In Kashmir, police slaughter ‘suspects’ and bury the bodies to prevent families from holding funerals
Local Muslims whose families say they have no militant affiliation are killed with impunity in the disputed region.
The mainstream media in India has obliterated the truth about human rights violations in Kashmir, the world's most-militarized zone. More than two years ago, when the special status accorded to the people of Kashmir was unilaterally revoked, the valley and its 12.5 million population were cut off from the rest of the world with no internet or mobile connectivity. Kashmiri youth caught protesting were thrown behind bars, detained, or tortured.
Indian media avoided this reality. Its leading news anchors held homegrown apples for the cameras near the region's Dal Lake and told the world about the New Kashmir, a place freed from terrorism by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Earlier this week, Indian armed forces killed four people in Kashmir. One was a shopkeeper, one was his assistant, and a third was a local dentist. Their relatives were forced to beg for the mortal remains of their family members as they protested on the streets. Nobody demanded justice, they just wanted the bodies of their loved ones. Justice is a long-forgotten word for the people of Kashmir.
India, and Indian nationalists who have seen Kashmiri Human rights only through the prism of nationalism, have been unconcerned about the lives of ordinary Kashmiris. Their love seems to correspond to national borders. Journalist Aakash Hasan, who has been reporting from Kashmir, brings us this heartbreaking report of extrajudicial murder and those bereft by it.
AS THE SUN WAS SLIPPING behind the snow-peaked Himalayan mountains on Monday, a contingent of Indian army and counterinsurgent police laid a cordon around a two-story building with an attic on a highway in Srinagar, the main city of Indian-administered Kashmir.
A few hours later, police claimed to have killed two militants in what appeared to be a routine military operation against the rebels fighting New Delhi's rule in the disputed region between India and Pakistan.
The police later claimed that the owner of the building, Mohammad Altaf Bhat, who also ran a shop there, died in the militant gunfire. Bhat, police claimed, was a militant “associate,” a term the police use for someone they believe ‘aids’ or ‘sympathises’ with the militant groups.
The family of the 40-year-old shopkeeper vehemently denied the police’s claim. Relatives said he was innocent of any suspicious association and had run the shop for more than two decades before he was killed. Soon after that, a second family alleged that police killed their relative, Mudasir Gul, a trained dentist now working as a real estate agent, along with his office assistant, Aamir Magray.
In a statement the following day, the police claimed that four persons were killed in the “gunfight,” including a Pakistani militant using the alias Haider. The other militant, they said, was Magray, and they accused Gul of being a top militant associate.
Gul and Bhat were killed in crossfire during the operation, the police claimed. They ordered an inquiry into the circumstances of the encounter. The authorities took bodies of the four slain men to a remote area, around 50 miles north of Srinagar, and buried them secretly.
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Since last year, Indian authorities have buried the bodies of hundreds of suspected rebels and civilians in remote areas, denying their families proper funerals. When questioned, they cite covid-19 restrictions, but it is also true that the funerals of rebels and civilians killed by government forces would attract thousands of people.
Families of three people among the four killed, contested police claims that their dead relatives were involved with the rebels. They also said the gunfight had been ‘staged,’ a refrain common in reports of Indian armed forces killing civilians and passing them off as militants. Their killers receive cash rewards, promotions and service medals for the murders.
“Indian army personnel came just after police had done a search of the building,” said Nazir Ahmad, another shopkeeper present at the scene. “They (army) gathered around 30 people, including other shopkeepers, around 100 meters from the spot, at a motorcycle showroom." Then, he said, Bhat and Gul—still alive—were taken along by forces inside the building.
Later, three eyewitnesses said they heard a message blaring from the radio of an army personnel asking not to panic if they heard gunshots . After that Bhat, Gul and his assistant, Magray, were never seen alive again.
The families of all the three slain were shell-shocked and held protests demanding the return of the bodies. Late Wednesday evening, as the families and relatives of Bhat and Gul held a peaceful protest inside the press enclave for around 12 hours, a police contingent raided the building and bundled the protesting family members into their vehicle.
