Nothing marks the spot where 16-year-old Aqeel Ahmed Wani fell but everyone seems to know where it is. Before the screen of trees, where the path running down the field of Attina Government Boys School meets the village road. He was throwing stones along with a gaggle of boys when a man in uniform took aim and shot. There is a video.
That was on April 9, the day bye-election was held to the Srinagar parliamentary seat, which includes Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal districts. Aqeel was one of the eight people killed when security forces opened fire on protesters that day. Meanwhile, voter turnout had dipped to a startling low: just 7.14%. Repolling was scheduled for 38 booths. The two polling stations in Attina school in Budgam district were not among them.
For three days, starting April 9, there was an internet shutdown. But around a week after the bye-election, a flurry of videos floated up on social media. A man tied to the front of an Army vehicle while someone in the background announces that all “stone-pelters will meet the same fate”. A boy being beaten and kicked to the ground by security forces. More boys in an Army Caspar (an armoured truck) made to shout “Pakistan murdabad” while blood streams down their faces. And personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force being heckled by youth near a polling station.
It led to claims that a “video war” was on in Kashmir, a battle of image and counter-image released by either side. On April 17, high-speed 3G and 4G mobile internet services were stopped, which made it difficult to upload and stream videos on mobile phones. Days later, the state administration announced a social media ban. Twenty two sites, including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, were to be blocked in the Valley, which meant videos could not be shared or go viral.
The government had clearly woken up to the power of videos. But where did these videos come from, and who were the people in them?
Kashmiri youth armed with cell phones have been shooting videos of protests and violence for some years now. After Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani (killed by the security forces in July 2016) became an internet phenomenon, militant groups have increasingly used social media to spread their message. But a video war implies two sides, two battling stories that echo the clashes on the streets.
Security forces, ranging from the Army to the Central Reserve Police Force to the state police, admitted that social media was a “challenge”. “It spreads so fast, it is difficult to control and there is no way of checking,” said an Army officer based in Kashmir.
But the only publicity they sought with their videos, officers of both the Army and the CRPF claimed, was for developmental projects and “sadbhavana”, the goodwill programme launched by the Indian Army to “win hearts and minds” in Kashmir.
The rest was “misinformation”, said the Army officer. “That is the work of separatists and people sitting across the LoC, so that they can instigate and misguide the youth,” agreed Rajesh Yadav, commandant of the 161 Battalion of the CRPF. “There are various forums and agencies involved. We don’t feel like getting involved in such a video war.”
When asked about the excesses recorded in the videos, both the Army and CRPF said the footage was being “investigated”. If found genuine, appropriate action would be taken. “They appear to be doctored,” Yadav said. He referred to a programme about the videos on Zee News a while ago. It had featured the footage in the Army Caspar. “They were trying to prove that it was a doctored one,” he said. “The same boy was in two places at the same time, just to malign the forces.”
He also dismissed the allegation that some of the incidents were filmed by security personnel since no one else could have been on the spot at that time. “If some of the troops misbehave, why would they take videos and circulate them?” he argued.
Even if the videos are genuine, Yadav said, the particulars were hard to pin down. He pointed out that thousands of CRPF perosnnel were shipped in for the bye-election from various parts of the country and withdrawn afterwards. “If not from the Jammu and Kashmir forces, they become very difficult to identify,” he said.
Then there is the question of time and place. Some of the videos could have been made three or four months ago, said the Army officer, but were only released in April. The location was often a mystery as well, Yadav said. Take the video of the security personnel making a group boys do sit-ups on a bridge: till date, they have not been able to verify where it was shot or when. Another video, thought to have been taken during clashes between students and police in Pulwama, was later pinned to Budgam.
But not all images float around in a nameless, timeless virtual ether. At least three videos can be dated to April 9. They have suddenly put remote villages in Budgam on the map, and made very real impact on the lives of people there.
Fear and loathing
Nasrullapora is stiff with fear. It is a little more than a village, a few kilometres away from Budgam town. This is brick kiln country, with fields of mustard and paddy punctuated by smoking chimneys. On the bus to Nasrullapora, residents ask why a journalist wanted to visit their village. The place has never been in the news before.
But a few weeks ago, after boys abusing and kicking CRPF men were caught on camera, Nasrullapora became the target of national censure. Virender Sehwag tweeted outrage while fellow cricketer Gautam Gambhir demanded “100 jihadi lives” for “every slap on my Army’s jawan”. Kashmiri students in Rajasthan were beaten for “heckling our soldiers”.
Nasrullapora is close to Soibugh, hometown of Mohammad Yousuf Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin. He had contested the fateful Assembly election of 1987 as a candidate of the Muslim United Front. When the National Conference won the election, widely believed to have been rigged, Salahuddin took up arms and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, which he now heads from Pakistan. In Budgam district, which had always seen fairly robust voting until the April 9 bye-election, this was the one area that remained mutinous. Even when rest of the district voted, Nasrullapora and Soibugh did not, residents said proudly.
Nasrullapora was one of the places marked for repoll on April 13. When protests broke out early in the day and security forces used teargas to quell them, the polling booth was shifted to nearby Takipora village.
Of April 9, the day the “heckling” took place, they tell the old story of force and retaliation. “No one went to the polling booth,” said a shopkeeper in the Nasrullapora market. “Boys protested and security forces fired tear gas. One boy was injured by pellets in the eye.”
