Farooq Ahmed stood outside his house in Shar-i-Shali village, seething. “I knew the people,” he said. “The Major and his men cannot eat, they cannot get accommodation unless orders go out from my desk.”
Ahmed is the accounts clerk at the Army station headquarters in the town of Khrew in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, and head clerk of the civil wing. He has worked with the defence forces for decades and has a brother who serves the Victor Force, the Rashtriya Rifles counter-insurgency force that is in charge of Anantnag, Pulwama and Budgam districts in the Valley. Yet here he was, bruised and limping, a middle-aged man with a flowing beard and tired eyes, beaten up by the very soldiers he works with. He said they did not spare his aged parents either.
“I showed them my ID card and said I have been working so many years in defence,” said Ahmed. “But they just took me by the beard and beat me. I have never done stone pelting, never even taken part in peaceful protests.”
No one sleeps easy
On the night of August 17, soldiers of the Indian Army stormed into Ahmed’s village of Shar-i-Shali, where they attacked homes, beat up residents and killed one person. The village lies near the town of Khrew, whose tall cement factories can be seen from miles away. Both town and village are located in the Pampore area of Pulwama, a place known for its fields of saffron. A First Information Report was filed at the Pampore police station the next day. The Army said the raid was not sanctioned and promised to conduct an investigation.
Twenty days later, a police official in Pampore said an investigation officer had visited the village and taken down the statements of victims. He added that the police was waiting to record their statements before the district magistrate as people were still in shock and had asked for more time. In response to queries made by Scroll.in, a spokesperson for the Army’s Northern Command said an “inquiry is under way and will be finalised in due course of time”.
However, local residents say that no one has come to question witnesses or gather evidence even 20 days after the incident.
Evidence seems to lie thick on the ground – in the broken windows that almost every home bears, the powdered windshields still lying in yards, the smashed bulbs and switchboards of ransacked rooms, the trickle of blood left to dry on a wall. There’s evidence too in plastered limbs, and scars where rods fitted with nails had landed, according to residents.
Weeks after the troops melted back into their camps, no one sleeps easy in Shar-i-Shali. Village elders have met to discuss setting up a youth patrol to keep vigil at night. The young have abandoned their beds. “We don’t sleep at home,” said Mohammad Iqbal, a young resident of the village. “We go to nearby localities, some people go to their relatives’ homes, some of us sleep in the fields.”
A planned assault
Two weeks after the raid, shuttered shops line a winding road that leads into the village. It is empty, apart from groups of watchful men sitting on the pend (shopfront). Some of them stop cars they cannot identify to ask where its occupants are going. Once residents find out that someone has come to ask about the events of August 17, they are painfully eager to talk. This account is pieced together from conversations with the people of Shar-i-Shali.
It was a planned assault, they alleged. Shar-i-Shali is sprawled across sloping ground, bordered by an Army camp set up decades ago and now occupied by the 50 Rashtriya Rifles. At the bottom of the village lies the main road, bearing traffic from the national highway. That night, residents said, it bore danger. Troops from the Shar-i-Shali camp approached from one direction, they claimed. Soldiers of the Wuyan camp, 5 km away, and the Pampore grid station camp, 10 km away, came from another. “They came in cars,” said village resident Irshad Ahmed.
The troops converged at the chowk on the main road, parked their vehicles, split into groups and made their way into the alleys that radiate out of the chowk and lead into the various mohallas of the village. On the way, they smashed the windshields of trucks parked on the main road. These trucks belong to the local transport corporation that ferries cement out of the factories at Khrew.
Shar-i-Shali village consists of around 1,600 households, according to local estimates. Most of its inhabitants work in the surrounding fields that grow saffron and rice, and in orchards of apple and walnut. Some make their way to the cement factories of Khrew, some work for the defence forces. According to residents, in the last 20 years, about 300 men have found employment in the Military Engineering Services as sweepers, gardeners, carpenters and clerks. But on that night, they said, no identity proof, no protestations that they worked for the government or Army, seemed to help.
In a statement after the raid, Lieutenant General Satish Dua, General Officer Commanding of 15 Corps, which is based in Srinagar and controls the operations of the Victor Force, had said that it was a joint patrol by both Army and police personnel. In response to further queries, the Northern Command stood by Dua’s statement. “As mentioned earlier, it was a joint Operation wherein troops of local Rashtriya Rifles battalion[s] from the existing grid along with [a] Special Operations Group team of Jammu and Kashmir Police was operating in the area as part of an Area Domination patrol,” the spokesperson said.
Residents of Shar-i-Shali said they only saw 50 Rashtriya Rifles soldiers.
‘You want azadi, come outside’
“The lights went off at 10.10 pm,” said Aijaz Wani, a resident of the village. “They short circuited the transformer.” But a power cut was no cause for alarm at that point. To most residents of Shar-i-Shali, the assault announced itself some 20 minutes later, with the sound of screams and breaking windows. Then someone spoke from the loudspeaker at the mosque: “Azadi chahiye toh bahar niklo” – If you want azadi then come out. It was a cry that would be heard many times that night.
“When no one came out, they came into the houses,” said Muzaffar Ahmad, another resident. “They started beating whoever was at hand.” Some of the younger residents managed to run away and hide when they heard the screams. For everyone else, the night suddenly narrowed into a personal ordeal.
They spared no one
The forces spared no one, residents said, falling on men, women, children and the elderly. Eighty-five-year-old Muhammad Jabbar, who lives in Hadpora mohalla, lifted his pheran to show the bruises on his legs. “They came from all four sides,” he said. “They came with sticks, they wouldn’t even let me get up, they just pounced on me.” At the same time, he said, the children in his household were also being beaten up.
