Handwara’s angst

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Handwara1
Photo: Faisal Khan

 

For the first time in 30 years — it is the Modi government’s magic — the army admitted at a press conference that the killing of two youth was a mistake. An inquiry commission probed the matter and those who fired the bullets were charged. This is proof of my good intentions,” thundered Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a poll rally in Srinagar, while campaigning for Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections. He was lauding his government’s efforts to rein in the security forces, particularly the army, which had killed two unarmed teenagers in central Kashmir’s Budgam district in November 2014 in a clear case of mistaken identity.

Approximately one-and-a-half years later, Modi’s words have come back to haunt him as the army is again accused of killing four unarmed civilians in north Kashmir’s Handwara district.

The trouble began on 12 April, after a local girl was allegedly molested by a soldier of the Rashtriya Rifles in Handwara town. Protesters took to the streets and started pelting stones on the forces. In the ensuing melee and the army firing, two local youth including a budding cricketer were killed. The apparently cold-blooded killing evoked widespread protests all over the Kashmir Valley, in which two more civilians lost their lives the next day, taking the toll to four in less than 24 hours. This provoked more intense protests as angry locals clashed with security forces.

Among the victims of the Handwara killing was the budding cricketer Nayeem Bhat, who had reportedly attended an Under-19 national-level camp. According to a close relative of Nayeem, he was not among the protesters but had brought a camera for his elder brother who works in a local press in Handwara. Nayeem’s neighbour Waseem Hassan told TEHELKA, “Nayeem was on his way to hand over the camera to his brother when a bullet hit him below the abdomen and he fell down right there.”

Photos circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook showed Nayeem attending various cricketing events, including one picture where he was doing handshake with a senior Jammu and Kashmir Police officer.

Authorities, unable to control the rising tempers, had to snap off mobile internet from major towns
of the Kashmir Valley. Sensing people’s anger, the Jammu and Kashmir police suspended a junior
police officer for ‘mishandling’ the law and order situation, while the Army regretted the deaths of civilians and promised that the “guilty will be dealt as per the law.”  Much to the chagrin of the locals and the human rights activists, authorities also released a video, purportedly from the girl who had allegedly faced molestation at the hands of the soldier. In the video, the girl denied the molestation charges and instead accused a local boy of mistreating her.

Ironically, the tragedy happened just a week after the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti assumed the reins
of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government in its second
avatar.

Separatists, sensing the opportunity, were quick to denounce the killing as another instance of ‘Indian state terrorism.’ Condemning the incident, SAS Geelani of the Hurriyat Conference called it the worst kind of state terrorism while rejecting any probe ordered by the government. In a similar vein, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the moderate faction of Hurriyat termed the killings as the worst form of state-sponsored terrorism. Factions of the Hurriyat, which most of the time bicker among themselves, have given a united call for shutdown in Kashmir.

As per many locals, the root cause of the problem is the Armed Force Special Powers Act (AFSPS),
that draconian act which gives extraordinary powers to the military and paramilitary forces. Often the forces have taken the cover of the AFSPS to cover their alleged excesses in discharging counter-insurgency duties and dealing with protestors.

The later trend has been particularly evident since 2008, when large-scale protests broke out against the decision of the state government to hand over land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) — the body which conducts the annual Amarnath yatra. Hundreds of local youth lost their authorities as ‘civil unrest’.

This trend continued for the summer of 2009, 2010 and 2011, with army and paramilitary forces simply unable to handle the protesting crowds and constant violations of the Standard Operating Procedures to deal with the mobs. After each killing, the authorities and the army kept announcing probes into the deaths.

Those were the times when the National Conference government led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was in power. The opposition PDP raised quite a stink, with its leaders taking to the streets urging that the guilty be brought to justice. However, since the time PDP-BJP government assumed power last
year, there has been no change.

In the past 14 months, eight probes have been ordered into the human rights violations by the security forces. None of them have ever reached their logical conclusion. For instance, on 11 August last year, a youth Bilal Ahmad was shot dead by the security forces after they opened fire on protesters in South
Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The inquiry was ordered to probe the killing but after more than seven
months, no such inquiry report was made public, with many expressing scepticism that a probe was ever conducted into the killing. Now also locals say that they have little hope that the probe ordered by the government and the army in the Handwara killings would ever fructify.

Ishaq Begh, a writer from South Kashmir, while criticising the present government said that it had the slogan “Na grenade se, na goli se, baat banayenge boli se” (Neither the grenade, nor the bullet, but only dialogue can solve the problem). But the situation is no different from that of the previous regimes. While talking to TEHELKA, he said, “PDP’s tilt towards separatism during 2002 elections made it a legendary political party. In 2008, PDP withdrew its support to Ghulam Nabi Azad, the then Chief Minister of the state when situation went out of control after the killings on the Amarnath land row. Mehbooba Mufti opposed then but now her approach is no different from the previous governments. People had their expectations when it came to power, but no change is evident. They have simply lost their credibility after they allied with the BJP.”

The persistent overlooking of the locals’ sentiments over the security forces’ unabated human rights
violations and the government’s inaction is laying ground for a very turbulent period in the Kashmir
Valley. Already security experts have been drawing attention to a thriving local militancy in South
Kashmir, which has shored up the militant activities in the State. One of the reasons why these militants
are able to operate is the continued stonewalling by India of the Kashmiris’ political aspirations.

Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain who teaches law at Central University of Kashmir told TEHELKA, “It’s AFSPA and other unbridled powers which security forces enjoy are responsible for all killings in Kashmir. The government has failed to pacify or address the aspirations of people in Kashmir. Nothing concrete can happen on the ground because law is on their side, probes are ordered as fire fighting exercise
to befool the people.”

Clearly, Mehbooba has her hands full as she navigates her way out of the present turbulence trying to
balance the Kashmiris’ grievances and maintaining New Delhi’s status quoist attitude.