December 2014. The twin higher secondary schools for boys and girls in Handwara town, around 85 kilometers from Srinagar, were abuzz with people who had lined up to vote. Proudly flashing the ink mark on their fingers, the men and woman in this picturesque town in North Kashmir believed in democracy and wanted to give India a chance.
Cut to April 2016. students of Degree College Handwara, with placards in their hands, marched across the chowk of the now silent town. Shopkeepers downed their shutters, buses took U-turns and shoppers ran for cover. In minutes, Handwara’s busiest market wore a deserted look.
Aijaz Ahmad Sofi, President of the Traders’ Association, tried to maintain calm. “It’s just small kids going to visit their friend’s house to pay respects,’’ he told everyone. “The young boys are marching towards their classmate Nayeem Qadir’s house.”
Nayeem a 20-year- old budding cricketer who represented his State in the Under-19 tournament, was killed in firing by security forces on April 12.
“I am Nayeem, kill me,” the students shouted.
Shopkeepers joined the chorus with the boys, and all hopes of a `normal day’ were shattered again—the market had opened after more than a week of unrest.
“Nayeem was to join the Virat Kohli academy. He was leaving Kashmir for good and going to Dehradun on April 16. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the day,’’ Sofi said. Nayeem was the best player in Sofi’s club Star Eleven.
The crowd reached Nayeem’s family home, an old three-storey sprawling house. The lawns, a block away from house of senior National Conference leader Chawdhary Mohammad Ramzan, were filled with azadi slogans. Young and old raised slogans in support of hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani- as senior leaders from the separatist amalgam came to pay respects. In the previous elections, in a clear violation of Geelani’s election diktat, Handwara unanimously voted for his arch rival and biggest critic—former separatist Sajad Gani Lone.
Handwara, which for last many years has not produced militants but top bureaucrats and police officials, including Nadeem’s elder brother who has served in the J&K police for the last 15 years, is simmering with anger. People are regretting the fact that they voted in such large numbers. “Today all we can tell the rest of the valley that we are sorry. We should have never voted the way we did. In Handwara, the killings have been so brutal that the 120 children who died in 2010 will never forgive our deeds,’’ added Sofi.
The town where no schools and colleges have been functional for about ten days now, has one of the highest literacy rates in the entire valley. As per the 2011 census, the literacy rate of Handwara city is 77.26%, higher than the national average of 67.16%.
In Handwara, male literacy is around 87.40%, while female literacy rate is 64.91%. “Initially Handwara did see a lot of militancy but for last 12 to 13 years we have been peaceful, except for 2010 when the entire valley was burning, we have seen no protests here. Even when Afzal Guru died there was no stone pelting or violent protests,’’ Sofi said. “This time however, kids would climb up military and police vehicles and try to break them with boulders while some 40 armed men would be inside. This is how hurt the town is,’’ said his associate, Mir.
Nayeem’s uncle, Ali Mohammad, who is an eyewitness to the killings, said Mohammad Rafiq, a police assistant sub inspector fired at his nephew.
“Nayeem was called by his brother, a journalist with the local news agency, to get his camera from home. When he returned, I called him to give two bags of vegetables to take home,’’ he added.
“We were walking towards home when I saw Rafiq fire. I yelled don’t shoot, but he just shot and hit Nadeem. All the young boy could say was mama I have been hit,’’ Ali added. Nadeem was taken to hospital but died on his way. He and another boy Iqbal, were killed on the spot and a lady, a few kilometers from the area.
In the subsequent days, two more youths died, one in Handwara and another in nearby Kupwara.
According to locals the tragedy of the Handwara killings is that a town known for `maintaining peace and calm even as rest of the valley would erupt over killings and alleged human rights violation has come to a point of no looking back’’. ``Even on the day the valley was closed to protest against the NIT row, the Handwara market was open,’’ said a shopkeeper who did not wish to be identified.
Local shopkeepers said they were busy with the usual day’s work, when screams and sloganeering from students forced them to come out. ``All we could see was students in uniform marching towards the bunker and suddenly there were bullets and tear gas shells flying all over,’’ said another.
The broken counters of a pharmacy opposite the now raised bunker, the holes in the shutters of the nearby shops bear witness that the bullets had no specific targets. ``We can’t get over the way we were fired upon. We are the same people who defied separatist calls of shutdowns, voted in huge numbers for democracy and this is what we get in return,’’ said Sofi.
This however was not the first time that civilians fell to the bullets coming from the bunker. ``In 2005, a local shopkeeper was killed on spot after a grenade was hurled at the bunker. The army men fired in retaliation and killed the person,’’ Sofi insists. In 1997 two tailors were also killed in their shops at the Handwara square when army fired on civilians after a militant attack.
The bunker was made in 2002. Initially made to facilitate movement of army convoy carrying supplies and soldier to the frontier area, however for the last one and half years the convoy has been using a bypass made specifically for the purpose in November 2014. Traders insist about 50 memorandums have been submitted to the authorities to get the bunker removed after army Commanding Officer Chinar Corps General Hussnain had promised its removed and construction a bypass some 5 years ago. “We kept telling authorities that the bunker was a volcano.”
On That fateful day.
It all started with a local minor school girl being found in a lavatory, used only by army personnel opposite the three storey army bunker built in the busy chowk in 2002. According to locals, boys studying in the nearby higher secondary were irked by what they saw. Some said there was an army man inside, which caused all the trouble. The boys tried to take the minor to a local police station and started throwing stones at the bunker demanding the identification of the army jawan.
While the family of the girl insisted that the army man had tried to molest her, the girl in her statement to the police and in court said that it was the local boys who assaulted her. She denied that any molestation ever took place.
According to locals, the protests were not so harsh that people should have been killed. “In spite of charges of molestation, things would have returned to normal had the protesters not been killed,’’ the locals insist.
The girl, according to her mother and lawyers, remains in illegal confinement, while police insist it is a `safe custody’ on the request of the girl’s father.
While locals wanted clarity of the case and the family to return, there was anger against the girl in the centre of the molestation row.
Her school mates, who blame her for deaths of civilians on that day” had a different take on the events. Her school, they said, is just a minute’s walk from the army lavatory and her house (now locked) is a few meters away. “Why did she go to use the army lavatory, which no civilian ever goes close to?” asked her classmates. The girls insist that their school has 19 bathrooms and that here was no need for her to go there.
While many people insisted seeing an army man coming out while she was still inside, no one could vouch for it. The boys who claimed to have taken a video of the girl and the jawan were absconding or not coming forward after one man named by the minor in a video statement was arrested.
While the school girls were not willing to accept her back in the classroom, principal Manzoor Ahmad and staff hoped she would start school soon. “We have never found anything wrong with her behaviour, she was a decent girl,” insisted one of her teachers.
While many insisted that molestation did take place and that the minors statement was under duress, some even hinted that the 16-year-old might have gone there of her own free will. However, there is unanimity in the fact that the army is supposed to stay away from local girls.
“She is not even 16 years of age. She may have got carried away, but she is underage and we will not allow the army soldiers to lay an evil eye on our daughter,’’ said a shopkeeper. ``We can tolerate anything but stay away from our girls,” warned voices coming from different corners, as the reporter tried to talk to a mob.