Anger in Kashmir after Indian army accused of killing civilians in custody

The deaths of three Kashmir civilians after they were picked up by the Indian army in the wake of a deadly rebel attack in the disputed Himalayan region have caused anger among people and led to calls for an investigation into alleged custodial killings.

According to the families, the three men – Mohammad Showkat, 22, Safeer Hussain, 45, and Shabir Ahmad, 32 – were detained by the army at the hilly Topa Pir village in Poonch district on Friday morning, a day after suspected rebels ambushed military vehicles and killed four Indian army soldiers near the village.

The families say they were shocked after the police called them on Friday to take back the bodies of their relatives.

“There were torture marks on his body. What kind of justice is this? He died of excessive torture,” Noor Ahmad, brother of  Safer Hussain, told Al Jazeera.

Ahmad says the army took his brother Safeer away in front of his wife and parents.

“The government has announced jobs and compensation for us. But we want justice, those who killed these innocent people should be punished. My brother has four children.

“I cannot express in words how much grief we feel, no money in the world can fill that. The government will give us everything but our wounds will not heal,” he said by phone.

“I have served in the Indian army for 32 years, is this what we get in return,” Ahmad, who works with Border Security Forces (BSF) in the northern state of Rajasthan, said in a broken voice.

All three victims belong to a tribal community known as Gujjar, who traditionally lead a pastoral life in the mountain areas of Kashmir.

‘Investigation under way’

The Indian army on Saturday said an investigation was under way into the incident. It did not give any details about the detention and death.

“Reports have been received regarding three civilian deaths in the area. The matter is under investigation. Indian Army stands committed to extending full support and cooperation in the conduct of investigations,” the Indian army said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The Information and Public Relations Department of the regional authority, which is directly run from New Delhi, said that legal action had been initiated in the matter. It, however, did not specify what action was taken and against whom. It also did not make public what were the outcomes of the medical and legal formalities.

“The death of three civilians was reported yesterday in Bafliaz of Poonch district. The medical legal formalities were conducted and legal action in this matter has been initiated by the appropriate authority. The government has announced compensation for each of the deceased. Further, the government has also announced compassionate appointments to the next of kin of each deceased,” it posted on X on Saturday.

The families of the victims have told Al Jazeera that the government’s offer of jobs and compensation points to the potential role of the army in the killing of the three Kashmiri men.

“Had they not died in army custody, the government would not have announced compensation and jobs. They want to cover it up,” another relative of the deceased civilian said on the conditions of anonymity.

Kashmir has been without an elected local government since 2019 when India stripped the Muslim-majority region of its special status and bifurcated the region into two centrally-administered regions – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

Since then hundreds of rights activists, politicians and journalists have been detained, many of them freed after months-long incarceration as the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed curbs on free speech, civil liberties and media freedoms.

Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of India’s constitution that granted limited autonomy to the region.

India has justified the hardline measures saying it was fighting an armed rebellion backed by its Western neighbour Pakistan – a charge Islamabad has denied, though Pakistan backs Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination. More than 60,000 people have been killed since the armed rebellion erupted in the late 1980s.

India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety but control only parts of it. They have fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan region, where anti-India sentiment runs high.

There’s been an uptick in rebel attacks in the southern districts of Poonch and Rajouri this year. At least 34 soldiers have been killed in suspected rebel attacks since 2021.

‘Tortured in custody’

The villagers said that eight civilians were detained for questioning by the army, while three are dead, five are admitted to a hospital in Rajouri where they are being treated for physical injuries.

“The government wants us to compromise but we will not compromise,” a teenage daughter of one of the injured civilians told Al Jazeera.

“They were given electric shocks and chilli powder was inserted in their private parts, no questions were asked to them” she claimed.

A video of army men sprinkling chilli powder on the private parts of civilians lying on the floor has surfaced on social media. They were identified by the villagers as the men who were detained by the army. Al Jazeera, however, could not independently confirm the veracity of the video.

Al Jazeera reached out to the concerned officials in Jammu, southern Kashmir’s main city, for the comment but received no response until the time of publication.

Fearing the spread of anger, the authorities cut off internet services and imposed restrictions in the area.

But nearly 200km (120 miles) to the north, the mainstream Kashmiri political parties and their workers staged protests and demanded justice for the victims in the main city of Srinagar.

In 2020, the Indian army extrajudicially killed three civilians from Rajouri. They were portrayed as rebels but investigations revealed that the army was behind the killing.

The Indian army’s internal court admitted wrongdoing and sentenced an officer to life imprisonment for the killings. But last month, the military tribunal suspended the officer’s sentence, which shattered hopes of justice for the families.

Widespread impunity

Indian armed forces enjoy widespread impunity in Indian-administered Kashmir under the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), a “counterterror” law.

Despite the registration of cases in multiple instances against the army, the accused soldiers have rarely been prosecuted.

The AFSPA gives protection to Indian soldiers against human rights violations and makes it mandatory for the state government to seek sanction for prosecution from the federal defence ministry, which data shows has not been granted in any previous cases.

International rights groups have accused the Indian army of human rights abuses in Kashmir and demanded the repeal of AFSPA, but the government justifies it as necessary for fighting armed rebellion.

The tribal community has asked the government tough questions.

“The tribal community has never been involved in any anti-national activity. The government must clarify what happened to these men, is there no law in place?” Guftar Ahmad Choudhary, a tribal activist from Rajouri said.

Related Articles

Back to top button