Kashmir issue

‘They fired directly’: Kashmir bye-poll violence leaves villagers angry even as forces face 30 FIRs

Eight protesters were killed in Budgam and Ganderbal districts on Sunday. Residents in Budgam allege that forces began to shoot without any warning.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the state police have registered 30 first information reports against members of the Central forces, after violence during a bye-election on Sunday left eight civilians dead. The police claim the civilians fell to the bullets of the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force. The bye-poll to the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat saw the lowest voter turnout since the eruption of militancy and unprecedented scenes of protest on election day.

The violence prompted the authorities to call for a re-poll on Thursday in 38 election stations.

On Tuesday, an eerie silence prevailed in Kashmir’s Budgam district. Many villages here had erupted in violence on April 9. Now a warm sun shone over brick dust, shattered glass and partial roadblocks – remnants of the April 9 violence.

Urdu poetry and a dictionary

In Budgam’s Dalwan area, two young lives were lost when paramilitary soldiers deployed at a polling booth allegedly opened fired on the mob. Twenty one-year-old Abbas Rather, the son of a policeman, was a friendly young man, his uncle Ahmad said. He did not vote in the last assembly elections and was preparing for a retest of his matriculation exams.

Abbas’s room on the second storey of the house is furnished but sparse. The walls and his cupboard are decorated with the periodic table, a chart detailing Einstein’s energy equation and Urdu poetry. “We knew there would be no voting but we did not expect such a situation,” Ahmad said referring to the widespread protests against the elections.

Killed along with Rather in Dalwan was 12-year-old Faizan Ahmad Dar. His father, Fayaz Ahmad Dar, said Faizan was excited about witnessing the election proceedings in the area. His uncles said the high-spirited schoolboy had already decided that cracking the Indian Administrative Service exams would be his goal.

“He asked which was the top job,” said Mohammad Shafi Dar, an uncle of the dead man. “He wanted to make a name for himself. I told him the IAS was the top job in India. And he made up his mind.”

Later Shafi Dar brought out a heavy school bag, packed with notebooks with impressive and neat handwritten assignments, textbooks pertaining to general knowledge and geography among others, and a big Oxford English dictionary. He packed the books back into the bag as though Faizan would come once again to lift it on his shoulders.

More than 10 kilometres away, tragedy had also struck the family of Amir Manzoor. The family said Manzoor was a 17-year-old student, studying in Class 11. He was an introvert, they said; once classes were over, he usually spent his time helping out in the fields or at the family’s shop in the market. “He wanted to become a doctor,” said Shabir Ahmad Resray, an uncle of Manzoor, before breaking into tears.

On the day he was killed, Manzoor was helping the family spray their orchard before returning to his maternal grandparents home, where he lived. The house was in Sogam, a few kilometres from Dadompora. Manzoor would be killed in Sogam that evening when paramilitary forces, escorting polling staff on their return, opened fire at a stone pelting mob.

“Nothing bad has happened here since the 1989,” Resray said. “No one expected this would happen. We did not believe the forces would fire. There is a state of terror in the people’s heart after the incident. What have they done?”

‘They aimed for the heads’

The elections had become necessary after a member of the People’s Democratic Party resigned to protest against what he described as the state government’s failure to contain an eruption of violence last summer. On the morning of the poll, there was scant security presence around the polling booth in Dalwan, residents say, just four men from the Central Reserve Police Force guarding the booth and six soldiers from the army watching from a height. The police control room in Budgam, however, said the Border Security Force was deployed in Dalwan and Dadompora villages. The security forces had been fending off the mob for nearly two hours when shots were fired, between 9 am and 9.30 am, residents claimed.

Khurshid Ahmad Rather was inside his house on the morning of the polling. Stone pelting at the booth, he said, had begun early in the morning at around 7.30 am. His nephew, Abbas Rather, had left the house where the Rathers live as a joint family, to see what was happening at the polling booth nearby.

Nearly two hours later a few gunshots were heard, Khurshid Rather said, followed by screaming, and people rushing towards their neighbourhood. Then someone from the crowd screamed to tell him that his nephew had been killed. He had been hit after soldiers had opened fire, claim the residents of Dalwan.

It was targeted fire, villagers gathered at Faizan’s house claimed. A young man from the neighbourhood alleged that the security forces “had aimed for the heads”. A toilet on the school campus bore two bullet marks, considerably above waist level. The young man said a protester was hiding behind the pillar where the bullet hit.

