As a gunfight raged in Srinagar on May 5 and protests broke out in various parts of the city, one image went viral. Eighteen-year-old Adil Ahmed Yadoo chasing armoured vehicles of the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force and pelting stones at them, until he is hit from behind by a police vehicle and crushed to death. A video of the incident, which seems to be taken from a window opening out into the street, was circulated widely in spite of curbs on mobile internet services.

The incident occurred at Noor Bagh in the Safa Kadal area of downtown Srinagar, which frequently breaks into protests and stonepelting. But even those who grew up in Safa Kadal during the peak of the militancy in the 1990s cannot remember a previous incident in which protestors were run over by security vehicles.

While the police had reportedly termed the death a road accident at first, they later said they had seized the vehicle, detained the driver and registered a case. “Nobody is above the law, whatever is in the ambit of the law, we have taken that action,” said SP Pani, inspector general of police, Kashmir.

He added, “Please analyse the video.”

‘Whose war are they fighting?’

Neither youth nor members of civil society in Kashmir is mollified. “It was intentionally done,” claimed Aynee Arif, a student of Kashmir University. This incident had created ripples in the Valley, she felt, because the video had been circulated on social media almost immediately. “Now we are able to see what happened right after it happened,” she said.

Gowhar Geelani, a political commentator based in Srinagar, pointed to the contrast between the treatment meted out to dissenters in the Valley and demonstrators of the Hindu Ekta Manch in Jammu. The manch, formed in January, organised marches protesting against the arrest of those accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district.

“Whose war are they fighting, that is a question which civil society is asking now,” he said of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. “It has the skill set to kill or blind its own citizens in Kashmir but it gets beaten by citizens and the army in Jammu. After mowing down a civilian in Kashmir, it describes the crime as a road accident.”

In contrast to the police’s handling of the protests in Jammu, Geelani said, were the repeated killings of civilians near the site of gunfights between militants and security forces. The Shopian gunfight on May 6 killed three more civilians in Kashmir.

As always in Kashmir, each fresh incident brings back memories of older alleged violations that went unpunished. Geelani invoked the image of a Kashmiri man tied to an army jeep and used as a human shield against stone pelters in 2017, the killing of young civilians in the mass protests of 2008 and 2010, and countless incidents that have occurred over 30 years of militancy.

Arif is sceptical of the police registering a case against the driver of the vehicle. “That is good because it is their man who has done this,” she said. “But there should be an honest procedure and not closed after two three days.”

It leads back to old questions about how the armed forces, not just the police, operate in the Valley. “Two key factors encourage the Indian Army, the Jammu and Kashmir police and other paramilitary personnel to use brute force against civilian protestors in the Valley,’ said Geelani. “One, the belief that they will get away with it in the absence of accountability. Two, killings and blinding of civilians are seen as punishment for the dissenting populace espousing a political aspiration.”

Speaking off the record, however, senior police officials in the Valley maintain that they are acting under tremendous pressure, being the only buffer between a hard militaristic response and a government which has increasingly failed to maintain the rule of law or to respond politically to the situation.

Safa Kadal

But local residents say the security forces never retaliated as much. “Now, the government has given them a free hand,” said Riyaz Shah, a pharamcist who grew up in the area in the 1990s. Safa Kadal is a bridge across the Jhelum river. The streets that radiate out of it are familiar with violence.

“We also used to go out on the streets and pelt stones, but we were always looking for escape routes,” said Shah. “But we feared the police and army.” The video that emerged this weekend, he said, showed that the local youth had lost all fear of security forces, weaving in between armoured vehicles.

But he also recalls security crackdowns in the 1990s that lasted three days. As security forces searched houses, local residents were herded to nearby fields and made to sit outside for entire days. During one crackdown, Shah remembers, a local school had been commandeered and turned into an interrogation centre for the day. In the evening, after residents were allowed to go back to their houses, they heard a shriek on the streets. The bodies of three local militants had been found in the school, their throats cut. Shah himself was picked up at random and taken for interrogation once.

‘Undeclared curfew’

Among those who posted the video on social media was Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who leads the Hurriyat (M) faction of the separatist leadership. “How a murder was committed by forces today and then brazenly denied! Is there no sense of humanity left in India?” he tweeted.

Yadoo was laid to rest in the “martyrs’” graveyard nearby, amid slogans demanding “azadi” and invoking Zakir Musa, leader of a militant group called the Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind.

On May 6, the after the killing, there was an “undeclared curfew” and restrictions on movement in downtown Srinagar, Geelani said.