Extrajudicial killings have been widely reported in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989 with the onset of insurgency. Immunity for security personnel has dimmed prospects of free and fair justice for the victims. A large number of civilians have been killed in crossfire during anti-militancy operations or crackdowns on public protests. But staged encounters and custodial killings have not been infrequent. The malevolence and excesses of Jammu and Kashmir Police have matched the Army’s in the accounts shared by victims and human rights groups.
Twenty-something Muneer Lone died last year, allegedly because of excesses committed in custody at Srinagar’s Nowgam Police Station. On July 9, 2022, Lone was picked from his house in a theft case, but he died within hours in mysterious circumstances. According to the statement given by the young man’s family, which was reported in local publications, he was picked up in the morning and the police came by again in the afternoon to ask his mother, Shafiqa, to accompany them to the police station. Muneer, the family was told, had lost consciousness.
The policemen stopped their vehicle midway and took Shafiqa to another car where her son lay unconscious. Instead of taking Muneer to hospital, the police escorted mother and son home. (At some point during those stressful hours, the police made Shafiqa sign some papers and gave her Rs.400, according to her statement to a Srinagar court.) The family rushed him to a local hospital where he was declared brought dead.
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The J&K Police responded to the incident with denial and counter accusations. An inquiry was initiated and at least one policeman, whom the victim’s family had accused of foul play, was suspended. But the police insisted that Muneer was not tortured in custody. They claimed that his health condition deteriorated during interrogation because of drug overdose.
Rakesh Balwal, SSP Srinagar, gave a statement to a local English daily that “during questioning, his [Muneer’s] health condition got worse as he had taken heavy drugs and was not responding well. After that, he was handed over to his family members.” But Lone’s family maintains there were torture marks in his body. Only after the victim’s family filed a petition in a Srinagar court was an FIR registered against the suspect police officers.
In September 2020, Sopore in north Kashmir erupted in protests after a shopkeeper, Irfan Ahmad Dar, 23, was killed within hours of his detention by the police. He was arrested on September 15 and the following day his body was found near a stone quarry. His family claimed he had been tortured in custody. The police version was that Dar was taken to Chairdaji, a neighbouring village, for interrogation and had managed to escape taking advantage of darkness and the treacherous hilly terrain.
The police alleged that Dar was an “over ground worker” who had been liaising with militants. The police also claimed to have seized two Chinese hand grenades from his possession.
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Several political leaders questioned this version. A tweet from (then detained) Peoples Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti’s official handle described Dar’s death as a “cold-blooded murder”. Sajjad Lone of the People’s Conference scoffed at the story, saying that “they [J&K Police] have done a bad job even at inventing a story”.
Case of Rizwan Pandit
The custodial death of Rizwan Pandit, a school principal in Awantipora, made headlines across Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, months before the erstwhile Himalayan State was stripped of its special status. Following a raid at his home, Rizwan Pandit was detained by local policemen for questioning in a militancy-related case on March 17. On the morning of March 19, the police issued a statement saying: “[I]n pursuance of a militancy case investigation, one suspect Rizwan Pandit of Awantipora was in police custody. The said person died in police custody.”
Rizwan Pandit, who had a Masters degree in Chemistry, was the principal of Sabir Abdullah Public School and also a guest lecturer at the polytechnic college of the Islamic University of Science and Technology. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was among those who called for a fair probe. “I had hoped custodial deaths were a thing of our dark past. This is an unacceptable development & must be investigated in a transparent, time-bound manner. Exemplary punishment must be handed out to the killers of this young man,” he said in a Twitter post.
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According to the Home Ministry’s statement in Parliament in December 2021, as many as 33 custodial deaths took place in Jammu and Kashmir from 2016 to 2021. The Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, informed Parliament that in 2021 two cases were registered with the police, apart from seven judicial cases.
Positive interventions from the judiciary are few and far between. In Rizwan Pandit’s case, for instance, the J&K High Court in January 2020 dismissed a public interest litigation that had sought a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. In the past three decades of insurgency in Kashmir, over one lakh people are believed to have reportedly perished in violence: the figure is often cited by civil society and rights groups in Jammu and Kashmir. A 2017 statistic provided by the government, however, put the total casualties between 1990 and March 2017 at 41,000: 14,000 civilians, 5,000 security personnel and 22,000 militants.
In the peak militancy years of the 1990s, life was nightmarish for Kashmiris, with Papa II, Hari Niwas and Cargo House earning notoriety as torture chambers. Those who managed to come out alive from these dreaded interrogation centres alleged that the modus operandi included electrocution of detainees’ genitals, strapping them to ice blocks, rolling heavy logs over their legs, and thrashing them with oil-smeared bamboo sticks after hanging them upside down unclothed.
