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“Do Not Waste Your Bullet”: Over 20 Years After Gawkadal Massacre, Human Life Is Still Cheap in Kashmir

Again this year

Again this year, Moisza did not celebrate her birthday. That day, January 22, once again brought back the memories of her maternal uncle, Rauf Ahmad, who laid down his life to save hundreds of people.

It was January 20, 1990, just a year after the Kashmiri insurgency against Indian occupation began. Faced with massive unrest as the insurgency swelled, the Indian government, unable to restore law and order, dismissed Kashmir’s democratically elected National Conference government; the legislature and cabinet was dissolved and governor rule was declared. Indian bureaucrat Jagmohan Malhotra was appointed governor. That night, in response to militant attacks and the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed – daughter of the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Sayeed – the Indian paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) conducted warrantless house-to-house searches, arresting hundreds of people, beating them and allegedly harassing women.

As word of the night searches spread, enraged mobs began to fill the streets. Unaware of the chaos, five-year-old Moisza (whose full name has been withheld at her request) kept busy with her birthday preparations while the valley simmered.

“It was January 21. The whole city was under curfew. People had gathered to protest against the incident. The protest had started from Raj Bagh [Srinagar], marching toward Lal Chowk and Maisuma [the city center],” remembers Farooq Ahmad Wani, one of the survivors of the Gawkadal massacre.

Farooq, then working as an engineer in the water works department, was heading for the Divisional Commissioner’s (DC) office for curfew passes, but when he reached Jahangir Chowk of Srinagar, he was not allowed to move in the direction of the DC office.

“I was not allowed to go to the DC office, where I needed to get curfew passes. The security men directed me towards Lal Chowk. I started walking towards Lal Chowk, thinking of visiting my uncle, who lived nearby, on the other side of the Gawkadal bridge,” said Farooq.

In the meantime, the peaceful protesters had passed by Moisza’s uncle Rauf’s house. As Zulehama, Rauf’s elder sister recalls, “I had gone to my mother’s place and started packing up Rauf’s clothes for his journey to Jammu. He had just returned from his ski course in Gulmarg, so he was dressed in the jacket and sports shoes, which he wore even while he was martyred.”

However, Rauf, then 24 years old, had promised his beloved niece Moisza that he would attend her birthday celebration before leaving for Jammu.

“My elder daughter Moisza would spend most of her time with Rauf and my mother. She was the apple of his eye. He had assured her he would attend her birthday on January 22,” said Zulehama.

But watching the protesters from the window of his house made Rauf uneasy. Zulehama still remembers his words: “How can we tolerate disgrace of our women? If we stay quiet, they [security forces] will get up to anything. We all should join the protest, or it will be immodest on our part.”

Rauf performed ablutions and joined the protesters. A mob of men, women and children marched chanting through the streets and lanes. Farooq, who was heading to his uncle’s house, walked casually by the peaceful protesters, but when they reached the Gawkadal bridge in the heart of Srinagar City, Indian security forces opened fire on them.

“As the protesters reached the Gawkadal bridge, one gunshot was heard first, which was immediately followed by indiscriminate firing,” recalls Farooq.

The fearful protesters scattered, and the firing continued as the CRPF chased them through lanes and alleys. Some of the protesters jumped into the Jhelum River. Those who could not escape were shot on the spot. Not a single person was spared.

“I had walked amid women thinking that they would not fire on them, but the CRPF men did not spare them either. Those who were injured were again shot in the head by the security personnel to make sure to kill them,” recollects Farooq.

In this atmosphere of bloodshed and frenzy, the CRPF resorted to firing on the mob with machine guns. Zulehama sobs as she remembers what happened next. “Watching this, Rauf, who was a part of the protest, turned the machine gun towards himself. It pierced him deep with 32 bullets, saving scores of protesters while ending his life. As Rauf sacrificed his life for his nation and people, Moisza kept waiting for her darling uncle to celebrate her birthday.”

As Rauf gave his life, Farooq struggled to live for his children. “I remembered my three daughters and thought of what would happen to them if I died,” says Farooq. The girls were all toddlers at the time.

In an effort to save his own life, Farooq contemplated jumping from the bridge into the waters of the river Jhelum that flowed beneath it. But as he neared the edge of the bride to jump, a tall man came rushing at him, struck him and pinned him down to the ground before jumping into the water himself.

“I lay flat on the ground, scores of dead bodies around me. Not a single person was alive. I lay motionless to signal to them [the CRPF] that I was dead,” Farooq said.

In the rush of the incident, a kangri, or heating pot, had crashed to the ground. Farooq’s face lay on its hot ash as charcoal burned beside him. When he slowly turned his face to escape the heat, his motion caught the eye of a CRPF officer who quickly approached him.

“‘He is alive,’ an officer said aloud, abusing me in Hindi,” remembers Farooq.

As the officer approached him, Farooq rose to his knees, his hands raised, pleading the officer not to harm him.

“Taking no sympathy on me, the officer shot the whole round of bullets into me with his carbine gun, knocking me down. I became half-unconscious, my body burning and feeling thirsty,” recalls Farooq as his green crystal eyes dampen with tears.

After a while, Kashmir’s local police arrived on the scene. As they surveyed the dead, they grew fierce with anger.

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“I could see their faces red with sympathy for us and anger over the incident. Observing the anger of the police officials, one CRPF official slapped some of the local police personnel, asking them to leave or they will be shot, too,” said Farooq. The policemen retreated.

Farooq again lost hope and lay back in pain when he was approached by a CPRF officer he assumed to be the subordinate of the one who shot him.

“He came toward me and saw that I was alive. He used abusive words and pointed his gun on my temple and began to press the trigger when the officer who had shot me before shouted from a distance, ‘I have shot him enough. He will die on his own. Do not waste your bullet,'” remembers Farooq.

