Srinagar: Unidentified Army soldiers allegedly forced villagers in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district to chant the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan inside a mosque, prompting two former J&K chief ministers to demand a probe.
The incident, which took place when the Union home minister Amit Shah was visiting J&K to review the security situation, triggered massive outrage with civil society activists and political leaders terming it a violation of religious freedom and an assault on the sanctity of religious places of Muslims.
The Army’s Srinagar-based spokesperson and Kashmir Valley’s police chief Vijay Kumar could not be reached for comments. A senior police officer, however, said that an inquiry has been ordered to ascertain facts.
Locals of Zadoora told The Wire that the incident took place in the intervening night of Friday, June 23, and Saturday, June 24, at around 1:30 am when a group of soldiers from the Army’s 50 Rashtriya Rifles arrived in the village. The soldiers were said to have been accompanied by an unidentified officer.
“While the officer was sitting on the bonnet of one of the vehicles, the soldiers asked me to come out. I thought that they were looking for some suspects in the village,” said Mohammad Altaf Bhat, who lives in Zadoora.
Bhat, who is the chairman of Zadoora Civil Society, said that the soldiers told him that a new team has been posted in the area and they were carrying out a mock drill in the village to teach the recruits how counterinsurgency operations were undertaken.
“I told them that the operation could have been carried out during the day also and it was wrong to disturb villagers in the middle of the night,” Bhat said, adding that the villagers were kept awake till the break of dawn.
Locals alleged that during the ‘operation’, Army soldiers detained at least 10 youngsters of the village, five of whom were beaten up, including Bhat’s son, Javed Ahmad, who works as a teacher.
“They used a belt and beat him repeatedly. His back suffered bruises,” Bhat said, showing a photograph of his son, purportedly taken after the assault.
At the crack of dawn, when a local (muezzin) went inside the mosque to issue the call for prayers (azaan), Bhat said, the Army soldiers followed him. “In the middle of the azaan, the soldiers forced him to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans,” said Bhat.
“They (soldiers) forced the detained youngsters to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans in chorus behind him also,” Bhat said.
Local sources said the Army also allegedly vandalised Jamia Masjid Zadoora, the largest mosque in this south Kashmir village, where ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans were also chanted over loudspeaker.
As the news of the assault spread on Saturday morning, agitated villagers came out of their homes and started shouting slogans against the Army. Sources said that the situation was brought under control after the intervention of the civil and police administration.
A senior Army officer, who spoke with The Wire on the condition of anonymity, said that the incident has “come into their notice”. “We are ascertaining the facts. Once we have clarity about what has happened, we will share the details,” the officer said.
A local, who didn’t wish to be named, said that there was an encounter between militants and security forces in the area some time back in which the Army had reportedly suffered casualties, “Since then, they (Army) have been taking out the anger on the civilians,” he said.
The incident is the first of its kind in many months in which the Army is facing locals’ accusations of torture – of the kind reminiscent of the situation in the Valley in the aftermath of the reading down of Article 370 by the Union government.
The Associated Press, Al Jazeera and BBC among other news outlets had carried several accounts wherein Kashmiris had alleged that they were tortured by the Army while they were in their custody. The Army had however denied the allegations.
The incident in Zadoora took place at a time when the Union home minister was visiting Jammu and Kashmir to review the security situation in the run up to the Amarnath Yatra which is set to begin next month with more than five lakh pilgrims expected to undertake the annual pilgrimage this year.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti asked the Union defence and mome ministers, and the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps commander Lt Gen. Rajiv Ghai to order a probe into the incident.
Shocked to hear about army troops from 50 RR storming into a mosque at Pulwama & forcing muslims inside to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’. Such a move when @AmitShah is here & that too ahead of yatra is simply an act of provocation. Request @RgGhai to immediately set up a probe.
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) June 24, 2023
Omar tweeted, “Reports of security force personnel entering a mosque in Zadoora in Pulwama are deeply distressing.”
Reports of security force personnel entering a mosque in Zadoora in Pulwama are deeply distressing. It’s bad enough they entered but then forcing people to chant slogans like “Jai Shree Ram” as reported by the locals there, is unacceptable. I hope @rajnathsingh ji will issue… pic.twitter.com/POyuN3srA3
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) June 25, 2023