HT Special | Facts, allegations: Tracking Major Gogoi’s ‘human shield’ story
Driving from Utligam to Hardpanzoo is not easy even at the best of times. The dirt track meandering through the mountains of central Kashmir is narrow, forcing vehicles to squeeze by the side of the road to let traffic from the other direction pass.
Bad weather, when dirt mixes with slush and visibility plummets, makes the journey worse.
The same stretch of road is in the eye of the storm ever since Major Leetul Gogoi tied a Kashmiri man to the bonnet of a jeep as a ‘human shield’ and drove him around for five hours across 17 villages over 28km on April 9.
Details of the episode have been sketchy with the army divulging precious little, except that the major did what he did to save lives in the face of heavy stone pelting by an angry mob. “I decided at a fraction of a moment,” Gogoi, commended by the army chief earlier this week, told TV channels.
He did not touch upon the necessity of driving the ‘human shield’ around for five hours, if escaping stone pelting was the objective.
HT retraced the journey of his jeep that day, stopping at several villages on the way. Eyewitness accounts ran contrary to the official version:
April 9, 10.45am, Utligam: Residents of the tiny village in Budgam district say Farooq Dar was picked up by the army, hours after he had voted in the Srinagar bypoll that was under way. Some youngsters had been pelting stones at the local school housing the polling centre and the soldiers opened fire to chase them away. Two youth received bullet injuries, villagers say.
It was around this time that Farooq Dar was seized by Gogoi’s men. After having voted around 8.30am (his serial number on the voter roll was 612) at a polling booth (number 90) in his own village of Chil some 17km away, he and a friend were passing through Utligam on a motorcycle to a relative’s house to condole a death. A village woman said she had asked Dar to flee since the army was in the village, but Dar refused. “I had asked the bikers to run away but Dar said no one will harm him because he had just cast his vote. He, in fact, showed his finger to the army personnel as well, but they were in no mood to listen,” the woman said.
Local residents say Dar was beaten up before being tied to the bonnet of the jeep. “After tying him up, they told us to pelt stones at him,’’ Meema, another woman said. A placard saying he was a stone pelter was hung around his neck and the jeep drove away around 11am.
11.30am, Najan: Panic was beginning to sweep the village with reports reaching that an army jeep was on the move with a man tied on it.
The jeep shortly arrived, having snaked its way past the villages of Ganipora, Hayatpora and Sonpa. Najan was itself quiet with no reports of stone pelting. But the villagers were in ferment at the sight of a tied Dar.
Minutes after the jeep reached Najan, Dar’s brother Fayaz received a call from a local. “Save your brother. He might just die. He is on an army jeep tied up and the vehicle has now reached Najan,” recounted Fayaz.
1.30pm, Khospora: This village was quiet till the jeep arrived. But after the jeep with Dar tied to it left following a brief stopover, protests broke out with angry residents taking to the streets.
Polling for the by-poll under way in the village was discontinued. Thirty-seven votes had been cast till then.
Villagers say they pleaded with the soldiers to let Dar go. “One of the old men begged the soldiers to let the man off. When they did not listen, he requested them to at least loosen the ropes and let him drink water,” a resident said. The soldiers did not heed the old man’s plea.
2.30pm, Rakhayee: Qurant Ul Ain, a seven-year-old class 3 student, ran home scared on seeing the jeep with Dar.
“I thought they were taking him to be killed. I ran immediately inside my house and didn’t step out for next two days,” he said. Because of elections, schools were closed and most children were in their courtyards when the jeep made its appearance.
3pm, Arizhal: This village too was quiet that day till the jeep arrived. “I had seen Dar on the jeep with my own eyes. Anyone with a weak heart would have died seeing what we saw,” a local tailor said.
3.15pm, Mandi: Here too, residents were mortified seeing Dar tied to the jeep. “I thought they had tied a dead man,” recounted a woman who was grazing cattle. A class eight student said he ran on seeing the jeep. “I thought that I will be next,” he said.
4pm, Hardpanzoo: The jeep finally drove into a Central Reserve Police Force camp. According to Dar, it was here he was untied from the jeep. He, however, was still bound by ropes.
Dar’s brother accompanied by the sarpanch and deputy-sarpanch of his Chil village reached the camp. Dar, they say, was kept tied to a tree inside the camp.
Finally, at about 7pm, he was let off, bringing to end an ordeal that caused international outrage and left the nation deeply divided.