A central Kashmir village faces death with defiance
At about 7:45 a.m. on August 16, a contingent of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops and local police disembarked from their vehicles and reportedly opened fire in the main market road of Aripanthan village, where locals usually go to buy essentials.
Four youths died that morning in this village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, about 22 kms west of Srinagar. According to reports, all the shots they sustained were above the waistline. About 50 others were injured.
Two of the critically injured aged 18 and 19 were shot in the head, and continue to battle for their lives in Srinagar’s tertiary care hospital.
The chances of their survival are bleak, doctors supervising them have told their families.
“They kept firing at people for about 15 minutes,” recalls Ghulam Ali, a village resident who claims to have had a narrow escape that day by dropping flat on the ground when the shooting started.
Atul Karwal, CRPF’s Inspector General (IG) for Kashmir region, claims a company of CRPF was transiting through Aripanthan on that morning when they found that the villagers had blocked the road at many places.
“When we tried to clear it, there was a huge mob. They had the advantage of being on high ground. There was a lot of stone throwing. The crowd was close enough to snatch weapons. This was when lethal force was used,” Karwal explains.
An Associated Press report about the incident, quoting a police official on condition of anonymity, said live ammunition was used to “control hundreds of people throwing stones and chanting slogans in Aripanthan village.”
The village has been observing complete shutdown since the killing of rebel commander, Burhan Wani, the tech-savvy poster boy of the militant organization Hizb Ul Mujahideen, on July 8.
Since then, over 90 civilians have been killed and over 15,000 people injured in subsequent protests.
Black flags with “Shaheed” (martyr) written across them in white were raised at the modest houses of the four victims who died, whom residents remember as being hard working, resourceful youth who not only took care of their families but also helped anyone in distress in the village.
The night preceding the fateful shooting, the villagers allege that the police and CRPF troops raided Aripanthan at midnight, broke window panes, kicked open doors, and terrorized the residents by firing teargas shells into some of the village’s houses.
“They had come to arrest some local youth but we came out and resisted them,” says an elderly village resident who wished not to be named.
“They left after abusing us and removed pro-freedom graffiti from the walls,” he adds.
The very next morning, Javed Ahmad Najar, a 22-year-old carpenter, went out to fetch the newspaper from the village’s main market, like many others.
A bullet hit him in his abdomen when the shooting started.
“Bhai, ye kya hogaya,” (brother, what has happened) Javed’s elder brother, Mushtaq Ahmad, recalls his brother’s last words before he passed away in his arms.
Despite his young age, Javed had worked hard for many years, saving up money from the little income he earned to construct a small house, most of the time working overtime to make ends meet, his sisters tell Newsweek Middle East.
A poetry collection by Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal and an autobiography of senior Kashmiri leader, Syed Ali Geelani, faced us from one of the shelves, as we sat down in Javed’s room where his belongings lay intact.
Javed had promised his two sisters that he will help them get married later this year, they tell Newsweek Middle East.
“After our mother’s death, it was our brother who brought us up and took care of us. Now who will look after us?” Javed’s younger sister said with tears in her eyes.
“We don’t have any expectations from the government, but those who killed our brother should be punished,” says Mushtaq. “But we know nothing is going to happen and no one is going to be punished for his killing.”
A walking distance from Javed’s house, the family of another slain man, 20-year-old Javid Ahmad Sheikh, is unable to come to terms with his loss.
Like other youth from the village, Sheikh had also walked to the main market area to grab the day’s newspaper. Instead, he became the subject of the next day’s papers.
“He was shot in the head and died on the spot,” says his younger brother who had rushed to the market when he heard the firing.
“I was helping and picking up other injured people when I heard my own brother has been hit by bullets.”
Abdul Samad Rather, a 59-year-old resident of the village, says the youth in their village have seen the worst, lived all their life amid military camps and checkpoints. But now, things have changed and they don’t fear the troops anymore, according to him.
“That era of fear is gone…today’s youths are fearless and they’re asking for nothing less than freedom from India,” he says. “Our youths come in front of troops and ask them to fire on their chest.”
The village is part of the troubled Kashmir region, which is the subject of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, and has witnessed an occasional burst of violent conflicts over nearly nine decades between Kashmiri separatists and the Indian government and its loyalists.
The region has also provoked two major wars between the belligerent neighbors.
Back in the 1930s, the Kashmiris mounted a struggle for self-determination, articulated as the demand for self-rule and responsible governance against the ruler of the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
India’s concerns regarding Pakistan’s intentions and influence in Kashmir framed its relationship with Kashmir. Rather than appreciating the conditional nature of Kashmir’s accession to India, New Delhi sought to undermine it.
New Delhi’s failure to honor the promised referendum and the constant erosion of the special status guaranteed to Kashmir under the terms of the ‘instrument of accession’ with India, deepened the cleft between both the entities.
The ensuing misgivings culminated in the eruption of an armed movement against the Indian State by 1989.
Another young man who was killed on August 16 was 25-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Lone, who suffered from a fatal bullet shot in his abdomen. The villagers claim he told those who were picking him up to go and save others.
“I’ll be fine,” he told them, but he wasn’t and he later died just before reaching the hospital. Manor left behind a five-year-old daughter and a three-year old son, and an expecting wife.
Hajira Begum, a 40-year-old woman who had gone out in search of her 12-year-old son that morning, was hit by a bullet that tore through her right arm. Now recovering at home with her right arm heavily bandaged, she says she fell unconscious as soon as she was hit.
Bleeding profusely, she was rushed to a district hospital in a private car since no ambulance could reach the spot in time.
On the opposite side of this locality, across the main road, the family members of 37-year-old businessman, Muhammad Ashraf Wani, who also died in the shooting that day, say their hopes for justice to be fulfilled are inexistent thanks to the present political dispensation in the state.
Father of two teenage children, Wani ran a flourishing wholesale business and owned a shop in the village market.
“He was the only male member left in our family after his younger brother, a militant, was killed by the Indian military in 1991,” says his wife Nida Akhter. “Now we have no one to look after our family.”
When Newsweek Middle East spoke to the youths at the village, anger and defiance echoed in their words.
“How can I forget these youths who were also my friends and neighbors, in whose company I grew up?” asks one student from the village, who is pursuing his PhD in history in the state of Maharashtra. He stresses that they are prepared to observe the shut down for a year.
“There can be no going back from here…We’ve already lost everything. We can’t afford to keep losing our loved ones to their bullets every other summer,” he adds.