It was late afternoon on September 13 when Indian soldiers from a stationed camp patrolled down to Chandgam, a village in Pulwama district 57-km south of Srinagar, the main city of Indian administered Kashmir.
Feroze Ahmad Ganai sat with his family inside their two-storey house.
Suddenly, a repeated thumping at the main entrance of the house interrupted their silence. Before Ganai could rush to open the door, the men in uniform, carrying automatic rifles, had scaled the boundary wall and stood in the premises.
“Army troopers snatched my identity card and directed me to report at their camp the next day,” said 22-year old Ganai.
For the next three days, the soft-spoken boy was a regular at the camp along with 17 other local youth.
“All of us were from Chandigam and adjacent villages,” said Ganai. “We would go to the camp in morning and were detained till evening on the pretext of meeting an officer.”
“I was taken inside a room and tied to a chair. I sensed danger and begged for mercy, but they didn’t listen.”
However, on day four, things turned ugly for Ganai.
“I was taken inside a room and tied to a chair. I sensed danger and begged for mercy, but they didn’t listen. Then, one of them came and pierced a needle in my upper lip until blood started dripping down my chin, and turned into a small pool on the ground, drop by drop,” said Ganai.
“He wanted my false confession that I had hurled a grenade at the camp the previous day. I kept repeating that I am innocent, but he was in no mood to listen.”
According to Ganai, the torture continued.
“Then others came and started beating me one after another, for almost half an hour,” he said. “I don’t know what happened next.”
In the evening, Ganai’s maternal grandfather, Muhammad Jamal Lone, picked him from outside the camp.
“The troopers had dumped our son outside the camp in an unconscious state,” said Lone, sporting a long, greying beard. “They had pulled out hair from his head.”
As Lone talked, he took out a needle from his pocket, wrapped and saved in a paper.
“This was used by the troopers to torture me,” Ganai said, staring blankly at the needle. “It had got stuck in my clothes.”
The abuse happened in mid-September, but the young boy’s upper lip is still swollen.
“It hurts a lot,” he said, pausing in between speaking. “Even today I get nightmares and wake up in middle of the night, shouting and crying.”
Ganai was one of the seven youth interviewed by MO* in six different villages of twin districts of Pulwama and Shopian, south of Srinagar, who were allegedly tortured by the Indian Army.
The end of the line
The cases of abuse and torture at the hands of the Indian military and paramilitary forces have surfaced across several villages since August 5, the day Hindu nationalist Indian government unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of its constitution. The move stripped Kashmir of its separate flag and constitution.
Fearing backlash from people, the government bolstered troop deployment across the region and snapped all means of communication, including internet and mobile services.
A media report put the number of additional troops rushed to the region in days ahead of August 5 to around 80,000 while more than 0.7 million troops are already stationed in region, described as the world’s largest militarized zone.
Pulwama and Shopian emerged as epicentres of local militancy after a popular rebel commander, Burhan Wani (21), was killed in a gunfight with the Indian troops on July 8, 2016.
The blindings were caused by metallic pellets fired through shot guns by government forces. This has been referred to as the world’s first instance of mass blinding.
The young Wani’s killing triggered five-month long public uprising in Kashmir and the local government responded by imposing curfew for more than 50 days.
More than 100 civilians, mostly youngsters, were killed and over 2,000 blinded across Kashmir in paramilitary shootings on unarmed protestors, including young children. The blindings were caused by metallic pellets fired through shot guns by government forces. This has been referred to as the world’s first instance of mass blinding.
The cycle of violence became a trigger for young and educated men to leave homes and pick up guns. That was the time when districts like Pulwama, Shopian, and Kulgam became a no-go zone for the Indian troops.
In the following months, for the first time in nearly three decades, local militants in Kashmir outnumbered foreigners – a phenomenon that was prevalent in the 1990s when armed insurgency was at its peak in the Valley.
People started to hero-worship the young, gun-wielding men. Local young boys, men, and women would put their lives at risk to rescue rebels during gunfights with government forces.