The heckling happened outside the government school, which had been designated as a polling booth, residents said. It is near Mirpora mohalla, up the road from the market. The people here are fearful and alert. “We wanted that no election be held but the government enforced it,” volunteered one man. “Many were martyred, people were angry, so there was stone-pelting, there will be. Hindustan’s media is diverting attention, distracting people.”
Did he know anything about the boys in the video? No. Did he know anything about who took the videos? “Anyone can take a video, whether it’s the forces or the boys,” he replied. “Forces damaged houses, that video was never made. Only the CRPF video went viral.”
Yadav dismissed these claims: “These are just baseless allegations. When you thrashed and manhandled the jawans you made a video. Now you are blaming [security forces] for doing this. Who stops you from making [another] video?”
But what message was the “heckling” meant to convey? “There are multiple interpretations to the same videos,” said a police officer based in Srinagar. “For example, the video emerging out of Nasrullahpora could be interpreted as restraint by the so-called nationalist media, and as valour by jihadis. You don’t know the intentions of the uploader.”
For now, Nasrullapora lives in dread of police raids. A few boys from the village have already been arrested, Yadav said, and more would be caught soon. The resident who agreed to speak is afraid that his face would be remembered and reported.
The most infamous of the videos that went viral last month was of the “human shield”, tied to the front of an Army jeep. Since then, the “human shield” has been identified by the press: Farooq Ahmed Dar, a shawl weaver who had cast his vote on April 9 and was on his way to attend a funeral. The vehicle that bore him had driven through 10 or 12 villages. One village, in particular, was put on the map.
Gundipora, a sleepy, dusty village in Beerwah tehsil is high up in the hills of Budgam district. Cars driving through the village now draw lively interest. On the day Dar was shown around the village, residents sitting on shopfronts along the main road had been watching as well.
“Five to six boys took videos that day,” said a high school student from the village. “I was in the market. The Army came, caught him, beat him, tied him up and said the same thing would happen to all stone pelters.” So what else could he do but take out his phone and shoot? “I always take videos when there is trouble. I take them and put them on social media.”
If the “human shield” was meant to create fear among the local population, it failed. Excesses by security forces are accepted as par for the course and no one was particularly unnerved. “I peed in my pants,” joked one elderly man in the market.
Killing on camera
Gundipora is not far from Churmujroo village, where Aqeel Ahmed Wani lived. He studied and did odd jobs on the side to help with the family finances. On the morning of the bye-election, his sister Yasmina Wani said, the boy had been sent out to buy medicine for their mother.
“We have proof,” she said. “There were medicines in his pockets and a note from his mother. Afterwards, he must have joined the boys. But there was nothing much, they were all children. They could have scolded them, caught them, but they did not. They just fired directly.”
Aqeel Wani was shot near the polling booths in Attina Government Boys School, barely a kilometre from his home. It was also the school he went to.
Neither Aqeel Wani’s family nor his friends in school know who took the video. The angle of the camera and its distance from the scene of the violence suggests it was shot from the Government Girls School across the field. But the videographer has long melted away.
Gulzar Ahmed, the slain boy’s uncle, has watched the video closely. “He held stones in his hand,” said Ahmed. “He took one, threw it. Took another, threw it. How big could the stones have been?”
When they went to file a complaint at the Beerwah police station, Ahmed said, they were told an FIR had already been registered. Personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police had been deployed at Attina that day, and one of them was believed to have shot Aqeel Wani. In its initial response, the force denied that its paratrooper was involved in the incident. It also said that it was compiling a report on the incident. The Beerwah police could not be reached for comment.
“We said he had been shot from a distance of two to three metres,” Ahmed recounted. “They asked us, ‘what proof do you have?’ We said we have spoken to people and also seen the video for ourselves. They said, ‘you don’t have to tell us, we have the video.’”
Yasmina Wani could only bring herself to watch the video a week after her brother’s death. Their parents have not seen it yet. But almost every boy in Aqeel Wani’s class saw the video three days after his death, the moment the internet shutdown imposed by the government for the bye-election was lifted. The video was passed around and saved, almost every boy in their class had it, Aqeel Wani’s batchmates said.
The video has since come to stand for several things. To the slain boy’s classmates and other residents of Attina, it is yet another symbol of “zulm”. To the boy’s family, it is proof that a violation occurred. To the security forces, it could be yet another attempt to malign them.
Not far from Aqeel Wani’s home is Ratsuna village. On April 9, Nisar Ahmed Mir, a 23-year-old labourer had stepped out of his home to look for his brother when he was shot, his family said. “He was watching the [stone-pelting] incident from a distance,” claimed his brother.
When they tried to take him to a hospital in Magam town, some distance away, the ambulance was stopped by the security forces, he added, so Nisar could not be saved. When they tried to file an FIR, the family said, the Beerwah police refused. Once again, the Beerwah police could not be reached for comment.
In the media coverage that followed, Ratsuna and Attina were mixed up, as were the two deaths. Hoards of violent stone-pelters had confronted the security forces, compelling them to open fire, it was said, although residents inisisted the crowd was made up of boys aged eight to 15.
Of Aqeel Wani’s death, there is a video showing an empty field, a cluster of boys and a shot taken point blank. Despite official scepticism, it is reportedly being investigated. Mir died off camera, an invisible death in an invisible place.