Like every evening, Rayees Ahmad Wani, 28, left his home in South Kashmir’s Kulgam around 4 pm on November 2. Rayees Wani, who had mental disabilities, spent most of his time at home but liked to sit at a neighbourhood shop in the evenings, until it was time to close. That day, he did not return home.

“One of the sons of my brother was arrested by the police during a stone-pelting incident in Kulgam earlier that day,” recalled Rayees Wani’s father, Abdul Hamid Wani, an apple grower in his early 50s. “His exams were on and all of us were worried. When he was not released, all of us went to my brother’s place in the evening.” The brothers live side by side in the sleepy village of Begam.

Around 7 pm, when Rayees Wani’s family returned home, they found their only son had not returned. “We searched for him everywhere,” said Abdul Hamid Wani. “We also made announcements over the mosque loudspeaker to find out if somebody had seen him. It was raining heavily that night. My fear was that he might have drowned somewhere. Our search lasted till one in the night.”

The same night, an Army sentry manning the perimeter of the 34 Rashtriya Rifles camp in Shopian district’s Pahnoo village shot dead a mentally challenged man. He had been walking towards the camp wall after crossing the perimeter fencing, police officials claimed. The sentry shouted out a warning and fired shots in the air, the police added, but when the man did not stop, the soldier shot him. The man was identified as Rayees Ahmad Wani.

He was not the first Kashmiri with mental disability or illness to fall to bullets this year. In February, Syed Habibullah, 65, was shot dead by security forces near the Air Force station in Budgam. The police said Habibullah had ignored repeated warnings from a sentry as he “crossed the security fence and came close to the station’s perimeter wall”.

Since militancy spread in Kashmir in 1989, many such persons have been killed. Anecdotes abound about such killings, though exact figures are hard to establish from the 1990s. Mohammad Ahsan Untoo, chairman of the International Forum for Justice and Human Rights, said his organisation has documented 19 such cases since 2000.

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, security forces have shot dead at least 18 people with mental disabilities since 2003, either during search operations or as they wandered close to military camps. They include two women and a minor boy. Parvez Imroz, a senior lawyer who works with the organisation, said the numbers could be much higher since no records were kept earlier. Local accounts suggest that, in several cases, security forces shot dead men with mental disabilities and tried to pass them off as militants.

Abdul Hamid Wani, whose mentally challenged son was killed by the Army, at his home in Kulgam. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

Faith and fatality

Persons with mental disabilities or illnesses – in rural Kashmir, the difference often goes undiagnosed – are locally known as “maet”. They are often perceived as spiritual figures who possess supernatural powers. It is not uncommon to find people feeding such individuals outside shrines to get their wishes fulfilled.

“It’s not only our society,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, dean of the School of Legal Studies, Central University of Kashmir. “This attitude has been witnessed globally. In Europe, epileptic patients are perceived as people who possess supernatural powers.”

Speak to the families of Rayees Wani and Habibullah and the reverence comes through clearly. “Whenever I would look at the face of my son, all my stress would vanish,” said Abdul Hamid Wani. “You won’t believe that whenever he wished for anything, Allah would have already provided it to me.”

While “maet” continued to be revered even after militancy broke out, the conflict gradually isolated them. Before the 1990s, Showkat Hussain pointed out, men with mental disabilities would often spend nights in hammams of mosques, as indeed would other travellers. Hammams are rooms heated by firewood burning under hollow limestone floors. “It was the basic purpose of the mosque hammam,” he added. “Now, almost every mosque is locked for the night.”

Ordinary residents would also take in travellers and mentally challenged people, or provide them with food if they were staying at the mosque. “That changed after the ’90s,” said Showkat Hussain.

Troubling questions

Questions haunt the families of both Rayees Wani and Habibullah.

How did their son end up outside an Army camp, asked Rayees Wani’s family. “Never ever in his life had he gone beyond the limits of his village alone,” Abdul Hamid Wani said. “Whenever he wanted to visit his maternal home, about three kilometres away, somebody had to accompany him. So, I am puzzled, how did he reach an Army camp 45 kilometres away all alone?”

These questions have spawned some theories about his son’s death. “I feel he was picked up by the Army or the STF and killed in cold blood,” he said, referring to the police’s counterinsurgency unit, Special Task Force. “It was raining the entire night that he went missing, but when I checked his clothes, they were totally dry and clean. His kangri [earthen firepot] was standing intact at the spot of his death. How is that possible?”

Rifat Jan, 22, one of Rayees Wani’s four sisters added, “Whenever he saw a soldier, he would lift his pheran [a voluminous woolen garment worn in winter] to his shoulders and raise his hands up.”

Taking out from a polythene bag the slippers her brother was wearing on the day of his death, she added, “These do not have a speck of dust on them. If he was killed outside the camp or walked in the rain, these should have mud on them but there isn’t any.”

The family want an independent investigation. “We don’t want any compensation,” said Abdul Hamid Wani. “We want justice. There might be many like Rayees in Kashmir. What is the guarantee they are safe? If his killers are punished, many Rayeeses might be saved.”

In Central Kashmir’s Budgam, Habibullah’s family have similar misgivings. He was locally known as a “pir”, a sort of godman who dispensed mystic remedies. “He had gone to offer evening prayers. Since he was a dervish, many of his followers would take him to their homes. They believed in him. At times, he would be gone for weeks or even months,” said Syed Abu Bakr, 23, one of Habibullah’s five sons, speaking from his home in Soibugh village. “We do not know how he got to near the Air Force station, and for what purpose. We had no idea he was missing till we saw pictures of his dead body on Facebook the next day.”

