August siege: Notes on the Collective Punishment in Kashmir

Journalist Freny Manecksha traveled to Kashmir in October last year to collect details of torture, detentions, and molestation by Indian security forces in different places across the Valley following the termination of Kashmir’s special status by India in August. She highlights how different forms of abuse, aided by sophisticated surveillance and village profiling, on individuals in Kashmir by the Indian security forces serve as a collective punishment on the people. 

In the yard of a home in Shopian district in Kashmir, an elderly woman in an old, tattered pheran is hobbling about. Her husband is narrating an account of the arrest of their grandsons (both minors) during a night raid in August, a week after Bakri Eid. Among the most anguished moments, he says, is when his terrified wife, not in sound mental health, was dragged out of the room by Indian Army personnel, with total disregard of the fact that she was not wearing a salwar and that her head was not covered. A teenage girl from the same district confirms that during one such night raid her younger brother and another youth were taken away to an Army camp. Distraught family members, who gathered outside, were made to listen to his cries conveyed through use of a microphone.

It was on August 5 that India’s home minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Article 370 had been abrogated, thereby stripping Kashmir’s special status; 35 A which prevented outsiders from buying land was removed and the state itself had been divided into two Union Territories which means direct rule by the Indian central government. The Indian state continued to insist everything was normal and the people had welcomed the decision but it was marked by a noticeable absence of the voice of Kashmir.

This was because even as landmark decisions were being taken about their land, Kashmiris themselves were under lockdown. A communication blackout, which continues till date, prevented people from using the mobile phones. Even landline connections were cut. Internet connections were severed and severe restrictions on movement made it impossible for journalists to function especially in the first few weeks. Additional troop deployment meant that a million troops took control of the streets and every alley.

Concertina wire and barricades were set up in the first few days and in many places, strict restrictions were in place. Kashmir was severed from the world. Kashmiris were islanded, cut off from even one another. Five months later, services on phones have been restored only partially.

During these days of complete isolation many nocturnal raids, reminiscent of the nineties, were carried out with reckless abandon. In such raids, troops under the cover of darkness enter peoples’ homes hurling threats and abuses. They go on a vandalizing spree, destroying personal property. Windows are smashed, furniture and refrigerators broken. In Habak, a neighbourhood adjoining Srinagar, a group of people gathered to tell us about the complete khauf of these raids, initiated as a tactic to create fear psychosis throughout Kashmir in the post August 5 period. People alleged that public property such as electricity transformers were set on fire and deliberately destroyed by the personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) so that the locality was plunged into darkness and people are deprived of access to electricity.

A man in South Kashmir points to smashed windows of a house that was vandalized by security troops. The house had earlier been destroyed during an encounter and been rebuilt

 

People have spoken about how armed personnel in the pitch darkness threatened to flush them out of their homes with use of pellet guns. Kashmir is the only place where pellet guns are routinely deployed, ostensibly as a weapon to control crowds. One of the thousands of pellet gun victims, who sustained his injuries post August 5, says he did not dare to stay more than a day in the hospital, for fear of being identified and picked up by police who, routinely, pounce on pellet gun victim and slap cases of rioting on them.

In Bemina, a suburb of Srinagar, 32-year-old Fehmeeda died on August 9 of sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest. According to medical records, she developed a severe allergy after inhaling toxic gas in her kitchen caused by intense tear gas shelling in the neighbourhood. The police refused to file a First Information Report and the matter went to court.

A man, released from the police station after an illegal detention, told us how inhabitants of his hamlet in Kulgam district were coerced to pay a collective fine for the burning of a vehicle belonging to a non-local fruit trader. The police refused to listen to the non-locals, who categorically denied the villagers were responsible and even thanked them for pulling them out from the burning vehicle.

An IT professional has complained about his loss of livelihood and letting go his employees as some two thousand IT companies have been forced to shut down. An estimated 25,000 IT professionals have lost their jobs since the government imposed a communication blockade on August 5 and snapped the internet for more than three months.

