#Handwara: Mother says soldier did try to molest girl, protests spread
On Wednesday, after the army shot dead two young men and a middle-aged woman in Handwara, a video of a schoolgirl whose alleged molestation by a soldier had triggered the protests and the killings made it to WhatsApp and the social media.
In the video, the girl, her face uncovered, denied that she had been molested, and instead accused some youth of raising a hue and cry when she went to a public washroom near an army bunker.
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Two more young men have been killed in the spiralling protests, while the girl remains in police custody along with her father and aunt. Her mother's public appeal for their release has gone unheeded. Nor has the legal team of the Coalition of Civil Society, a human right's group, been allowed the meet the girl.
Worse still, the police foiled the mother's press conference in Srinagar today. The office of the CCS, where the event was scheduled to take place at 11 am, was cordoned off and the media barred from entering. The CCS later released a video statement of the mother, where she contradicts her daughter and says a security personnel had indeed tried to molest her.
Speaking exclusively to Catch, she reiterated her statement. "My daughter had gone to the washroom when she heard an army man trying to barge in. She screamed. This alerted the shopkeepers around who raised an alarm, drawing some youth to the spot. They were justly enraged and tried to rescue my daughter and protested. Later the police and the army personnel killed five people. I feel broken and shattered. I feel guilty. They were a part of my family too," she said.
Her daughter, she said, has been in police custody since the incident. "They are not releasing her and her father and aunt, nor letting anybody meet them. We tried to call them but their phones are switched off. Her father called once to say they are alright. He didn't say anything more."
When asked about the girl's video statement, allegedly recorded by the police, the mother said. "Who knows what happened in the police station. She must have been forced to say so."
The police claimed the girl is in custody for her own protection. "She is in police custody. The family has approached us for protection," DIG, North Kashmir, Uttam Chand said. "We can't deny protection to anyone who feels threatened."
The mother doesn't buy this argument. She has petitioned the J&K High Court saying her minor daughter was taken into "illegal custody" by the police on April 13. In response, the court has directed the SP of Handwara and the local SHO "to declare the law and authority under which they have kept in police custody a minor girl, her father and aunt."
Meanwhile, the protests have spread to other parts of the valley, including Srinagar, Baramulla, Ganderbal and Pulwama, forcing the state government to put the urban centres under a security lockdown. The protesters set ablaze an empty police post at Naidhkhai in Bandipore district. At Barsoo village in Ganderbal, the police had a tough time dispersing crowds of stone-throwing youth.
The central government has decided to rush 3,600 additional paramilitary personnel to the valley. The decision was taken at a high-level meeting in New Delhi, chaired by Finance Secretary Ratan Watal, who is holding the additional charge of Home Secretary.
The valley has been shut for the last five days in response to a strike call by the separatist groups. The government has shut down the internet to prevent the circulation of pictures and videos of the protests.
In recent years, an increasing number of youth in the valley have joined Facebook and Twitter to air their views. There are online forums and groups that host discussions on current affairs and generate a shrill discourse of their own. Events, incidents, media content are overanalysed and deconstructed. The drift of this discourse is explicitly anti-India, a sentiment now fanned by the Handwara killings and their under-reporting by sections of the national media, especially TV channels, compared to the debate over the police's lathicharge of outstation students at the NIT, Srinagar.
The deteriorating situation has confronted Mehbooba Mufti with a grave crisis very early in her tenure. So far, the chief minister has not appeared in command. Her flurry of meetings with Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh and Manohar Parrikar have yielded nothing on the ground. The security brass, despite promising restraint and a strict adherence to the Standard Operating Procedure in dealing with crowds, have failed to stop the killings.
After the killings on Wednesday, Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda, accompanied by Chinar Corps Commander Lt Gen Satish Dua, had visited Handwara and called for an "early completion of the inquiry already ordered". The security forces have since killed two more young men and wounded 26 others.
And even though a "time-bound" inquiry has been ordered, no much is likely to come of it. The army in Kashmir is protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the accused soldiers cannot be prosecuted without sanction from the central government, which has rarely been granted in the past.
The least Mehbooba can do is somehow prevent more killings. Failure to do so can tip the valley into another extended strife like in 2010, which had led to the killing of 120 people. No police or paramilitary personnel were ever held accountable for those killings.
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