Villagers remember those killed by army, and a terrible narrative unfolds in their words
Sho (Sopore): The 1989 violent uprising in Kashmir left tens of thousands of people dead. Sopore was one of the worst hit towns – scores of people died in gun battles, in attacks on homes by government forces and militant groups, and in torture chambers. In many cases, the victims were declared ‘terrorists’. While some incidents hit headlines and were cemented in public memory, quite a few were also lost in the clutter of the gunfire that became part of routine life in Sopore.
Sho, a village 10 kilometers from Sopore town, has more than one such story. Tragedy struck the village first in 1991, when 50-year-old Abdul Aziz Wani was shot dead by army soldiers.
On March 15, 1991, army men laid a siege around the local masjid where Wani and other men from the village had assembled for Friday prayers. Villagers of Sho remember how they were gripped by fear. The soldiers were not sure about where the villagers should assemble. Amid the chaos, troopers “fired indiscriminately”, injuring many. Wani died on the spot.
“A bullet hit him on his head. Later the army said they thought militants were among the crowd and their gunfire was aimed at militants,” said Mohammad Shafi, Wani’s son.
Wani left behind his wife, son, and three daughters, one among whom is physically challenged.
Shafi was 18 years old then. “The army had never come to our village before. When they did, they left behind pools of blood,” he recalled.
Villagers say there were no militants in the crowd; they say no bullet was fired at the army to provoke their wrath. No investigation has ever established the facts.
Police is not ready to divulge the details of the investigations they held – “without talking to the villagers”, the people of Sho say. Station House Officer of Bomai Police Station, Abdul Majeed, said that the investigation reports were sent to police headquarters in Srinagar.
It was not long after Wani’s killing that violent death struck the village again. In October that year, troopers laid siege to the village one night. In a gunfight, four militants were killed. It was around 5am when the guns had been silent for a while that Khazir Mohammad Reshi, 50, ventured outside his home to find out what had happened. He was shot on the stairs that front his house.
Reshi was alone at home that night. His son, also named Shafi, told Kashmir Reader, “We had gone to visit a relative and were staying there for the night.” Reshi, his son speculates, did not realise that troopers were patrolling around the house. “It was dark. They fired indiscriminately – at him, and at the house. With his injuries, he crawled to the other side of the house to seek help. We saw him in the morning, dead, the blood on his body dried,” Shafi said.
After his death, Reshi’s family tried to seek justice. “But the army told me they would kill my brother. So, we never even reported it,” said Shafi.
Villagers blame the Indian government for these killings, given the special powers the Indian Army has in Kashmir. “AFSPA is a great weapon with the army. It gives them the right to kill anyone without having to face the law,” said Firdous Ahmad, a villager.
In 1996, five years after Reshi’s death, two youths from this village – Riyaz Ahmad Dangru and Ghulam Hassan Pandith – ran away at the sight of the troopers who shouted at them to stop. They hid in a house. Soon they found themselves being dragged out like diseased animals, taken to a nearby orchard, where they were tortured to make them confess to being militants. They probably did not give in.
“They were tied to a tree and shot dead,” said Riyaz’s brother, Altaf. “From 10am to 1pm, they (troopers) were beating them ruthlessly with gun butts and asking them if they were militants. Both of them kept saying they were not, but the army did not listen.”
Riyaz was 15 when he died tied to an apple tree in that orchard. His brother, who had joined militant ranks, was not even anywhere near, say the villagers. “An army major threatened us of consequences if we reported this incident to the police. They told us ‘we will kill all of you in another encounter’,” said Altaf. Just a month later, the militant brother was killed in an encounter.
Hassan was 21. He was survived by his wife and son. “The army killed them in the orchard and planted weapons on them to make it look like they were militants killed in an encounter,” said his wife, Jawahira. Her son was just a toddler then; he is 18 now and drives a cab. “He didn’t go to school. He didn’t want to see me begging. We took a loan from a bank and brought him a cab.”
Many years later, in 2016, when Kashmir was in the middle of a mass uprising, villagers were reminded of the strange ways death can visit them when the mutilated body of Mansoor Ahmad Lone, a villager, was left “under a heap of stones in the stone quarry near the village”. Men from 22 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of the Indian Army, villagers say, had killed him – on 13 September 2016. He was 26.
The camp that houses 22 RR, notorious among the villagers, sits on the banks of an irrigation canal between Sho and Pazalpora villages. People say they live in an atmosphere of hysteria and tremble at the sight of troopers, who remind them of the people killed in their village.
After Eid prayers, Mansoor Ahmad Lone had joined a protest in the village. Government troops fired dozens of tear smoke canisters to disperse them. Protesters ran in different directions; some fled towards the canal, others ran into rice fields as troopers chased them.
Boys in the village saw troopers chasing Mansoor and ensnaring him in the quarries. Zahoor, a resident, said Mansoor was singled out because “he was a lead protester” and would “play anthems” from the masjid loudspeaker. “He was not armed. His only weapons were his courage and overwhelming love to see freedom of Kashmir from India,” Zahoor said.
In the afternoon, his father and other relatives went out looking for Mansoor. They found blood-smeared stones and sticks in the quarry. “By then,” his father forlornly said, “I knew it was my son.”
Ramzan, a key eyewitness, who saw troopers killing Mansoor, lives in neighbouring Pazalpora. He said it was easy to cross the canal and creep close to the camp to see what was happening inside.
He said at 11:30am on that Tuesday, three army vehicles hurried inside the 22 RR camp. “It was unusual,” he said. Ramzan heard loud shrieks; he says the sound penetrated his brain. The shrieks were of slogans heard often in Kashmir. “I crept close to the wall of the camp. What I saw was unimaginable. For two straight hours, four army men were hitting Mansoor, with iron bars, throwing stones at him and punching him,” he said.
Mansoor’s response shocked Ramzan even more. To each blow, he yelled back a slogan: ‘Pakistan Zindabad; Hum Kya Chahte? Azadi!’
The enraged troopers kept beating him, till he was dead. His body finally fell lifeless at 3:30pm, when a trooper hammered his head.
Ramzan fled the scene soon after. At around 4pm, one of the troopers knocked at Ramzan’s door, and asked him for a shirt. “I obliged and give him a shirt, a blue shirt,” he recalled. “Next morning, Manoor’s body was found in that blue shirt, under a heap of stones in the quarry.”
Mansoor was born after three sisters. The eldest of them is visually challenged. Two brothers were born after him. He had quit school in 2008, when he appeared for his Class 12 exams, and after his father was diagnosed with leukemia. He enlisted in the geology department as a worker. To be the breadwinner of the family was like an imposition on his youthful abandon, his family recalls.
These families still speak of justice. They say no human rights group have ever approached them and taken their statements. Police say they registered cases after these incidents, but villagers say that their testimonies were not part of any investigation. The SHO of the local police station said he was not “bound by law to share such sensitive information with a reporter”.