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#HandwaraKillings: north Kashmir is burning, but what lit the fire?

Catch Team | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Three youth and a 54-year-old woman have been killed in protests over the alleged attempted molestation of a schoolgirl by an army man in Handwara, north Kashmir, Tuesday.

The details of the incident are sketchy and shrouded in confusion. The girl had gone to use a public washroom located near an army bunker. Some youth allegedly saw an army man follow her, and raised an alarm. When the girl came out, they snatched her satchel and abused her. More people gathered and they started raising slogans against the army.

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The situation soon spun out of control. The police used teargas to try and break up the protest, but the army fired directly into the crowd, killing Iqbal Farooq Pir and Nayeem Qadir Bhat, both 22. Raja Begum who was hit by a bullet while working in a nearby field died Wednesday morning. And by the early afternoon, another youth Jehangir Ahmad Wani, who had been hit on the head by a tear gas shell, succumbed to his injuries.

Bhat was a well-known cricketer. He had played for J&K's Under-19 team and hoped "to one day play for India". The walls of his room are plastered with pictures of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli.

Parallel narrative

Soon after two youth were killed, however, a video of the girl at the centre of the controversy began circulating on WhatsApp and Facebook. In the video, the girl, her face uncovered, denies having been molested. She talks about going to the washroom and being "heckled and abused" by the youth there, some of them her acquaintances. She talks about her schoolbag being snatched away.

"Suddenly, several boys gathered. The boy asked me to go to police station with him. There was a police uncle nearby. I told the boy to return my bag so that I could go to the police station with the cop. He said he would not return my bag and started abusing me," the girl tells the person filming her, adding that there was no soldier in the washroom.

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As the death toll continued to rise with two of the injured people dying, the video was promoted by the security establishment and subtly introduced into the public discourse as a parallel narrative. The army later formally released the video to the press. This time the girl's face had been blurred, but to little purpose as by now the video was everywhere.

Nayeem Qadir Bhat played for J&K U-19 and hoped to play for India. Until, that is, the army killed him

"This is a non-issue now. Even if the girl was not molested, does it legitimise the killing of four people?" argues Khurram Parvez, convenor of the human rights group Coalition of Civil Society. "There is some confusion about what happened to the girl, but the killings are real."

Also, Khurram alleges the video was shot when the girl was at the police station. "It appears that the J&K police have recorded and uploaded a video of the victim of sexual violence exonerating the army and both the police and army have circulated this video widely, including to news channels," states a statement released by the CCS. "The actual circulation of the video and disclosure of the identity of the victim would invite prosecution under criminal law and other disciplinary action for the Superintendent of Police and other police officials involved."

Admission of guilt?

Interestingly, the police has registered an FIR against the army man for the alleged molestation bid, while the army has "highly regretted" the killings and ordered an inquiry, thereby admitting that its men were responsible for them.

"The Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda, accompanied by Chinar Corps Commander Lt Gen Satish Dua, today [on Wednesday] visited Handwara and interacted with officers and soldiers regarding the incident in which three civilians were killed when protesters tried to storm an army post," defence spokesman Lt Colonel NN Joshi said in a statement.

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"Terming the incident as 'highly regrettable', the Army Commander has asked for an early completion of the inquiry, already ordered. The Army has also offered to take care of the expenses for hospital care and subsequent rehabilitation of those injured in the incident."

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Eyewitnesses though speak of a different turn of events. "I was nearby when the protests erupted. I heard screams of a girl and rushed to the spot. I saw an army man rushing to the bunker and two youth holding the hands of a girl coming out of the washroom. Her first words were that she had gone to the washroom to wash her feet and the army man had followed her there," says Zulqarnain Banday, a Delhi-based journalist visiting home in Handwara. Banday is the cousin of Nayeem, who was killed in the protest.

"The youth demanded the arrest of the army man from the bunker. The police who soon reached the spot also went to the bunker to talk to him, but returned empty handed. This enraged the people, a large number of them uniformed students who had just come out of the school. They shouted slogans and started pelting stones."

On the edge

The killings have confronted the fledgling PDP-BJP regime of Mehbooba Mufti with its second biggest challenge in a week, after the still raging NIT controversy. But while police action against outstation students at the NIT triggered national-level political and media outrage as well as attacks against Kashmiri students in other parts of the country, the response to the Handwara killings has been muted and inflected with juxtaposition with the video of the girl's denial of any molestation.

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Mehbooba has promised "exemplary punishment" for the guilty, but nobody sets much store by such assurance. The army in Kashmir is protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and its personnel cannot be prosecuted for any excesses unless the central government sanctions it - something that has been rarely granted in the past. Even though Mehbooba raised the issue with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and even called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, people are skeptical. Parrikar has assured the chief minister of a "time-bound inquiry," but in the past such assurances from New Delhi have made little redeeming difference.

Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP Photo

Four killings in less than 24 hours have again brought to fore the old political questions about Kashmir and underlined the fragility of peace in the state. So far in her week-long rule, Mehbooba has only jumped from the NIT frying pan into the Handwara fire. Failure to sensitively handle the situation could well confront her with an extended spell of public strife not unlike the three successive summer revolts until 2010, which led to the killings of nearly 200 people, most of them teenagers.

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone 

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First published: 14 April 2016, 8:58 IST