The police had said Habibullah was not wearing winter clothes or any footwear and had no identity card on him when he was killed. But the family contested this claim. “He had proper clothes on him, including a pheran,” said Abu Bakr, who has taken up work as a painter since his father’s killing. “He also took along a kangri but until now we have not found out what happened to these items.”

An old photograph of Syed Habibullah with two of his sons. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

After Habibullah’s killing, the state government gave a job to one of his sons and a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to the family. But the aid has done little to alleviate their financial problems. They live in two wooden shanties in contrast to the bungalows around them. A concrete plinth, laid down when Habibullah was alive, is awaiting further construction.

“Everything changed after his death,” said Haseena Bano, Habibullah’s wife. “My sons had to quit school in order to find work. It’s so hard for them to find work. Who hires amateurs? I also have an unmarried daughter. Those who are saying he was mad should know he fed his family of seven till his last day.” Alms and donations from Habibullah’s followers have helped support the family.

Their families said both Rayees Wani and Habibullah had been shot in the “upper part of the body”. While Rayees had multiple bullet wounds in his neck, face and chest, Habibullah had been hit in his chest and stomach.

“They could have shot him in the leg if they wanted to injure him,” said Bilal Ahmad Dar, brother-in-law of Rayees Wani. “He might have survived.”

‘No accountability’ 

Security forces in the region insisted that soldiers have followed “proper guidelines” in situations involving mentally challenged persons, but the “high threat perception at night” has meant they were more vulnerable.

“There’s a proper standard operating procedure,” said Rajesh Kalia, the Army’s spokesperson in Srinagar. “It’s called a challenging/caution procedure. Basically, anybody coming close to the camp is cautioned as per the laid down SOP and all actions are taken as per the SOP only. If a person is coming closer to the camp, he is cautioned verbally and loudly enough for him to hear. He’s told to stop and not come closer.” Kalia dismissed suspicions that Rayees Wani had been killed deliberately.

The Central Reserve Police Force also swore by procedure. “We have instructions that unless and until the person is aggressive he should be challenged first and one should look at his body language etc,” said Inspector General Ravideep Sahi. “But despite warning shots, and having utmost restraint and patience, if somebody is moving towards a morcha then one has to react.”

According to Sahi, the family and the society can play a role in ensuring the safety of these vulnerable individuals. “They should also take care of the mentally challenged so that they shouldn’t venture out during night time,” he said.

But neither the Army nor the paramilitary force offered clarity on how such individuals should be targeted after the warnings have been exhausted.

The police said they did not have a standard operation procedure to deal with a person sneaking into a security installation. “It’s not an operational move, it is a sudden move. It could be anybody, any camp, anywhere,” said Director General of Police Dilbag Singh. “Usually, a person seen approaching a security installation is shouted at and challenged, but if the person doesn’t respond that could be mistaken [as a threat].”

Asked if the police and the security forces were working on a strategy to minimise such casualties, Singh said: “There’s no such strategy in sight currently. We’ll think more about it.”

Human rights activists argued that the legal impunity guaranteed to the Army in Kashmir under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act had “emboldened” security personnel to use “disproportionate” force. “Armed forces operating in Jammu and Kashmir already enjoyed legal impunity,” said Imroz. “There’s no accountability or punishment for an armed personnel.” To make matters worse, he said, the Narendra Modi government has extended “moral impunity to them as well”. “The discourse of the Army being above the law and criticism is reflecting on the ground,” he added.

The valorisation of aggression by India’s media and senior political leadership has further emboldened soldiers in conflict zones, Imroz contended. “Today’s Army is different from the Army of the ’60s and the ’70s. They are constantly in touch with the media through mobile phones. The media’s propaganda reaches them as well. All the statements by leaders and this propaganda sends a message to the lower level as well. It emboldens them,” he explained.

Two of Habibullah's sons in their wooden shanty in Soibugh. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

Wandering patients

There are many shortcomings in how Kashmir treats people with mental disabilities, putting them in harm’s way. Showkat Hussain, who has studied the implementation of mental healthcare legislation over the years, said the mandatory rights and protections have not been ensured for those who need them.

The Mental Healthcare Act, for example, tasks the head of every police station “to take under protection any person found wandering at large within the limits of the police station whom the officer has reason to believe has mental illness and is incapable of taking care of himself; or to take under protection any person within the limits of the police station whom the officer has reason to believe to be a risk to himself or others by reason of mental illness.”

Yet, when Showkat Hussain filed a Right to Information request a few years ago “to know how far the police have carried out this duty”, he was told his application had been “sent to the field” and he would be “provided the data once it’s collected”. “I never got any reply after that,” he said.

At Srinagar’s Government Medical College, the psychiatrist Arshad Hussain said homeless and wandering people with mental illnesses or disabilities form a separate category of patients. There is no data available on homeless and wandering patients in Kashmir. But a study carried out by Arshad Hussain and a team of fellow psychiatrists in 2016 found the prevalence of mental illness in Kashmir’s adult population at 11.3%, which is 4% above the national average of 7.3%.

“People with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia become vulnerable to violence, particularly because of their tendency to wander,” he said. “In a conflict zone, this tendency could be dangerous.”

A sharper focus on wandering patients, the psychiatrist said, could have saved the likes of Rayees Wani.