Human Rights

‘Mistaken Identities’ and ‘Regrets’ in the Iron Curtained frontier Kupwara

Well before Kupwara’s taxi driver would become the latest civilian casualty in the garrisoned province on Dec 16, the military ‘loose guns’ had gone berserk around. Some 100kms from Srinagar and plentiful perceptions away, Kupwara has been suffering on more than one count since the late eighties when it paved way for the ‘Sarhad Paar’.

As fresh blood that army spilled over the receding snow of Kupwara’s Thandipora in the name of “ambush” is agitating the scene, a quintessential villager turned up for the mourning draws some disturbing parallels.

The killing has stirred up a nightmare of December 1990 when a boy—too frail to challenge the sturdy military setup around him, like the slain cabdriver Asif Iqbal Bhat—was done to death in a night hour. 27 years later, the man’s tribe is only surviving in the name of living in the province, which became a highly militarised zone after the massive militant march took off.

“Nothing has changed here,” says heartbroken Ramzan, an elder in Thandipora, assuming a silent stance amid the charged crowd. “They killed Asif, like they killed that boy when Kupwara became the Jasney Azaadi’s route to Azad Kashmir. We mourned then, like we’re mourning now.”

Around him, the ‘dark slaughter’ is robbing off the scenic village’s uneasy calm. The only solace to the mourners—pitted against the stern, armed helmeted cops—comes from the repeated sloganeering. Some livid lads have left a trail of anger behind: the path littered with bricks and stones, countered by teargas canisters.

Behind the fuming facade created by the classic stone-bullet clash in Thandipora, the Samaritan Asif Iqbal’s killing is being termed as a barking reminder served to the lamenting villages that loose guns are still shadowing them—despite rebranding themselves as friends “with heart as a weapon” some years ago—who can fire anytime, to recreate another sob-session in this countryside, where villagers are required to carry flashlights or lanterns after sundown when walking outdoors.

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It was outside his home that the cabdriver carrying a torch was shot dead on the night of December 16. The slain’s chemist sibling recalls how guns were even trained at their house after they tried to come to their dying son’s rescue. The bullets fired at the house apparently deflate the army’s claim of “cross-firing”—and police’s version of “mistaken identity”.

“It was target-firing,” says a mourner putting up a militant face, “which army’s trigger-happy troops are quite notorious for. But once they kill, they call it cross-firing or mistaken identity—or whatever that suits them.”

Not far away, Asif’s inconsolable sister is mourning, recreating the signature mourning sight for onlookers and just another heart-wrenching click for the lensmen.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Abubakar

Each drop of tear that is being shed for the Shaheed is expressing helplessness with which the garrisoned populace is living and braving everyday.

Thandipora is a militarily-woven area, sandwiched between Kralpora and Chowkibal, the gateway to Tangdhar, where the army population exceeds the civilian number. The settlement of 100 odd families is located within the garrison. At the backside of it, Dardpora—the village of widows—provides an ominous background to Thandipora.

The villagers tell tales of survival amid heightened militarisation. Some say Thandipora and other adjoining villages were one of the first rural pockets declared militancy-free in Kashmir. The last gun, they say, fell silent, as early as in 1994—when militancy was still at its peak in many parts of Kashmir.

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“The collective surrender inside this garrison village made us informers and collaborators for other Kupwara villages, still resisting then,” says Sajid Bhat, a villager, who as a teenager had to live with tease and taunts. “What people didn’t understand then was, there’s no free will inside a garrison. I still remember how many young men being shadowed by forces for years ended up joining the police and army for survival. We can’t even protest. And when you kill a person from such a least reactive belt, you’re only exposing your nasty kill campaign.”

Perhaps it also makes farce of the “heart as a weapon” doctrine—otherwise being ‘religiously pursued’ by the army in this part of the world.

But as women wail and the young shout slogans, Sajid sits quiet, mulling absorbingly over the sudden departure of the military-maintained calm of his village.

Army garrison at Kupwara.

At the outskirts of Thandipora, the Langate lawmaker has turned-up with his followers, chanting “Raishuamri” slogans in loop. Like a compulsive prisoner, he tries to bypass the robust police fence. Sitting on a blacktop with his men, he froths in fury, staring hard at the uninformed men. Much of the anger stems from the fact that how human rights are being repeatedly violated in Kupwara district.

“We’ve just become toys in the hands of the army here,” says Er Rasheed, whose constituency Langate is part of Kupwara district. “They kill us for the heck of it and then express regret. We’ve already raised one generation under these recurrent events. One can only imagine their mindset.” The politician recalls an episode that perhaps highlights the uncertainty in the province.

In nineties, he says, an army major was seen distributing sweets among village kids in the Kupwara district. It was the army’s way of celebrating killing of a local militant, he recalls, and pauses to stare angrily at cops.

