Curfew and killings in Kashmir
It is the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, which commemorates the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, symbolic of sacrifice and fighting against tyranny. While huge processions take place across the world, in Srinagar, the day is marked by curfews, denying religious freedom to its people.
Fourteen-year-old Faisal Ahmad was at a cloth merchant’s shop when three of his friends persuaded him to join them to witness the annual Muharram processions in Chattergam, in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The four friends set out in a car to see the processions. En route were various checkpoints and blockades put up by the Indian army after it had received information ‘about the movement of suspected militants’. According to witness and family accounts, the car skidded at a one of the checkpoints and hit an electric pole before coming to a halt. But the trigger-happy troops opened indiscriminate fire, killing Faisal and his friend Mehraj-ud-din Dar.
A lawmaker of the main opposition party in Kashmir, who happened to be near to where the incident took place, says the troops fired between 50-60 bullets. ‘I heard three bursts of fire… I was shocked to see scores of bullet-marks on the car. I reached the spot and saw scores of bullets had been pumped into the bodies of these youth,’ he recalls.
Two others in the car, Shakir Ahmad and Zahid Ahmad, were severely injured and remain in a critical condition. A newspaper report mentions that the injured boys were taken into custody before being sent to one of the army hospitals. Contrary to the army’s claims that the car hadn’t stopped at the checkpoint, witness accounts maintain the vehicle had stopped a few metres ahead of the checkpoint, after which the army had opened fire.
After the killings, anti-India and pro-freedom protests broke out in Nowgam and other adjoining areas. Government forces resorted to heavy teargas shelling. Government authorities decided to impose further curfews in parts of Srinagar and the Budgam district.
Lack of accountability is rife in this war-torn region, with the state resorting to rhetoric and buying time instead of punishing the perpetrators. Kashmir has a history of a culture of impunity enjoyed by the army.
Instead of taking action, Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was concerned over the forthcoming elections in the region. ‘These deaths have served to vitiate the poll atmosphere already strained by the post-flood reconstruction challenge that people face,’ he said.
Police have filed a First Information Report against the army. A senior police official said: ‘Nothing incriminating was found [on] the slain or injured youth.’ The Indian army issued a statement saying it ‘regretted the loss of lives’ and that it had ordered a ‘court of inquiry’; police authorities claimed that ‘necessary action [would] be taken according to law’. But ironically it is the law which guarantees carte blanche powers to the army in Kashmir. The law doesn’t allow the civil government to try troops in public courts and the decisions of military courts are seldom made public.
Ordering a futile series of probes or enquiries has become a mere ritual, in which the people of Kashmir do not believe. It buys time and exhausts people, while acting as a PR technique for the state. In Kashmir, institutions such as the courts and police act as extensions of India’s militarist state.
The families of the dead boys have rejected the army’s investigations. The brother of one of them explained: ‘This isn’t the first such episode…[they] order a probe which doesn’t yield anything. They [the army] are the judge, they are the culprits. What should we expect?’
Not surprisingly, the Indian media called the schoolchildren ‘terrorists’ and attempted to gloss over the army’s crimes.
The battle of Karbala may have taken place hundreds of years ago, but memories of unabated repression are seldom recounted without an allusion to it. In the words of the noted Kashmiri-American poet Aga Shahid Ali: Only Karbala could frame our grief.