Nahid Akhtar, 19, is from Dhari Dabsi, an inaccessible village in Poonch district’s Mendhar sector. It sits on the Line of Control (LoC). Besides hostile hilly terrain and a looming threat of shelling and firing from across the border, the heavily militarised village has landmines on one side towards Pakistan and a strong fence called Anti Infiltration Obstacle System on the other side.
Girl students from such villages, which resemble open prisons, barely make it to a high school. Nahid Akhtar was an exception, and secured 87 per cent marks in her class XII examination. But she didn’t get admission in college this year. “There is no one to support me or guide me,” she said, before she opened up about a vague future she wasn’t sure was ever going to happen. “I want to work as a nurse. I am aiming to do a course in paramedical care. My mother has suffered enough while raising me after my father’s killing. Now it’s my turn to look after her.”
Nahid Akhtar was born a few months after her father, Mohammad Riyaz Gujjar, was shot dead by a group of Army men on June 27, 2002. His father, Khadam Hussain Gujjar, and his brother-in-law, Mohammad Rashid Gujjar, were killed along with him. The next day, their bullet-ridden bodies, which were labelled as “terrorists”, were handed over to the family following police intervention and a strong protest by local residents. Eventually, the police investigation described these killings as custodial deaths. Akhtar, who refused to be photographed, said: “We don’t want to live in this village but feel helpless because of economic constraints.” When the tragedy struck the family, her mother, Shamim Akhtar, was just 23.
Scores of aggrieved families like that of Akhtar have been living without even a dim hope of justice despite interventions by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission. In the absence of any social security or government assistance, widows like Akhtar’s mother, Shamim Akhtar, are suffering not just from acute poverty but also multiple physical ailments and mental health issues. Low on development indicators and victims of neglect by the civil administration, residents of villages such as Dhari Dabsi have been deprived of many civil rights and liberties. These villages are yet to get basic government services and amenities such as phone connectivity, electricity, road connectivity, health care and school education.
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Akhtar has to walk for more than an hour to reach the fence gate from her home, where soldiers ascertain identity on the basis of I-cards issued by them before allowing any resident to move in or out. The gates in the fence—which was set up after the Kagril war to check the movement of militants from across the border and illegal cross-border activities—remain open for the villagers only during certain hours of the day.
Families living along the LoC heaved a sigh of relief following reinforcement of the ceasefire agreement between the two countries on February 25 last year. But the wounds are too deep. “Our wounds won’t heal. This India-Pakistan conflict has claimed the lives of innocent people. Even if the government gives me Rs.100 crore, my pain can’t be compensated,” Sakina Bi, Akhtar’s aunt and Mohammad Rashid Gujjar’s wife, said.
Talking about her isolated village and civilian killings, she added: “There is no accountability after a human being gets killed inside the village.” She continued in the same breath: “The trauma of all these deaths has made me age faster. It has ruined my health.” Her son is a college dropout and does menial jobs for sustenance. “Despite so many difficulties, I made sure that he got educated. The government should give him a job at least.”
Gulzar Bi, Khadam Hussain Gujjar’s wife, recalled that the villagers had migrated to a safer place in an adjoining village to escape the daily exchange of fire between India and Pakistan in 2002. The men would go across the fence inside the village to tend to farms and livestock. She described what happened on June 27, 2002 : “My husband who was the village chowkidar, had just returned from across the fence at around 5 p.m. when he was summoned by the Jat Regiment. My son, Riyaz Gujjar, and nephew, Rashid Gujjar, accompanied him. Next morning, when we started looking for them, we discovered that they had been killed. While the Army claimed they were militants, the police identified them as local residents. Subsequently, a post mortem was conducted, our statements were recorded before the bodies disfigured by acid were handed over to us.”
According to the police investigation, charges of abduction and murder were proven against Captain Naresh Kumar, Havaldar Ram Nivas, Havaldar Prithvi, Lance Naik Pardeep Kumar, Lance Naik Ramesh Kumar, Sepoy Satvir and Sepoy Rajinder Kumar. All of them belonged to 7th Jat Regiment. M.Y. Kawoos, the then chairperson of the State Human Rights Commission, termed the killings as a “grave human rights violation” and said that the police had “investigated the case rightly”.
In his order of September 17, 2007, Kawoos said: “This is manifestly clear that the Army people instead of giving protection to the citizens are violating the human rights and are using the unbridled powers against the innocent people.” The Commission ordered a financial compensation amounting to Rs.2 lakh to the three petitioners, Shamim Akhtar, Sakina Bi and Gulzar Bi.
According to these women, when the financial compensation was eventually handed over to them, they got only half of the recommended amount from the local administration. None of them is aware of the legal status of the case today. “The daily struggle for survival after we lost our breadwinners never allowed us to follow up on the case,” said Gulzar Bi.
