On the evening of March 19, 29-year-old Rizwan Pandit’s body was returned to his family home in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. “His backbone was broken,” said Mubashir Pandit, Rizwan Pandit’s elder brother. “There were bruises on his face and head. His thighs had been burnt down What does it say other than that he was tortured?”

On March 17, security officials – the family did not know which agency they were from – accompanied by the local police had raided their home in Awantipora town late at night. The officials scoured every room, seized mobile phones and laptops, but did not find anything incriminating. But on their way out, they took along Rizwan Pandit, who was principal at a local school and one of four sons of Asadullah Pandit, the head of the household.

When the family went to the local police station to ask after their son, they were told that he had been taken to “Cargo” for questioning and would soon be released. “Cargo” is the local name for one of the main camps of the Special Operations Group, the counterinsurgency unit of the Jammu and Kashmir police. On March 19, the police issued a statement saying that Rizwan Pandit, who had been detained in a “terror investigation”, had died in “police custody”. The statement did not explain what had caused his death. It was also silent about which “terror investigation” had necessitated his detention.

According to his family, Rizwan’s death in custody was a “cold-blooded murder” and are now bracing for a long legal battle. “We are even ready for Rizwan’s exhumation to know the truth. We will not sit down,” Mubashir said.

FIR vs FIR

The police had initially said that there would be a magisterial probe and a separate police investigation into the incident. On March 20, the magisterial inquiry in Srinagar was closed and a First Information Report was filed against Rizwan Pandit himself, charging him under Section 224 of the Ranbir Penal Code, for attempt to escape from custody. No FIR has been filed against the police officials in whose custody Rizwan Pandit died.

According to the police, the inquiry will now be conducted by the additional deputy commissioner in Pulwama, as Rizwan Pandit had allegedly tried to escape from custody in the South Kashmir district.

Despite their reservations with the magisterial inquiry, Rizwan Pandit’s family says they will cooperate with it provided “there is a fair probe” and “no interference or pressure” from any side. “We have seen there are so many such cases in the past and there has been no result. Even those who were demanding justice for their kin have died but justice hasn’t been done,” Mubashir explained. “Our primary demand is a judicial probe. And it should be done soon.”

Long road to justice

It is an old story in Kashmir, which has seen hundreds of custodial deaths and thousands of enforced disappearances in 30 years of conflict, since the rise of militancy in 1989. According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the state saw 225 cases of custodial killings from 2002 to 2009. Amnesty recorded 706 custodial deaths between 1990 and 1994. In 2008, the state police admitted that 330 people had died in custody in the last 18 years and that 111 had disappeared from cells, with no further information about them. Post 2008, reports of custodial killings have decreased but not stopped.

Justice remains a distant prospect in most cases. As with Rizwan Pandit, the state has often booked victims under various charges after their death. In many cases, the families of victims have had to fight for years to get an FIR registered against the accused security personnel. Even if FIRs are registered, various provisions protect security forces in the state from prosecution.

The Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990, stipulates that Central sanction is needed to prosecute the army and other central forces. Under Section 197 of the Jammu and Kashmir Code of Criminal Procedure, a “competent authority” must grant permission to prosecute the state police in such cases. In both cases, permission is usually denied.

Last year, the Union Ministry of Defence told the Rajya Sabha that from 2001-2016, the Jammu and Kashmir government had sought prosecution against security personnel in 50 cases. While sanction had been denied in 47 cases, it was pending in three. The 50 cases included alleged custodial killings, murder, rape and torture of civilians by security forces.

“Realistically speaking, Kashmir is a war zone,” said lawyer Parvez Imroz, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Centre for Civil Society. “All state institutions meant to protect human rights have failed. It would be naïve on our part to expect remedies from domestic institutions. Asking why an FIR has not been filed or an investigation has not been ordered is a very simplistic view of the issue. The question for the state is the morale of its troops and army. They will simply don’t want to demoralise them.”

Sanction to prosecute

The last custodial death reported in Kashmir took place on the night of August 17, 2016, when members of the 50 Rashtriya Rifles unit of the army raided Shar-i-Shali village in the Khrew area of Pulwama district. Several civilians were rounded up and taken to army camps that night. Shabir Ahmad Mangoo, a 30-year-old lecturer from the village, was dragged out of his house, beaten and taken to one of the army camps. He died of his injuries by morning.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, senior army officers had said the raid was not sanctioned and that an inquiry had been launched. But while the state police had filed an FIR against the army under various sections of Ranbir Penal Code, including murder and kidnapping, the army had lodged a counter-FIR on the same day to deny its role in Mangoo’s death. Among other charges, the army’s counter-FIR accused the civilians of causing a riot with a deadly weapon, voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from doing his duty and mischief.