The civilians would storm the gunfight sites and throw stones at local police and army personnel in a bid to help militants break off the cordon and escape. The government forces responded by firing bullets that often proved fatal.
It forced the Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat to issue a stern warning that any civilian found disrupting anti-militancy operation would be treated as an Over Ground Worker (sympathiser) of rebels and dealt with accordingly.
However, the warning did not deter people from swarming to gunfight sites.
Earlier, people would run away from gunfight sites and leave the area for military to freely enter into a combat with holed-up militants in residential areas. However, the local resistance found a new vocabulary in defiance of all orders, thereby creating a fresh challenge for the government.
“My son was neither a militant nor an Over Ground Worker (OGW),” said Ganai’s mother Hajra. “What had he done to the troops? Why did they torture him?”
Sitting beside her son, while vouching for his innocence, she said people of Kashmir are facing “zulum” (tyranny).
“India and its forces want to take revenge on Kashmiris for demanding their human and political rights,” she said. “What else should explain the harassment and torture of our innocent boys?”
Fear across the villages
The room where Ganai remained bed-ridden was full of visitors including neighbours and relatives. Most of them have arrived to inquire about the young boy’s condition.
One of them, Ghulam Hassan, said there was a “pattern” to the torture of local youth.
“Troops picked up a few boys from every village and beat them up so brutally that it left the entire village scared”
“After August 5, the troops picked up a few boys from every village and beat them up so brutally that it left the entire village scared,” said Hassan.
The fear psychosis runs deep across villages in districts south of Srinagar.
Five miles away from Chandgam is village Panjran. Nestled among apple orchards, the sleepy hamlet has closed shops. On one of the shop front a group of local youth discussed torture and night raids carried out by troopers.
“You will leave in a while and then we have to face wrath of troops in the evening for speaking to the media,” said a youth, identifying himself as Muzaffar.
Like other villages in these districts, troops have marked every house of Panjiran with numerals painted in black. Villagers said the Indian forces conducted a survey few months back and numbered every structure including shops.
“The numbers help them to easily locate any house during intelligence operations,” said Wali Muhammad, an elderly resident of the village.
Since August 5, according to locals, 15 boys were picked up by the Indian Army during overnight raids from the village. One among them was Asif Ahmad Itoo, son of village headman Abdul Rehman.
Rehman accompanied his son, a teacher by profession, on September 17 to the army camp. The army had summoned him.
“They took my son in one of the rooms inside the camp while I was pleading to an officer. When he came out an hour later, he looked normal. But as we reached home, he took off his clothes and broke down,” said Rehman. “There were bruises all over his body and his underwear had blood stains.”
Cries and Whispers
Not far from Panjran are Sugan, Turku Wangam and Moolu Chitaragam, the villages which have been home to many top rebel commanders associated with pro-Pakistan militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
Here, the army is not only resolute, but also innovative in ‘normalizing’ torture by making the entire locality listen to the blood-curdling shrieks of the youth undergoing torture in the camps by blaring its actions on a loudspeaker.
“I was taken to an army camp. There they made cuts on my entire body with a sharp-edged razor, then sprinkled petrol and chilli powder all over,” said Sameer Ahmad, whose brother Zubair is currently active in Hizb ranks.
‘The entire village including my family could listen to my screams’
“While I was being tortured, they (army) put it all out on the loudspeaker. The entire village including my family could listen to my screams,’ said Ahmad.
His family said that he was spared hours later, and left outside the camp, half-dead.
“We took him to the hospital for treatment where he was admitted for more than a week. Even after that, the army would come to our house, harass us, ransack household goods, and beat all of us up,” the family said.
They further mentioned that after Sameer, his cousin, who is a university student, was also tortured in a similar way.
The Indian Army has consistently denied cases of torture, calling them “baseless”. “We value human rights,” said an army spokesperson.
‘There will be a reaction’
Despite rampant night raids, arrests, and specific cases of torture, this time people in the villages are mute. There have been no major street protests and stone-throwing incidents. Even people’s reaction to the Government of India’s decision that has altered the course of history in the restive region was somewhat similar.
