terrorism in Kashmir,” the cousin told me. He continued: “Kis taraf ki baat karen hum?”—Which side should we talk about? “My brother is being treated at the government’s expense.”
When Ahmad was shifted from a hospital in Srinagar to Delhi, Kumar, a CRPF commando who gave only his last name, accompanied the constable’s family. Kumar was also part of the personnel present during the attack. Before being posted in Kashmir, he had served in the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), a CRPF unit trained in guerilla tactics and jungle warfare. He joined the CRPF two years ago, and has been posted mostly in the Sukma district in Chhattisgarh, which is prone to Maoist insurgency.
“My hands were shaking the day I got Ahmad admitted,” Kumar recounted. He was dressed in a black polo T-shirt and army fatigues. He added that for a few nights following the attack, he had trouble sleeping. “Images of the attack would haunt me in my dreams,” he said. “I would wake up shouting ‘gaadi nikalo, gaadi nikalo! Attack ho gaya!”—Get the cars out! We are being attacked!
When I asked Kumar about the attack, he refused to describe it. “Don’t ask me,” he said, adding that he did not know where the bullets came from. “If I had seen them, I would have killed them there,” he told me.
Ahmad’s cousin told me that Kumar had not given them any details about the incident either. When I turned to Rashid, he said that even the J&K police had not explained much. “My son would have said something, but he cannot speak.” Rashid said.
On the day of the attack, Rashid told me, “A policeman came.” “He said, ‘Your son has been injured.’ At about 2-2.30pm, they sent a car,” Rashid recounted. The car took the family members to the hospital in Srinagar. Later that evening, they all left for Delhi.
Kumar believed that though locals hated any men in uniform, Kashmiris had nothing against outsiders. He told me that he didn’t know Ahmad personally—the latter was a part of the state police, and because his own posting in Kashmir was recent. He told me that he had felt bad that, as a part of his job, he was forced to confront teenaged stone-pelters.
Referring to the picture he had been looking at earlier, I asked Rashid how he felt about the young stone-pelters in Kashmir. After a pause, he said, “Hum gareeb hain, third-class log hain”—We are poor, we are third-class. “We have nothing to do with anything.” Ahmad’s cousin interrupted us at this moment, and said that if anything, I should write that if Ahmad didn’t get his job back, they would need constant support—Ahmad was the family’s sole earner. I asked Rashid why Ahmad had joined the police. He told me it was because their financial situation was grave. “Someone had to do something,” he said.
I asked him about other jobs available in the valley. He said that daily-wage jobs as labourers were available, which paid about Rs 2000–2500 a month. But “the educated and the literate go into the police,” he told me. Rashid added that he was planning to marry Ahmad off this year.
Later in the afternoon, as we stood in the lobby, I asked Ahmad’s cousin how he looked at the movement for azadi—freedom—in Kashmir. “Will you believe me if I tell you the truth?” he asked. He told me that he believed there were now three types of people in Kashmir: those who wanted azadi; those who wanted a merger with Pakistan; and those who wanted to stay with India but could never say it out loud in the state. I asked what his stance was. He did not respond, saying that, because his brother was still being treated, anything he said could go against them.
Amit Kumar, a CRPF fighter who had been injured in the Nowhatta attack along with Ahmad, was also being treated at the Trauma Centre in AIIMS, on the sixth floor. His mother was angry with the journalists who had come to meet them, and refused to speak to me when I went there. “My son has been shot and you have come here for a story,” she said, before walking back into the ICU.
I spent most of afternoon on the second floor—where Ahmad’s ward was located—with Rashid, Ahmad’s cousin, and Kumar, the CRPF commando who had accompanied Ahmad’s family to Delhi. A young man burst into tears as he was walking out of the ICU. Kumar rushed to console him, and hugged him. The young man’s brother, Sachin Gurjer, another CoBRA commando, was in the ICU.
Gurjer was admitted, his uncle Vijay Singh later told me, after being injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast in Sukma district in Chattishgarh on 26 August. One of Gurjer’s legs had been amputated. Kumar didn’t know Gujrer, but he tried to console the commando’s family members.
He was joined by a few other CoBRA commandos, who were there to visit a colleague who was injured in an attack by Maoist rebels on 5 March 2016, in Dabbamarka in Sukma. The commandos told Gurjer’s uncle stories of their experiences in Sukma, and asked him to keep faith. Ahmad’s cousin milled about, and occasionally joined in the conversations—when, for instance, a family member broke down.
A CoBRA commando I spoke to, who requested anonymity, said that in May, the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had visited a rape victim who had been admitted to a ward on the same floor as many of his colleagues injured in the Dabbamarka incident. But no politician came to visit them, he said. “Itna bura lagta hai, yaar”—It is so hurtful, he said. “Hum mar rahe hain magar kisi ko pharak nahi padta,”—We are dying and no one seems to care.
At about 1.30 pm, Dr Sushma Sagar, who was overseeing Gurjer’s treatment, stepped out of the ICU. The CoBRA commandos followed her, and so did Ahmad’s cousin. They all wanted to know if Gurjer would survive. Dr Sagar said that the infection was spreading and that his other leg may have to be amputated as well. Even after that, she said, she could not be sure if he would survive.
I asked the commandos what, according to them, was a way to deal with the insurgency in Chhattisgarh. Several said that the government should give them a free hand. I asked them if they thought dialogue would solve the issue. They did not agree. According to them, the solution to the issue in Kashmir was also the same—a free reign for the security forces.
Kumar said that when protestors pelted stones at them, all they could do in self-defence was duck. Many of the commandos claimed that the pellet guns being used by the security personnel in Kashmir were not life-threatening. “They don’t do anything,” one of them said. I asked them about Insha, a Kashmiri girl who was blinded due to pellet gun injuries and, until a few days earlier, was also admitted in the Trauma Centre. The commandos conceded that if the pellets hit a person’s face, they could be blinded. But one of them quickly added that a soldier fires at a mob only when he feels his life is threatened, or that his weapon will be snatched. When I noted that many victims of pellet guns were not protestors, they evaded my questions.
Through these conversations, Ahmad’s cousin listened attentively. He preferred not to speak when Kashmir was mentioned, but whenever one of the commandos talked about the hardships they faced, the cousin would nod his head. Once, he got up to bring tea for everyone. But one of the commandos held his arm and stopped him. “Aap kahan jayenge, aap biathiye,”—Where are you going? Please sit, the commando told him. “One of our jawans will bring the tea.”
Rashid, too, did not participate in the conversations much. But when Kumar—who had gotten married last year—took out his phone and began showing the other commandos pictures of his wedding, Rashid shuffled over, trying to get a glimpse.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Abdul Rashid had estimated that a labourer in the valley would earn Rs 2,000 a day. The figure has been changed to Rs 2,000 a month. The Caravan regrets the error.