Before focussing on fighting militants in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India must first better understand the churning within the Valley.Budgam: A carpenter, a barber, a farmer and a shopkeeper are like characters in a fable, except this one is dystopian.
The four young men belonged to the village of Aripanthan in the Budgam district of central Kashmir. Just an hour from Srinagar, the highway to Budgam cuts through acres of paddy fields and rows of wooden houses.
At 7 am, a few men and women are hurrying back home with bags filled with groceries, which they quickly bought in shops that briefly open in the coolness of the morning, before the air inevitably turns hot and violent.
The curfew – now on for 84 days – and the accumulated anger against it, are palpable in the emptied streets, in the spray of stones on the roadside, in the barricades – both makeshift and police installed – and in the pungent odour of teargas every few kilometres.
The road to Aripanthan narrows at a junction the residents call chowk, or check post, because of the Rashtriya Rifles army camp nearby.
Some people buy newspapers and groceries from a shop with a half-open door. A stone-and-cement paved pathway winds away from the chowk, flanked unevenly by houses and gardens on both sides. Inside the village, there is a pressing silence. A stream gurgles while someone loudly brushes their teeth. As this reporter enters a house, some heads pop out of the high windows and a few doors crack open. A child asks someone, “Hindustani?”In the drawing room of Javed Ahmed Naijad’s home, Mushtaq-ul-Islam – a school teacher and family friend – briefly sketches the events that transpired on the dreadful morning that still hangs over this village. “It was August 16. Javed went to the shop. The CRPF came in three vehicles. They simply fired three-four tear gas shells. People responded. They [the CRPF] started firing. Javed was one of the four who were killed. That’s as dryly as I can put it.” A few relatives are present in the room and everyone is looking at their feet.
Fiza Banu, Javed’s 20-year-old sister, breaks the uncomfortable silence. “Javed bhai built this room, this whole house,” she says. “He makes – used to make – good wood carvings for traditional Kashmiri houses.” Javed had raised Fiza and their youngest sister after their mother died of illness and their father remarried. He quit school in the sixth grade to work as a carpenter’s apprentice. “If you had met him, you wouldn’t think he was only 19. He was older than his years,” says Banu.
Early on August 16, Banu was in the kitchen making tea when Naijad left to bring a newspaper from the chowk. In a few minutes, she heard gun shots and rushed out. Several neighbours were also running to the chowk. Among them was her stepbrother Mushtaq.
A couple of CRPF vehicles were driving away while shooting in the air and many boys were on the ground. “I saw Javed bhai there, on the road, blood all over,” says Banu. Realising Javed was still alive, Mushtaq sat by him and lifted his head to his lap. “Yeh kya hua bhai (what has happened, brother)?” asked Naijad, before closing his eyes.
One of Banu’s relatives says the family has tried to contact Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister and MLA of Beerwah in Budgam. They have also filed a complaint in the nearby Magam police station.
“Ab kya hoga usse (what will come from it now)?” Banu shouts, her eyes blazing. “All I feel is anger, anger, anger I can’t hold inside. If my brother was the only one who died, then I can mourn, maybe even think it happened by mistake, move on. But this is a part of so many other atrocities. What about all the young men with pellets in their head, chest, eyes? And the three others killed?”A few paces away and through a courtyard overrun by rose bushes, tomato and bottle gourd creepers, is the home of another Javed – a 20-year-old barber and the eldest of four sons. In a carpeted room upstairs, his father Ghulam Maqsood Sheik, mother Mehbooba, three brothers and his grandmother huddle under a large blanket.
Salt tea is being poured and sipped in silence, but the memories of August 16 quickly invade the warmth. “That day our Javed went without having tea,” says Mehbooba. “It was his habit to buy the paper and bread in the morning.” She points to the flaky bakirkhani bread that they are sharing. “This was his favourite one.”On hearing a commotion from the chowk, 18-year-old Kausar went to look for his brother, Javed. “Lashon ke dher jaise the (it was like a pile of dead bodies),” he says. “I thought it was pellets, but then I heard gun shots.” He noticed the other Javed, Banu’s brother, falling, and ran to him. Across the road, another boy fell, and then another.