The Indian state refuses to classify the over three- decade long insurgency in Kashmir as a conflict and thereby evades protocols of the Geneva Convention, but several norms on international humanitarian law are being violated. This “war on people” has intensified exponentially since the lockdown. The night raids, creating a fear psychosis through mass scale detentions, damage to homes, destruction of people’s means of livelihood, use of pepper gas and excessive use of tear gas, torture, ban on internet and other means of communication amount to collective punishment heaped on Kashmiris for the “crime” of voicing their political aspirations.

International humanitarian law (IHL) posits that no person may be punished for acts that he or she did not commit. It ensures that the collective punishment of a group of persons for a case committed by an individual is also forbidden, whether in the case of prisoners of war or any other individuals. It is one of the fundamental guarantees established by the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols. Collective punishment is prohibited, based on the fact that criminal responsibility can be attributed only to individuals. Respect for this principle can be ensured solely by establishing guarantees that protect judicial procedures. This principle must also be monitored in the context of disciplinary sanction procedures.

Collective punishment can broadly be described as imposing harsh punitive measures on a group of people without due regard to their responsibility for any punishable act. It means shifting punishment to an individual or group of individuals who have no responsibility over any dissenting act done by others who happen to be part of the same group. A comprehensive report on torture brought out by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir points out how collective punishment has historically been used as “a defence tool by occupying powers to prevent attacks from resistance movements.”

Such collective punishment has also been used to curb dissent in Kashmir. In the nineties, it manifested in various forms during the cordon-and-search operations (CASO) and crackdowns when people would be forced to come out of their homes or then in public spaces when people would be forced out of their vehicles or public transport. The men would be herded and made to crouch on the ground in humiliating manner.  Even doctors in hospitals were not spared. During these crackdowns many would be picked up, taken to temporary makeshift interrogation centres and tortured as a weapon of deterrence.  

A visit to Kashmir in October 2019, two months after the lockdown, was, for me, a revelatory exercise in how collective punishment is being deployed, aided by even more sophisticated surveillance and village profiling.

Pre-emptive measures and Israeli-style census

The meticulous planning behind the pre-emptive arrests and detentions became evident during a field visit to Kulgam district. Whilst inspecting homes that bore the prints of vandalization, my attention was drawn to the numbers painted in black on the outside wall of each home. Villagers said such numbering was part of a door-to-door survey conducted by the Army. Subsequently, perusing media reports dating back to over two years ago, one got an understanding of the systematic manner in which the Army had carried out such an Israeli-style census to facilitate profiling and subsequent swoop down on youths.  

Some examples:

  • In December 2017, the Army began numbering houses and went on a door-to-door survey in villages like Trichal, Tahab and Naira of Pulwama District. The local civil administration had not been informed. Deputy Commissioner Pulwama G M Dar told the media, “Neither police nor Army has informed me.” A Srinagar based defence spokesperson however confirmed to the media that the Army was numbering the houses. A local resident of Trichal told the press that when he attempted to rub off the number he was threatened by the Army of serious consequences. In the door-to door survey names of the youths, women and children were noted down.
  • In February 2017 a door-to door survey conducted by Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in Bandipora evoked fear and suspicion, according to one newspaper report. Army personnel had even been demanding photographs of the inmates. Again, this exercise was unofficial. Local authorities had said there was no need for the Army to conduct any survey in the civilian areas where concerned departments had finished the survey. Many locals said that the Army census was detailed with sketches being drawn of the layout of the houses in the area.
  • Another newspaper clipping gives details of the CCTV cameras that were set up in 53 locations in Srinagar. It quotes a senior police official as saying that a Nagpur based company NECO Defence System had been given the contract to set up towers using both 180 degree and 360 degree view camera with such high resolution that it can focus on registration plates of cars and scan moving object. The aim, said the official, was for surveillance on “demonstrations, stone-pelters and militant activities.”