- Extrajudicial killings have been widely reported in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989 with the onset of insurgency.
- Immunity for security personnel has dimmed prospects of free and fair justice for the victims.
- The cases of Muneer Lone, Ahmad Dar and Rizwan Pndit in recent times show how ordinary people have reason to fear for their lives.
- As the drug menace in Kashmir continues to spiral, police high-handedness seems to be making headlines instead of compassionate solutions to the problem.
The case of Fayaz Shah
Imtiyaz Shah, whose 24-year-old brother Fayaz Shah was killed at an interrogation centre, narrated a chilling account to this reporter a few years ago of how people could be detained and killed with impunity in cordon and search operations in the 1990s. He recalled how, in the morning of January 20 in 1994, Barzulla Baghat locality was cordoned off and the local men huddled at a ground before Saddar Police Station in Srinagar. The Army’s 5th Garhwal Batallion checked their IDs; Fayaz Shah was detained. It was a random detention.
Imtiyaz Shah and his family later learned that Fayaz had been taken to a makeshift interrogation chamber at Jehangir Colony. In those days, deserted Kashmiri Pandit houses were used as interrogation centres. The same evening, Imtiyaz Shah said, the Army dropped Fayaz’s body at his Khacherpora residence near Barzulla Baghat. He said his brother had been beaten to death.
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It took him nine years to even procure a copy of his brother’s autopsy report, which was conducted on January 21, 1994. The Sadar Police Station at Rawal Pora Chowk, Srinagar, registered a case of custodial death under Section 176 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “We moved heaven and earth to get a copy of the post-mortem report. We received it in 2003, after we published a letter to Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in Srinagar Times, seeking his intervention,” Imtiyaz Shah said.
But justice eluded the family. According to Imtiyaz Shah, when the State Human Rights Commission sought police response in the case in 2005, the contents of the FIR were dubiously altered. The charges, earlier listed under Section 176, CrPC, which is applicable to custodial deaths, were moved under Section 174, which deals generally with death under unnatural circumstances such as suicide.
People continue to die in Army custody. In March this year, protests were reported in Kupwara in north Kashmir after the body of Abdul Rashid Dar, 33, a driver, was discovered. Dar was detained by the Army for interrogation in December 2022 and then went “missing”. The Army maintained Dar had fled from custody, but villagers suspected he was killed in custody.
In 2016, a 30-year-old lecturer, Shabir Ahmad, was allegedly beaten to death by the Army in Khrew in south Kashmir. In a rare instance, the J&K Police sought sanction to prosecute 23 Army personnel in the case.
In May 2020, a United Nations report expressed “grave concern at the alleged excessive use of force, torture and other forms of ill-treatment reportedly committed during the arrest and detention and death in custody of the [detained] persons”. Four UN special rapporteurs called on New Delhi “to conduct an impartial investigation into all the allegations of arbitrary killings, torture and ill-treatment and to prosecute suspected perpetrators.” The UN report also expressed shock and dismay at Rizwan Pandit’s autopsy report not being made public.
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Through the turbulent years of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the everyday checking of identity cards of civilians often turned violent and would lead to detentions, say Kashmiri locals. One Kashmiri journalist, who requested anonymity, narrated an incident from 2004. He was travelling from Srinagar to Bandipora with his family when their bus was stopped at a bridge in Papchan village near Bandipora. “They [security personnel] checked our heartbeats by placing their hands against our chest.... One man was detained because his heart was apparently beating faster than normal,” he said.
The culture of excesses and extortion persists. In 2018, nine-year-old Asif of Fatehgarh in Anantnag told this reporter of his daily harassment by the police. Asif had been blinded in one eye by pellet shots during the 2016 protests following Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter. His parents alleged that they were often made to pay money to the local police with the policemen threatening to detain Asif on stone-pelting charges if they did not pay up. Asif said he also faced ostracism in school because pellet injuries are sometimes regarded as testimony that one had participated in stone-pelting incidents.
As the drug menace in Kashmir continues to spiral, police high-handedness seems to be making headlines instead of compassionate solutions to the problem. In February, 38-year-old Sonu Kumar, a street-food vendor, was arrested in Kathua after 7gm heroin was found in his possession. During his detention at the Nagari Police Post, he was allegedly tortured to death. Shivdeep Singh Jamwal, SSP Kathua, has suspended two policemen in the case and a judicial probe has been ordered. But the past is witness that these probes are likely to meet a dead end.