Other young men were pelting stones at the CRPF, which stood at the mouth of the road. Women had joined the crowd and were shouting at the security forces to leave. Kausar says he screamed till he was out of breath. “I felt an unbearable rage against the zulm (atrocities) by Hindustani forces.” Just as his hand grabbed a stone, a friend shouted that his brother too “had fallen”. Javed was bleeding profusely and was rushed to the district hospital on one of the boys’ bikes. “But there had been a bullet to his head. He had died on the spot.”
An elderly man enters the room and Kausar gets up to give him some room. The man is Mansoor Akbar Lone, the father of Mansoor Ahmed, a 25-year-old farmer. His wide green eyes look at the floor unblinkingly, his sun-weathered face registering nothing but a stunned grief. When Kausar asks him if he would like to speak to “this reporter from India”, he takes a while to understand. Then, he asks Kausar in Kashmiri, “Did you tell them his daughters are three and five? His wife was pregnant with the third?” Someone hands him a cup of tea. He smells the tea and says, “The bullet was in his stomach. He lost a lot of blood.”On the other side of Aripanthan is the home of 37-year-old Mohammad Ashraf Wani, whose wholesale cement shop was the biggest store in the village. The house is on an elevation a few 100 metres from the chowk.
On August 16, the family heard shots being fired and people yelling. Wani was home since his shop was closed due to the curfew. When he could not find his 13-year-old son at home, he began to worry that the boy had gone to pelt stones. “He went out to look for him,” says his wife Fareeda Akhtar. But due to a leg injury that he suffered in a bike accident, she says, “I guess he could not run fast enough from the bullets.”
He was shot in the heart and died on the spot. Meanwhile, his son had been right at home, trying to watch the events unfolding at the chowk from the terrace. Akhtar talks about her husband’s general reticence and his abhorrence towards politics. “He didn’t participate in anything, no protests. [He did] not even talk [about it]. He had seen too much, he was sick of it,” says Akhtar, holding back tears in front of her 12-year-old daughter. “He only lived for his family, and yet they shot him. What the government doesn’t seem to understand is that once you say it is okay to shoot us down like animals, the gun doesn’t see who is right or wrong. The gun is power, and they have too much of it.”On the afternoon of August 16, the four families mourned together. “Nearly one lakh people came from nearby villages,” says Sheik. “Funeral prayers were chanted at least seven times, as more and more people came.” Like Banu, he seemed to be mourning for more than his son. “It’s like justice and fairness has died. Our hope for peaceful relations has died. You killed it, and we were forced to bury it.” To them, it’s an abrogation of an already fragile trust, another pressing reminder of how little they mattered to the Indian state.
Most residents of Aripanthan – except for those in the Wani household – seem to concede that it was possible that some village youth were pelting stones at the chowk. “That’s what most Indians think provokes the CRPF to shoot, no?” asks 32-year-old Ghulam Nabi, who works in an embroidery shop. Some boys did pelt stones. “Now, ask why?” he demands.
On India’s Independence day, when the police tried to hoist the Indian flag in the village, residents had protested. “It may not be nice for you as an Indian to hear this, but we cannot love India till it stops discriminating against us,” says Kausar. For decades, the Kashmiris have resented the forced celebrations of Independence Day and displays of patriotism by armed forces – who they consider as occupying, oppressive forces. “It’s a drama to show normalcy when our life is anything but,” says Sheik.
At around 11 pm that night after the protests, several members of the Jammu & Kashmir police and CRPF charged into Aripanthan. Villagers described how the forces had “taken revenge”. They pulled men and women out of their homes, beat them with batons and guns, “and whatever hard item they found in the house”.