 

A home in Kulgam district with the wall displaying a number that was painted after the Army carried out an unofficial census.
During a night raid following the August siege windows were smashed by security troops. Most of the adjoining houses also bore a similar look.

 

A people incarcerated and mass detentions

Armed with such detailed precise information and the presence of a million strong troop deployment, the police were able to swoop down and pick up hundreds and hundreds of youths and men, irrespective of whether they have taken part in protests or not. In some cases the father has been picked up if the son cannot be found at home. One such “in lieu” case, handled by Srinagar lawyer Wajid Haseeb, concerns a young boy (name withheld) who suffers from seizures and according to medical records, has a psychiatric problem. He was summoned to the police station at Chhanpora. The youth, because of his mental health problems who seldom ventures out of his home, did not go to the police station. Subsequently the boy’s father was picked up and lodged in the Central Jail under section 107. This legacy of colonial legislation against habitual offenders enables preventive detention, on the grounds that an Executive Magistrate or tehsildar has received information that a person is likely to commit a breach of the peace or disturb the public tranquility and is of the opinion that there is sufficient ground for proceeding.

In a similar “in lieu” arrest case, in Kulgam district, a father gave us an account of how he was hauled off to the RR Army camp at Khudwani and then to the Wangpo police station and detained for 15 days. Sitting in his home, surrounded by his family, he was in visible distress as he narrated his zehni tension (mental stress), which, he describes, as far worse than any physical torture. His youngest son sitting at his feet would occasionally look up at the father and then settle back on the carpet to play, demonstrating that in Kashmir, children have no childhood. There can be no shielding from the ugliness of violence that engulfs them. Trauma is handed down from one generation to another. 

The detention, said the father, happened because his son a second year college student dropped his mobile phone on the street whilst caught up in a crowd, fleeing after a street protest. The youth was accompanying his mother to a hospital.

Even before the family could act and approach the police, their house, he said, was traced and a raid took place that very night. “Whose phone is this? We can burn down this house,” they threatened. This was followed by a destruction spree. Windows were smashed and a Sumo vehicle, which was the man drove for livelihood, was severely damaged. He was then taken to the Army camp for a night and sent to the police station where he was detained for 15 days. His release was on the condition that he makes his son surrender. Eventually he signed on a piece of paper and went home to persuade his son. “My 18-year-old was in complete terror but I told him there was no choice.  “Hum sub mar jayenge” (we will all perish.).” The police had threatened to destroy his house and he was impelled to protect the more vulnerable members of his family like his wife and younger children.

No FIR has been filed in the case against him or his son as far as he is aware. There is nothing on record which makes him hesitant to seek legal recourse. When we met him his son was still under detention along with many others from the village. He spoke too of the collective fine that was imposed on villagers after a vehicle belonging to non-locals was burnt. “Gaari kissi aur neh jalaya, paise gaonwallo ko bharna padta hai. Yeh kaun sa insaaf hei. Patthar koi aur mareyga, aaur woh log saree gaon koh tod dalenge.” (Somebody else burnt the vehicles but the cost of damages is inflicted on the villagers. What kind of justice is this? Somebody hurls a stone and they want to destroy the whole village?)

Whilst IHL forbids terrorizing of civilian population and destruction of their means of survival by attacks on their housing and non-military transport, the armed forces in Kashmir enjoy an impunity enabled by the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990 (AFSPA). AFSPA empowers the armed forces to view every Kashmiri as a political suspect. It enables the Army to detain people on suspicion, destroy property, even blow up homes and kill. There is no such thing as sanctity of one’s home or privacy as the Indian forces can barge in anytime of the day or night. Since AFSPA mandates sanction from the Centre for prosecution of any armed forces personnel in Kashmir (which has never been granted in a single case), there is a blanket impunity for all kinds of excesses such as illegal detentions, extra judicial killings, torture, forced labour and using people as human shields.