The police cordoned off the entire neighborhood for the night and did not permit any person or vehicle near the site.
I spoke to Gul’s wife, Humaira, the day her relatives were abducted at the protest site. She rubbished the claims that Mudassir had been involved in militancy. “He was a normal person working hard to earn a decent living,” Humaira said, sobbing as she held her 18-month-old daughter. “My daughter is looking for her father, what will I tell her?”
The police had admitted that Bhat, a civilian, had been killed in the crossfire, but his family was still denied his body, and he was buried along with the other three on the pretext that his funeral might create a “law and order” issue. Saima Bhat, a senior journalist and Bhat’s niece, said that she had pleaded with the police officials to let them perform the last rites of her slain uncle but “no one is listening.”
Magray, Bhat’s assistant, is the son of Lateef Magray. Aamir would have been an unlikely extremist, his father said: Lateef received an award from the Indian government for killing a militant in 2005 in his hometown of Gool, around 120 miles south of Srinagar in the mountainous Ramban district.
“I have served India and have got government security. Now I am being paid with the dead body of my son for my sacrifice,” the older Magray said.
Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since the early 1990s, when insurgents began fighting Indian rule. Thousands, civilians and militants, have been killed in the violence. The Indian army has been repeatedly accused of human rights violations, including rape, torture, kidnapping, and killing civilians unaffiliated with any militant group.
In December 2020, an Indian army officer was indicted for the extrajudicial killing of three Kashmiri labourers in a staged gunfight in July 2020. The officer, a police investigation found, shot the civilians and planted guns on their dead bodies before “stripping them of their identities and tagging them as hardcore terrorists.” He buried them in a remote area, secretly and without identifying them. The bodies of the three civilians were later exhumed, 70 days after they had been murdered.
This was a rare admission of wrongdoing. In most allegations of wrongdoing by armed forces, authorities simply refuse to take action. Even if Indian soldiers or police officers are found guilty, their trial goes to military courts, which Kashmiris accuse of systematic unfairness. But the special powers given to those courts in 1990 provides them with impunity.
In 2010, after the Indian army killed three civilians and passed them off as militants, months-long protests erupted across the region. Police and paramilitary forces responded by killing more than 100 civilians.
In the last two years, more Kashmiris have accused the Indian army and police of disguising the bodies of their victims as militants, and in many cases, the bodies of the slain have not been returned to their families.
In January, three families alleged that government forces killed their kin in a staged gunfight and passed them as militants. The victims included 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq Wani and two other young men. Police said they were fatally shot dead when they refused to surrender on the outskirts of Srinagar city on December 30. Police said they were “hardcore associates of terrorists” opposed to Indian rule.
Their families said they had never been militants and were simply murdered. In fact, records of two among the three showed that they were students and the family of another said he was working as a mason.
The families of these three men also held protest demonstrations demanding bodies of their kin.
Instead of returning the bodies, the father of the teenager was charged under a draconian anti-terror law for holding a demonstration in the village ‘demanding the return of his body’.
In this case as well, authorities have initiated a judicial probe but families of the slain kin do not have much hope.
‘Give us the bodies, show us their faces, let us mourn. Even that is more than would be expected from this government,’ said a relative of one of the victims, who asked not to be named.
The Indian government, led by right-wing prime minister Narendra Modi, had claimed that it would build Naya (new) Kashmir after unilaterally stripping limited autonomy of the region in August 2019 and dividing the region into two federally administered territories. But the move began with a harsh communication blackout and the imprisonment of hundreds of people, including elected representatives, and it has not brought peace to Kashmir. Violence is still usual.
On Wednesday night, in the freezing cold, the families of the dead were still protesting. They chanted, “Nayai Kashmir mai kya hota hai... Kafan Chori, Kafan Chori.” In English, it means, What is happening in New Kashmir?Theft of shrouds, theft of shrouds.”