In Kupwara, the Injured Languish in Hospitals, the Shutdown Continues, and the Government Orders Yet Another Probe

The funeral procession of Raja Begum, in Kupwara, Kashmir. Raja Begum was killed during a firing by the army on Tuesday. Faisal Khan
17 April, 2016

On Friday evening, at about 6.30 pm, contingents of police personnel armed with automatic guns and teargas weapons took position outside Srinagar’s Shri Mahraja Hari Singh Hospital. A few yards away, inside the hospital’s foyer, as cops in mufti silently scanned every passerby, three wounded young men were being ferried to the hospital from Kupwara, a district in north Kashmir that is about 90 kilometres away from the city. Earlier in the day, the young men had been injured during a clash between a group of residents and the army in Kupwara. The posse of police had been deployed to prevent any outbreak of protests.

A few minutes later, two ambulances carrying firearm victims arrived at the emergency casualty block of the hospital compound. As soon as the drivers of the ambulances pulled the vehicles to a halt, a wiry middle-aged man jumped out and shouted, “Naare-takbeer Allah-o-Akbar—God is great.” Onlookers joined him, shouting, “Hum kya chate hain? Azaadi!—what do we want? Freedom!” and “Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha woh Kashmir hamara hai—the Kashmir that we irrigated with our blood, that Kashmir is ours.” The injured young men were removed to an operation theatre on the top floor of the two-storey building. Outside the theatre, a circle of young angry men stamped their feet. “Ragda Ragda, Bharat Ragda—stamp India out,” they shouted. The policemen watched in silence.

Standing in a corner, I spoke to 45-year-old Mohammad Sultan Mochi, of Natnusa village in Kupwara, the man who had raised first slogan in the compound.  Sultan was trying to console his wife, who was wailing. “Walo myani musafir gobro—come, my poor son,” she screamed, beating her chest. Their son, Javid Ahmad Mochi, a ninth-grade student in a government-run school in Natnusa, was one of the young men inside the operation theatre. He had bullet injuries in his left arm and right hip. “My son had left home for Friday congregational prayers,” Sultan told me, “but I never knew he will have to face bullets for that.”

That afternoon, in Natnusa, army soldiers had opened fire on a group of protestors. The firing killed a teenage boy, and injured three others. In a phone conversation, SJM Gilani, the region’s inspector general, told me that the forces started firing only after protestors attacked the army camp with stones. Lieutenant Colonel NN Joshi, a Srinagar-based spokesperson for the defence ministry, echoed Gilani’s claim. Joshi said that, in spite of the stone throwing by the protestors, the army exercised “maximum restraint” before firing. “Only when the mob stormed the army post, it [the army] was forced to open controlled fire in which some miscreants were injured,” he told me.

But according to Sultan, his son Javid had only joined a group of people who wanted to offer condolences to the family of Mohammad Iqbal—who was killed during another round of firing by the army, on Tuesday.

The slain teenager, Arif Hussain, a ninth-grader from Awoora, Kupwara, is the fifth civilian to have been shot dead by the army since Tuesday. Three days prior to Hussain’s killing, on 12 April 2016, in the town of Handwara, a teenage girl who is studying in twelfth standard, entered a public bathroom. A soldier from the nearby camp of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles—a counterinsurgency group deployed by the Indian army—allegedly followed the girl, and sexually assaulted her. As news of the assault spread, protests began in Handwara. The protestors reportedly demanded the arrest of the accused soldier, and allegedly attacked an army post. The forces then opened fire, instantly killing two young men, Nayeem Qadir Bhat and Mohammad Iqbal, both from Kupwara, and injuring several others. The girl was taken into police custody.

Later that evening, the army released a video of the girl. Shot in custody, the video showed her saying that a boy grabbed her bag, pulled her and molested her. The police and the army touted this video as proof that a soldier had not molested the girl. That night, one of the injured, Raja Begum, a woman in her fifties who had been working in her fields when a stray bullet ripped through her head, died in the hospital. The next morning, on Wednesday, huge contingents of forces were deployed at Handwara. All entry points to the district were sealed, and a curfew was implemented. This did not deter people. Protestors defied military restrictions and marched towards Kupwara to join the funeral prayers being held for Iqbal. As they made their way, the police fired teargas canisters. A teargas shell hit Jahangir Ahmad Wani of Dragmulla in the head. He fell, and died. As protests spread through the district, that evening, the state government blocked mobile Internet services, saying that it had done so in order to “prevent the spread of rumours.” Separatist groups, which had called for a valley-wide shutdown to protest civilian deaths at the hands of the army and police, extended the call for another day.