“They did not have a warrant or a reason,” says school teacher Mushtaq-ul-Islam. “They did not answer our questions,” adds Mehbooba. Arshid, Javed’s friend who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Maharashtra and had returned to his village for Bakrid, says, “A doctor’s family shut their doors during all this. Some policemen broke the window and lobbed teargas shells inside, suffocating everyone till the family came running out.” A middle-aged woman who did not want to be named says her daughter-in-law was molested. “She dropped her infant while trying to squirm away,” she says. Some officers erased the graffiti that called for freedom and for Indian forces to go back – slogans commonly seen across Kashmir. “They abused and terrorised the village, and left at 3 am,” says Mehbooba.
No one slept that night. “Sara gaon hosiyaar tha (the whole village was alert),” Arshid says. Groups of young men decided to take turns to keep a vigil in case the forces returned, especially around homes that had only women. Few had forgotten a similar raid that happened 12 years ago. That raid, conducted by members of the army (a battalion different from the one stationed in Budgam today), had “harassed women”.“This time, it was done by the Magam police station SHO (Station House Officer) and his men – Kashmiris doing it for jobs, promotion, playing into the hands of the state,” says Nabi.
When The Wire contacted SHO Aftab Ahmed, he did not answer his phone. Infuriated, Banu says that the policemen and the “CRPF-walas” can set foot into their village again only “if they did plastic surgery and changed their faces”.
The sleepless youth gathered at the chowk to buy the newspaper the next morning, August 16. When asked why this was a priority after such a harrowing night, one resident called it “a Kashmiri habit during unrest”. People have hungrily consumed the news during the long curfew in Kashmir not just because there is little else to do all day, but also to keep abreast of the eruptions in other districts and of any changes in state or military action. Reading the news, they feel a sense of solidarity with the bereaved or injured.
As people gathered at the chowk, they saw the CRPF vehicles return. The forces lobbed teargas shells and the incensed youth began to pelt stones. “We chucked stones and verbally abused the forces because we were sure they had come to attack us again,” says Abdul Majid, whose 18-year-old cousin later succumbed to his injuries. The CRPF rained pellets on the boys and soon more men and women had run out to the chowk. At some point the CRPF fired bullets, which killed the four men on the spot.In a phone interview, Atul Karwal, the inspector general for the CRPF in Kashmir, said that his force always follows standard operating procedure “precisely”. Speaking of the injuries sustained by his men, he said, “We are mobbed and beaten up by mobs… Most of the injuries are from stone pelting, but also grenade lobbing and private firing. Still, there is not even a single incident where we have opened fire.” Yet, when The Wire asked him about Aripanthan, “Yes, there was open fire there,” admitted Karwal. “A company of ours was transmitting through the village, and villagers had blocked the road in many places. When we tried to clear it, there was a huge mob, which had the advantage of being on higher ground. Lots of stone throwing… the crowd was close enough to snatch weapons. This was when lethal force was used.” He did not refer to the violence of the night before.
In narrating the same incident, both the villagers of Aripanthan and the members of the security forces attempt to establish cause and effect. Who provoked first and who was justified in reacting, and in there lies the simplification of conflict in Kashmir – another incident sucked into the argumentative vortex of cause and effect. Isolated from the context of decades of state-sponsored violence, the government’s concerns about militancy and the growing Kashmiri insecurity and frustration, the Aripanthan shooting can be discussed threadbare, with the government and village versions growing further and further apart and the possibility of reconciliation disappearing, along with it every fibre of nuance and complexity.
What looking at immediate cause and effect leaves out is the things in between. Like the five army soldiers who reportedly came to offer condolences for the four boys in Aripanthan, or the young men who have accepted the army’s mandate to root out militants, but have reasons to idolise Hizbul Mujahiddin militant Burhan Wani.In this event, and many others in Kashmir, there isn’t only a linear series of successive events, but a highly sensitive ecosystem of conflict that those in the Valley – civilians and the armed forces – experience every day.
The 800 who have been blinded and the more than 12,000 who have been wounded in the current unrest, have pushed young people dangerously to the edge. Mehbooba says that her son Kausar is rarely at home. “He stands outside with other boys, keeping watch in the chowk [and] collecting stones,” she says. “I try to stop him because of fear, but I understand his anger because I feel it too. After Javed died, his anger has grown.”
