Was Kashmir’s latest victim, Sajad Ganai, a terrorist, a ‘mad man’ or a plain innocent? Parvaiz Bukhari travels to Kupwara to find out
FAR FROM the ornate rhetoric of “change” in Kashmir emanating from various quarters in New Delhi, another ‘kill’ by the army in Kupwara, a three-hour drive from Srinagar, is another way of judging the state’s ground reality. Sajad Ahmed Ganai, a 22-year-old youth, was killed by soldiers of 32 RR (Rashtriya Rifles) in suspicious circumstances inside their camp in Watergam on October 24, four days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a peace offering to Kashmiri separatists. Pre-empting a Shopian-like mass outrage, the state government quickly ordered a magisterial inquiry and issued compensation of Rs 1 lakh for the family – well before Sajad was buried in his native north Kashmir village of Ganapora.
Violence and peace initiatives have long moved on parallel tracks in this Valley of tears. Sajad’s killing came just when political energy was being pumped into Kashmir and dampened the hope generated through Home Minister P Chidambaram’s offer of dialogue. Sajad’s story finds an echo across Kashmir where countless killings have missed justice during the last two decades.
As in so many other cases, Sajad’s killing has run into contrasting narratives. Just four days before the PM’s visit, Watergam army officials informed the local police station that they killed an unidentified man who attacked sentries of the Gorkha Bhatti camp located on the main Baramulla-Handwara road. The ‘attacker’ was carrying a small axe used by villagers in the valley to cut tree branches for cattle.
Sajad left home with an axe to collect fodder for the goats his landless family rear. Much before he was expected back home, the numberdar (village head) had been called by police and asked to bring Sajad’s family for identifying the body.
“His [Sajad’s] body with bullet wounds on chest, shoulder, abdomen and hand was lying covered in a white shroud at the police station, blood oozing from his body and face,” Sajad’s elder brother, Mohammad Shafi told TEHELKA. “When Sajad left home around 7 am, I saw him putting his election identity card in his pocket along with the five rupees I gave him.”
The army in its First Information Report (FIR) says all that was found on Sajad’s body was a rosary and a metal cap of a used bullet. “They said he was a khudkush (suicide) bomber. Where has my brother’s identity card gone?” Shafi asks. Officers at the Dangiwacha Police Station say that had Sajad’s body not been identified, he would have soon been buried as “unidentified”, a statistical addition to the thousands of nameless graves in Kashmir.
The FIR maintains that an unidentified man attacked a Gorkha Bhatti camp sentry with an axe but could only manage to “bruise” his shoulder because of his “thick uniform”. In the army’s version, on being attacked the sentry ran towards the camp gate asking another soldier inside to open it. Swinging his axe violently, the attacker chased him before being captured and fired upon. In the scuffle, a soldier named Manoj received a bullet injury in his knee. The injured soldier was evacuated by a chopper to the army base hospital in Srinagar for treatment before the police was called in to take Sajad’s body.
However, based on information provided by Sajad’s family and other villagers, the police have registered a case of murder against the soldiers involved and sought their questioning. The police request has not been heeded yet. Even if the police prepare a chargesheet they won’t be able prosecute the soldiers concerned until the state government attempts and succeeds in securing permission – required under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — from the Home Ministry in Delhi — a rare instance in J&K.
There are no eyewitnesses to the incident. Locals living near the camp say they heard gunshots on the morning of October 24, soon after which soldiers fanned out in the area. Pleading not to be identified, some claim knowledge of a “problem” inside the camp before the incident.
A regular at mosque prayers, Sajad sported a short beard. According to family and neighbours, that morning he was wearing his usual sports shoes, a spotless white Khan suit and a white jacket, under which he had two layers of warm shirts and trousers. “He never wanted to look as poor as the family is. Tall and handsome, he sometimes looked like an Afghan,” says Ghulam Rasool, a neighbour.
Under the army’s gaze, anyone sporting a look like Sajad’s can be an‘unidentified terrorist’s body’
Sajad’s killing has instilled renewed fear among the Ganapora villagers. They say that under the gaze of army and paramilitary camps everywhere, anybody sporting a look like Sajad’s is a potential “unidentified terrorist’s body”. Like most of Kashmir, expectations of justice in such cases are long dead here. “Justice for me would be the killers of my son getting killed the same way,” says Ghulam Mohiudin, 80-year-old father of Sajad. “Now, every time my other son will leave for work in the morning, I will dread receiving his dead body,” he whispers in pain.
To buttress their claim that Sajad was killed unintentionally, the army later said that he might have attacked the sentry due to his “unstable mental condition”. But neighbours, relatives and Sajad’s family say he has never been violent and have a different explanation. According to Mohiudin, his son was a hoshmand (very aware) and intelligent boy. He passed his 11th standard from Handwara Higher Secondary School with good marks. The family’s weak economic condition forced him to discontinue and take up wage farm work – as per many villagers who would hire him – to support his family while continuing his education privately.
WHEN HE couldn’t go to college anymore, Sajad started helping people in their fields and shops and wouldn’t tolerate garbage on village pathways,” says Manzoor Ahmed, a cousin. “His cleaning of the village dirt tracks was understood by some as a sign of Sajad’s mental imbalance.”
On advice from neighbours, Sajad was taken to the psychiatric hospital in Srinagar for a check-up in summer 2008. “The doctor there scolded us saying he was fine and that we were losing it,” says Manzoor. “Nobody ever thought about it again after that day and he would be hired regularly to work in orchards, shops and fields.”
The army’s knowledge of Sajad’s earlier visit to a mental hospital may have made him a ‘suitable kill’
The fact that the army knew about Sajad’s visit to the psychiatric hospital more than a year ago indicates the depth of their gaze into the village community. Many villagers believe that it was this knowledge that may have made Sajad a ‘suitable kill’ for the army camp, about five kilometres from his house. This notion, perception or belief that has taken hold among people in the last two decades of extreme militarisation in Kashmir is where the popular aspiration for azadi (freedom) comes from. When asked what she thought of her son’s killing, Sajad’s mother Zoona said: “India dropped me from the sky to the ground and with a thud I realised I have lost everything.”
Sajad’s story highlights the urgency of moving the military out of civilian areas in the state. The PM will do well to start transforming hope into reality by addressing the root causes of Watergam. Such killings continue to push Kashmiris away from a realism of change.