In 2018, a Jammu and Kashmir police investigation had held 23 personnel of the 50 Rashtriya Rifles responsible for Mangoo’s killing. While the police have sought Central sanction to prosecute against the accused, it has not been granted till date. “The case is stuck there,” said a police officer privy to the details of Mangoo’s case.

Shabir Ahmed Mangoo left behind a 15-month-old child in 2016. His father holds his grandson days after the raid in Shar-i-Shali
Shabir Ahmed Mangoo left behind a 15-month-old child in 2016. His father holds his grandson days after the raid in Shar-i-Shali

Mangoo’s family is close to giving up the fight. “When they killed him, the government promised us justice will happen. During the initial days, our statements were recorded but since then nobody has come to talk about it,” said Yasmeena, who was married to Mangoo and given a government job after his death. “My father-in-law is old and it’s hard for the family to follow the case. Everyone has disappointed us. My hope for justice lies in Allah’s court.”

At least one case of disappearance has also been reported in recent years. In 2017, Manzoor Khan, a farmer and herder in Kupwara district, disappeared into an army camp and was never heard of again. The other man who had been detained with him suffered kidney failure after being tortured at the camp.

An eight-year fight

Meanwhile, justice still eludes families in older cases.

For the last eight years, Abdul Qayoom Bhat, a watchman from Srinagar’s Soura area, has been trying to get an FIR registered against personnel in the Soura police station. On August 20, 2010, Bhat’s only son, 17-year-old Umar Qayoom, was picked up by policemen from Soura police station. A day later, Qayoom got his son released on bail. “When he was handed over to us around 7 pm the next day, he was bleeding from the mouth. They had tortured him brutally,” recalled Qayoom. On August 23, Umar was hospitalised at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. Two days later, Umar, a Class 11 student, died of his injuries.

According to a report on Umar’s condition prepared by doctors at the hospital, the “CT scan chest was showing massive intrapulmonary hemorrhage. Both lungs were replaced with hemorrhage.”

In August last year, Bhat’s efforts finally paid off. A local court in Srinagar directed the Soura police station to lodge an FIR in the custodial killing. As it ordered the formation of a special investigation team to probe the killing, the court was also asked why the magisterial inquiry ordered in the incident had not been completed.

But Bhat’s legal battle is not over. “The FIR has been lodged but we don’t know what action has been taken. We have filed an application to know the status of case before the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar. We haven’t got any reply yet,” said his legal counsel, Babar Qadri.

‘At least suspend the accused’

The state human rights commission seems unable to enforce accountability in these incidents. On June 29, 2011, a Class 10 student, Junaid Ahmad Khuroo died in mysterious circumstances. The police, in a report submitted to the State Human Rights Commission, claimed Khuroo had opened fire on the Central Reserve Police Force’s 179 Battalion, stationed at Arampora in North Kashmir’s Sopore area, and then taken shelter in a local mosque. “When he couldn’t find any escape, he shot himself with the pistol,” the report said. It also claimed that the teenager was a militant and “arms/ammunition was recovered” from him.

In 2016, the police version was debunked after an inquiry by the police investigation wing of the State Human Rights Commission submitted its report. The investigation wing, comprising officers from the state police and headed by the inspector general, was created under the J&K Protection of Human Rights Act, 1997. “It has been found that the deceased was neither a militant nor affiliated with any militant organisation. Police Sopore is involved in the gruesome act of the deceased and in order to hide the gruesome murder of the deceased have fabricated a false story,” the report, prepared by a deputy superintendent of police, had said.

The inquiry report recommended that an FIR against the accused officials be filed with the state crime branch. According to Amir Khuroo, local policemen from Sopore had visited their home a week before his younger brother died. “They asked my father to bring Junaid along with him to the police station. They accused Junaid of being a stone-pelter,” he recalled. His brother was taken to the police station by his father and some village elders, he continued. “He was asked to sign some blank papers and then released,” Khuroo said.

On June 29, 2011, Junaid left home in the morning to collect an admit card for his examinations. “He was dragged out from a public transport vehicle and taken to an Special Operations Group camp near Iqbal Market. They tortured him and then termed it an encounter,” Amir Khuroo alleged.

With the State Human Rights commission blowing holes in the police story, the family had hoped justice might be within reach. They were proved wrong. “In January 2019, SHRC [state human rights commission] Chairman Justice Bilal Nazki recused himself from the matter,” Amir Khuroo said. “We were hopeful that finally there’ll be an FIR but now we have to wait till April 15 for the next judge. At least, they should have suspended the accused policemen. It has been eight years.”