In Srinagar, the Aftermath of the By-Poll Violence Is Reminiscent of That of the 2016 Unrest

On 10 April 2017, thousands of people assembled on the Srinagar-Leh highway in central Kashmir to offer funeral prayers for the 21-year-old Omar Farooq Ganaie. He was one of eight killed the previous day, after protests broke out during by-poll for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. Umer Asif
12 April, 2017

At close to 10 am on 10 April 2017, thousands of people assembled on the Srinagar-Leh highway in central Kashmir to offer funeral prayers for Omar Farooq Ganaie. The 21-year-old was killed the previous day, after protests broke out during the by-poll for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. Ganaie, a tipper driver, was a resident of a village in the Baroosa area of Ganderbal, one of the three districts in the constituency, located about 30 kilometres from Srinagar city.

On 9 April, separatist leaders had issued a call to all residents of the constituency, urging them to boycott the election and to not vote in the by-poll. The separatist leadership has made such calls several times in the past, although voters have not always heeded them. This time, however, the voter turnout was 7.14 percent—the lowest ever for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. Almost all polling booths across the constituency were bereft of voters, and even polling agents from mainstream political parties were nowhere to be seen. In Srinagar’s Habba Kadal constituency, of the 4,918 voters registered across seven polling booths, only 154 cast their votes. In several areas, protestors marched to the booths, and demanded that polling be shut down. Many videos from the day of the by-poll were circulated over WhatsApp. One showed young protestors in Budgam district attempting to enter a polling booth through a window on the first floor of a building. Another, also shot in Budgam, showed a different set of protestors—mostly young men—escorting personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force away from a polling booth. In several videos, protestors were yelling slogans opposing the Indian state and the election—“No Election, No Selection” and “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!” (What do we want? Freedom!) Over 200 instances of protests were recorded across the state. In many places, security forces opened fire during these protests. Eight people died as a result of the violence.

According to Ganaie’s paternal uncle, 35-year-old Ashiq Ahmad, a tipper driver, the 21-year-old was killed at around 6 pm in the evening on the same highway on which his funeral prayers were later held. Like many others, Ahmad told me, Ganaie had stayed home on the day of the polls, with his family, which included his parents and two younger sisters. Ganaie’s neighbour, a 28-year-old man named Abdul Majeed, said that in the afternoon, several residents of the village had gathered in a playfield next to Ganaie’s home to spend the sunny Sunday together. “No vote was polled in the polling booth in our neighborhood. The polling staff and deployment were withdrawn at around 4.15 pm,” he said. Both Ahmed and Majeed told me that no protests were ongoing in the area. “Omar was with us in the playfield till 4.30 pm,” Majeed said. Then, according to both him and Ahmed, Ganaie returned home.

Sometime later, Ahmed said, Ganaie left the house again, to walk around the village. At about 6 pm, Majeed said, a contingent of security forces was passing along the highway. A senior police officer, who asked not to be named, told me that it was a group of personnel from the Border Security Forces (BSF), who had been deployed in central Kashmir for the by-polls, which was heading towards a makeshift camp not far from the village. According to Majeed and Ahmed, the personnel opened fire on the villagers. “No protest was going on in the area. The forces might have been stoned somewhere else but not in our area,” Majeed said.

Ganaie was hit in the firing. His family members took him to the district hospital, where doctors referred him to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, in Srinagar. Dr Syed Amin Tabish, the medical superintendent at SKIMS, said that when Ganaie was brought to the hospital at about 7.30 pm, he was already dead. “He had a firearm injury,” Tabish said.

I called the official cell phone of the BSF spokesperson. The person who answered the phone refused to give me his name, but said that he was a spokesperson for the force. When I asked him about the incident, he denied that any BSF personnel were deployed in the area where Ganaie was killed. According to Rajesh Yadav, the spokesperson for the CRPF, over 150 paramilitary companies—such as the BSF and the Sashastra Seema Bal, an armed police force under the home ministry—were deployed in Srinagar constituency for the by-poll.