Multiple layers of suffering

When I visited two districts of Kashmir and some neighbourhoods of Srinagar in October, what struck me most was the way in which an individual’s story has multiple strands of suffering and different forms of collective punishment. This was manifested by a story from Shopian or Shupiyan as it is known to Kashmiris. A district in the hilly regions of the Pir Panjal range, famed for its apple orchards, it has a volatile history and has emerged as an important hub of the armed resistance and growth of militant leaders. There have been a number of encounters and civilian killings in the villages here over the past few years.

It was in one such hamlet in Shopian that one heard the account by an 85 year-old man (name withheld) of the arrests of his minor grand-sons. The family is particularly vulnerable because income is dependent on manual labour or mazdoori. The elderly man explained there had been an incident of firing by militants on the Army earlier in the day and a cordon was placed on the whole village. The elder grandson, aged 17, anticipating trouble, ran away. The cordon was lifted in the evening but, around midnight the Army from the Chilipora camp returned along with personnel of the Special Operations Group, (a special anti-insurgency force of the Jammu and Kashmir police) and began conducting night raids.  

His son, who works as a labourer, was used as a human shield and forced at gun point to accompany the troops as they went about the house and yard. His elderly wife who was sleeping was dragged out without her proper attire, (no salwar and hair uncovered) and no consideration for her dignity, her age and mental health. The elderly couple was then locked into another room.

The younger grandson, aged 15, tried to hide by climbing up a tree but was found and carted away to Zainapora police station. His elder brother was picked up from the home in which he had sought shelter. Three other men of the village were picked up that night (all names withheld), taken to the army camp for a night and are currently lodged in the same police station. At the time of reporting (mid-October) they were still being illegally detained, more than one and a half months after being taken away.

We visited another home to hear another account of a man being picked up and possibly used as a human shield. His sister-in-law was busy cooking when we entered the home. She narrated the chilling story amidst the ordinariness of everyday life. She told us that D (name withheld), a tractor driver was working in the fields when the cordon was laid. The Army stopped and questioned him and, after giving his details, he was allowed to go. But during the midnight raids on the whole village, he was whisked away to the Chilipora camp along with the other four. The anxious family was told he was being detained to “facilitate” the door-to-door searches. This is clearly an illustration of using the local populace as human shields.

The family assumed he would be released soon but instead he was handed over to the Zainapora police station where he was still lodged. The family, she said, is greatly handicapped as the police station is far away from their home and there is still no public transport because of the hartal (strike) carried out by the people as a mark of protest against the government.

In the third household that we visited it was again a woman, the sister of the detained man N (name withheld) who provided the details. The father sat silently in one corner of the room.

N was on his way to the bank when the army laid a cordon in the area and he decided to go to his nanihal. (Family home of one’s mother). When a night raid took place, the armed forces demanded to know where he was and, on learning he had probably gone to his nanihal, they insisted his father accompany them there. Before being picked up N was severely beaten. Later the family, along with the villagers, approached the police station whereupon the Deputy Superintendent of Police reportedly told them he would be released if the villagers agreed to sign a community bond.

This practice, which is increasingly being deployed during the siege, entails coercing a few people of the village into signing a bond to guarantee the release of a person held under section 107/51 of the Jammu and Kashmir Code of Criminal Procedure. As mentioned earlier this is a form of preventive detention and, in many instances, the police do not even bother with any paper work. They have simply held many people in the police station illegally and demanded the bonds, which as the report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties states has “no notion in law” and, is in fact, is a form of collective punishment.  

Again many of the mass arrests are patently illegal because they involve detention of minors. There have also been instances of torture of youths including minors widely reported in the media, including BBC. The sister of one such minor confirmed to us that her brother had been tortured in the Army camp in Shopian district but she was reluctant to speak further as the media attention had invited reprisals. (Name of minor boy and village withheld.)

