Daanish Bin Nabi reports on how the Handwara case is proof that narratives are
routinely changed in Kashmir to justify abuse of power
Five civilians, including four youth and a 70-year-old lady were killed in the border district of Kupwara, Jammu and Kashmir, less than a month ago during protests against the Indian Army. As summer once again comes to the now ill-fated valley of Kashmir, the ghosts of violent summers past (2008 and 2010) loom large over it.
Controversy Follows Death
On the afternoon of April 12, massive protests erupted in Handwara after an Army Trooper belonging to 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) attempted to molest a girl in a public washroom. The students started protesting near the army bunker where the accused trooper had sheltered himself. The police resorted to aerial firing and lathi charge, but the angry protestors refused to budge. The Indian Army who has AFSPA for refuge, fired volley of bullets on the protesters resulting in on spot death of two youth and a woman who later succumbed to her injures. 21-year-old Muhammad Iqbal Pir of Bomhama, Kupwara; 23-year-old Nayeem Qadir of Banday Mohalla, Handwara and 70-year-old Raja Begum. As protests became more widespread after their death, two more civilians died and seven more were injured.
Victim Arrested by Police
The girl who was at the centre of the controversy was soon arrested by the Kashmir Police. Almost a month after the incident, she still remains in the “police’s protective custody.” The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, (JKCCS) which has been providing legal aid to the family of the victim says, the girl has since been illegally detained.
Be it “protective custody” or “illegal detention”, the continuous detention of the girl in Zachaldara, raises many eye-brows on the conflict management done by New Delhi in Kashmir. If the girl says that the Indian Army was not involved in the molestation, why then is she being kept under constant “preventive custody”? Her continuous detention points towards two things.
First, either the Indian Army and Jammu Kashmir Police are hand-in-glove in this case, or there is a big business racket behind the entire episode. Chairperson State Women’s Commission (SWC) Nayeema Mehjoor has also asked the Jammu and Kashmir Police to remove protection for the girl. She has also reiterated that the administration is yet to respond to her request regarding the withdrawal of Police’s “protective detention”of the victim. “I have written to the police and also to DC Kupwara to withdraw police protection from the family, but I didn’t receive any response from either of them. I tried my best to help the family, but if police is not cooperating, it means something is wrong on their part,” she says.
Army Releases Video of the Victim
In less than twelve hours, soon after protests broke out, a video of the victim went viral on social networking sites. In the video, the girl refused being molested by the Indian Army. While the Police says they did not circulate the video, the legal experts have castigated, both the police and the Army for releasing the video. The release of the video has been termed as a “crime” by legal experts and they have demanded action against those who released it.
However, the Indian Army denied its role in recording the video statement of the minor girl and circulating it online this week. In a reply to the writ petition filed by the minor girl’s mother, Adjutant Major KS Suresh wrote, “the Army only released the video which already existed on various social media and was never involved in releasing the girl’s video statement,” he said in a reply filed on behalf of Ministry of Defense and General Officer Commanding 15 Corps Badami Bagh, Srinagar. The petition, however, read, “It appears that this video was recorded at the Handwara Police Station presumably on the direction and under the supervision of SP and SHO Handwara,” he also added that, “as a matter of caution, when the video was released by PRO, the face of the girl was obscured to prevent the disclosure of her identity. Thus, nothing has been done by the respondents (Army) with malice.”