According to residents of the region as well as several political experts, the low voter turnout and the protests were a display of anger against the central and state governments—an aftermath of the 2016 unrest in the valley. In the six-month unrest, which began in July, close to 100 people were killed, and nearly 15,000 were injured. Hundreds were booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows security officials to detain individuals into preventive custody for two years without any charges or a trial.

I spoke over the phone to a 29-year-old man who requested not to be named as his family members are staunch supporters of the National Conference. The NC’s veteran leader and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah was contesting the Srinagar seat. The 29-year-old said that since he attained voting age, he had voted in every election.  This time, however, he decided against it. “I never realised that voting for mainstream parties in Kashmir is an endorsement of their acts,” he said. “In 2016, our boys were killed and blinded by same hukemran”—ruler—“whom we elected by voting. Now tell me, should I vote after witnessing such mayhem?”

On 10 April, the day after the by-poll, the scenes unfolding across hospitals in Srinagar were reminiscent of those during the 2016 uprising. Close to 50 people were admitted to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) on 9 and 10 April. Dr Nazir Choudhary, the medical superintendent at SMHS, said that 17 people in the hospital had been admitted with pellet injuries to their eyes, and 22 with bullet injuries. “The rest were hit with teargas shells or stones,” he said.

Inside ward number eight at the SMHS, patients were reclined on hospital beds. They wore black sunglasses, their faces pockmarked by pellet injuries. Among them was Ishtiyaq Ahmad, a ninth-standard student who lives in the Budgam district. Ishtiyaq said that he stepped out of his home at about 11 am on 9 April. A group of police officers and CRPF personnel deployed at the nearby pooling booth shot him with pellets. “No protests were going on in our locality. Several youths had gathered on the road,” Ishtiyaq told me.“Suddenly, I felt an electric current go through my right eye.” Ishtiyaq was hit by pellets on his face, in his right eye and his throat. Ishtiyaq’s 51-year-old father, Abdul Aziz, said that he was working in his vegetable fields at the time. “I didn’t want to vote. This vote pareshani”—hassle—“is nothing but mere drama.”

In a corridor outside the intensive care unit at SKIMS—where 11 injured civilians had been admitted on 9 and 10 April—Mohammad Lateef Bhat, who resides in the Habak area on the outskirts of Srinagar, sat with his eyes glued to the door of the ward. The 35-year-old Bhat told me that his son Adnan Ahmad, a student of the tenth standard, was returning from a visit to his aunt’s house on the evening of 9 April, when he was hit in his abdomen by a bullet. His family did not know why the firing was carried out, or which security force was present in the area. A doctor at the hospital who requested anonymity said that Adnan’s condition was critical.

When I spoke to SP Vaid, the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, on 10 April, he said that security forces had not yet set up an inquiry into the violence. On 9 April, the government banned internet services in the region after the protests intensified. The services were partially restored on 11 April.

On 10 April, separatist leaders called for two-day shutdown to protest the civilian killings in the valley. “It is the best precedent for people in South Kashmir. They should stay away from this drama and follow people of central Kashmir,” they said in a public statement. South Kashmir, which was the epicenter of last year’s uprising, was due to host a by-poll in the Anantnag constituency, which Mehbooba Mufti vacated in June 2016, after she took up the post of chief minister. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party’s nominee for the seat is Tassaduq Mufti, the chief minister’s brother. On 10 April, Tassaduq called for the Anantnag polls to be deferred. That evening, the election commission announced that the polls would be postponed to 25 May 2017.

The ruling legislator of the Chadoora constituency in the Budgam district is Javid Mustafa Mir, of the PDP.  Two of the eight who died hailed from this constituency. According to Mir, security forces flouted procedure while opening fire on civilians. “Law and order SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] was not followed as bullets were directly hit on upper parts of body,” he said. “We had to conduct polls, not killings. Yeh kaunsi democracy hai?”—what kind of democracy is this?