We learnt of another instance in which a detained youth was said to be suffering from severe trauma and mental shock after the torture. The family in Kulgam had been forced to place him elsewhere to avoid unwarranted attention. One of the family members told us he was not at home and added, “Aap talashi leh sakte hain,” (You can search the house). A telling commentary on how the terms of intimidation have slipped into day-to-day vocabulary.

The common practice of the nineties to strip the detainees, humiliate them and de-humanize them when they are brought into the police station or other make shift centers is continuing as we learnt from various accounts. One lawyer revealed how some youths (not minors) were taken in a police lock-up and were forced to sleep naked in a room also filled with dogs.

The use of torture on the civilian populations in the lockdown validates the statement in the Torture report, namely that “torture emerges as one of the ways of retaliation by the State against the Kashmiri ‘other’, seen as a challenge to its very legitimacy.” Yet another reflection on how torture has been so completely “normalized” is the way that the mainstream Indian media and the state responded to these “disturbing allegations” of beatings, administering electric shocks, putting a needle through a youth’s lips and suspending another upside down. The Indian Amy, asked to respond to a BBC report, dismissed it as baseless and unsubstantiated even though there was visible footage of the same. Mainstream Indian media, especially electronic, simply did not bother to report or follow up but continued to ignore or then demonize the Kashmir peoples’ suffering.

Unrelenting raids, youth on the run

The fear of arrests and unrelenting raids has kept much of Kashmir’s youths perpetually on the run. Near the Redwani Bala Army Camp, in Kulgam, a group of youth took us on a tour to show how not a single home has been spared from the night raids. All bore the tell-tale signs, smashed windows, broken gauze windows of a bathroom, wooden frames of windows broken. In one place there was the mark of a bullet on a wall on the main road. A youth said the troops had fired one night simply to terrify the inhabitants of the house behind the street. They said no one dared to sleep at night. Many people complained there was simply no point in carrying out repairs of the homes.

In some Srinagar neighborhoods, people had draped blankets along the outside walls to keep the chill of the autumn out. It was at Habak, a working class locality of Srinagar, that one learnt too of how pellet guns were unleashed as a tool of intimidation. Habak is a locality near the Hazratbal whose inhabitants are largely labourers and working class. The people complained they had been subjected to intense night raids and excessive force including the use of pellet guns because of the area’s proximity to the Foreshore Road through which there is lot of VIP movement since it skirts the picturesque Dal.

The picturesque suburb of Habak which was subjected to continuous night raids. The locals alleged that troops showered pellets on people across the bank during a protest and many non protesters, caught in the melee, suffered injuries.
 

Heightened police and CRPF force and sometimes the Sashastra Seema Bal, a paramilitary police force, jointly carried out the raids. The neighborhood straddles a canal with two lanes running parallel across the waters. Often troops would rush along one strip aiming the pellet guns at the fleeing crowds on the other strip, separated by the canal. This is how some of the pellet gun victims sustained injuries.

Human rights activists the world over have condemned the use of the pellet gun or more properly the 12 gauge pump action shotgun that dispels hundreds of pellets. Experts say pellet gun firing is “inherently inaccurate, indiscriminate and capable of penetrating soft tissue even at a distance.”

One pellet gun victim, G (name withheld), whose right eye was injured, shared his story, adding with some defiance, “Maine kaun sa border cross kiya hai” (I never crossed any border). He said that on August 15 he was coming home from Zakura when he got caught up in a protest. The CRPF and SSB were running along one narrow stretch of road raining pellets across the canal on people who were running helter-skelter. Hit by pellets he collapsed and fell on the road. A cousin ran to pick him up and rush him to hospital on his scooter. He adds that at two checkpoints they were accosted and beaten by CRPF police who demanded to know why he came out of the house on a day of restrictions.

 Double trouble: Pellet gun victims targeted

 Such obstruction of access to urgent medical care disregards the obligations under human rights laws to ensure access access to health care even in situations of violence and civil unrest, as the report of the Physicians for Human Rights in 2016 observed. At the Shri Maharaj Harisingh (SMHS) hospital his right eye was operated upon as the lens was damaged. Ophthalmologists say that pellet gun injuries to the eye have a high degree of unpredictability of outcome since the path of the pellet does not follow a defined course. It can injure the cornea, conjunctiva, retina or lens. It is a very complex kind of injury and often requires multiple surgeries.