“There was no indiscriminate firing,” claimed Farooq Ahmad Dar, another uncle of Faizan. “Ten to 12 target fires took place. Two [bullets] hit [protesters], the rest failed. They could have fired in the air, everyone would have fled. But they fired directly without any warning and killed them.”

In Dadompora, local residents point out that the polling staff and paramilitary soldiers had already crossed the mob when they turned back and opened fire, killing Amir Manzoor. According to eye witnesses Manzoor had ducked to the ground when he got hit.

CRPF soldiers escorting the election staff, on foot, fired at the mob from a distance of a few hundred meters on a slightly sloping road, they said. Manzoor fell instantly to the ground in front of the mosque where he was going to offer evening prayers just before sunset, recounted one eyewitness.

‘Our aim is to protect polling staff’

In response to the charges, a Border Security Force spokesman said it was not possible to “track the events at all 580 booths”. He added that “the local police would be better able to tell what happened”. But local police officials were not available for comment.

Rajesh Yadav, commandant of the CRPF’s 161 battalion, said that the strength of the deployments had to be limited because during an election, a very large area must be covered. “Where we were sending one to two companies of the CRPF, we are sending one to two sections,” he said. Each section comprised eight to ten men, he added, and in most cases, the deployed troops were outnumbered. While the companies of the CRPF were already stretched, about 22 of them were not able to reach in time because of bad weather, according to Yadav.

He added that the CRPF played varied roles during election time. It had to focus on protecting polling staff and materials, such as the electronic voting machines, apart from dealing with the law and order situation. We “are not just standing and facing the stone pelters and if [security forces] take any action then it is highlighted by the media that we reacted like that”, he said.

Separatists and stone pelters had seen a “good opportunity” to make headlines during elections, according to Yadav. “They were able to create such problems and they got the limelight,” he said. “From our side the aim is to protect polling staff and material and then as per the briefings (to exercise) maximum restraint.”

He also pointed out that more than 200 CRPF personnel were injured in clashes in the three districts – Srinagar, Budgam, and Ganderbal.

A consensus on boycott

For their part, the residents of both Dadompora and Dalwan said there was a consensus on boycotting elections. Dadompora, a village which saw around 50% turnout in most elecions, decided to stay away to protest the lack of developmental work in the area.

“We were voters but when we approach the elected leaders after their victory, we are told excuses that the sahab is not here [in the office], that he has gone out of town,” Ahmad Resray said. “No one heard our problems then so why should we vote today?”

Dalwan village, however, chose to boycott the polls “due to anti-India sentiments”, Dar said. The bye-election saw the lowest voter turnout in recent times, comparable to polling figures in the 1989 parliamentary elections.

Violence on such a scale on polling day, however, is unprecedented. Some polling booths were taken over by protesters. In some booths, voting had to be stopped. More than a hundred protester were injured in at least 200 separate incidents of violence. Dozens more received pellet injuries. In Srinagar, a bus driver ferrying polling staff was also killed after being hit by stones thrown by angry crowds.

The violence prompted the Election Commission on Monday to postpone the bye-polls for Anantnag seat, scheduled for April 12. They will now be held on May 25.

An orator visits

The villages of Budgam where violence broke out have always been relatively calm, even during the turbulent 1990s, when militancy was at its peak. But now separatists find a warm welcome here.

In Dadompora, for instance, the stillness wore off near the home of Amir Manzoor, the Class 11 student. The shrieks of a fiery orator could be heard from the gates of the residence. He had stationed himself in the family guest room.

Surrounding him were dozens of villagers, young and old, nodding in agreement as the unidentified person recounted the Kunan-Pushpora rape incident, the killings of civilians, and the “oppression of Muslims by Indian forces”.

Next, the orator targetted Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti: “It is better for [Kashmir] to vanish than to be trapped in the clutches of a woman.”

“Tehreek-e-Hurriyat is based on three principles,” he declared. “First is Islam, second is azadi, but through Islam. The azadi that does not come through Islam is cursed. Socialism and capitalism is not our religion. Third, ittehad-e-millat [unity of the nation], but not with those like the National [Conference] or the PDP” or People’s Democratic Party.

He asked the youth to protest frequently and to lead the demonstrations from the front, without fear of death. He then hurriedly left the meeting with more than half a dozen men. Relatives of Manzoor said they did not know who the person was and he had not identified himself.

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