At the time of his wife’s sudden death in 2019, Mohammad Rafiq Shagoo didn’t think that seeking a police investigation into the incident would be much trouble.
As it turns out, it took a two-year legal struggle for the 43-year-old grocery-store owner to get the police to begin an inquiry into the tragedy.
On August 18, more than two years after the death of his wife, Fehmeeda, 34, after she inhaled the toxic smoke from tear gas shells fired by the security forces, a court in Srinagar directed the Jammu and Kashmir police to investigate her death under the supervision of a senior police officer.
“There’s no harm in registering an FIR into the incident of the death of the deceased and investigate the circumstances under which the death took place,” said an order issued by Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar.
The court said that the investigating officer should not be below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police. It directed the officer to submit a status report on the investigation to the court after every 20 days.
‘Sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest’
Fehmeeda Shagoo had been working in her kitchen on August 9, 2019, as security forces were engaged in pitched battles with protesters in her neighbourhood of Bemina, on the outskirts of Srinagar. Four days earlier, the Union government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and downgraded the state into two Union territories.
“It was a Friday and, on that day, stone-pelting was going on in our area since morning,” recalled Mohammad Rafiq Shagoo. “Around 6 pm, police fired dozens of tear-gas and pepper-gas shells outside our home, some of which landed inside our compound.”
According to Shagoo, his wife complained of breathlessness after inhaling the tear gas smoke that had engulfed their house.
“I had gone outside at that very moment,” he said. “A neighbour informed me that forces were smashing vehicles parked on the road. One of my cars was parked outside, I had gone out to park that at a safer location.”
When he returned home, Shagoo saw his wife gasping for breath in the compound and vomiting blood. “She was saying she couldn’t breathe,” he said. “We couldn’t arrange a car that time because all the roads were blocked. While we were still deliberating on what to do, she collapsed. With the help of my brother, we got her onto a two-wheeler and took her to the hospital.”
At 7.40 pm, Fehmeeda Shagoo died. “Doctors tried everything,” Shagoo said. “She kept telling them that she had two small kids and wanted to live. They gave her oxygen and even put her on a ventilator but she didn’t survive.”
Fehmeeda Shagoo’s medical records, accessed by Scroll.in, suggest she died of a “sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest” after suffering an “acute lung injury” due to “toxic gas inhalation”. The records, however, maintain that the actual cause of death could only be “ascertained after an autopsy”.
Mohammad Rafiq Shagoo says he would have not had any reservations if the hospital authorities had conducted an autopsy. “They didn’t tell us anything about it that time,” he said. “That time, I told police I was ready even for her exhumation in order to get justice.”
Since no case was registered about the incident at that time, it is likely that hospital authorities did not insist on an autopsy.
Struggle for an FIR
Mohammad Rafiq Shagoo’s ordeal started with the hospital authorities demonstrating great reluctance in sharing his wife’s medical records and even her death certificate.
“We even filed an application before the senior health department officials and put a lot of pressure on hospital authorities,” he said. “They finally handed them over to us.”
Four or five days after her death, Shagoo went to a police post in Bemina hoping to register a First Information Report into the incident. Initially, he was turned away by the officials. They said that the senior officer of the post was not available.
Shagoo was unrelenting. He kept paying visits to the police post. But every time his request to officials to lodge a First Information Report was turned down.
This aspect of the case had received scant media attention at that time. Barring some international media outlets, Fehmeeda Shagoo’s death and the delay in the filing of a case had largely gone unreported in the local as well as the national press due to the communication blackout and restrictions imposed by the government at the time.
“One day I lost it with a police officer and had a heated argument with him,” Shagoo said. “He told me, ‘do whatever you want’ and the ‘door of the courts are open.’”
In September 2019, Shagoo moved to Jammu and Kashmir High court asking for an FIR to be registered. “We first approached Jammu and Kashmir High court with a plea but we were told that a remedy is available to us at a lower court,” said Shagoo’s legal counsel, advocate Shah Faisal.
On October 10, 2019, Shagoo filed an application before a lower court in Srinagar. “The matter dragged on for almost two years but eventually the court ruled in our favour,” added Faisal.
Shagoo concedes the timing of the judgment was unexpected. “Given the situation in Kashmir, I honestly didn’t see the decision coming in my favour so soon,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
Shagoo is aware that a long and tedious legal process lies ahead. Simply having a case registered, he said, does not mean that the people responsible for his wife’s death have been identified or convicted. The challenge of getting the police to investigate their own men for an alleged crime is not lost on him.
“It’s difficult to believe that they will implicate their own men,” Shagoo explained. “I am aware that no one in Kashmir has got justice in such cases. But I am still hopeful. I will make every effort to fight for justice.”
Piecing together a new life
Fehmeeda was Shagoo’s maternal cousin. The couple got married in 2007, a year after the death of Shagoo’s mother. “Since I am the elder brother, I got married first,” said Shagoo, who used to have a handicraft business in Goa.
The couple had two children – 12-year-old Mohd Ayaan and 9-year-old Mahir Rafiq. After his wife’s death, Shagoo mostly stays home. He now runs a grocery store outside his house. “I decided to open this for the sake of children,” said Shagoo, who lives in a joint family with his father and brother’s family. “I didn’t want to leave them alone.”
Shagoo says his sons have made peace with the fact that their mother is never going to return. “I haven’t hidden anything from them,” he said. “In contrast to their age, they are very mature kids. They understand what has happened.”
But Shagoo hopes to piece together a new life – for himself and his kids. “I am planning to remarry and God willing, it might happen soon,” he said
Still, he said that the void left by Fehmeeda Shagoo’s absence will always remain. “It’s only me and my children who know what we have lost,” he said.