A Mother Speaks
Five days after the incident, human rights defender Khurram Parvez managed to bring the girl’s mother to Srinagar to hold a press conference. However, the Jammu and Kashmir Police, did not allow it to happen and banned the press conference. We then met her at the JKCCS office instead and this was her statement, “we have all the sympathies with the families of people killed in the Kupwara district. The youth killed by the Army and Police are like my own children. If my own son had died, I would’ve not grieved as much as I grieve for them today…”
The young boys died during protests for her daughter, it’s natural for her to feel so deeply at the centre of the storm. “My daughter does the household chores and at same time she tries hard to concentrate on her studies. She helps me and I am incomplete without her. She is only 16. She studies well, has a keen interests for knowledge and passed her matriculation in her very first attempt. My daughter left for school at around 10 am on Tuesday morning. And by 3.30 pm Kupwara district was in flames.” Fat tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke of all that had transpired, “her only mistake is that she went to a public toilet. The Army man was already there to molest her. After seeing him, she screamed and the people gathered around the lavatory and started to protest. In the meantime, the police came and took my daughter to the police station. They never arrested the soldier who tried to molest her. Instead they fired on the protestors and killed two boys just that instant.”
Had the Army not molested her daughter, the young boys would have not been killed like this, she said, crying all the while, stating that the people who were around at the time, told her that her daughter had been molested by the army in the lavatory. “Without any purdah, the Police took her to police station and video graphed her without our consent. Only to try to bail the army man out of this controversy? How can they release her video? She is under tremendous pressure. I want to see her, talk to her, ask from her what has actually happened. But they are not allowing us to do so. Even after five days. My daughter may issue any sort of statement, but no statement of hers stands valid until she gets released. I want to repeat that she is making all the statements under pressure. We have not talked to her so far.”
She also said, on the same day, around 12 am at night, the police called and asked them to come to the police station and collect their daughter. “But as I have back problems, I wasn’t able to move. So, I sent my husband and my sister to the police station. But the police detained them both (husband and daughter) and there is also no news from them so far. So far I have only talked to my husband once over the phone. On the third day, he called from the police station. He only said that they are fine and dropped the phone. That is it. There is no communication between us so far….my only demand is that my daughter should be released immediately without creating more hurdles for us. She should be released without any security. We do not need their (police and army) security we are safe among our own people. She is under tremendous pressure right now,” she demanded.
He was in the Police’s “protective custody” for 21 days after which he reached Srinagar to tell his story at the JKCCS office. Khurram Parvez made personal calls to journalists asking them to come to the JKCCS office immediately. Not once did he reveal what was going to happen in the fear that if word got around, he too would be silenced.
The father of the girl said that the moment the girl was taken to the police station, the policemen refused to listen to her. They started verbally abusing her and even spat on her. He asserted that he was witness to what happened at the police station that night. “All these days when I was with her, I could see the pain and trauma she was going through. She told me how some policemen spat on her face and used lewd abuses to harass her. Some slapped and some dragged her. When they were done, she was videographed and asked to record the statement.” He also said that he was not allowed to accompany her inside the court. “My presence would have supported her morally, but I was shocked when they told me I could not go inside.”
He said that when the police summoned him at midnight, one of the policemen asked him to bring a pheran (traditional Kashmiri cloak) and come to police station and take his daughter home. “When I reached there, I saw my daughter in a horrible condition. She was so frightened that I have no words to explain her condition. I asked for permission to take her home, but they told me that we could not go back. They asked me to go upstairs and stay with her. I was shocked. I told them I am supposed to take her home, but the police said they had called us there for safety. I requested them to let me go as I had left in a rush and not even closed the doors and windows properly. But they refused to send us back. On one hand, I was worried for my daughter and on the other, for the rest of my family. No one listened to me. I asked them to let me make a call home, but they refused. Instead, they took away my phone and started abusing us. I told them I don’t need any security as we have not done anything wrong. But I was forced to remain in police custody for over 20 days.”
A Tried and Tested Method
In the war of narratives and counter-narratives, the killing of five civilians by the Indian Army has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the minor girl. Soon after the killings, the forces released the video of the victim girl to distract the public anger and change the narrative of the entire incident.
A few years earlier, a woman in South Kashmir’s Manzgam was raped for two days straight by the Indian army. After the local people protested, a video was circulated of the same woman in which she denied the rape charge. A few journalists who tried to move towards the house of the woman during those days were never allowed to reach to the place. The same thing was repeated in the Handwara case as well. So let’s debate the real issue instead, which is the impunity and license to kill Kashmiris.