Ahead of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, a series of moves by the government triggered hysteria and fear in Kashmir.
India’s top agency probing terror-related incidents, National Investigation Agency (NIA), launched a massive clampdown in Kashmir, arresting separatist leaders. The federal home ministry banned two political organizations – pro-independent Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and pro-Pakistan Jama’at-e-Islamia.
An order from the local government asking tourists to leave Kashmir immediately and cancellation of the annual Hindu pilgrimage to the glacial Amarnath cave shrine sent the region into a tizzy.
The intense security footprint lent credence to rumours about a possible war with Pakistan. The government did less to allay fears which fuelled people’s anxiety.
“They have snatched our rights and humiliated us”
Before locals could make sense of the developments, in an unprecedented move, the authorities snapped all internet and mobile services across the region on the night of August 4, and imposed strict restrictions on public movement and gatherings.
According to many villagers MO spoke to, people have gone silent fearing reprisals from the Indian armed forces. But a consensus across the villages is that the presence of troops cannot hold back people for long.
“They have snatched our rights and humiliated us,” said Shabir Ahmad, a university student from Heff village of Shopian, known as the apple bowl of Kashmir. “There will be a reaction.”
There are also fears among people that New Delhi is planning to change the demography of the disputed Muslim-majority region.
The fears are not entirely unfounded as the government has done away with another constitutional provision, Article 35-A, which had previously barred outsiders from owning land and securing jobs in the state government.
“They will now come for our land and settle outsiders in Kashmir,” feared Ahmad. “Then, in the years to come we will be reduced to a minority, perhaps a nobody, in our own land.”
Silence in the Valley, Silence about Kashmir
People, especially youngsters in Shopian, expressed dismay over the silence of world bodies including the UN towards Kashmir.
“Violence begets violence. The ongoing oppression has pushed us to the wall,” said another youth, identifying himself as Sheeraz.
It remains to be seen how Kashmir will respond when authorities will lift the communication ban.
In his press conference last month, spokesperson of the local government, Rohit Kansal said that there were apprehensions that Pakistan might foment trouble in Kashmir if communication facilities are restored.
“This too shall pass,” he responded when asked repeatedly about the communication gag which has now entered the third month.
At the same time pro-Indian politicians in Kashmir have become irrelevant and discredited. Since the rise of Right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in New Delhi in 2014, mainstream parties like National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had made protection of Article 370 the cornerstone of their politics.
Presently, their entire leadership, including three former chief ministers of J&K — Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti — continues to be in detention.
The senior Abdullah has also been booked under Public Safety Act (PSA), a controversial law under which a person can be held without trial for up to two years.
Once released, they are expected to revive the discourse on Article 370. In that case, their politics will overlap with the separatist agenda. But, will they cross the red-line when their career is at stake? There are no immediate answers.
A ‘fear psychosis’ is one of the reasons for the blaring silence of the people, says prominent human rights activist and lawyer Parvez Imroz. He has has been documenting the cases of torture and abuse by the Indian armed forces in Jammu & Kashmir for over three decades.
This ‘fear psychosis’ is unprecedented this time and has led to locals expressing their resistance in limited ways. A communication blockade has also had a debilitating impact because gut-wrenching stories of torture in the rural pockets have not yet reached people in other parts. It is tough to even know what’s happening in one’s own neighbourhood, so it is out of the question that any news of international attention or outpour of solidarity will reach the people.
Further, this fear is compounded by a feeling of being alone– confronting the unimaginable, fighting the immeasurable. However, Parvez Imroz argues that people in Kashmir will certainly retaliate at an appropriate time. “Kashmiris have always been the architects of their struggle, fighting on their own terms and time. Even New Delhi recognizes the same. People will not accept defeat.” This is the reason why the Indian Army has established new camps in the countryside and the streets in cities and towns are once again heavily punctuated by bunkers with men in uniform.
The people of Kashmir have always preferred resistance over surrender, and this time it won’t be any different. This silence needs to be understood, not misinterpreted, and certainly not mistaken to be a state of permanence.