Lolab Valley in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district seems quiet this time of the year. In Devar, a cluster of villages nestled at the foot of the hills between golden rice fields and lush green forest, the few shops are open and farmers are at work on the harvest. But there is resentment brewing in the hills.

On August 31, two young men, Manzoor Khan and Nasrullah Khan, both from Kakad Pati in Devar, disappeared into an Army camp in the hills. Nasrullah was found later that evening, severely injured. Mansoor has not been heard of since. More than a week after he disappeared, residents in his village fear he may be dead.

Nasrullah, who now suffers from kidney failure, said that they were taken to separate rooms in the camp and tortured.

Closer to Trehmokh Top, where the Army camp is located, other allegations emerge. Residents of the temporary settlement around the camp speak of forced labour and extortion by the Army: charges that have not been heard in Kashmir in years.

Moving to Trehmokh Top

Trehmokh Top is a peak overlooking Lolab area and is the tri-junction of three districts: Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara. The Pahadi communities settled in Devar and around the hills in other districts migrate to Trehmokh Top during the summer months to graze their livestock and cultivate patches of the hills. Here, they set up house in single-room permanent shelters, called dok – made from wood, mud and tin roofs. Perched on the peak is an Army camp in which the 27 Rashtriya Rifles, a battalion of the Maratha Light Infantry, is currently stationed.

On August 31, two days before Bakr-Eid, the residents of Devar were busy with their daily routine. Many were going back and forth from the upper reaches to the lower reaches, where their brick and mortar homes are, for various odd jobs at home. Sometime late that morning, Manzoor, a farmer and herder in his late 20s, his uncle, Jalal Din, and a cousin, were going with a herd of cows towards Trehmokh Top. On the way, they met 35-year-old Nasrullah Khan.

As the group reached the peak, Manzoor approached the camp to deposit the mandatory entry passes obtained from an Army camp in the village below. The entry registration is to keep a record of the inhabitants of the temporary settlements. Nasrullah was riding a horse and had reached ahead of the group. Manzoor went inside the camp to deposit the family’s papers, Din said. “But then Manzoor came back to the gates after 10 to 15 minutes and told me that the Major wanted to speak to him,” Din continued. “He told me to wait.”

Din waited at the camp gate for an hour before asking the soldiers why Manzoor was not done yet. In the meanwhile Nasrullah’s relatives arrived to enquire about him too. At that point, the soldiers told the gathered relatives that the two had been let out through a gate at the other end of the camp, which faces the settlement where the two men have their shelters.

Residents of Devar rushed to the settlement but the two men were nowhere to be found. They immediately returned to the camp gates, agitated. “We raised a hue and cry to force them to give our men back,” Din said. “But they now refused to even accept that they had taken in anyone.”

The residents, however, refused to disperse until the two men were released. “By evening, they said one person was with them and would be released after 10 minutes,” Din said. “But they didn’t and we kept asking. Later, the Major came out and said if Nasrullah wasn’t at his home, [we should] shoot him.”

The villagers now rushed to Nasrullah’s dok at the far end of the settlement. This was about between 8 pm to 9 pm that evening. “He was half dead,” said a villager who did not want to be identified. “He was lying on the floor in the dok next to his own as there was nobody there,” said the villager. “His clothes were torn, smeared with blood and he was only partly conscious.”

‘Third degree torture’

After giving Nasrullah food and water, they carried him down the hill on their shoulders, using the light from their cellphones to help them climb down narrow and steep tracks in the dark. Nasrullah was taken to the Lalpora police station, some 6 km away, and then to a hospital in nearby Sogam village. His injuries were too serious for the small hospital to treat so he was referred to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar around 2 am.

A police official, who did not want to be identified, who saw Nasrullah’s injuries that night said “there was no doubt that it was the result of third degree torture”. Two days later, Nasrullah was again referred to another hospital, after his kidneys started failing. Doctors treating Nasrullah at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura, Srinagar, said his health is “not improving but he is also not deteriorating”.

Ashraf Bhat, head of the hospital’s nephrology department, said that severe muscle trauma, like that seen in patients crushed under collapsed buildings, had led to Nasrullah’s kidney failure. “He has kidney failure and is dialysis dependent for the time being,” he said. “Patients, if they come out of it, recover fully. He is in a crisis period and many such patients succumb if they don’t recover.”

According to police officials in Kupwara, Nasrullah’s recorded statement says that he and Manzoor were in two separate rooms in the Army camp . “Nasrullah said he heard only three cries from Manzoor, after which there was no sound,” one police official said. “Soon after that, Nasrullah also fell unconscious.”

The police official added that nothing was found after the camp was searched. “The Army is not cooperating at all,” he said.

Nasrullah Khan.

The missing man

Residents of Devar have given up searching for Manzoor. “We don’t know if he is alive, he was weaker than Nasrullah,” said a local resident. “He could not have survived what happened to Nasrullah. Maybe the Army is not giving him back because he is too injured or maybe he is dead already.”

Din said that the soldiers had accused the two of harbouring militants in their shelters. “Nasrullah said they kept beating him asking how much he took from the militants,” Din said. However, villagers say the militancy angle was just an excuse and the incident was planned in advance.

Manzoor’s father Ghulam Qadir said that on the morning of August 31, a few soldiers had come asking for his son. Local residents said that a soldier, who they know only as Katapa, had led the Army crew. They believe the soldier is the aide to a “Major”. Both are locally known for “harassing civilians” and for being zaalim or oppressive.

