NEW DELHI, India — In a two-story brick home in Srinagar's old city, hundreds of relatives and neighbors waited throughout the night for the police to return the body of 17-year-old Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, who was allegedly killed by a teargas shell fired at him by police during a protest last week. When his body finally arrived on the morning of June 12, the gloom erupted into anger. Mattoo’s mother, Rubina, fainted. Scores of other women wailed and beat their chests, and the men raised slogans like “We want freedom,” and “Prosecute the killers.”
Mattoo's father, Muhammad Ashraf, was sitting dazed on his lawn. "There is no greater burden than to shoulder a son’s coffin. Who will now shoulder my coffin when I’m dead?” he said. “India is the largest democracy in the world but what they’re doing in Kashmir is not good,” he said, referring to alleged human rights violations by the army and police.
Mattoo's death has further inflamed anti-India sentiment in the Kashmir valley, which was already reeling under violent protests due to revelations of the alleged murder of three innocent young men by Indian army officers at the end of April. Now, by prompting a renewed embrace of hard-line separatist politicians, the fresh evidence of the state's human rights violations might not just derail Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's efforts to win hearts and minds in Kashmir but also stymie his efforts to resuscitate the peace process with Pakistan.
“It makes people more angry and more extremist,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor of sociology at Kashmir University. “Moderate voices will become weaker and weaker and die if this situation continues, and there's no evidence that it's going to change.”
Beginning with Mattoo's funeral June 12, when thousands joined the procession in defiance of police orders, raising chants of “God is great” and “Blood for blood,” demonstrators and stone-throwers thronged the streets this week. And, in what could be a scene from the height of separatist Kashmiri militancy in the 1990s, the police responded with the same tactics that caused Mattoo's death in the first place, firing into the air and shooting teargas shells into the crowd.
Mattoo's death was ostensibly an accident, though Srinagar's boy “stone pelters” say that police often fire teargas canisters at them, rather than into the air. But Indian-administered Kashmir's occupation by as many as 500,000 troops — a greater number of soldiers than were present in Iraq during the height of the conflict — has had its premeditated victims, too. In a bitter twist of fate, Mattoo was killed June 11 while protesting the alleged murder of three boys much like himself by officers of the Indian army.
Earlier this month, the army removed a colonel from his command and suspended a major serving under him for their involvement in the alleged killing of Mohamad Shafi, Shehzad Ahmed Khan and Riyaz Ahmed, who police say were murdered under the guise of a staged gun battle with separatist militants. But local residents and outside observers alike remain convinced that the subsequent investigation — which will be handled internally by the Indian military — will be geared to protect, rather than prosecute, the alleged offenders.
This summer's rage marks the end of what might have been. Last year India removed as many as 35,000 soldiers from Kashmir in recognition of the most peaceful year in the valley since a militant separatist movement began in 1989. This was despite its relations with Islamabad being as tense as ever after evidence linked the terrorists responsible for the November 26, 2008 attacks on Mumbai to Pakistan's Inter-service Intelligence (ISI).
The prime minister had promised a zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations, and talks had begun in apparent earnestness about revising or repealing the hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants the military sweeping license to make arbitrary arrests, search private homes, and shoot to kill — and blocks civilian inquiries into its activities. But before the ink was dry on the press releases announcing the troop reductions, in April the home ministry issued new statements warning of an uptick in infiltration from across the border. In the first three months of 2010, according to official data, India's security forces foiled more than 60 incursion attempts from Pakistan-based militants and engaged in 35 gunfights with separatist fighters.
These days, angry Kashmiris are wondering how many of those battles might have been staged, and some people are questioning the sincerity of the supposedly zero-tolerance prime minister after he seemed to justify the occasional killing of innocent civilians in a recent speech.
“There are a handful of people who don't want any political process for empowering people to succeed,” Singh said in a speech at Sher-e-Kashmir University June 7. “This is the reason that attempts to disturb the lives of people in the valley continue from across the Line of Control. Our security agencies are forced to act in the wake of such incidents. Sometimes, innocent civilians have to suffer.”
Human rights watchdogs argue that under AFSPA, that kind of innocent suffering has become routine.
Earlier this year, an independent fact-finding team of academics and judges who traveled to Kashmir to interview witnesses concluded that AFSPA “has undoubtedly facilitated grave human rights abuses” including gang rape and murder. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) has collected testimony suggesting that as many as 8,000 people have disappeared from Kashmir since 1989, while another Srinagar-based human rights group, International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice for Kashmir (IPTJ), claimed in December to have discovered as many as 2,700 unmarked graves in the state over a three-year investigation into unexplained disappearances.
Lt. Col. J.S. Brar, Indian army spokesman, insisted that if the latest allegations are founded, justice will be fair and swift. “We have prosecuted and taken military action against over 100 people,” he said, referring to past cases. “We've cashiered people from service and given terms of seven years rigorous imprisonment. Our policy is total zero tolerance of human rights violations. The public perception is wrong because we don't publicize those actions. Our actions are taken within months, whereas the legal system takes years.”
But few share his faith in the army's internal investigations.
"If the army is serious about punishing those responsible for this latest incident, it will transfer the suspects to the police for trial in a civilian court," a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Given the army's poor record in holding its soldiers accountable, there is no reason to believe that a military court can be trusted to deliver justice."
Making matters worse for Singh's hearts and minds campaign are suggestions that the most recent of the alleged murders were inadvertently encouraged by military policy. Shortly after the criminal investigation into the case was opened, for instance, Saifuddin Soz, the president of the Jammu & Kashmir division of Singh's own Indian National Congress party, called for a review of a procedure in which he said army officers are granted citations and cash rewards for killing militants. "I have requested the defense minister to revisit the policy of cash awards,” Soz said. “Motivation for crime flows from the greed.” A local news report claimed that the army pays bounties of $5,000 to $20,000 for the killing or capture of top militants, sharing the reward among soldiers and informers.
“There is no truth to that,” Lieutenant Colonel Brar said. “There is no policy of giving cash rewards or promotions or gallantry awards for killing people.”
About 60 kilometers from Srinagar, in the hometown of the three young men who were allegedly lured to the border by informers and killed by military personnel — Mohamad Shafi, Shehzad Ahmed Khan and Riyaz Ahmed — that's a tough sell.
Shortly after the incident, 20-year-old Jabeena Khan sat in silence, holding her 5-year-old son on her lap in her living room, as a group of her relatives and neighbors tried to explain to her the events leading to the exhumation of the body of her husband, Shehzad Ahmad Khan, from a graveyard near the so-called Line of Control between Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, some 100 kilometers away.
At the end of April, the Indian army’s 4 Rajput unit claimed to have killed three terrorists trying to sneak across the border from Pakistan. But when residents of their hometown saw the pictures of the supposed infiltrators in the newspaper, they recognized the men as their missing friends and relatives. Sure enough, when the authorities exhumed the bodies at the insistence of their families, the corpses were identified as three missing innocents who had nothing to do with militancy. Their only crime was that they were tempted to travel to the Line of Control by the offer of jobs as porters with the army.
Seated close to Khan's grieving widow, Fayaz Ahmed Wani, the last man to see Khan before he went away with the army informers, was still stunned. “I never thought it would be our last meeting,” he said.
Khan’s uncle, a policeman himself, was devastated, but not surprised. Sitting hunched with head on his knees, he murmured, “I know these stories. This place has become cursed, [a land] where men are sold and then killed for rewards.”
With reporting by Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar