On the morning of April 9, around 11.30 am, a group of young men in Kashmir’s Gundipora village, about 20 km from Srinagar, sat in the front of a row of shops, exchanging gossip. They did not pay much attention as an army convoy appeared in the distance. They assumed that the security men were on patrol because of the bye-election for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat being held that day.
However, as the convoy went by, the young men sprang on their feet in surprise: tied to the front of the first olive-green vehicle was a young man in blue jeans with a piece of paper pinned to his chest. He would soon be identified as Farooq Ahmad Dar, a resident of Chil Bras village, 10 km away. The convoy went by too quicky for anyone to be able to read the sheet of paper. But Dar’s brother, Ghulam Qadir, told Scroll.in, that it stated Dar’s name and declared him to be a stone pelter,
As the patrol passed through Gundipora village, soldiers warned people on the streets that this “would be the fate of stone pelters”.
A young man from Gundipora filmed the patrol on his mobile phone before running into a lane. Five days later, when mobile internet services were restored in the Valley, the video was uploaded on social media sites. On Friday morning, it spread quickly through the country, drawing condemnation from some quarters and enthusiastic approval from Army supporters.
The Indian Army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps, which is responsible for the Kashmir Valley, immediately instituted an inquiry and preliminary details accessed by Scroll.in confirm that the incident actually took place. According to senior military officials in Srinagar, the incident took place in Beerwah tehsil, in Budgam district, which comes under the purview of the Victor Force of the Rashtriya Rifles. The officer who allegedly made the decision to tie the young Kashmiri man to the vehicle hails from Assam. He was originally commissioned into the Army Service Corps, a non-combat unit, and is currently on deputation with the Rashtriya Rifles.
In his defence, the officer is said to have stated that he was “rescuing 12 election officials, 9 ITBP [Indo-Tibetan Border Police] jawans, 2 constables from the Jammu & Kashmir police along with a convoy of one bus and two mine-protected vehicles”. According to his preliminary statement, said officials familiar with the situation, the convoy was being pelted with stones by demonstrators when he decided to catch one of them and tie him up on the hood of the car to be used as a human shield.
But senior security personnel in Srinagar dispute this version. According to them, if a mob was pelting stones at the security forces, it would have been almost “impossible to reach into the crowd and grab a man and then get the ropes to tie him up on the hood of the vehicle”. Clearly, the officials said, “this was a premeditated case and the army team had planned the move”.
The Rashtriya Rifles officer’s purported version of events also fails to square with the account Dar’s brother Ghulam Qadir related to Scroll.in.
Qadir said that the army patrol was attacked by stone pelters in Utligam village as the election was underway. The personnel then intercepted Dar, who was riding a motorcycle to Gampora village along with his brother to attend a condolence meeting at their sister’s house.
The soldiers, Qadir said, insisted that Dar was a stone pelter. “We told them we were riding a bike [and asked] how could we pelt stones at the same time,” Qadir said.
The security personnel frisked both brothers and allowed Qadir to go after he showed his government service card. But Dar was beaten up and tied to the army vehicle, Qadir said. The army personnel, Qadir alleged, injured Dar’s left arm besides damaging the motorbike and seizing his mobile phone.
Dar’s relatives said that women from Utligam had gathered to seek his release. However, the army men did not relent. Qadir said that Dar was paraded in at least seven villages during the day.
The incident angered bystanders. Aijaz Ahmad, a shopkeeper, said the army aimed to “terrorise the people” by using Dar as a human shield. “The army patrol, being attacked with stones in Utligam, were angry and frustrated,” he said. “They did this thinking we would not pelt stones at them.”
A messy situation
In February, army chief General Bipin Rawat warned “over ground workers”, a euphemism for protestors and stone pelters, that the army would take action against them and treat them as “armed terrorists” if they hampered military operations. General Rawat’s threat was bound to complicate operations on the ground, with young military commanders interpreting the statement as a diktat to take any measures they thought fit to quell protesting mobs.
Army officers of the rank of captain and major are considered the backbone of the Indian Army’s junior leadership in counter-insurgency operations. As this incident demonstrates, some of these on-ground commanders have taken General Rawat’s dictum to heart.
In many ways, this was bound to happen, as Kashmir continues to spin out of control. The protests that followed the killing in July of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, leading to thousands being injured, blinded and some being killed, is evidence of the deep resentment in the Kashmir Valley. The dismal voting turnout of 7% during Sunday’s bye-election shows how precarious the political situation in the Kashmir Valley is. The image of a man being used by the army as a human shield has added further fuel to a raging fire.
Winning hearts and minds
Officially, this move also goes against the official doctrine of the Indian Army. It clearly states that popular support is key to the success of counter insurgency operations. Nearly two decades ago the Indian Army launched Operation Sadbhavna, a scheme that was intended to “win hearts and minds” of Kashmiris. This included a slew of welfare projects covering education, health, sports and livelihood schemes.
But this effort, known in army circles officially as WHAM, is defeated every time images emerge of excesses by the armed forces, besides the cases of forced disappearances, encounter killings and allegations of sexual violence against women. The army’s court martials against accused soldiers have also been opaque, giving very little visibility into whether those accused of excesses ever get punished. When the official inquiry into this incident concludes, the government needs to quickly move in to ensure justice for Dar.