Kausar asks whether there is anything wrong in pelting stones. “When we went to the chowk in the morning, were we armed? No. Still they shot my brother,” he says. “When boys like me protest in Haryana, in Gujarat, the police throws water cannons. We in Kashmir get bullets. It takes us a minute to get angry because of years of build up.” Kausar is doing an undergraduate degree in the district college. “We are educated youth, we have everything to lose by picking up guns. But this time around, when I see the state violence, and how brazen the government is, I think, India is preparing us for militancy.”
As Kausar speaks, more young men from the village gather around him. Hilal Ahmed, a 20-year-old with a bandage on his eye, has just returned from being treated for pellet injuries in a Srinagar hospital. He scoffs at Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s comment that only 5% of Kashmiris are really involved in the stone pelting as “a convenient lie”. As for the Kashmiris’ alleged love for Pakistan, Hilal laughs and says “Of course there are some people who want to join Pakistan, but for most of us, [we] follow the separatist leaders today. We say azadi means full separation. The Pakistan flags are just to annoy the troops.”
“India is not hearing us when we shout and protest for azadi, they shoot us when we ask for at least a discussion on separatism. So people may think, why not join Hizb and die fighting, instead of in this humiliating way?”
In the 1990s, Aripanthan saw several of its youth leave to join the militancy following some senior commanders in the Hizbul Mujahideen. Ashraf’s older brother Bashir was one of them. At 20, he left home without a word. “Many boys were joining the Hizbul Mujahideen at that time, so I assumed he too had joined them,” says Ashraf’s mother. Six months later he was killed in an encounter. “Twenty two militants have died since 1990 in this village,” says school teacher Mushtaq.After an intense crackdown on militancy in the nineties, a tight vigil over weapons entering Kashmir from Pakistan, and a gradual decrease in army attacks on civilians, the wave came to an end in Aripanthan. The residents now realise that they might be watched more closely because of the town’s history. This is the conundrum of so many villages in Kashmir: the cycle of atrocity and protest, the state’s collapsing of militancy with separatist aspirations and the bogey of militancy, but also its overbearing shadow. “Ashraf knew he was the only son left, and he abhorred the militancy and the army because both took his brother away,” says his wife Akhtar. “He chose non-violence actively every day. And yet….”
Abdus Samar Rather, a 59-year-old resident of Aripanthan, likens it to a football that bounces back higher the harder you slam it into the ground. He worries that his son, a doctoral candidate in Aligarh Muslim University, might think of joining the militancy. He believes that it is a fait accompli. “I cannot stop him. This young generation has grown up seeing violence – they don’t feel fear anymore.” When Rather scolds his son, the 21-year-old in turn blames him. “We parents are taunted for sitting with our hands tied, for negotiating away any possibility of azadi in the past. Every day, these boys tell us that if we want a real end to our trauma, we need to make sacrifices. I’m scared for my son. But his friends are being shot, I understand his rage.”
Twenty-five-year-old Arshid asks how someone who has pelted stones is equivalent to a soldier. “Is an angry young man the same as a trained soldier with a state issued gun and the freedom to kill without punishment? If they are equal in strength, then why punish the civilian boy for his violence, but not prosecute a single soldier that has ever killed illegally in Kashmir? Killing a militant is one thing, but calling a boy of 18 a militant so that you can shoot him, is purely illegal.”
Hazira Begum, who was shot in her arm on August 16, says she had gone to the chowk to look for her 12-year-old son. “These days, small boys like my son run towards the commotion and firing, not away from it. Children cannot get involved, I cannot believe this is happening to us.”
Since that fateful morning, Aripanthan has seen three other instances of firing and many youth have been injured. Each incident revives the memory of the four youth who were shot dead, and kindles another yearning for militancy. As yet, no young man in Aripanthan seems to have acted on the impulse. But as Rather says, his voice shaking, “A spark, when neglected, can burn down the entire house. Sadly, the government is trying to put out the spark by adding fire.”