The official withdrew his gun and pushed Farooq to the ground. An eerie silence followed all around, which broke only when a truck landed to take the dead bodies. “A Sikh CRPF personnel stood near me, and I feebly pleaded with him to take me into the truck, as I was alive. He took hold of my muffler and dragged me into the truck along with other dead bodies,” said Farooq.

The truck, filled with the dead, reached the police control room, where the corpses were unloaded. The control room doctor was called. The concerned physician examined them all.

“When the doctor saw me alive, he immediately ordered me to be taken to hospital, and I was rushed to hospital and saved,” says Farooq, heaving a sigh.

Farooq remembers that besides him, a teenaged boy was also alive. The young man had taken a bullet in his knee and was crying fretfully in pain, but, upon reaching the control room, he ran away.

“The hospital was in chaos as all the dead were brought there. But on seeing me alive, people came to me, kissed me and hugged me. And amid all that, I noted a small boy holding my shoes close to his chest,” smiles Farooq.

After two months of bed rest, Farooq recovered and returned to work. But the trauma stayed with him.

“I faced severe depression. I have been since taking antidepressants. When I work too much or think, I get tired. Doctors had even suggested that I relocate outside of Kashmir to overcome my condition. The incident has left a deep impact on my mind. Not a day passes when I don’t think of that day,” said Farooq.

The Gawkadal massacre left scores of people dead. While police say only 32 people were killed, eyewitnesses put the count at between 100 and 200 people. The most commonly used figure is 52. Since the incident has never been investigated, exact figures are still unknown.

Despite the clear evidence and eyewitness accounts, no known action was taken against any CRPF officials who ordered their forces to open fire at Gawkadal, or against the officers present during the shooting. No public inquiry was ordered into the incident. The police did file complaints against demonstrators who pelted stones at security forces, but even these were not investigated. Without an investigation into the events at Gawkadal, there will be no chance of holding those responsible accountable.

The Gawkadal massacre is regarded as the bloodiest massacre to date in the history of Kashmir. Human rights activists here see the incident as a turning point in the history of Kashmir, and define the killings as the primary catalyst for the mass militant movement. As Human Rights Watch said in a May 1991 report, “In the weeks that followed as security forces fired on crowds of marchers and as militants intensified their attacks against the police and those suspected of aiding them, Kashmir’s civil war began in earnest.”

“Gawkadal massacre changed the mindset of the people of Kashmir towards India. In that protest, only 10,000 people participated, but it followed mass protests in which hundreds thousands of people thronged to the streets,” said Khurram Parvez, an award-winning Kashmiri human rights activist and cofounder of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

Khurram said the Gawkadal massacre “pushed people to join militancy and receive training.” Khurram’s maternal grandfather was killed in the violence that day.

“I was 14 years of age then, and the man behind that massacre lived next door. It was a torture to see him every day. As a young boy, I had decided to take revenge on him, but then, as I grew up, I realized that the greatest revenge would be fighting for justice,” says Khurram.

Twenty-one years later, the situation in Kashmir remains unchanged. The security forces’ killings of innocents have not ceased, nor has the government’s indifference towards such incidents. On January 8, 2010, 16-year-old Inayat Ahmad was killed in a shooting by Indian security forces. Ahmad’s killing was followed by the death of 13-year-old Wamiq Farooq, who was hit in the head by a tear gas shell. Death came to 16-year-old Zahid Farooq after he was allegedly shot by security forces, having done nothing to provoke them, while playing cricket on February 5, 2010.

The cycle of killings continued and took an even more violent turn following the killing of 16-year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, who was allegedly hit in the head by a tear gas shell as he was returning home from his tuitions. Tufail’s death triggered valley-wide mass protests. Security forces used tear gas, gunfire and pellet guns against the protesters, some of whom observed total nonviolence, while others pelted the security forces with stones. The unrest seized Kashmir for six long months, which were dominated by stringent curfews and resulted in the killing of 112 civilians. Even the funeral processions of the deceased were fired upon.

Shares Irfan Mattoo, Tufail’s uncle, said, “They [security forces] thwarted Tufail’s funeral procession by using force against mourners. I and many of our relatives, including Tufail’s father, could not participate in the last rites due to unwarranted restrictions.”

Seventeen-year-old Javaid Ahmad was killed when security forces fired on the funeral procession of another teenager, Mohammad Rafiq.

Despite wide condemnation from human rights organizations and activists, the state government has ordered probes into only 17 of the 112 killings.

As an August 18, 2010, press statement by the Indian human rights organization People’s Union for Civil Liberties states: “Repression is bound to further alienate the people and lead to more unrest. The PUCL strongly condemns the continuing killing of unarmed protesters by police firing in the Kashmir valley even if a few from the crowd might have pelted stones at the police or the security forces. The policy of bullets for brickbats followed throughout the country is inhuman even under a dictatorship and is totally unacceptable in a democracy.”

The statement adds, “had the state government policy been to punish the guilty policemen or members of the security forces perpetuating these crimes instead of protecting them by subverting the course of justice, people in such a large number would not have risen in the unarmed revolt to which we are a witness today.”

Seeking an end to the human rights violations in Kashmir, Delhi-based independent human rights observer and writer Professor Badri Raina said: “I believe human rights violations can diminish, perhaps cease, only if and when an Egypt-like, nonviolent, secular, mass movement is forged and allowed to sustain itself by all sides to the conflict. By ‘all sides,’ I do mean the state agencies, the local militants, the infiltrating jihadis, the hindutva hotheads and all those who make money from mayhem.”

Correction: The previous headline identified the Gawkadal Massacre as having taken place over 30 years ago. It occurred 21 years ago, in 1990