The Human Shield Is Not Human

What happens to the idea of democracy when a man loses his autonomy, is forced to experience an animal helplessness?

Farooq Ahmad Dar is a 26-year-old shawl artisan from Chil village in Kashmir. His enthusiasm for asserting his democratic rights literally took a beating on Sunday, April 9. The man was among the meagre 7.1% of registered voters who cared to go to a polling booth to cast their vote for the Srinagar by-elections. His story of accidental victimhood has added to the disturbing series of violations in the army-civilian conflict taking place in the Kashmir valley.

The details throw a chilling light on how a sudden rush of suspicion can turn into an instant criminalising of space. Having cast his vote, Dar was on his way to Gampora village in Phulwana district, to attend a commemorative ritual for a relative, when he briefly stopped his motorcycle in Utligam village at the sight of women protestors. It turned out to be his peril, as an army patrol rushed out from an alley and caught hold of him. They allegedly hit him with rifle butts and wooden sticks without provocation and damaged his bike. The women tried to intervene, but retreated after a warning shot was fired in the air. Dar was not fully in his senses when he was strapped to an army jeep and paraded around many villages for three-four hours.

The video of a beleaguered Dar in a pheran and jeans, tied to the jeep’s bonnet, and his later narration of the incident, have provoked understandable outrage. Resorting to the war tactic of using a human shield to make a point is a matter of grave concern. Dar remembers people in the Khospora village trying to get him released. But men belonging to the Rashtriya Rifles refused their plea, accusing the man of being a stone pelter. A white paper was stuck on Dar’s chest declaring his crime. In the video we hear a voice announcing in Hindi, “This is the fate that will befall stone throwers.” It was a punitive act by the army, setting an example against the relentless stone throwing they face in the Valley. A man was turned into a spectacle of ridicule, simply because he happened to be in the wrong place. Is the ring devoid of law in the circus of conflict? To make matters worse, the army personnel picked the wrong man.

The political motivation of a stone pelter in Kashmir stands opposed to elections. He is not among the believers in Indian democracy. But Dar voted. He possesses his voter slip serial number, 612, as proof. “I have never ever in my life hurled stones on forces,” Dar said. “But I am not able to understand why I was beaten ruthlessly and then tied to the vehicle. What was my crime?”

Dar’s bemused agony strikes at the heart of India’s claim that Kashmiris are its own people. The undeserving fate of this shawl artisan can’t be explained away as an accident. Picking up the wrong person and wronging him is a matter of suspicion overriding veracity. The script is written into the tensed atmosphere hovering in the streets. When the air itself triggers off violence, accidents may become a norm. But violations demand accountability. It is morally unfair to make only one side pay for crossing the line.

Passing through the villages, soldiers challenged the crowd, Dar recounted before journalists, to pelt stones at him, a fellow Kashmiri. “People were running away… I was told not to utter a word to anyone or they would shoot me,” he said. The ruthless logic of securing compliance by instilling fear is lost in advance. A man who’s insulted will never respect any law out of conviction. The ethic of democracy is based on a contract that guarantees human dignity. No argument in the name of safeguarding democracy can violate that sense of dignity. Dar put it in words: “They humiliated me publicly”. Should humiliation be an accepted norm in the lives of people who inhabit a risky space, where democracy blurs into a war zone?

The soldiers “played with me like I was a toy,” felt Dar. He asked the question of his bare life, “Am I a human being or an animal?” The human shield is a misnomer. It dehumanises the victim by depersonalising him. A forcibly disabled Dar felt like being nonhuman and subhuman at the same time. For those tortuous hours, his body did not belong to him. What happens to the idea of democracy when a man loses his autonomy, forced to experience an animal helplessness? A democracy Dar believe in needs to answer that question.

Despite his injury-induced amnesia, Dar recollected names of a few villages he was paraded through: Sonpa, Najan, Chakpora, Hanjiguroo, Khospora, Rawalpora, Arizal and Hardapanzoo. Dar is a brave child of memory to recount places where he witnessed his own humiliation. We know from writers like Primo Levi, W.G. Sebald and Svetlana Alexivich among others, memory is that desperate consolation the dehumanised seek, to recover their traumatic experience with the world, to stitch back their severed ties with time. Memory fosters coherence. “There are no bruises over the surface,” Dar said, “but I am hurt on the inside”. The “inside” is a place where the spirit of the body resides. Wounding the spirit of the innocent defeats the spirit of democracy. But as Santiago says in Ernst Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” The spirit of a people is more resilient than the temporary destruction of their dreams.

Incidents of victimising unarmed, innocent people have spiralled in Kashmir since the conflict between the military and the stone throwers became palpably close range. A video emerged last week showing young Kashmiri men heckling CRPF jawans doing poll duty in Srinagar. Hostile proximities will induce transgressions from both sides, intensify mutual paranoia and further endanger lives. Kashmiris bear an inconsolable weight of tragedies. Still the method of struggle needs rethinking. It isn’t prudent to risk unintended victims. The darkness of children blinded by the army’s reckless use of pellet guns cannot be allowed to spread further. Separatist violence is a gun that has lost its ties with grief, trapped in a futureless cycle of vengeance. Many Kashmiris may disagree with Dar’s faith in democracy, but his new resolve attests the growing exasperation in the Valley: “I used to vote but won’t do so anymore”.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.