The stench of burnt wood, hay and damp mud wafted through North Kashmir’s Hajin town on December 7. Huge piles of blackened hay crumbled in the wind. In some places, half-burnt bales smouldered.

In neighbourhood after neighbourhood, men improvised repairs on paneless windows, covering them with tin, plastic and tarpaulin sheets to keep out the cold. Women collected broken glass in sacks.

The residents of Hajin said that on December 6, Indian Army personnel out on a patrol had vandalised houses, beaten up civilians and allegedly set fire to bales of hay. A college student in Hajin said that as the patrol went from Parray Mohalla to Bon Mohalla between 11 am and noon, a crowd had pelted stones on it. In order to chase the crowd away, soldiers opened fire. They then damaged houses and property. Later, the police arrived to control the crowd.

Residents said a youth was injured in the legs in the firing. According to local reports, five youth were wounded, including one with bullet injuries. According to a senior police official in North Kashmir, however, one person has received pellet injuries while another, bullet injuries.

Army denies charges

Once the bastion of the Ikhwan, the counter-insurgency militia raised by the Indian Army in the 1990s, Hajin has become a hub of the new militancy in recent times. In an encounter on November 18, six militants and an Indian Air Force commando were killed in Hajin.

Security forces have faced stiff resistance from the local population during counterinsurgency operations, and residents believe the recent raid was planned to “teach us a lesson”.

When got in touch with the Army for its version of events, a press statement was handed out. It denied charges of vandalism and an extended raid. “An Area Domination Patrol of 3 Sector RR [Rashtriya Rifles] was passing through Hajin when it came under heavy stone-pelting by a mob,” the statement read. “The Patrol Party Commander cautioned the crowd not to indulge in stone-pelting. However, the mob continued to target the patrol, injuring three soldiers. After giving a final warning, a few rounds were fired in the air to disperse the mob and the Patrol Party moved to its destination.”

Damaged homes across various neighbourhoods in Hajin. (Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

A labourer and his wife in Hajin’s Parray Mohalla alleged they were both beaten up by soldiers in their home. On Thursday, the labourer limped his way out of a group of men who had gathered in the mohalla, to lead the way to policeman Parvez Parray’s house. Residents alleged it was damaged after stones hurled by the soldiers broke through the windows and landed up inside.

A kilometre away, in Bon Mohalla, a retired government employee said that several soldiers had barged into his property around 12.30 pm, when he was inside with his family. Many more soldiers were spread out in the fields and around the house, he said.

Estimates by locals of the number of Army personnel involved in the rampage vary from a few dozen to few hundred.

“They banged on our gates at first,” the government employee said. “When we didn’t open, they scaled the walls and entered.” He added that the soldiers broke the ground floor windows with sticks and hurled stones at those on the upper floor. “Then they set fire to the cowshed and the grass around it,” he said. “We thought it was better to let it burn and save our own lives.”

He said when he mustered up the courage to go out and face the soldiers to plead for mercy, they responded with: “Why don’t you counsel your children not to pelt stones?”

The soldiers left an hour later, but not without damaging a washroom outside the home, the cowshed, and two vehicles, he alleged.

A rock thrown inside Parvez Parray's home in Parray Mohalla. (Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

Another government employee in Bon Mohalla was distraught. It had only been a few months since new glass panes had been fitted on the windows of her freshly-renovated house. She said after breaking the window panes, the soldiers had also sought the whereabouts of a Pakistani gunman who was reportedly slain during an encounter on November 19. “They were shouting where is Mehmood bhai, you give them rations,” she said. “How would we even know where he is? Didn’t they claim to have killed him?”

She has now kept an axe ready in anticipation of another raid. “We bore it all this time,” she said with determination. “But the next time they come, they will not go back as easily.” A 21-year-old woman nodded in agreement.

The 21-year-old said that she was at home with two other women when the Army descended. Since there were only women in the house, she had “pleaded with folded hands not to harm us”. She added: “But they threw stones our way and abused us anyway.”

She also claimed that the Army personnel had set fire to the bales of hay in the town. “After sprinkling gunpowder, they used lighters,” she said. “It lit up within moments.”

(Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

In Syed Mohalla, just over a kilometre from Bon Mohalla, a young man said the soldiers had used petrol to set the hay on fire.

Another mohalla resident, a middle-aged man in his 50s, said the soldiers were on foot, setting fire to the bales as they went past. He said that he tried to prevent the soldiers from burning his hay. “But they said make the boys behind them [the stone pelters] go away,” said the middle-aged man. “I told them I am helpless.” Eventually, he said a scuffle broke out between him and the soldiers, during which they allegedly opened fire. “I survived miraculously,” he said.

For the poorer residents of Hajin, the destruction of hay has been devastating. It is vital fodder for livestock in the winter. “It costs almost Rs 10,000 for one bale,” a resident of Bon Mohalla complained. “I am looking at a loss of up to 80,000. And there is no money to buy hay from elsewhere. How do I feed my animals now?”

(Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

In the town, residents pointed out that the Army did not even spare the families of its own men. Across the road from policeman Parvez Parray’s house, sheets of tin cover the windows of the home of two Army men. They are cousins of the Border Security Force constable Mohammad Ramzan Parray, who was allegedly murdered by Pakistani gunmen in the area in October.

‘Winning hearts and minds’

Over the last few months, as large-scale search operations returned to the Valley after years, allegations of vandalism and violence have mounted. In Shopian in South Kashmir, for instance, a single village has allegedly been vandalised at least three times. Allegations of vandalism surfaced in Kulgam, also in South Kashmir, a day before the Centre’s interlocutor for talks in Kashmir landed in Srinagar on November 6.

Residents of Kulgam say the Army later reached out to village elders in certain volatile areas of the district. In Hajin, the Army’s denial of vandalism has angered the residents. “Our prime minister says they will win hearts, is this how they think they can win hearts?” demanded the retired government employee whose cow shed had been set on fire.

(Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

Rumours in Hajin have added to the resentment. It is being said that policemen wearing Army fatigues had been guiding the soldiers as only a local resident would have an intimate knowledge of the town’s lanes and by-lanes.

Civilians in Hajin also see themselves as collateral damage in the fight between security forces on one side and militants on the other. A Class 12 student from Syed Mohalla asked why regular residents should suffer if searches by security forces yielded no results. “Why should we pay for their failures?” he demanded. “We have no role in it.”

In Kochak Mohalla, Abdul Ahad, slightly frail and in his 60s, lit a cigarette as he remarked, “When oppression crosses its limits then people rise up too. Today they [security forces] can’t come here during the day, tomorrow they won’t be able to make it in the night”.

Boys look inside a shop allegedly vandalised by Army personnel. (Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).