The suicide bombing at Pulwama that killed more than 40 CRPF soldiers last month was a brutal rebuttal of national security advisor Ajit Doval’s line that robust anti-terror operations will solve the Kashmir issue. If eliminating 230 militants in 2018 is taken as evidence that this policy was finally paying off, the Pulwama bombing – the deadliest terror attack Jammu and Kashmir has seen – suggests otherwise.
The fact is that Modi-Doval iron-hand policy is pushing an entire generation of Kashmiri youth against the wall. Media reports suggest that the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, was harassed by security forces at least on two occasions, even shot in the leg when he took part in the protests that rocked the Valley following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in 2016.
In Kashmir, every household has a story to narrate. And it goes back to the early days of militancy when the security forces would insult and torture you to a point where life had very little or no value for you.
In the early 1990s, an army unit from Sharifabad cantonment raided our area in the dead of the night. I was in my 20s at the time. This is my story.
In the middle of Operation Catch ‘n’ Kill, the crackdowns, especially by the regular army, came thick and fast those days. The first sound of cavalry jackboots doubled the night’s dread, making every inmate shudder with fear. There was nervousness, an eerie tension in the air. The muezzin didn’t let out the usual prayer call from the mosque loudspeakers, instead he was instructed to broadcast that the area had been cordoned off. Men, including children, were ordered to immediately come out of their homes and assemble in an open piece of land nearby. Women were asked to stay indoors.
The soldiers, after ensuring the last man had left his house, began to conduct a door-to-door search to find if the locals had hidden any ‘miscreants’ or stashed away any weapons. The word ‘terrorist’ wasn’t as widely used as it’s now.
During the search operation, the soldiers would notice that households had rice, flour, dried vegetables, salt, sugar and other eatables stored in large containers. Kashmiris, since time immemorial, store food items in large quantities as heavy snowfall can leave the valley cut off from the outside world for months together.
“Yeh m*#$&d itne paise kahan se laate hain yeh sab khareedne ke liye (Where do these m*&*&$#@)s get so much money to buy all this?),” the soldiers would ask each other. Frustrated, they would mix ash and charcoal with the food grains stored in containers, ransacking each house in the process. Yet, the AK-47s they were looking for were remained elusive, as did their operators.
Outside, the men were subjected to all types of brutality one could possibly think of. I remember a magistrate level officer forced to crawl on his knees when he turned up a little late. A young officer pulled the beard of an old man when he requested a glass of water. The officer tilted his can and spilled the water on the ground rather than giving it to the old man.
Then came the moment when even the hardy ones would piss in their pants: A parade before CATS. Termed as Concealed Apprehension Technique, the army would use former militants to single out people who supposedly had anything to do with the militants. With their faces covered, they would press the horn or nod approvingly by turning their heads either to left or to right whenever they would spot a face they didn’t like.
The sequence was loosely depicted in the 2014 film, Haider, produced and directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, co-written by the Kashmiri journalist, Basharat Peer.
My brother and I were paraded before a set of Gypsies, lined up one after the other when suddenly a CAT honked, targeting my brother. He was immediately removed to a makeshift interrogation centre which the army had set up at a nearby school. My brother, who suffers from a disorder called tremors wherein the body parts, especially hands and legs, shake unusually, slipped into a state of nervousness. In extraordinary situations, the shaking intensifies to the extent that a patient can lose control over his wits. The soldiers mistook his shaking as a sign of admission and everyone in the crowd knew hell would soon break loose on him. It was my turn now. Another honk placed me in a similar situation.
I was taken to the local school but kept in a different room where a special interrogation team was waiting for me. The voice in the cries coming from the neighbouring room sounded familiar. It was my brother writhing and howling in pain. When I hesitantly told a soldier that my brother was a shawl vendor who had recently returned from Calcutta, his stern reply shut me up. “Tum apni fikr karo – you worry about yourself,” came the diktat. My heart missed a beat.
A two-star officer ordered me to take off my clothes. Naked as a spoon, I couldn’t make any sense out of what was going on. The strip-off brought with it shame and embarrassment, but life seemed more important at that moment. The soldiers, while teasing my naked butt with a lathi, directed a barrage of questions at me, occasionally pushing it into me. When my answers didn’t satisfy them, I saw a giant sentry glowering at me, his lathi poised for a strike. Whack, whack, whack — the lathi struck my back with all the force he could muster. “Where have you hidden the guns… how many times have you attacked the soldiers…. who are your handlers…,” the soldier asked me. Another grabbed my feet, wound a piece of wire around my both toes and connected it to a device. I felt as if several darts went through my body every time the soldier turned a knob on the machine.
