Sixteen-year-old Tanveer Ahmad’s pellet-riddled face has become a defining image of police action on Muharram processions in Kashmir this year.

The Class 10 student, who studies in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, had been home since March because of the Covid-19 lockdown. On the morning of August 29, he was part of a procession in the Bemina area of Srinagar.

“Everything was peaceful – we were following all the SOPs [standard operating procedures],” said Aijaz Ahmad, a relative and neighbour of the teenager in Bemina. He was referring to precautionary measures to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

August 29 was Ashura, the 10th and most significant day of Muharram, a month of mourning for Shia Muslims. According to Aijaz Ahmad, elders in the community had told the police about the limited procession in Bemina and assured them that they would follow all the safety protocols for Covid-19.

“We had masks and sanitisers, and kept a distance from one another throughout the procession,” said Aijaz Ahmad, who was there when Tanveer Ahmad was hit by shotgun pellets. “When we reached the Bemina main chowk, the police stopped us and started spraying tear-gas and pellets.”

Tanveer Ahmad was initially taken to a local charity hospital in Bemina and then shifted to Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. “We couldn’t even take him to [Shri Maharaja Hari Singh] hospital on time,” said Aijaz Ahmad. “They had blocked all the roads. We took him through a maze of interior roads to get him to the [charity] hospital.”

As of now, Aijaz Ahmad said, the teenager cannot see. A surgery is planned and the doctors have not yet said whether he will regain his sight. “Both his eyes are damaged,” said Aijaiz Ahmad.

The defining image of this year's Muharram police action was 16-year-old Tanveer Ahmad's pellet-riddled face.

Mourning in Srinagar

According to reports, nearly 40 mourners were injured on August 29 in Srinagar alone. More were injured in processions in Srinagar’s Zadibal area on August 30. Muharram processions across the Valley are said to have faced police action as well. Many have shotgun pellets embedded in the eyes. Security forces did not confirm the total number of those wounded.

Doctors at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, which deals with most pellet injuries in Kashmir, said they had received at least nine people with pellets in their eyes. “One of them is a critical case,” said Nazir Choudhary, medical superintendent at the hospital. “He is under treatment but we are not in a position to give a final report right now.”

According to residents, the number of those wounded is much higher and only those with serious injuries were hospitalised. “We treated around 150 pellet injuries at our centre alone,” said a volunteer with Hussaini Relief Committee, a charity which offers medical and other logistical help on religious occasions in Kashmir. “Some 30-40 were hospitalised because they had serious injuries and we could not treat them here.”

Many pellet victims in Kashmir avoid going to hospitals for fear of being arrested. Residents have become amateur experts at extracting pellets. This weekend, videos of local residents coaxing out pellets from the scalps and backs of injured civilians went viral on social media.

On August 27, the Supreme Court had refused permission for Muharram processions across the country because of the pandemic. The authorities in Jammu and Kashmir also denied permission for processions and gatherings in mosques for the 10 days leading up to Ashura.

In Kashmir, there has been an official ban on Muharram processions since 1989, when militancy spread across the Valley. The administration feared mourning processions could mutate into pro-freedom marches. The limited processions allowed by the authorities are mostly confined to Shia-dominated areas, cordoned off with concertina wire and security deployment on those days. Several pellet injuries were recorded last year as well.

This year, the curbs were even more strict, and not just because of the pandemic. On August 26, Jammu and Kashmir police had registered a case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against several mourners for allegedly raising “pro-Azadi” slogans at a procession in Srinagar.

The volunteer said police action on mourners in Zadibal on August 30 was “brutal and unexpected”. “What we witnessed this year has not happened before,” he said.

The police reportedly claimed they had used “minimal force” to control the situation, which was threatening to turn chaotic as stone pelting had started. sent questions to Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, asking about details of the Zadibal and Bemina incidents. This report will be updated if there is a response.

Suhail Abbas has a searing pain in one eye.

‘They chased away the media first’

Nineteen-year-old Suhail Abbas is also being treated at the ophthalmology ward in Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. He had also been part of the Bemina procession on August 29. Pellets lodged in his face, eyes, neck and chest, Abbas is writhing in pain. There is searing pain in one of his eyes, in particular.

Abbas said he could only see through one eye; the other one had been operated on. “They have asked me to wait for some time, until the wound heals a bit,” he said. “After that, they’ll tell me what to do next.”

According to the Class 12 student, the Bemina procession had been continuously followed and monitored by the police and other security personnel. “I remember the police first chased away media personnel,” he said. “As we moved forward, they kept tailing us. All of a sudden, they started firing teargas and pellets. There was no provocation. There was no stone-pelting or sloganeering.”

Despite the pandemic, they had decided to go ahead with the procession that morning. “It’s an emotional event for us,” explained Abbas. But he added that safety protocols were strictly observed. “Nobody was allowed on the street without a mask and without sanitising their hands first,” he said. The organisers had even decided to wrap up the procession early this year, he added.

‘We couldn’t take them to hospital fast’

Muharram rituals were muted in the Shia locality of Zadibal as well. The authorities had proscribed rituals on the main street, where the busy Alamgiri Bazar is located. So residents gathered in winding lanes in the heart of the congested Zadibal area.

“You can say if there are around 50,000 people for Muharram in normal years, we were only 10,000 this time,” said a Zadibal resident who did not want to be named. “And that too with proper safety gear.”

According to him, they had decided to hold only street processions this year. “As ordered by the authorities, no gathering was held at any mosque or imambara,” he explained. “All of them were closed. But street processions with Covid-19 protocols were observed in the interiors.”

Around 3.30 pm on August 30, one of these processions was swelling. He claimed that was when the police swung into action. “The shelling was massive, it was beyond imagination,” said the resident, who has two children. “Since there were many people, they ran towards safety. I saw many women and kids getting trampled on during the stampede. It was chaos.”

He claimed what disturbed him most was the sight of several physically handicapped residents, who had joined the procession, being injured in the police charge. They had insisted on joining the procession. “People are emotional and there are sentiments attached to Muharram, how can you say no to them?” he asked.

He had been hit by pellets himself. “I got pellets in my face, chest and head,” he said. “I still have pellets in my eyelids and head. Fortunately, my eyes were saved.”

Others were not as lucky. “At least three youth suffered serious pellet injuries in their eyes,” he said. “The tragedy is that we couldn’t take them to hospital immediately because the police didn’t allow ambulances into the locality.”

The Hussaini Relief Committee volunteer said that, unlike in previous years, the government had not deployed special teams of doctors and health workers to give medical care to mourners, who often get injured during the self-flagellation that is part of the ritual.

“Under normal circumstances, the government would have made around 100 ambulances available on Ashura, besides dozens of doctors and paramedics would be on duty,” the volunteer said. “Nothing was provided this year.”

They tried to rush seriously injured patients to hospital in three small ambulances provided by charity organisations. “But we weren’t allowed to by security forces,” he said. “They even hit our ambulances with batons. It was hours before we managed to take them to SMHS hospital, after taking several detours.”