On May 16, the Army and the police went into Okay village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district to carry out a cordon and search operation. In common parlance in the Valley, it is called “crackdown”.
A legacy of the troubled 1990s, the crackdown is an operation where security forces surround a village and order all men to assemble outside, in a field or school ground. There, they are frisked and paraded before masked informers while the soldiers go around searching the houses.
Tuesday’s was the first crackdown in these parts in over a decade, residents said. “This has not happened since the 1990s,” said Mohammad Amin, who lives in Shakhsaz Mohalla of Okay. “Earlier, the Army would pass through the village but there were no crackdowns.”
Okay is a village of about 600 households. In recent years, only one resident has joined the ranks of the militants. Security forces marching in for counterinsurgency operations find hostile civilian populations in many parts of the Valley. Not so in Okay. The villagers said they were not opposed to the crackdown initially, but the alleged high-handedness of the Army led to a confrontation between the youth and the soldiers.
“Do not fear if they have come for a crackdown,” a resident is heard shouting to fellow villagers in a video believed to have been recorded during the operation. He then turns to the soldiers: “Why are you beating up people?”
As the confrontation intensified, the soldiers fired in the air and the operation was called off.
Recounting the events a day later, the villagers believed that the soldiers had come with the intention to “beat up people and damage property”.
It was around 6 am on Tuesday when the villagers heard the announcement over a loudspeaker: all male residents above the age of 10 were to come out and gather in a ground next to the high school.
The soldiers had come in more than 20 vehicles and surrounded the village. Some were standing guard in the lanes and bylanes. “They were everywhere,” said Bashir Ahmad, a villager in his late 60s. “No one had expected that this would happen here.”
By 7 am, all men and boys had gathered in the ground. The Army, Bashir Ahmad said, was high-handed from the start. “Young boys were asked to raise their arms for five to 10 minutes,” he said. “One or two could not keep them up and they were slapped.”
Showkat Ahmad, 18, said the soldiers separated the young from the old. “They asked us to raise our hands,” he added. “One boy was then beaten up, for no reason.”
Was there stone-pelting? There was not, Showkat Ahmad said. “We were face to face, side by side. It was hand-to-hand confrontation,” he added.
The villagers said some men were beaten up on their way to the ground. “They were taunting us: ‘we will teach you a lesson for pelting stones’,” said a young resident who did not want to be identified.
Jabeena Akhtar, a housewife, lives in a small house close to the ground where the men and boys were assembled. She saw two boys being beaten up. One, her neighbour, was thrashed outside his house “for being a few minutes late in coming out”. The other was slapped at the ground. “But he hit back at the soldier,” she said. This only invited more soldiers to assault the boy, Jabeena Akhtar added. Angered, a group of youth too joined the brawl. Minutes later, other soldiers at the ground fired in the air to disperse the quarrelling boys. Other residents said at least 20 rounds were fired.
The firing alarmed the women, and they poured out into the streets and started screaming.
“They were angry from the beginning,” Jabeena Akhtar said about the soldiers. After the women came out, however, they “maintained calm”, she added. “And we also responded by maintaining calm.”
The Army was eventually forced to call off the operation without searching a single house. Before leaving, the commanding officer apologised for the highhandedness of his men, the villagers said. Later, police officials assured them that “there will be no more harassment from the Army”.
By 10 am, the soldiers were gone and residents went about their daily lives. “We called the school teachers to say they [soldiers] had gone,” said Showkat Ahmad. “They came and opened the school as usual.”
‘If only they came peacefully’
Several large-scale cordon and search operations have been conducted in the valley over the past month, prompted apparently by a spurt in militant attacks, especially in South Kashmir, and videos showing large groups of militants together.
In Shopian district, a massive cordon and search operation took place on May 4, with over 3,000 personnel combing through at least five villages. It was followed by a similar operation in Heff and Shirmal villages of the district. In both instances, residents alleged beatings and vandalism by soldiers.
On May 17, search operations were launched in Mohammadpora village in Kulgam district and Seer village in Pulwama district. The previous night, Heff and Shirmal had again been cordoned off and searched.
In Okay, the refrain was that if the soldiers had not turned violent, the villagers would have cooperated. “Had they done their job peacefully we would have had no problem.” Jabeena Akhtar said.
Particularly after the firing, the village was gripped by fear. “We thought someone had been killed,” said another resident Ulfat Jahan. “We rushed towards the field. If they had come to identify and arrest someone who was involved [in militancy], they should have done that. Why did they resort to such behaviour?”
Bashir Ahmad said the young and the old reacted differently to the crackdown. “Unlike the older generation, the young are not intimidated easily,” he said. The soldiers even pointed their guns at the youth and threatened to fire, he said, “but the boys said do it if you want to.”
Scroll.in repeatedly reached out to Army officers by telephone and email for their response to the allegations, but they remained unavailable for comment. Contacted earlier by the Srinagar-based daily Rising Kashmir, the Army spokesperson Rajesh Kalia had denied that the villagers were beaten up.