Ramban firing brings Valley to the edge

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At 9.30 pm on 18 July, Abdul Latif was alone in a two-room madrassa on the edge of a hill slope alongside a road in Gool village when he heard a hard knock on the door. Soon, the door was pushed open and Latif saw two uniformed men loom over him. Thus began the sequence of events that led to the death of four persons and injury to around 40 others in Jammu’s Ramban district, putting J&K on the boil again for four days.

Latif says the two men from the Border Security Force (BSF) barged into the madrassa and accused him of sheltering militants. “When I said I didn’t know any militants, they kicked me around and started ransacking the madrassa, toppling a rack containing copies of the Quran,” Latif, a young man in his 20s, told Tehelka. “Then they dragged me outside where I saw two more BSF men. They thrashed me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t reveal where the militants were hiding.”

The driver of a truck that was passing by heard Latif’s cries and came closer to find out what was happening. The BSF men asked him to leave. The truck was being used for a railway project nearby. The driver took the truck there and told the workers that the BSF was torturing a boy at the madrassa.

The BSF men saw the workers approaching on trucks and left the spot. All hell broke loose when the workers allegedly saw copies of the Quran strewn around the madrassa floor. Cries of Allah-u- Akbar (God is great) echoed through the cluster of hilly hamlets that make up Gool. The clamour alarmed the villagers who were leaving the mosques after the night prayers. Instead of returning home, they headed towards the madrassa.

Worried BSF personnel saw the events unfolding from their camp — three tinroofed concrete barracks 500 metres from the madrassa. Some of the officers rushed to the madrassa to work out a compromise. They promised action against the four men who had assaulted Latif, but the agitated villagers wanted them to be handed over to the police.

Wounded: Four people were killed and around 40 injured in firing by the BSF, Photo: AFP
Wounded Four people were killed and around 40 injured in firing by the BSF, Photo: AFP

The negotiations were aborted when scores of people from the adjoining villages started arriving at the spot. “You have desecrated the holy book, the sin can’t be hushed up,” Latif recalls the villagers telling the BSF personnel. Faced with an enraged crowd, the BSF men returned to their camp.

Meanwhile, the crowd outside the madrassa kept growing and soon the local tehsildar, Bashir-ul-Hassan, arrived along with Manzoor Ahmad Shan, a political science lecturer and president of Gool’s Grand Mosque. A highly respected teacher, Shan, 38, always played a key role in resolving local disputes.

With Hassan by his side, Shan stayed with the crowd through the night, urging the people to remain calm. Hassan called up the district authorities, Deputy Commissioner (DC) Shyam Vinod Meena and Superintendent of Police (SP) Javed Iqbal Mattoo, who promised swift action and a visit to the spot early in the morning. The villagers spent the night at the madrassa and returned home only to eat sehri (predawn meals) before the next day’s fast.

“Yes, I saw copies of the Quran scattered on the madrassa floor,” Hassan told Tehelka. “This had enraged the people. Together with some local elders, I managed to calm the people and they dispersed peacefully at sehri time. ”

However, soon after the early morning prayers, a mob of around 10,000 people gathered from the nearby villages shouting anti-BSF slogans and demanding swift punishment to those responsible for the “sacrilege”. Meanwhile, some of the younger protesters had encircled the BSF camp and started throwing stones. BSF personnel fired at them, injuring three.

But by then, DC Meena and the SP Mattoo had arrived at the scene. They addressed the crowd and assured action against the BSF personnel responsible for the “desecration”. Meena also told the crowd that the BSF would not be allowed to open fire on the protesters again.

But while he urged the people to wait till Eid before action is taken, they said they would disperse only after the BSF personnel were arrested.

To break the deadlock, Meena and Mattoo summoned some local elders for talks in a nearby house. But while the talks were going on, the mob outside started marching towards the BSF camp. The few policemen on duty were in no position to halt its progress. Again, a small group of young protesters veered off into the fields outside the BSF camp and started lobbing stones at the three barracks. While most of the stones hit the tin roofs, making a loud noise, some window panes were also shattered.

Then the firing started from the BSF camp. Shan was trying to persuade the youngsters to stop throwing stones when a burst of bullets smashed his skull. However, there is a controversy over who fired the shots that killed Shan. On 23 July, J&K Police arrested its sub-inspector Mohammad Afzal Wani for the murder. Shan’s family says that Wani, who was inside the BSF camp, snatched a rifle from a BSF man and fired at him. “All eyewitnesses blame Wani for the murder. So we lodged a complaint against him,” Shan’s sister Shamshada Begum told Tehelka. Shamshada is a local politician of the ruling National Conference. Incidentally, Shan and Wani had been close acquaintances, knowing each other from their college days.

Three more people were killed in the firing, including Shan’s student Javed Iqbal Manhas, 18. “They died while trying to remove Shan’s body from the field,” says Rafiq Ahmad, 35, a local resident.

A BSF personnel, too, was hit by a bullet. Though locals say he was injured in the “indiscriminate firing” by the BSF, the Inspector General of BSF (Jammu Frontier) Rajeev Krishna hinted at a press conference in Jammu that this could indicate the presence of militants. “We cannot rule out the presence of anti-social elements in the mob,” Krishna told the media soon after the incident. The rattle of gunfire had disrupted the meeting between the dc and the village elders. Mattoo rushed to the BSF camp to call a halt to the firing, while Meena, fearing public anger, fled the place.

The killings provoked outrage across the Kashmir Valley. What added to the protesters’ ire was that just three weeks ago, the army had allegedly killed two civilians in the Sumbal area of Bandipora district.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah termed the Ramban killings “unacceptable” and promised to bring to book “those involved in the ghastly incident”. The cm also talked to Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who promptly ordered a probe by a special director general of the BSF. The state government ordered another probe by the Jammu DC and asked him to complete it in 30 days. The BSF, too, has ordered its own inquiry into the incident.

The separatist leadership announced protest marches with the hardline Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani calling for a three-day shutdown. There were incidents of stone-pelting during protests in all the major towns in the Valley and in Jammu’s Ramban and Doda districts. Besides 25 protesters, around 90 police and paramilitary personnel were injured. The government has issued strict directions to the police to avoid any further loss of civilian lives.

Though the situation in the state returned to normal after three days of protests, there are few takers for the government probe into the killings. In all such incidents, army and paramilitary forces claim immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

According to civil liberties group Coalition of Civil Society (CCS), the current National Conference-Congress ruling coalition has ordered 54 probes since it took over in 2009, but not a single person has been indicted or prosecuted so far. “We have lost faith in investigations ordered by the government,” says CCS Coordinator Khurram Pervez.

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