The Jammu and Kashmir government had ordered a magisterial probe into the civilian killings. However, the High Court Bar Association, not satisfied with the probe, filed a petition in the High Court seeking a judicial probe. Day before yesterday, the J&K High Court dismissed the petition. “There is no reason for this court to suspect that the police/SIT would not do what is required of them under the code of Criminal Procedure to achieve the objectives,” the division bench observed. It said even if for the sake of argument, a judicial probe is ordered, any report that may ultimately be made by such judicial authority would not be more than a recommendation. “And such authority for formulation of such recommendation would again be dependent upon the very same police agency.” The division bench while dismissing the petition observed, that they are of the considered view this is not a case where this court would need to take any action in exercise of its inherent powers, for the State and its functionaries have already taken the required steps envisaged by law.
Innocent Lives Lost
23-year-old boy Nayeem Qadir Bhat was the first boy to lose his life this spring at the hands of the Indian forces in Handwara. On the day he was killed in the late afternoon, Bhat had been picnicking with his friends in Papath, a nearby meadow. He was to leave for Dehradun on the 16th of April. “Although, he was studying in II year, he wanted to move to Dehradun to pursue BSC in Forestry. Just five days ago, at 5 PM he said to me, ‘I want to move to Dehradun and I have almost completed all my admission formalities and will be leaving on April 16.’ He wanted to become DFO or Ranger,” recalls his older brother Zahoor Qadir, “while on his way home, he had bought potatoes and onions, but as soon as he reached near the Higher Secondary School Gate, he was shot by the forces. His mama (maternal uncle) who was nearby, took him in a tonga to the district hospital in Handwara where doctors declared him dead on arrival. Those potatoes and onions are still in the kitchen. No one has touched them so far. He was also a cricket Shaukeen.” Zahoor Qadir, is a journalist who works for Kashmir’s premium news gathering agency Kashmir News Service (KNS). His eyes well up remembering his younger brother, “Nayeem loved to watch Martin Guptill of New Zealand. In the recent T20 world cup, he cheered for New Zealand. His friends and team associates would always call him Guptill. He was an opening batsman for his Handwara team.”
Several photographs of Nayeem at various cricketing events, including a net session with Jammu Kashmir’s star all-rounder Parvez Rasool, were being circulated on social networking sites soon after his death. “We all know they (India) will never give chance to Kashmiris. They selected Parveez Rasool, but how many matches has he played so far internationally, despite having such talent? Nayeem also wanted to play at an international level as a batsman. But he was always sceptical.”
In one picture that was circulated soon after his death, Nayeem is seen shaking hands with a senior police officer before the start of a recent cricket tournament in the district. “Nayeem was killed by the same forces that gave him 10 awards for his outstanding performance in cricket. SP Handwara Ghulam Jeelani Wani is answerable to the people, as forces would never have opened fire without his orders,” says his distraught elder brother. “They have suspended an ASI. But they can reinstate him today, tomorrow or within 10 days. His suspension doesn’t guarantee us justice. He should be thrown out of the Police this very moment.”
“We miss him dearly. Not only us, but this entire generation. All of Handwara is in mourning. The blanket in which his dead body was wrapped, in that blanket, there was a spec and some other things. My mother still has all those things in her hand as she refuses to give them away.”
Zahoor too is sceptical about the statement of the girl. “We all know in what circumstances the girl gave the statement. Whatever she has said, if that all is true, then why is she still kept inside a police station?” he questions.
It’s common knowledge that death seldom sends you any warnings. It was this unfortunate case for 70-year-old Raja Begum of Bazar Mohallah Langate. She is survived by a son and a daughter. According to Mohammad Shahban Bhat, a relative of Raja Begum, “she was very fond of her kitchen garden. For the entire day, she was at home. Then at around 2:30 pm, Raja went to fetch some vegetables from her garden which was half a kilometre away from her home. People were protesting at Handwara chowk. On the top of Tourist Reception Center (TRC) there are Indian Army bunkers. They also open fired and a bullet hit Raja’s head. She was busy in her vegetable garden and the bullet struck her in her eye and pierced through her head. We took her in an ambulance to Langate hospital first, then to Handwara district hospital and eventually to Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital, Srinagar, where she breathed her last at 2 am.”
