The 70-year-old shopkeeper from Khudwani in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district does not remember the exact date his house was reduced to rubble. He only remembers furious knocking in the dead of the night, sometime this April. There were security forces at his door, searching for militants. Four months later, sitting in his shop, he recalls how houses in Wani Mohalla, a small, congested neighbourhood of winding lanes and a line of wholesale shops, went up in flames at the first light of dawn.
April 11 was a day of rage in Khudwani. Hundreds of troops had descended on Wani Mohalla the night before, looking for a group of militants. A soldier was killed as the hiding militants fired on the search party. In the morning, when the troops resumed their operation, leading to stone pelting by the residents, the militants were nowhere to be found. That is when buildings started going up in flames. By the evening, three homes including the shopkeeper’s and a godown were either burnt down or blasted with explosives. And four civilians, part of the stone pelting protest, were shot dead.
People across Kashmir say government forces are destroying civilian property with increasing frequency. In recent years, almost every gunfight has led to homes being turned to rubble. According to official data accessed by IndiaSpend, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district alone, at least 105 homes were destroyed during gunfights between 2015 and March 2018.
Eyewitness accounts and videos shared on social media show the Indian Army setting houses on fire shortly after tracking down militants. Security officials, however, claim an announcement is always made after a house where militants are hiding is besieged, giving them a chance to surrender.
The Army has also ransacked entire neighbourhoods across South Kashmir, where support for militancy runs high.
In the line of fire
Wani Mohalla is one such neighbourhood. “No militant was killed, but our houses were burnt to the ground,” the shopkeeper said. “The head of the search party said the building was clear of militants. They still burnt it down. All our cash, gold and documents are gone with the house.”
Residents of Khudwani say the Army prevented fire tenders from dousing the flames. Another shopkeeper in his 30s whose home was also burnt down said the local Army unit’s then commanding officer as well as a senior district police official watched the buildings burn. “No one heeded our pleas,” he rued. “But when fires started in our shops as well, I lost it. We [homeowners and other residents] pressured the police, and they later gave in.”
The police eventually allowed firemen access to the buildings, but the Army was stern. “They warned against dousing fires in the houses,” the younger shopkeeper said. “They said they would shoot us if we tried. They allowed the firemen to control fires in our shops, though.” Only a few rooms were left of his house, where he lived with his parents and a younger brother. The family is now staying in the house of a neighbour, who was gracious enough to offer them a floor and without taking rent.
The Army, the younger shopkeeper said, does not distinguish between civilians and rebels. “Now, all of us are terrorists to them,” he said. “This should not happen. They should fight with militants. Why do they fight with unarmed civilians like us? For one militant, they trouble 50 civilian families, damage our property.” As he rushed to tend customers at his shop, he added, “We are fed up with both sides.”
Three months after his home was destroyed, the older shopkeeper started rebuilding, only for his plans to be stalled. In July, another gunfight broke out in Wani Mohalla. This time, the Army did not relent: they immediately set on fire the house in which the militants were hiding. “It is now better to shift out of this area,” the shopkeeper said.
In Pulwama, the Army used flamethrowers to burn down a house where the Hizbul Mujahideen militant Sameer Bhat, alias Sameer Tiger, was hiding. A video seemingly shot from inside an Army vehicle near the site of the gunfight, which took place in April, shows Bhat emerging on the roof soon after the fire is lit. He is gunned down within seconds.
An undated video that first started circulating on social media in June shows soldiers surrounding a two-storeyed Kashmiri house. Soon, there are explosions in the ground floor and the house collapses in just five seconds. Panning away from the wreckage, the camera turns to the smiling face of a soldier.
Why are security forces destroying homes in Kashmir? The answer depends on whom you ask. For villagers, it is a form of punishment. “I feel they did it so we would not shelter militants again,” the old shopkeeper from Khudwani said. “But what can we do? We are helpless. We are forced to give them shelter. Both sides have guns.”
‘They are complicit’
All over the Valley, one question repeatedly crops up regarding gunfights: given that militants lack enough “samaan”, the colloquial term for arms and ammunition, why can security forces not wait for their supplies to run out and apprehend them, instead of killing them or burning down houses? In response, security forces point to a recent change in the dynamic of gunfights.
In the past, a senior police official said, they preferred room to room searches. Today, security forces cannot prolong gunfights as protesting crowds around sites of operations swell the longer they last. Trying to avoid killing militants in such situations would result in civilian killings.
Then, there is the matter of media attention. The security establishment does not want “spectacles for the press”, the official said, so they prefer to finish operations swiftly.
Another police official who has supervised several counterinsurgency operations in recent years, largely agreed. “Material damage is acceptable to all rather than loss of lives on any side,” he said.
He added that the methods used to expedite operations involve tossing improvised explosive devices inside houses or planting them close to a wall to “stun or kill” the holed up militants. Since 2017, after protestors started disrupting operations with increasing frequency, the Army has been using flamethrowers as well. The official, however, claimed using explosives and flamethrowers “is not meant to blow up the house entirely. The damage is collateral.”
Such destruction of homes is not new to the Valley. A retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army who has served as a commander in Kashmir said destroying houses has always been part of the counterinsurgency methods “in vogue”. “It is the easiest way to do it,” he said.
The Army, he said, generally avoids confrontations that threaten the lives of its men. Protocol is not followed each time militants are tracked down as there usually is not enough time. “In battle you use firepower to avoid casualties,” he added. “Minimum force for [maximum] effect. And the effect you want to see produced is one that kills terrorists. It is better to fire a thousand rounds than let them [militants] kill two of our men, it is better to bring the house down than lose two men.”