Qadir said he initially had no idea what the soldiers wanted but joined the dots later. More than a week before that day, an altercation had broken out, which involved Qadir, Manzoor and some soldiers. “Before they left, they angrily yelled at him saying that they would teach him a lesson,” said Qadir. He did not say what the altercation was about.

According to Qadir and Din, when they approached the Army after Nasrullah was found, the Commanding Officer of 27 Rashtriya Rifles also arrived and asked for more time to produce Manzoor. “He was tense, we could make out from his face,” said Qadir. “He kept drinking glasses of water. He told us he will find him from wherever he has to, but asked us to give him some time. He said it may take up to 10 days.”

Army officials have reportedly refused to cooperate with the police investigation, leading to more anger among local residents. Cases of attempted murder, wrongful confinement, and kidnapping with intent of murder have been registered at the Lalpora Police Station.

As of September 5, a deputy tehsildar of the local administration in Lolab, a deputy superintendent of police, and a station house officer, had been camping at Trehmokh Top for four days. The gates to the camp remained shut with soldiers laying out fresh concertina wires as a deterrent, and at least 90 personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir police are patrolling the peak in 24 hour shifts after local residents and Army soldiers came close to a violent confrontation on September 1.

“We are here to make sure there is no untoward incident,” said a police official. “We did not want things to flare up as there could be many casualties on the people’s side if they attacked the camp and soldiers retaliated.”

The local administration’s prompt response has earned the goodwill of the villagers but patience seems to be running out. A youngster in the village spoke of an abandoned plan to carry petrol bombs to “teach them [the Army] a lesson”.

An Army spokesman said it had taken cognisance of the incident. “It is under investigation and action will be taken accordingly,” the spokesman said.

On September 7, the Army, in a statement, said: “The Chinar Corps Commander visited the area today and personally interacted with officials. A joint inquiry team comprising senior police and Army officers is investigating the case. Suitable action will be taken based on the outcome of this inquiry”.

The Army camp at Trehmokh Top in the distance. (Photo: Rayan Naqash).

Changing perceptions

Manzoor’s disappearance has brought long brewing resentments in the area to a boil. Hidden away from the gaze of the administration and the press, the Pahadi community here complains of forced labour and extortion by soldiers at Trehmokh Top. It has been more than two years since 27 Rashtriya Rifles moved into the camp there. Since then, villagers have been forced to provide free labour and wood to the Army unit, said residents of Devar.

Riyaz Ahmad, 35, said every year in April, when residents of Devar arrive at Trehmokh Top for the summer, 27 Rashtriya Rifles demands two to four wooden beams, used for construction purposes, from each household in the temporary settlement. There are around 200 shelters near the camp.

The people in the settlements have also had to construct some bunkers and residential huts in the camp, Ahmad said. “We constructed a large quarter there just last year,” he said. “We cannot refuse to work. If we do, they tell us to pack our bags and leave. They don’t let us graze our animals or enter our fields.”

A young villager at Trehmokh Top, who did not want to be identified, said that residents of the settlement also provided soldiers with firewood before they leave for the village in the lower reaches, at the end of summer. “By October-November they ask us to fell more trees because they need firewood for the winter,” he said.

Another resident of Kakad Pati said hundreds of trees were felled by locals each year for the Army but they did not know what the wood was used for. “We don’t know what they do with the wooden beams, but they take it from us every year,” he said. “We see them put the beams, or boxes made from it, in helicopters and fly them down. There are carpenters there [in the camp] as well, some from the village who are unpaid.”

Fifty-year-old Hashim Ali said local residents had cordial relations with the 28 Rashtriya Rifles posted in Devar “that knew the people” but still none spoke against the 27 Rashtriya Rifles out of fear. “We thought if we told someone [about the demands], it would invite their [27 Rashtriya Rifles’] wrath,” he said. “We were scared. They have become our sarpanch, ministers, and government. Whatever they say, we have to do. We cannot refuse.”

Villagers are now demanding that the 27 Rashtriya Rifles battallion atop Trehmokh be replaced with the 28 Rashtriya Rifles stationed in Devar.

When asked about the allegations of forced labour and extraction of wood, the Army spokesman sought time to “ascertain the facts”.

Dok settlements on Trehmokh Top. (Photo: Rayan Naqash).

Powerless ministers?

Law and Justice Minister Abdul Haq Khan’s assurances that Manzoor would return had calmed the villagers and prevented a possibly violent confrontation. Khan, a native of Devar and related to Manzoor, is the People’s Democratic Party MLA from Lolab. Ali said the People’s Democratic Party had won support in the area when party founder, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, reined in the security forces, particularly the police’s counter-insurgency personnel, after he became chief minister in 2001.

At a press conference during the unrest in Kashmir last summer, Sayeed’s daughter and the current chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, interrupted Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to speak of her party’s efforts to prevent young men from being subjected to atrocities and forced labour in South Kashmir when journalists posed questions on the party’s stance on the killings by security forces during the unrest.

But since August 31, perceptions of local residents regarding the state and Union governments, and faith in democracy is changing.

Residents of Devar say the Army is above the law. “They don’t even listen to ministers,” Ali said, referring to Khan’s efforts to put pressure on the Army regarding Manzoor’s disappearance. “If they listened to ministers, they would give back a man they took away in front of everyone,” he said. “They are not budging even a bit, it means even ministers are helpless in front of them.

An angry, young relative of Manzoor said: “Kashmiri [ethnic] people think we [Pahadis] are one with the soldiers. That we live a life of luxury up here. They don’t know the hardships that we face. We live in the midst of the forces. What happened to Manzoor could happen to any one of us tomorrow.”

District police officials with villagers at Trehmokh Top.