In Kashmir, tales of torture remain suppressed by “fear and threats”

Published : October 17, 2019 14:55 IST

Security personnel stand guard in Srinagar on October 17. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Amid reports in the foreign media about how the security forces in Kashmir are using torture as a tool to stifle dissent, people in the valley suspect that it could be the tip of the iceberg. “Our right to report torture cases has been taken away” is the refrain in the locked-down South Kashmir districts of Pulwama and Shopian and in Bandipora and Sopore in the north, where this reporter travelled earlier this month.

People in the hinterland underscored the point that the forces had warned them of “reprisals” if they talked to the media about the “cycles of night raids and illegal detentions, including that of minors”. Recently, a Turkish state international news channel came out with a report of torture of a 26-year-old boy from Hirpora village in Shopian, 65 kilometres south of Srinagar. As per this report, the boy was blindfolded, pushed into a vehicle and taken to the Army’s 66 Rashtriya Rifles B Company camp at Chowgam. At the camp, the report said, he was “stripped naked, waterboarded and forced to drink copious amounts of a horribly smelly liquid” before the soldiers tied him to a pole and inflicted blows on him and administered electric current.

There is a strong murmur in Shopian’s villages that following the publication of this story, the forces visited the boy’s house and threatened him of consequences. Such intimidation is working. This reporter learnt from a well-respected lawyer based in Shopian that similar atrocities were being perpetrated during night raids in Chilpura and Trenz villages as well. But the people there are tight-lipped for the fear of being targeted. Even assurances of withholding their identities did not assuage their sense of fear.. “It is a small place; a big vehicle stopping and a reporter entering someone’s house in the village will surely get noticed and reported,” one of them contended.

The fear of sexual violence prevails, and in a place where there is possibility of ostracisation, it acts as a handy tool in the forces’ armoury of repression. A group of boys outside an orchard in Pinjura village in Shopian explained the fear psychosis. “Throughout the 1990s, they [the forces] used sexual violence to terrorise people.... We grew up hearing stories how scores of men were rendered impotent by electrocution of their genitals. When they raid our houses in the night, they threaten us that they would take us to the [torture] chambers. Who would invite that fate [by talking to the media]?”

A report released by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society on May 20 stated that “torture has remained unnoticed and survivors continue to suffer in silence”. Of the 432 cases of torture between 1990 and 2017 that it studied, there were 24 cases of waterboarding and 238 cases of sexual abuse. Only 27 of the 432 cases (6.25 per cent) made it to the State Human Rights Commission. The Army, meanwhile, has categorically rejected cases of torture reported in the press.

Public Safety Act

At the Pulwama main town, a handful of traders who were killing time outside their closed shops said the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) prevented them from speaking up. “They [the forces] have warned us that our children will be sent a thousand kilometres away,” a middle-aged man told Frontline. The Public Safety Act provides for detention without trial for six months to up to two years in matters “prejudicial to public order or the security of the state”. An electrical shop owner at Bandipora’s main square said: “A neighbouring shopkeeper had posted something critical of the Army on August 4. They came looking for him.”

A June 2018 United Nations report on Kashmir said over 1,000 Kashmiris were held under the PSA between March 2016 and August 2017. As per this report, India has failed to create a standard operating procedure under the PSA to guide officers on issuing a detention order. India rejected the report as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”.

In Sopore, a cross section of people alleged that New Delhi has infiltrated the valley with under-cover agents. “It’s a communication blockade of different kind,” one of them pointed out. “We can’t discuss politics or any incident of torture amongst ourselves.” People outside a mosque alleged that even if a cleric discussed something remotely critical of the state, or shared information of cases of atrocity done by the forces, during the Friday khudbas (discussion), the police got to know about it. “They have planted mukhbirs (informers) even in the neighbourhood mosques,” said a septuagenarian man.

There is a strong vigil everywhere to stop percolation of any evidence pointing to Army excesses. In Shopian in the first week of October this reporter observed an Army convoy near the Haal camp stopping boys at random and inspecting their mobile phones. A local resident said they did that often. “They want to ensure no one has filmed any act of transgression done by them. They cannot check everyone’s phone, but these few instances are enough to scare people off,” the resident said.

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