Not isolated cases
The LoC villages in Haveli tehsil of the district have similar stories. So far as assistance to such victims is concerned, the government’s role has been wanting. Clearly, this is evident from the case of two women called Fatima Jan and another woman called Naseeb Jan, all three of them residents of another fenced-in village, Guntrian Kuyian. Like thousands of other families here, they have lost their agricultural land to the growing military infrastructure over the years. They don’t get any financial compensation or land rent from the Army or the government. Like many other destitute conflict widows, these three women continue to live for just another day—by begging and borrowing. They had come to pay obeisance at Dargah Sharief Hazrat Sain Baba Miran Baksh situated outside the fenced area of the village. It is the shrine of a Sufi saint who reportedly migrated from across the LoC in 1954 and settled in Guntrian.
Hakim Din, husband of one of two women called Fatima Jan, was killed in the Army’s custody in July 2000. In its report dated June 25, 2008, the Commission notes, after referring to an inquiry report filed by the then SSP of Poonch: “This is a clear case of custodial disappearance caused by the Army personnel of 8 JAKLI. The police do not appear to have registered a case for prosecuting Army personnel.” It underscored the SSP’s admission in his report that the family was living in misery as it didn’t have an earning male member or any source of livelihood. The Commission recommended financial assistance of Rs.1.5 lakh for the family. It also directed the police to register a case of custodial murder against the accused Army personnel.
The recommendations were met with the usual non-compliance. With six daughters and a mentally challenged son, Fatima has been struggling to make ends meet. “I’ve married off three daughters somehow and now I am worried about the remaining three,” she says. “I am surviving on medicines. Due to several ailments, I suffer from shortness of breath and can’t walk for a few minutes at a stretch now.”
The other Fatima Jan’s husband, Noor Mohammad, disappeared on December 12, 1998. Referring to the report submitted by the Inspector General of Police, Jammu, the Commission stated on May 23, 2007: “It is crystal clear that Noor Mohammad, whether a source of Army or not, was called by JAKLI 8th from his house to NPP Post at Guntrian and was seen in their custody last in 1998 and thereafter he is neither heard of nor his whereabouts.” The Commission referred to what the wife said: “She couldn’t lodge any missing report as she was not allowed to move to or approach police. She has all the apprehensions that her husband is killed by the Army and she is not informed of any action taken by the police and the Army in the matter.” Maintaining that the family was exposed to risks and exploitation, the Commission emphasised the need for a logical conclusion to the case. “Her case may be processed before a competent authority. In addition, a missing report of Noor Mohammad may be entered in the police records for investigation,” it stated.
The trauma of her husband’s death and day-to-day problems have taken a heavy toll on Fatima Jan’s physical and mental health. She lost her right leg a few years after her marriage when she unwittingly stepped on an anti-personnel mine while tending to cattle near her home. Talking to this reporter, she unsuccessfully struggled to remember her children’s names and the year she received a prosthetic leg from a charity medical camp. Her worn-out artificial leg is a telling comment on her miserable social and economic status. “During hot and humid weather, the residual limb develops sores, making it tough to walk,” she said. Her dilapidated wood and mud house, she said, “can collapse anytime”.
Naseeb Jan has no idea who shot dead her first husband, Khursheed, over 20 years ago. Her second husband, Jamaal Din, abandoned her for another woman. Though she has two sons, one each from the two marriages, she lives alone.
The Ministry of Defence in a written reply told the Rajya Sabha on January 1, 2018: “A total of 50 cases have been received by the Union Government from the Government of Jammu and Kashmir for Prosecution Sanction against Armed Forces personnel under Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990.” Citing lack of evidence, however, it added, “The reason for denial/pendency of prosecution sanction is on account of lack of sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case.”
In July this year, the Army initiated general court martial (GCM) proceedings against a captain after a court of inquiry found that troops led by him had “exceeded” powers vested under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in a staged encounter in Amshipura in south Kashmir in July2020. At least three men from nearby Rajouri district, who used to work as labourers in Srinagar, were killed.
But this development doesn’t seem to have inspired much confidence among victims in similar cases and among human rights defenders. The Jammu and Kashmir Protection of Human Rights Act, 1997, which provided the basis for the setting up of the State Human Rights Commission, became invalid with the implementation of Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act, 2019, following revocation of special constitutional status of the former State on August 5, 2019. After the Commission was shut down, the Union Territory administration in response to an RTI query reportedly stated: “All the records of the Commission were locked in a designated room at the office premises of the erstwhile Human Rights Commission, Old Assembly Complex, Srinagar.” The Union Territory administration is yet to set up an equivalent body to redress the issues related to human rights abuse.
Kamaljeet Singh, a noted Poonch-based human rights activist, claims to have taken up 467 cases relating to extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and deaths of local civilians who used to work for the Army. “In these cases, the Home department constituted a committee to provide a compensation of Rs.1 lakh to the dependent families but barring a few exceptions, even this paltry amount wasn’t provided to them,” he says. Deeply disillusioned by his experience with the justice system, Singh added, “The Commission has been a go-to place for all those who lacked financial means to get justice from the courts. Now I feel a sense of guilt when I look at the plight of aggrieved families. For years, these poor people ran from pillar to post to gather documents…. I gave them a false hope that they may get justice.”