G says he returned on August 27 for another surgery but seeing a policeman strolling in the premises unnerved him and he returned home within one day. The PHR report has detailed the way security personnel, sometimes in plainclothes, prowl hospital premises to spot pellet gun victims and then lodge cases of attempt to riot and so on against them. This was the case with another pellet gun victim, H, who had been shot in the mouth with pellets during a protest in September. He said he underwent treatment at the SMHS and was asked to come back for further treatment.  However the police traced and detained his cousin (another case of “in lieu” arrest) and threatened him with the arrest of his father unless H surrendered. He appeared at the police station where he was detained and released later. No FIR was filed.

The youths said it was customary for the police to pick up four or five youth every week before the Friday protests and to coerce the detained youth to get the names of an additional four or five youth who would be picked up the next week. They said that the police demanded Rs 20,000 for release of each youth and they caustically referred to the cyclical arrests as gaining new customers each week.

Lawyers have said that one of the biggest outcomes of the current paperless, unlawful detentions is the widespread growth of corruption in the police force. During the gatherings and animated conversations with the youth of Habak there were accounts of how women were harassed. Eventually a youth took us into a house where a number of women spoke out. They spoke of an instance in which a young woman came rushing to the defence of her father who was being severely thrashed. Angered by this gesture the armed forces personnel began beating up and threatening the women.

The women’s account was punctuated by gesticulations as they spoke of how a gun was thrust at the throat of one woman or then jabbed into the chest of another. Alarmed by this inappropriate touching and fearing sexual molestation they ran away. They spoke of how jewellery was looted from the cupboards and kitchens ransacked and edibles carted away.

Even the right to pray has been transgressed with Imams and maulvis being threatened and told not to conduct Friday prayers and, in some cases being locked up. One man in his fifties said the worst humiliation he felt in the current lockdown was that he could not offer qurbani or sacrifice as mandated by his beliefs during the Eid ul Zuha. Nor could he offer prayers at Hazratbal. His wife said she was thwarted in her efforts to procure necessities before the celebration by the barricades at many places.

It may be noted that the state did not allow prayers and Friday congregations at the historic Jamia Masjid mosque till the third week of December. The chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is in detention since August 5, used to deliver the sermons on Friday. Restrictions were also place on people from outside to offer prayers at Hazratbal shrine on the occasion of Eid I Milad. Traditionally people would gather at the shrine to have a glimpse of the holy relic. But this year, entry points to the shrine were closed for traffic and the concertina wires were rolled out to block several stretches. This move stopped worshipers from assembling for night long prayers. It was perhaps for the first time in decades that such severe restrictions were imposed.

Some nations and the UN Human Rights Commissioner have spoken out against the lockdown measures and asked for urgent lifting of curbs. There are also a slew of cases in the Supreme Court including a plea for resumption of the internet and other communication curbs. However, there is no urgency being shown in speeding up the hearing of the cases. As noted lawyer Gautam Bhatia has argued the actions of the state regarding the communication blackout violate the basic right of a citizen to freedom of speech and constitutes collective punishment.

 In the bitter grip of chillae kalan (the most severe days of winter for Kashmir) the state’s chilling stranglehold on Kashmir’s people continues. There is an eerie uneasy calm. Parvez Imroz, advocate and human rights defender says: “There has never been a more trying time for the Kashmiri people since 1931. They know there is very little choice but to prepare for suffering hardships for the new generation or else like Palestinians they will suffer the fate of naqba in 1948. “Many political analysts have warned there is a slow building of pent up feelings. The Indian government is convinced that in Kashmir they can change the Newtonian law of physics. But Kashmir’s Bastille Day is bound to come one day.”