Houses are destroyed, he said, because militants usually do not heed announcements offering them safe passage and an option to surrender. Has the Army ever considered how such a policy would affect the civilian population and shape its perception of the Indian state?
“No,” the general replied, and accused the affected homeowners of being “complicit” for giving shelter to militants. “Where is the question of outrage?” he asked. “You are complicit.”
He said there are “no idealistic rules” in wars, pointing to a war strategy that has been around “since times immemorial”. “Why do you bomb cities?” he asked. “To break the will of the people”.
The police official who has supervised counterinsurgency operations in recent years claimed the Army destroys homes to prevent deaths of security personnel. “Conflicts within the country are difficult for the Army,” he said. “They are trained to kill in wars, to eliminate all that moves on the opposite side.”
He argued that the state police, “if trusted and trained”, are best suited to conduct operations in urban and semi-urban combat environments, but the other security agencies lack faith in them.
What international laws say
A raft of international statutes prohibits the “unnecessary destruction” of property. These include the Geneva Conventions. While India is a signatory to the four main conventions, which primarily deal with international armed conflicts, it is yet to sign the additional protocols. Among other things, these protocols codify violations in the case of non-international armed conflicts.
In Kashmir, as militancy raged in the 1990s, residential areas came under fire. The northern town of Sopore, for example, witnessed repeated burnings. In September 1990, the Border Security Force set 83 houses and 50 shops on fire in the town’s Arampora locality, in retaliation for an attack on their convoy. On January 6, 1993, they set fire to the town’s main market, this time to “avenge” the killing of one of their men, killing at least 53 civilians and burning down 300 shops and over 100 houses. In April 1993, The New York Times reported that Indian security forces had been blamed for arson and killings across Srinagar.
‘What is a house worth?’
In March, the Army destroyed the home of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a poet better known by his pen name Madhosh Balhami, during a gunfight with militants hiding there. He lost 30 years of his literary work in the fire.
Bhat alleges his house was set ablaze well after the gunfight had ended. The fire also consumed his sister’s home next door.
It is not the destruction of his home that Bhat regrets so much as the loss of his work. “I know the value of a mujahid,” he said, using the popular term for militant. “If their sacrifice is accepted, then all my property isn’t worth even a shoe. The injustice they died fighting, I think God will accept them.”
The destruction of his work has broken his resolve to write. “I only regret this,” he said, laying on a sheet on the bare cemented floor of his new home that is still under construction. “Today, I write a line and then think of all that was lost. It stops me right there.”
Save for a separatist leader who “put a band aid on my deep wounds” by offering a paltry sum of money, Bhat said, no one has came forward to help him. “One made a speech here,” he recounted. “Telling people not to worry because he would rebuild this house. He said he considered it his own house. Seeing that, the local people did not come to my help. Neither did [that separatist leader].”
Bhat has been associated with the Hurriyat, the political platform for separatists in the Valley, for nearly three decades, but he did not seek help from them.
Today, Bhat, his wife, two adult sons and a daughter live in a single-room outhouse that survived the gunfight. His sister’s family has erected a tin shelter. Bhat and his wife spend most of their days in the house he is now rebuilding. The outhouse is too hot during the day. “It is making a lesson out of us,” Bhat said of the destruction of his home. “So that the next time militants seek shelter anywhere, people would rather be killed by them than face this.”
For ordinary Kashmiris, to have their homes destroyed is to feel “doomed”, the poet said. “But for those who know how movements are run, it doesn’t matter,” he added. “When so many people have died, what is a house worth?”
The responsibility for supporting such families, Bhat argued, should lie with the Hurriyat leaders, “who claim to run the tehreek”, or the Azadi movement.
People whose homes are destroyed during gunfights are eligible for compensation. After a claim is made, the district administrations seeks a police report on whether the owner harboured militants willingly or under duress. Bhat said he has applied for compensation but there has been no progress on his claim. He suspects his vocal support for the separatist movement has led to an unfavourable report from the police.
But the counterinsurgency official claimed the police give favourable reports in most cases. This is done on “humanitarian basis” so that the homeowners do not suffer any further, he added. But the process is long and the money given, often years later, is generally a fraction of the losses suffered. Moreover, the process can only start if a homeowner files a claim. Not all do.
Waheed Khan’s home in Anantnag town was damaged during a gunfight in July, but he did not even consider seeking compensation. “We know they will not compensate us, so why should I humiliate myself?” Khan said, sitting in his shop in the ground floor of his home. The windows in the upper floors are still broken, the walls riddled with bullet marks. “They will call us anti-national, so why should we approach them? What can we tell them?”
Khan’s brother, Tariq Khan, ran away to join the militancy soon after the gunfight.
‘Visiting a shrine’
Gunfights across Kashmir follow the same routine: homes reduced to rubble, vast funerals for militants, people thronging the sites of the gunfights. People regularly travel to such places from distant villages. In local folklore, the wrecked buildings mark the sites where militants achieved “martyrdom”.
A young villager from Pulwama said going to such sites was like “visiting a shrine”. “There are stories and anecdotes, and martyrs linked to an encounter site,” he said.
The visitors trace bullet holes in the rooms and follow the slain militants’ footsteps, trying to imagine the scene of their death. The day after Sameer Tiger was killed in Drubgam village, the visitors struggled to climb a narrow staircase to the spot on the roof where his blood was still visible.
These shrines to conflict also serve to showcase local brotherhood. Residents and members of the neighbourhood mosque committees sit on the lanes leading to the destroyed homes, collecting donations for the affected families.
Unsurprisingly, the destruction of homes and the displacement of families invariably fuels anger. “There is a feeling of deliberate victimisation,” said the young man from Pulwama. “We see what the hundreds of soldiers do to kill two people holed up in a house, the hatred for Army only increases.”