For the separatist alliance the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, led by Syed Ali Geelani, strikes are the “safest” option, because demonstrations would result into killings. “It’s a compulsion, not a hobby,” the Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akbar told me on phone from Delhi, before adding that shutdowns also draw international attention. “We can’t remain silent to a cycle of killings,” he said.

On Friday, while the government imposed strict military restrictions in many parts of the valley, Kashmir saw another day of shutdown—this time spontaneous. Friday was also Iqbal’s chahrum, a ritual that is held on the fourth day of mourning. People from adjoining villages decided to visit his bereaved family and offer prayers. Arif Hussain and Javid Ahmad Mochi emerged out of the mosque and joined a procession towards Iqbal’s house, about five kilometers from Natnusa village.

“At some distance, soldiers from an army camp situated in our village were stationed on the roadside,” Javid told me as he lay on a hospital bed, after his surgery. “They stopped us from moving ahead.” Their refusal angered the protestors, Javid said, and they began to throw stones at the soldiers. As the clash intensified, the protestors were joined by more people from adjoining villages.

Local residents I spoke to said that, during the clash, some protestors hoisted a flag of Pakistan on the road. After that, the residents told me, soldiers chased the protestors, and opened fire.

“Arif and I were away from the army camp,” Javid said. “I saw Arif falling down, but I could not lift him as firing was on.” According to him, for nearly half an hour, the firing prevented anyone from being able to approach Arif. “I ran towards safety,” he told me. A bullet ripped through Hussain’s hip and right arm. But Javid could not stop. “I fell down and I got up and walked,” he said. As I spoke to Javid, his mother sat by his bedside, gently caressing his face. Suddenly, she let out a piercing wail. “Don’t cry, I am all right,” Javid assured her.

In the emergency surgical ward of the hospital, I also met Wajid Fayaz Lone, a tenth-grade student from Radbugh in Kupwara. A large number of people, some unknown to him, surrounded his bed. He had bullet injuries in both his legs, but he did not remember getting shot. In the afternoon, Lone recalled, he was going to buy biscuits from a neighbourhood shop. “Suddenly, I saw people rushing towards me. The army was chasing them,” he said, “I also rushed for safety, but I don’t know what happened.” Lone had likely fallen unconscious after the bullets hit him.

On Wednesday, 13 April, the government—that was recently formed through an alliance between the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—led by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, ordered a magisterial probe into the matter. The police and army have called for separate inquiries. But the victims’ families have rejected the probe, as has the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Yasin Malik. “The investigations are announced to hoodwink the people, pacify the public anger, and provide a clean chit to killers,” Malik said in a statement. Along with many other separatist leaders, Malik has been put under house arrest.

But government probes do not inspire faith in the Kashmiri people. The events of the past week are reminiscent of 2010, when over 120 people were killed in army firing over a five-month period. In June 2014, almost four years after the killings, the government appointed a one-man commission led by Justice ML Koul to look into the matter. The commission was tasked with submitting its report to the government within three months. This deadline was later extended. The report has still not been submitted. In an April 2015 speech in the state assembly, the then chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, noted that 35 magisterial and judicial probes were underway against alleged human rights violations by security forces in Kashmir. In the last year alone, seven new probes have been ordered. In about 85 percent of these probes, no reports were ever filed.

On Friday, the PDP youth president Waheed-ul-Rehman Para, told the newspaper Rising Kashmir that attacking an army camp was “suicidal.” After he was criticised for justifying the killings of civilians, Para clarified his statements, but added that protests such as these “undermine the government’s efforts to restore peace in the state.” Para then went to on to criticise people with “vested interests” for attempting to destabilise the local economy.

According to a statement for public release issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a civil rights group, on Saturday morning, journalists were prevented from attending a press conference organised by the JKCCS and from meeting the mother of the girl who had accused the soldier of molestation. The police laid a siege around the rights group office on the bund at Amira Kadal. The statement added that Parvez Imroz, an advocate, had filed a petition in Jammu and Kashmir High Court against the wrongful confinement of the minor girl, as well as her father and aunt, all of whom have been detained in a Handwara police station since Tuesday. Later in the day, the court asked the Jammu and Kashmir Police to the declare law under which they detained the girl and her family. It also questioned the army and police over the issues raised in the plea, including that of the recording and circulation of the girl’s video, in which her identity was illegally disclosed. The court barred the police from showing the girl before the media.

On the first floor of Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital, Haseena Malik, the mother of Ishfaq Ahmad Malik of Kupwara, sat by her injured son. Ishfaq, a ninth-standard student, suffered a bullet injury in his right leg on Tuesday during the army firing. Haseena told me that their family has little expectation that justice will be delivered. “We know what probe means here. It is just a delay. Nobody will care after few days,” she said. “It is just to pacify situation now. Let justice be delivered to past victims first.”