The Union government has ordered The Caravan to take down its article on allegations of torture and murder against the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district within 24 hours. The Wire is republishing a section of that article. On Feb 14, 2024, the magazine removed the article . An archived version is still available on the internet here and here [PDF]
Higher authorities, at least publicly, seem to be going out of their way to heal wounds in Topa Peer. Clearly, they have not taken this event lightly. On 25 December, Manoj Pande, the army’s chief of staff, visited Jammu, though he reportedly only looked into the prevailing security situation in the region. Two days later, Rajnath Singh, India’s defence minister, visited Rajouri. He had flowery words for the troops on the occasion saying, “While we aim to eliminate the terrorists, our aim should be bigger; we have to win the hearts of our countrymen.” He went on to refer to the incidents of 22 December, but merely as a “mistake” that may hurt the citizens of the country. Days later, Home Minister Amit Shah also chaired a security review meeting on Jammu and Kashmir, reportedly attended by the chiefs of the IB, the army, the police, the National Investigation Agency and the Research and Analysis Wing—India’s foreign intelligence agency.
Back in Topa Peer, though, the army seemed to be in overdrive. In early January, the army accelerated Operation Sadbhavana—a counter-insurgency mission that involved building schools and distributing free food to civilians, aimed at winning “hearts and minds.” They refurbished a government dispensary, and distributed notebooks and pencils to children. Most notably, locals told me, the army had begun work on building a road to the village, with earth movers already rolling in to cut down the forests leading up to the village.
The families of those who had died on 22 December were not moved. Speaking about the new solar lights that had been set up across the village under Operation Sadbhavana, Lal’s daughter-in-law, Rangeela Begum, told me, “They blacked out our lives and are now installing solar lights … this is no substitute for justice. It’s just hooliganism.”
For the affected families, the bundles of cash they received—Rs 10 lakh for the dead and lesser for the injured—were expected to replace their loved ones. Nazir, Shaukat’s father, was visited by the commanding officer of the 16 RR and a brigadier, who handed him Rs 10 lakh. Vali was given the same amount. He told me he did not know what to do with it. “We are labourers and I have worked my whole life with the border roads organisation,” he said. “I raised my children in extreme poverty and hoped one day they will take care of me when I get old.” The money would do little to help. Farooq got Rs 2.3 lakh, while Irfaan got Rs 1.5 lakh. Fazal was given Rs 2.5 lakh. Now barely able to walk, he told me the money was meaningless. “I have five kids and a family of seven to support. I don’t see myself being able to work ever again.”
Multiple serving and retired army officers told me that this money likely came from military intelligence funds, which are usually unaccounted for. “The cases of army trying to compensate an illegal act or a crime committed by its men is not new, though the money is meant for various operations and the connected requirements, including rewarding informers,” a serving army officer told me. “But it used to be covert … in private, not so blatant and overt.” A retired senior army officer told me that such a blatant display of money, without any exemplary justice and restoration of the faith of those affected, is “worse than blood money.” The notes the affected families showed me were fresh, still wrapped in the plastic of the currency mints of Nashik and Dewas, even showing their recent date of manufacture. Two Indian Revenue Service officers told me that this could mean that these notes came directly from the mint and that even the Reserve Bank of India might not be aware of this leakage of funds.
While state governments often give solatia for families of those who suffered in a disaster, the army itself publicly handing out money is likely unprecedented, even in a region where it has engineered its fair share of disasters. Multiple locals, including village chiefs, told me that the cash was the symbol of a compromise, so the families would not pursue the case. But, in a court of law, compromises can only be reached between equal parties. Rangeela Begum told me that there can never be a provision of compromise or compensation when there are unequal parties involved. “We might be poor but we still want justice.”
Massacres are not rare in Jammu and Kashmir. From the Jammu massacres of 1947 to the Gawkadal, Handwara, Zakoora, Hawal, Bijbehera, Sopore and Kupwara massacres in the 1990s alone, they have a long history. Custodial torture, killings and staged encounters are commoner still. The way the Indian state has often dealt with extrajudicial violence is by further clampdowns, shutting off the internet, announcing curfews and flooding in more troops. In that sense, the response to the 22 December case is a break in the pattern.
This break is likely because of the identity of the victims, all Gujjars and Bakkerwals. Not only are the communities crucial for the army’s ability to function in the Pir Panjal region and an indispensable source of intelligence, they also play vitally into the BJP’s hope for the region. The Gujjars and Bakkerwals are together the third largest ethnic group in the union territory. Since 2020, a three-member delimitation commission has been working to redistrict the region, its latest report adding seats to the Hindu-majority Jammu region to accord it nearly the same electoral weight as the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. The BJP’s Hindu-majoritarian impulses for the region cannot succeed without preserving its tenuous but still existent relationship with the Gujjar and Bakkerwal communities.
“In last few elections the BJP realised that they are unable to breach Pir Panjal electorally because a majority of the population are Muslim,” Bilal Rashid, a Congress leader from Jammu and Kashmir, told me. “In some newly reserved seats in this region the Gujjar-Bakerwals are around 40 to 45 percent of the electorate and decide outcomes. They also have a significant presence in other constituencies.” He added that the communities are, “patriotic and because of this politics they are finding it tough to work along the border,” especially now with an increase in militancy in the region. The centrality of the community to the BJP’s plans means that an increasingly politicised army, too, needs to react differently than how it may have in the past.
But these suggestions seem to be only paper thin. Two senior army officials told me that while the army was advertising its new Sadbhavana drive in Poonch, Lieutenant General Upendra Dwivedi, the chief of the army’s Northern Command, sent out directions to be complied by all ranks below him. These are ominous directions, which suggests that little will change.
The directions note that the army should identify “black, grey and white villages and population—treat accordingly.” This suggests a continued policy of collective punishment in the region. It also added that the aura of the army must be felt. Oddly, the army does not seem to aim at stamping out militancy in the region, instead noting that the southern Pir Panjal region, can have an acceptable figure of around thirty militants. The directions seemingly contain instructions from Amit Shah that the army will be an umbrella organisation and that the army has to play a pivotal role in the entire process, including initiatives of development programmes. It concludes with a single point: “Aggressive outlook.”
We cannot know for certain what these instructions might mean for the families of Topa Peer. But they at least spell out that the army’s role in their villages is unlikely to recede and that people will only be seen through a lens of suspicion. The borders the village has lived alongside for centuries seem unlikely to disappear, as do the militants and the army. But the families told me they had hoped for at least some things to change—that their cases would be registered and proper investigations would take place, ensuring a semblance of the justice that is taken for granted elsewhere in the country. The last time I met Noor, he still seemed to be shrugging off the uniform he was not wearing. After discussing the case for hours, he had little else to say. His head in his hands, finally, he said, “Who will work for the country if you start killing us in cold blood like this?”
Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with more than 25 years of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.