After some time, two soldiers entered the room and asked me to quickly dress. “You’re clean, but your brother has confessed to being a militant,” they said. I put on my clothes not knowing whether I slipped my legs into my shirt or pajamas and ran out. Everything seemed blurred, as if I was looking through a fog or a thick veil. My mouth, lips, and throat felt dry as far as into my pharynx. I could barely walk. Faintly though, I could see two soldiers holding my brother, ready to bundle him into a military truck. His arms, when left to themselves, hung loose and dangled at his sides, as if turning on a pivot. He had been brutally tortured. Before I could rush over to him, touch him or offer him some comfort, a soldier pushed me to the ground. Nobody dared to come to my help. With all the strength I could gather, I somehow got up and joined the assemblage. My mother, who by now had come to know that her son was picked up by the army and was about to be taken away, came out wailing and sobbing: “Please don’t take away my son,” she fell at the feet of an officer. “He is a simple shawl vendor and has nothing to do with the militancy.” My mother’s plight didn’t bother the officer as he was adamant that my brother was a militant. She had only a few minutes to see her son before he was whisked off to some undisclosed location. For many mothers, who lost their sons in circumstances like this, this was the last time they caught a glimpse of their loved ones.
Around five o’clock in the evening, the army called off the siege, however, not before taking a dozen people with them and leaving behind a traumatised area with scores of others grievously injured. No records were made.
The long wait
My parents reported the matter to the nearest police station but nobody had any clue about where my brother had been taken.
I was working as a teacher at a private school then. My monthly salary was a meagre Rs 300. I began to weigh my options, including joining a militant outfit to avenge my humiliation, but soon decided against it. “What would happen to my parents, my two sisters and my brother whose whereabouts were unknown to us,” I asked myself.
The next day, I got a notice published in a local daily urging the governor of the state to look into the matter and help find my brother. I don’t know whether it helped or not but a week later, the police informed us that my brother had been shifted to a Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC) located at the Indian Airlines cargo centre at Srinagar. We heaved a sigh of relief to know that my brother was alive. My father was allowed a visit. Frail and haggard, the interrogation had reduced my brother to a skeleton with torture marks all over his body. He had been subjected to a wide variety of ingeniously hideous methods of torture to extract the confession of being a militant. Rollers pressed over his legs, he had been given electric shocks on his genitals and made to drink his own urine.
Three months had passed since his arrest, my had parents knocked on every door — politicians, bureaucrats, policemen — that could lend some hope of his release. They even bribed a few of them after selling some gold reserved for my sisters’ marriage but nothing seemed to work. Meanwhile, he was shifted to another interrogation centre at the old airport, Rengreth. Without subjecting him to further torture, we were allowed a weekly visit with a promise that he would be freed soon. My brother, who could write in Urdu, maintained a daily diary which he would show to us upon our visits. I would often flatter him that the prison had turned him into an artist. He would shyly smile it off. He would draw birds, animals and portraits but was strictly forbidden to write notes pertaining to his detention. He told me how scores of young boys had been lifted by the security forces never to be seen again. Because my brother had spent several years in Calcutta and had learned to speak Bengali fairly well, this might have been the reason he survived the ordeal.
At last after spending 12 months in as many detention centres, my brother was finally released in October of 1993. His release order said he had been in detention for only three and a half months. There was no mention of that fact that a unit of the army from Sharifabad had picked him up during a crackdown several months before he was shown as being in detention.
His chargesheet included many bizarre allegations, one being his participation in an armed encounter with the security forces using an AK-47 rifle. Though he was freed and never harassed again, his name has been written into the list of “deadly terrorists”. The security forces in Kashmir maintain a register—an index of those who have had anything to do with militancy. A father of three daughters now, my brother can’t apply for a passport and every time, I have to renew my own or my kids’, I have to grease many a palm to get a security clearance certificate.
The incident could have led me or my brother in any direction, including picking up a gun, but I decided to wield the pen instead. Had I picked up the gun, I’d have been killed in an encounter or blown up in a blast. The pain of my humiliation didn’t overpower me ever and I didn’t think of avenging it to the extent of bringing harm to another human being. Neither did my brother, who quietly slipped into life’s daily routines without bothering much about the hell he had been through. When I told a high-ranking Indian army officer about my ordeal, he had to say this: “Farooq, if I were in your place, I would have most certainly joined the militant ranks and avenged my humiliation.”
From Burhan Wani to the scholar-turned-militant, Manan Wani and hundreds of others, tales of harassment which often go unreported, emerge in one or the other form.
Children who report high levels of exposure to violence — either as witness or victim — report the highest levels of depression, anger and anxiety. Exposure to violence could have other long-term impacts as well: children could get desensitised to violence and its effects. Studies have shown that children can come to believe that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. Such children are also at a risk of perpetrating violence against others.
This is exactly what many young boys – if not most – who are subjected to one or the other form of brutality, have been doing over the years. For all we know, Adil could be one such instance. And nobody knows for sure how many more Pulwamas may be lying ahead.
I survived to write my story. Others, sadly, do it with their blood – and the blood of others.