“Among those boys,” Rasheed says, “was a minor son of the slain militant. Like other kids, he made merry that day without knowing that he was eating sweets in the name of his father’s blood!” Such episodes exist in plenty and perhaps never made it to Srinagar dailies and magazines.

When a Kupwara village was subjected to fifteen days of consecutive crackdown in the nineties, the villagers thought it might find some space in Srinagar papers. But the military iron-curtain would hardly leak anything for the Press. “Only small news items would appear in an Urdu weekly Chatan, owned by Tahir Mohiuddin of Kupwara,” says Mushtaq Khan, a teacher.

Not far away in Panzgam, the cabdriver’s killing has reminded villagers of the spring slaughter involving 45-year-old Mohammad Yousuf, killed on April 27, 2017. That day the elder was a part of the procession demanding the mortal remains of two militants killed in a Fidayeen attack on an army camp in Panzgam, leaving three army men, including a Captain, dead. Yousuf died in army firing, but police termed it as a “matter of investigation”.

“The slain man was killed by the same camp where his son is working,” says Showkat, a trader. “Many more would’ve died that day, hadn’t a cop pushed away a gun trained by an army Major at the protesters. He possibly averted another massacre in Kupwara that day.”

Last time when a massacre happened, it amassed 27 dead bodies within 20 minutes in Kupwara. The day—Jan 27, 1994—continues to etch in memories as a lingering nightmare. Two days earlier, the army officials had strictly warned traders and transporters in the town of dire consequences if they observed a shutdown call by pro-freedom camp on January 26. Kupwara defied the army call and observed the shutdown.

Next day, on January 27, it was Shab-e-Bharaat, and swarms of people had thronged the Iqbal Market for shopping. Suddenly, bullet shots echoed the town. People started to run for their lives. But guns of 15 Punjab Regiment army men refused to fall silent till they killed 27 persons. After the massacre, people were called outside their homes for identification. FIR NO_19/94 U/s 302, 307 RPC stands filed in Police Station, Kupwara, but no investigation has taken place in this case till now. Like common in those days, the CID enquiry report states, this gruesome incident was done with criminal intention.

By then, perhaps, the army had learned to express customary regret over killings they termed as a “mistake” in the first place. But behind this military lexicon, Kupwara lost dear—and continues to suffer. Years before the gun would fire to kill under dark impunity in Thandipora, the province had understood how perilous the night forays had become. However, on July 24, 2005—when the Healing Touch was sending normalcy signals around—four boys decided to give that normalcy a chance.

That night, Bilal Sheikh, Shabir Shah, Wasim Wani and Manzoor Shah were attending a marriage ceremony in Kupwara. Amid celebrations, they slipped out to smoke. It was midnight when the sudden gunshots shocked everyone.

As soon as the firing stopped, the villagers scurried home to safety. At about 4am, army men arrived at the home of the groom, Farooq Shah, informing him that his brother—Manzoor Shah—had been injured and asked his father to come with them to the hospital. The three other boys were still conspicuously missing.

At around 9:30am, the village headman returned with the army men and told the villagers that the army had opened fire, claiming to have “mistaken” the four teenagers for militants. Three of them—Bilal, Shabir and Wasim—had been killed, leaving Manzoor in hospital with critical injuries.

That day as the dead bodies were brought to the village, everyone wondered why the army was conducting operations so close to the village, when the groom’s family had already gone to the army camp, inviting troops to the wedding and informing them formally that the festivities would go on late into the night.

The army apologized for the incident and offered Rs 3 lakh in compensation for each of the three deaths. “We’ve to learn from this incident,” the Srinagar-based army spokesman said. “We’re already in the process of reviewing our operating procedures.” The army—whose top brasses would argue that the extraordinary powers to shoot have led to “mistakes”—described the incident as an “error of judgment”.

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But the “mistake” was again committed next year on February 22, 2006, when four Kashmiri youth between the ages of eight and 18 were killed while playing cricket in Kupwara district. The army termed them as “crossfire” casualties. The killings sparked several days of anti-government protests in the area, forcing the then Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad and the army to launch separate ‘inquires’ into the matter besides announcing compensation to the families of the victims.

That year, the forces went on to kill a girl and her uncle in Kupwara when they were heading towards a nearby jungle to get firewood. The army issued its ‘regrets’ and advised the people against venturing out during night hours.

Such killings became a somewhat regular feature of Kupwara after the armed uprising against the Indian state erupted in Kashmir in the late eighties. Kupwara’s proximity with the Line of Control made it a “frontier town”—synonymous with infiltration bids, encounters, killing fields and the unending LoC flare ups.

