Anantnag (Kashmir): An unmistakable sense of fear distinguished Asif from other children. He broke into a shrill cry and then was silent. “The police says they will take me away when I turn 18,” he said, as other children played freely in a village atop Anantnag’s formidable mountains, looking inviting in December’s unusually plentiful sunshine.
Asif was blinded in one eye during the 2016 summer unrest in the Valley. Locals allege that the police shot the nine year old from a close range when he was sitting outside a closed shop.
“I had gone to buy biscuits. The shop was closed, so I waited outside. A protest was going on. When two police vehicles arrived at the scene, some boys hurled stones at them and fled. The police stormed out with pellet guns and shot me,” Asif recalled, sitting inside a dark room at his uncle’s old house at High Ground, Fatehgarh in the restive south Kashmir town of Anantnag, 53 km from Srinagar. He added, “They pointed the guns towards me. It wasn’t inadvertent.”
According to Asif’s family, the police atrocity is not over. “The police threatens us. They beat his father and demand money often,” Asif’s mother, who refused to be named, said. Whenever a police party from the Sadar Police Station, Anantnag, visits Khanabal, where they live, they ask them to prepare tea and snacks, she added. “They (the police) say if we don’t do as they wish, they would lodge FIRs against Asif.” To prevent further encounters between Asif and the police, his parents have sent him to his uncle’s place for some time.
A neighbour, Zubair Mir, confirmed their allegations. “I have seen the police harass the family. They are very traumatised. On days Asif’s father is late from work, they fret that the police may have picked him.” Mir claimed that on July 20, 2016, when Asif was shot at, he had seen the police point the pellet gun at him.
Senior superintendent of police, Anantnag, Altaf Ahmad Khan denied knowledge of police atrocity, although he did not explicitly rule out the possibility of “isolated incidents”. “You have to understand the dynamics of a conflict zone,” he told this reporter.
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“I have not come across any such incident in the last seven months I have been here (Anantnag). I have not received any complaint from any individual or rights group accusing the police of extortion. I am not ruling out any isolated incident. There may have been one or two incidents where an altercation between a stone pelter and a constable may have taken place in a remote area. But I am not personally aware of any,” he told this reporter over the phone from Anantnag.
He said the police and the administration are “committed to integrate the stone pelters to the society and compensate the loss in their education due to 2017’s summer unrest”.
“The police and the administration is providing training opportunities and counselling to the misguided youth. The idea is to wean them away from violence and help them start a career. Last month, we withdrew cases against 383 youths in Anantnag who had been named in different cases of stone-pelting,” Khan said.
Anantnag, locally known as Islamabad, was the epicentre of protests that swelled across the Kashmir Valley in 2016 after Burhan Wani, a Hizabul Mujahideen commander, was gunned down by security forces at Kokernag on July 8 that year. As per the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission’s records, at least 2,524 people were injured by pellet guns across Kashmir’s ten districts.
Asif was a class IV student at Zadi Pora Primary School, Khanabal when the protests started. The schools remained shut for many months. In the beginning of 2017, all schoolchildren were awarded a mass promotion. Asif now studies in class V at Khanabal’s Government Girls’ High School, a co-ed institution.
But Asif’s father, Abdul Rashid Sheikh, a daily wage labourer, said his son cannot concentrate. The incident has turned Asif, who used to be a bright, attentive student, into a dull boy who broods often, he complained. “He doesn’t study the way he used to. He has joined school three-four months ago, but he is under pressure. His classmates help him. They bring him notes in the evening,” he said, while pointing out that the schools lack facilities for children who have suffered permanent damage during the unrest.
Asif said “My friends are faster than me now. They take notes in the classroom, they do their homework well. I find the whole exercise very tiring.” He dreads going out alone in Khanabal. “Whenever I go out, I feel the police is watching over me.”
After Asif was shot at, he underwent an emergency surgery at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. He was then shifted to AIIMS in New Delhi, where he remained admitted for 25 days. “We first took him to the Government District Hospital at Janglat Mandi in Anantnag, and then to Srinagar and finally to New Delhi. He has undergone three surgeries but there is no vision in his right eye,” Sheikh said.
He alleged that the police followed Asif to hospital too. “The police came looking for us. They said your son has hurled stones, which was not true. My child was bleeding, his eye was damaged. But the police was accusing him.”
The medical expenses have put Asif’s family deeply in debt. “We didn’t receive any support from the government. The administration did not help either. Our relatives lent us a few thousand rupees. My brother-in-law lent me a big amount of money,” Sheikh said. His wife added, “We are neck deep in debt. We don’t know how we will repay the loan we took for Asif’s surgeries.”
SSP Khan presented a different picture, though. He said the administration is committed to providing ‘first time stone pelters’ with educational and vocational facilities and job opportunities.
“On December 28, we organised a counselling session at Dak Bungalow in Anantnag in collaboration with the civil administration. It saw the participation of around 400 youths, previously stone pelters. We had invited representatives from various industries – fisheries, agriculture, horticulture among others. They shared their industry expertise and informed the youths on training and job opportunities in their respective sectors,” he said.
Kashmir’s Pellet Victims’ Welfare Trust, however, alleged that government schemes do not reach the victims. “Only those who had a personal connection with the mainstream parties and their workers received government aid. Others were left in the lurch,” alleged Ashraf Wani, the trust’s district president in Pulwama. He said the trust has 50 volunteers who raise funds for about 1,000 pellet victims. “Five hundred of them are students who have dropped out of college. We hope they will be able to resume their studies with our support,” he said.
“The police chases them (pellet victims) even in hospitals. They force them to show up at police stations regularly,” he alleged. The trust has branches in Baramulla, Kupwara, Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama. Its members meet once in a month at M.A. Road in Srinagar, where they have rented an office.
Asif is no longer a carefree child. “He doesn’t play much with his friends. He is always scared that a protest might spring up, and the police will damage his left eye, too,” his parents said.
His father said the vision of a frenzied Asif in hospital, when he regained consciousness and realised he was partially blind, comes back to him often. “He woke up four hours after the operation. He shivered in fear and rage. ‘What has happened to me, why can’t I see?’ he screamed as we held him tightly,” said Sheikh.
Whenever a protest takes place, Asif locks himself in his room. “I want to study and move on,” he said. When asked what he would like to become when he grows up, he announced: “An engineer”.
In the next moment, however, the joy disappears. “I don’t want to grow up. They will put me in jail,” he mumbled.
Anando Bhakto is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has been reporting from Kashmir since 2011.