The night the soldiers came: Allegations of abuse surface in Kashmir

Yassin Bhat alleges that Indian army soldiers beat him and tortured him with electric shocks on Aug. 6. (Niha Masih/The Washington Post)
By Niha Masih ,
Joanna Slater

PARIGAM, India — It was near midnight when the soldiers came for Yassin Bhat.

The 25-year-old pulled on some clothes and stepped into the darkness. Nearby, on the main road, he saw dozens of Indian army soldiers, Bhat said. One asked him what he thought about India’s move the day before to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy. Terrified, Bhat replied that it was a good step.

The officer told him not to lie, Bhat recalled, and ordered him to take off his clothes in the middle of the road.

Then, he said, the abuse began. Several soldiers held him down while others used thick cables to whip his back and legs. The soldiers then placed on his chest and genitals electrical wires connected to a battery. He remembers being immobilized as the current surged through his body.

“I thought it would be my last night,” he said in a recent interview describing the events of Aug. 6.

Bhat was one of 19 people interviewed by The Washington Post across 13 villages in southern Kashmir who alleged abuses by the armed forces in the days after India launched a crackdown in the disputed region. Bhat and two other men alleging abuse remain afraid of retribution but spoke on the record because they wanted their accounts to be chronicled.

The allegations included beatings with rods, sticks and cables, electric shocks and being hung upside down for prolonged periods. In three cases, including Bhat’s, The Post reviewed photos and hospital records detailing the injuries. In six cases, The Post saw either photographs of injuries or hospital records. For many of the cases, The Post also spoke with family members and other witnesses who saw the victims immediately after the alleged abuse.

A photo on Bhat’s phone taken on Aug. 7 shows deep bruises on the back of his thighs. (Niha Masih/The Washington Post)
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on specific allegations raised by The Post but denied any abuse had taken place. Allegations of torture are “false and fabricated with malicious intent,” said Col. Aman Anand. The human rights record of the Indian armed forces is “exceptional and respected locally as well as globally.”

The Indian army released a statement in response to detailed questions saying that the cases described by The Post are “baseless” and that “no complaint has been received” on such incidents from individuals or local authorities. Even in counterterrorist operations, the army said, it “has a strict protocol to protect lives.”

Human rights advocates say Kashmir is one of the most militarized zones in the world. The heavy security presence is a response to a long-running insurgency seeking either independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan.

Elements of Pakistan’s security establishment have lent support to the militants, which include groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. In 2018, 386 civilians, militants and members of the security forces were killed in Kashmir, according to official data.

The number of militants is small compared to earlier phases of the insurgency, Indian officials say, with only several hundred active. Southern Kashmir — where the alleged abuses reported by The Post took place — is considered the epicenter of the militancy.

The allegations of torture are part of a troubling picture in Kashmir. Nearly two months after India stripped the region of its autonomy and statehood, life remains far from normal in the Kashmir Valley, home to 7 million people.

Mobile phone and Internet services are still suspended. Nearly all of Kashmir’s political leadership is under arrest. More than 3,000 people have been detained, including businessmen, lawyers and activists. The Post’s reporting found that police had placed children as young as 13 in detention.

Electric shocks and iron rods: Kashmiri man describes alleged abuse at hands of Indian army
Muzaffar Nabi is one of 19 people who told The Post they had been abused by armed forces in the days after India launched a crackdown in Kashmir. (Imran Ali, Niha Masih, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
Indian authorities say the measures are necessary to prevent the outbreak of violent and potentially deadly protests. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the United States last week, has promised that the change in Kashmir’s status will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the region, which has been wracked by an anti-India insurgency for three decades. Indians must “create a paradise” in Kashmir and “hug every Kashmiri,” Modi said at a rally on Sept. 19.

The recent allegations of physical abuse run counter to the promises of a fresh start for Kashmir. Indeed, such accusations are not new: An extensive report by Kashmiri human rights groups released in May profiled more than 400 victims who alleged torture between 1990 and 2018. Their stories included beatings, electrocutions and burn injuries. In its statement, the Indian army said the report “lacks objectivity” and is “bereft of substance.”

In a separate report last year that was rejected by India, the United Nations detailed instances of alleged torture, arbitrary detentions and use of excessive force by security forces between 2016 and 2018.

Indian security forces often surveil and detain relatives of militants, but several of the young men who alleged abuse, like Bhat, said that they have no such links in their families. Bhat said there were at least 10 other men with him on the night of Aug. 6 in Parigam, a small village in the district of Pulwama. Earlier this year, a suicide bomber from a different part of the district killed nearly 40 Indian soldiers in the worst such attack in three decades.

In interviews, three other men in Parigam said they too were beaten and subjected to electric shocks in the same incident.

Bhat said that the beatings went on for nearly two hours. At the end, he said he and four other men who were naked were asked to lie on top of one another. Afterward, he fainted, he said. The next morning, he woke up in debilitating pain at a neighbor’s house, where he was carried by residents after the soldiers left, the neighbor confirmed. Pink and purple bruises stripe his back and thighs in photos taken that day. Hospital documents report a broken finger, multiple bruises on his body and swelling in his lower spine.

A photo on Muzaffar Nabi’s phone taken on Aug. 7. Nabi said he was bedridden for a week. (Niha Masih/The Washington Post)
Lying next to him at his neighbor’s house was his friend Muzaffar Nabi, 24. A carpenter by profession, Nabi told The Post that soldiers beat him with sticks, rods and cables but did not take off his clothes. He said he received electric shocks in three places — on his thigh, chest and palms. He asked the soldiers what he had done but received no answer. Instead, they demanded the names of people who throw stones at security forces during protests, Nabi recalled, but he told them he did not know.

Bhat and Nabi said they were not charged with a crime.

Nabi shared a photo taken the day after the incident, which showed his lower legs covered with black bruises. Hospital records from Aug. 7 indicate he had abrasions on both legs and episodes of vomiting and loss of consciousness.

Nabi said he was bedridden for a week. Afterward, he required help to walk and use a toilet. “If suicide was allowed in Islam, I would have done it,” said Nabi.

Human rights activists say the communications crackdown and unpredictable restrictions on movement have complicated their ability to document accusations of abuse.

“What we hear is very disturbing and alarming,” said Parvez Imroz, a lawyer and president of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an advocacy group that published the report on instances of torture. But “there is no way to visit [victims] and confirm.”

The armed forces enjoy immunity from prosecution for their actions under a special act applicable in the state. The Indian army initiates internal investigations when it receives complaints of human rights violations. Since 1994, 70 army personnel have been punished, either by dismissal or imprisonment, the army said in its statement.

Reyaz Ahmed Mir, a laborer from Gagren village in the Shopian district, said he was summoned to an army camp late last month. Mir said his brother was killed by security forces in 2018 after they accused him of shielding a militant in his home. On Aug. 26, soldiers interrogated Mir, asking him who had attended his brother’s funeral.

When he said he did not know, Mir said the soldiers began to beat him with batons and force water down his throat. He said they applied an electrical current to his genitals and right toe. Next, they hung him upside down from a T-shaped pole. As one soldier poured water on his face, he vomited his lunch. “The agony was unbearable,” said Mir, 45. “I was shouting and crying.”

When he was released, his family rushed him to the local district hospital, whose records noted multiple bruises on his body and episodes of vomiting. They referred him to a hospital in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar the same day.

Bhat, who completed a degree in mechanical engineering last year, has been living in fear since the alleged assault. His injuries have healed and the deep scars from bruising across his back, buttocks and legs have faded. But he has not slept a single night at home because he is afraid the soldiers might come for him again.

Slater reported from New Delhi.