At Alamdar mohalla, Ali Mohammad Bhat, a contractor, described how the security force personnel climbed over the wall and entered the compound of his house. “They had rods and hammers,” said Bhat. “In the dark, we saw their boots before we could see their faces.”
Bhat said that he and his three sons were pulled into an outhouse in their garden and beaten while their cars were smashed up. Money and six cell phones were taken, Bhat claimed, some of them were broken outside the house itself. The four men were then taken to the chowk, where others were being assembled.
In Mangoo Mala mohalla, Wali Mohammad Mangoo and his family had just finished dinner. Most members of the household were preparing to sleep. His younger son, 23-year-old Zahoor, who works as a driver, was in the front room. His elder son, 30-year-old Shabir, a contractual lecturer at Srinagar’s Amar Singh College, was in the inner room, preparing for the National Eligibility Test, an examination to determine eligibility for lectureship. Both men were dragged out under a shower of blows.
While the brothers were being forced out, their sister, 28-year-old Masarat, said she was being pushed in. “They tried to lock me into a room but I managed to run outside, barefoot,” she said. “They tried to pull me back by my hair.”
Meanwhile, Zahoor and Shahid Mangoo, already injured severely, were marched to the chowk along with others. “They beat us from the back as we walked,” said Muzaffar Ahmad, who was part of the group.
To the camps
Reports in the aftermath of the incident said about 20 men were taken away that night. In local accounts, the number is closer to 90. First, they were taken to the chowk, made to kneel and beaten again. Several men remember a man they say was the Army Major telling his soldiers men to avoid hitting the head but to “break bones” everywhere else.
Ali Mohammad Bhat, who was taken to the chowk along with his three sons, saw one of them lying on the ground and took him for dead. “I thought he had died so they made me sign a piece of paper,” he said. “I signed it and wrote my name in Urdu. They checked with another person if I had actually written my name.” Bhat was then allowed to take his son home. Fortunately, he survived.
It was not just physical force that the soldiers used, said witnesses. Adil Rashid, one of the men kneeling in the chowk that night, recalled how the soldiers made them cry out, “Jai Hind”. “Some men said ‘Allah ki kasam’ and they said, ‘don’t say that,’” he recounted. “Some tried to say, ‘We are teachers’ and they said, ‘What do you teach your children?’”
Around 3 am, they started for the camps. Shabir Ahmad Mangoo and three others were taken to the grid station camp. His brother Zahoor Mangoo and the rest were taken to the Shar-i-Shali camp.
Some time later, the four men taken to the grid station camp were suddenly dumped at the Pampore police station. Those taken to the Shar-i-Shali camp were released by the next morning.
The sarpanches of Shar-i-Shali
Long after the raid, traces of the night of August 17 will remain. For one, it has left behind a trail of angry, humiliated sarpanches and officials, men who cast their lot with the state, only to be brutalised by it.
Eighty-five-year-old Abdul Gani Bulla limped down to his ground floor living room, his leg still bound in a cast, to meet these reporters. Five years ago, he had contested the panchayat elections as an independent candidate but after he won, several parties approached him. He chose the People’s Democratic Party. Not that being allied to the ruling party helped. On the night of the attack, soldiers broke down the door to his house and dragged him down the stairs.
“I said, ‘I am a sarpanch,’ but the soldier said, ‘Kaka then why do you want azadi?’” recounted Bulla. “The army knows me. Every sewing machine, every cricket bat they gave to the village – I put the stamp on it. But still.”
Abdul Ahad Sheikh, also a sarpanch from the People’s Democratic Party, found himself caught between the Army and the people he represented.
“On the morning of August 17, some Army men led by a Captain of the 50 RR [Rashtriya Rifles] came to the village,” he said. “They told me that the Commanding Officer had called me to the camp the next day. I told them I couldn’t come as the situation is volatile and I am already vulnerable as a sarpanch. Someone could harm me. I thought the Army has come to me, people will think I told them something. That worried me.”
Sheikh’s plan had been to consult people from the village, reach a consensus and then set out in a party of eight to meet the Commanding Officer. “We also wanted the situation to get better, but then they came like a toofan [storm],” he said. “We came out and asked the people not to pelt stones. I raised my arms and approached the soldiers, asking them to stop.”
Instead, Sheikh said, they beat him with rods and dragged him to the chowk. By then he had lost consciousness. Later, he was one of the four people taken to the Pampore police station, where he watched Shabir Ahmad Mangoo die.
“Shabir was lying down,” he said. “The police brought him a glass of water. He took two sips and dropped down.” At this point, Sheikh broke into sobs. Years ago, Magoo’s father, a construction worker, had borrowed money from Sheikh to pay for his son’s education.
After the storm
The death of Shabir Ahmad Mangoo is a personal loss for the tightly-knit community of Shar-i-Shali. In a village where few people have been to college, quiet, bookish Mangoo was a star. He had married about three years ago, was father to a 15-month-old child, and was determined to crack the National Eligibility Test this year.
The elders speak of him as the “crown of the village”, the role model for the rest of its youth and the hope of a better life for Shar-i-Shali. The raid changed all that. “Tomorrow, when his child learns what the Army did to his father, he will strap a bomb to his body and attack India,” said Sheikh.
Nobody can offer a reason for the “toofan”. Like surrounding villages, Shar-i-Shali had held a few protests, but residents are anxious to point out that they were peaceful. On the morning of August 17, there had been a low-key demonstration, but no stone pelting, they said. Things were quiet all day until the Army came bursting in.
But this much is clear – the storm of August 17 broke a long equilibrium between the forces and village, living side by side for decades. Army convoys regularly passed through the village on their way to the camp, residents said, and no one turned a hair. Now when the convoys pass through the village, everyone listens in fear.