But managing the ‘frontlines’—that witnessed the historic Rawalpindi march during the early 90s—send a major load of the 700,000 Indian troops stationed in Kashmir to Kupwara. It proved costly for the commoners.

The villages at the ‘fringes’ became ghost towns because of the extensive mining operations. Some years back an army spokesman confirmed that there’re 51 minefields near the LoC in Kupwara district with a minimum of 100 landmines in each field. In a stretch of 12 kilometres of land, at least 5,000 landmines lay buried for decades. These seeded explosives not only endangered human life, but also took a heavy toll on cattle.

“Lolab Valley, Kashmir, India”

Amid this, the “repeated tagging of slain civilians as militants freaked out Kupwara,” says Hamid Ali, a forester in the town. “I still remember how a 60-year-old labourer Muhammad Yousuf Lone of Doorusa Kupwara was killed by 118BN BSF at Takipora Road on 17 June, 1996 and passed off as a militant.” That day, he says, 52-year-old chowkidaar Ghulam Gani was also killed by 107BN BSF at Takipora Road. From a chowkidaar, how Gani became a militant is still baffling Ali.

“One more person from Doorsu Nisaar Magray, 20, was shot dead by 62 BN BSF on 6th January, 1996 at Wani Doorsu,” he says. “Being a student, Nisaar was labelled as a militant and then killed in cold-blood.”

And when the likes of government gunmen like Jallaludin—who would be paid visits by Rajesh Pilot in the run-up to the Ikhwan rising in Kashmir—Laldin and Rashid Khan emerged on the scene, Kupwara further passed through ordeals. Khan’s gunmen stand accused of killing 23 Jama’at rank and file in a single day in Kupwara.

“Such horrible incidents triggered an internal migration in Kupwara,” says Ess Ahmad Pirzada, a Kupwara native known for his book “Wadai Khoonab” that carries profiles of 120 slain persons of 2010 uprising. “Many began living in Srinagar. And today, 20 percent population in the Bemina area of Srinagar is constituted by Kupwara people, who make their ample presence in other newly cropped Srinagar neighbourhoods, too.” Pirzada sees the larger crisis in the migration triggered by Kashmir’s protracted conflict.

“While it squeezed the space for Srinagarites, it also highlights how the military is forcing villagers to sell their swatches of land for peanuts and take refuge in whatever space is left in Srinagar. This might be our good-bad reality, but then, we need to understand how military is creating this crisis for Kashmiris.”

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But those who stayed put had to follow the military will. During the 2008 Assembly elections, most voters in Kralagund Kupwara were coerced to participate. “Those who stayed away from polling booths figured on agencies’ radar and were subsequently targeted,” says Amin Aslam, a retired engineer in Kupwara. “Some were even killed.”

Amid this bloodcurdling campaign, people left behind their homes and hearths in their native villages where some of them had lost their beloveds.

When Ali Mohammad Mir of Dardpora Kupwara was arrested by 66 BN BSF on August 9, 1990 from Kralpora Market, he was not heard of, despite a case FIR 11/92 of custodial disappearance registered with Police Station Trehgam. “He was a teacher and was on his way to work, at Govt. Higher Secondary School Kralapora, Kupwara,” says Hilal Syed, who studied in Mir’s school. “He vanished never to be found again.”

Years later as Kralpora throws up mass graves in its Mazar-e-Shohda, Hilal realised the possible fate of his teacher. The rights body had found 300 unidentified dead bodies in the graveyard. Such graveyards also surfaced in other parts of Kupwara: Kalaroos Khas (70), Sogam (80), Chandigam (50), Regipora (400), Villgam (150), Trehgam (150) Batapora (200), and others. Apart from Uri and Bandipora, Kupwara had a sizeable share in total 2730 unidentified dead bodies in unmarked graves across the northern region. Many felt that they may be victims of unlawful killings, or those termed as ‘disappeared persons’. Till date, enforced disappearances haven’t stopped.

In Dec 2015, three villagers from Kupwara disappeared after being ‘lured’ by a Territorial Army man for a job in the Indian army. A relative of law minister Haq Khan also disappeared from Dewer this year. He was last seen begging for his life inside an army camp.

To manage the war-load, the army tried to manage the mess they created through Operation Goodwill. But after ‘maintaining peace for over a decade, slaps and kicks as greetings forced the villagers to erupt in raging protests during the 2016 uprising. Perhaps Sadbhavana couldn’t help in maintaining the uneasy calm in the Valley. Even the army lately asserted that Kashmir needs a political than a military solution.

At Thandipora, as slogans continue to resound amid moist eyes, Rehman recalls the fate of the December 1990 killing amid the December 2017 kill rage in his village. That day, he recalls, army caught a village boy and killed him in nearby Nyari army camp during the night.

27 years later, the deadly December has only returned to haunt the villagers.

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