So far, there has been no compensation for this family. No politician has visited their house apart from Independent MLA Engineer Rasheed.
21-year-old Muhammad Iqbal Pir of Bomhana, Kupwara didn’t stand a chance of survival when he was shot at point blank range by the Special Task Force. Ghulam Ahmad Pir, maternal uncle of Iqbal is nonplussed and inconsolable at the loss. “Iqbal was a very shy boy. He respected everyone, from elders to teachers. He was a Computer Diploma degree holder. He used to work for a computer shop in the main town Handwara. While leaving that day, he said goodbye to his grandfather. But we never knew that this will be his last goodbye to us. When the protests started, he tried to close the shop, but was fired upon by the members of Special Task Force (STF) of Jammu Kashmir Police. He was killed exactly at 3:30 PM.”
Iqbal was not a militant. He was not a stone-pelter. He was not a thieve who was looking for trouble. He was not involved with anything and his pre-occupations were the same as many of his generation, good clothes, says Pir. “He was not involved in anything. Why did they kill him? We only want to get his killers arrested and people should know what happened on Tuesday afternoon at Handwara square.”
When the protests refused to die down after the controversy, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Jammu Kashmir Police (JKP) directed their anger on scribes as well. A local journalist of Handwara, Sharafat Manzoor, who works in one of the largest circulated Urdu dailies Tameel Irshad and Kohinoor Broadcast, narrates the ordeal of what the media went through.
“Eight more scribes were with me. I was their (CRPF and JKP) primary target because on Tuesday when they shot Nayeem at Higher Secondary School Gali I was the first whose PTC went viral in Kashmir. The Police driver, in front of SHO Chogul, hurled choicest abuses at us. My other three colleagues are injured. Three more are seriously injured and are admitted in Handwara District Hospital. When we were covering Nayeem’s killing, a policeman of SP Handwara Ghulam Jeelani Wani’s motorcade instructed other policemen to target us. They fired tear smoke shells on the three of us. Then on Wednesday, we were first beaten at 12:13 pm near Langate Chowk and then again, at 02:13 pm near Forest Division Langate.”
Manzoor says that they are now scared of going out to cover the news. They were beaten with lathis near Tootigund. While beating them, the J&K Police said they didn’t care much for the media and continued their assault. “There was a class 9th student with us, they didn’t even spare the child. He was weeping due to pain, but they would not stop.”
Authorities have so far removed six Army bunkers, including the one at the main chowk, Handwara. The matter of grant of ex-gratia relief to the next-of-kin of civilians killed in Army firing was also taken up with the concerned authorities. Besides the Rs 5 lakh under SRO 43, the District Magistrate Kupwara has promised to demand more from the Prime Minister’s and Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.
ASI Muhammad Rafiq was also suspended for his alleged negligence of duty.
However, looking at the history of the Indian Army in Kashmir, one can easily draw the conclusion that the video can be a goof-up to exonerate their (Army) man. Moreover, the video is shot inside a police station. Given the murky track record of the J&K Police, Indian Army and the Intelligence Agencies, they can tarnish anyone’s image to any extent.
The girl at the centre of this controversy still remains in police custody and is not allowed to move freely. The small compensation is that she too might get some money as compensation for the circulation of her video.
With the days getting hotter, Kashmir has already witnessed a civil unrest that had total internet blackout, and strict curfew in parts of Kashmir. It was a chill reminder of the not so distant patterns of the volatile unrest of 2008 and 2010. As life slowly resumes normalcy, one can only hope that sense prevails from every side and we do not have to see another gruesome summer of killing one more generation of Kashmiris.