Kashmir’s ever-present torture chambers

​The world’s attention has turned away from Kashmir since a suicide attack in February killed 44 Indian paramilitaries. Umar Lateef Misgar reports on an alleged victim of a policing crackdown that followed: a school teacher who was found tortured to death.

An Indian police officer fires a tear gas shell towards demonstrators, during a protest against killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Assadullah Pandit, a retired government employee from Awantipora, in Indian-administered Kashmir, sits down at home, looking despondent. He is mourning the sudden loss of one of his sons.

Twenty-eight-year-old Rizwan Assad Pandit died while in police custody, sometime between 17 and 18 March.

‘The police barged into our home just before the midnight of [the] 17th and detained Rizwan, while the rest of us remained huddled inside one of the rooms,’ Zulqarnain Assad, Rizwan’s younger brother says, as he serves me tea and biscuits in the family’s modestly-built home.

The picturesque region of Kashmir has been a site of bitter dispute between India and Pakistan since the end of British rule in 1947 and subsequent reconfiguration of borders in the subcontinent.

Kashmiris have consistently demanded to exercise their right to self-determination – through a referendum on independence – but both nuclear-armed neighbours remain firm in denying them the choice.

In late 1980, after a heavily-rigged regional election thousands of Kashmiris, supported by Pakistan, embraced armed struggle to bring about an end to the Indian rule.

New Delhi responded with heavy counterinsurgency tactics, sending hundreds of thousands of military and police personnel into the region, in addition to creating and sponsoring informal paramilitary groups. Known as the world’s most densely militarized zone, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Kashmir during the past three decades, thousands tortured and around 10,000 disappeared.

Twenty-eight year old Rizwan Assad Pandit was killed in the custody of local police. Credit: Umar Lateef Misgar

Rizwan’s Story

Rizwan, a teacher at a local private school, who also used to deliver guest lectures at the nearby Islamic University of Science and Technology, is one of the latest victims of state violence.

According to his brothers, he was also a committed social activist and ran a campaign for eradication of drug abuse in the neighbourhood.

‘He also helped many poor students, from different villages, by providing them with the school fees and buying them textbooks,’ Zulqarnain says.

‘After he was killed, a number of parents, who we don’t even know and whom Rizwan had helped with their children’s education, came to our house and cried bitterly,’ he tells me.

After he died in their custody, the local police maintained that Rizwan was a prime suspect in the recent suicide bomb attack on a paramilitary convoy, which killed at least 44 members of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

Believed to be one of the worst ever attacks in terms of casualties incurred by the Indian forces, a 28-year-old local man drove an explosive-laden minivan into a CRPF convoy just a few kilometres north of where Rizwan’s house is located.

The Indian government instantly blamed Islamabad for orchestrating the attack and executing it with the help of an armed insurgent group that is headquartered in Pakistan and operates in Kashmir. While Pakistan denied any involvement, the ensuing confrontation brought the two countries to the brink of an all-out war.

‘A lawless law’

The family, however, vehemently rejects that Rizwan was involved. Even the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s prime counter-terrorist agency, that is probing the suicide attack, in a statement, also firmly denied that Rizwan was a suspect in its investigation.

‘When the NIA has cleared him of any involvement, how could my son be a prime suspect in the attack?’ Assadullah, Rizwan’s father, tells me.

‘Even if he were a dreaded terrorist, custodial torture and killing is still not justified. The suicide-attack label is now being used as a strategic ploy, to undermine any calls for justice’ Assadullah adds.

The preliminary medical reports suggest that ‘profuse bleeding from vessels caused due to multiple injuries’ and ‘extravasation of blood’ that may ‘result in Kidney [sic] failure’ could have been the cause of Rizwan’s death.

Other reports also revealed that ‘a “roller” may have been applied over his legs, causing the veins and arteries to rupture,’ pointing to a widespread torture technique among Indian forces deployed in Kashmir, involving the use of a round, metal object which is placed over the body parts of a detainee, and on which the perpetrator then sits.

‘His legs were swollen, and his body was full of cuts and bruises,’ Zulqarnain revealed. ‘They returned his body without any clothes, wrapped in only a police-issue blanket.’       

Absurdly, the police, however, maintain that Rizwan died after escaping from their custody and have, posthumously, filed criminal charges against him.

The young schoolteacher was also detained last year and kept behind bars for six months under the draconian Public Safety Act, a legislation that enables administrative detention for up to a year and that Amnesty International calls a ‘lawless law’.

While some media reports claim that Rizwan was affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the largest socio-religious organizations in Kashmir that was recently banned by the Indian government under an anti-terror law, his family disagree.

‘My father, occasionally, went to attend Jamaat’s religious gatherings. Beyond that, we don’t have any affiliation with the organization,’ Zulqarnain, Rizwan’s brother, says.

On 20 March, the local administration initiated a special inquiry into this killing, but the results of the investigation are still pending.

‘A lived experience of hell’

The Indian army, paramilitary forces and police have long been accused of carrying out systematic torture in the region. A WikiLeaks cable in 2010 revealed that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had repeatedly briefed US diplomats in India about the use of electrocution, beatings and sexual humiliation against hundreds of detainees in Kashmir.

The cable also discloses that the ICRC had even told the diplomats that Indian authorities ‘condone torture’ in the region and that the ‘torture victims, civilians as well as militants, were routinely killed’. While some estimates suggest that one out of every six Kashmiris have been tortured, a 2014 report put the number of torture centres that still remain functional across Kashmir at 471.

A detainee, one of the lucky few who emerged alive from a torture centre at the peak of armed insurgency in the 1990s, described his two-month ordeal as ‘a lived experience of hell’.

‘They try to break you, physically as well as mentally. And, believe me, they actually succeed,’ he says. ‘Our days were marked by bone-breaking beatings. They also regularly stripped me and tied a wire around my penis to give electric shocks. At the first shock, you lose all sense of place and time.’          

As for Rizwan, at the Sabir Abdullah Public School where he taught, his colleagues remain dumbfounded. ‘He was one of the most hard-working staff members,’ Showkat Ali, the school’s principal says.

‘Many teachers cried bitterly after hearing about this tragedy,’ he adds. Inside the staff-room, where Rizwan mingled with other colleagues, his chair remains empty. ‘We are still unable to reconcile with this loss. Our students are also traumatized,’ one of Rizwan’s other colleagues says. ‘He can never be replaced.’