A Night of Raids, Arrests & ‘Loot’ in Baramulla

On the night of May 8, a day after Baramulla went to polls in 16th Lok Sabha elections, Sajad Ahmad Mir, 30, was woken up by loud noises emanating from the ground floor of his house. Within minutes, several uniformed men barged into his room and smashed windowpanes with their guns. They had come from Baramulla police station to arrest Abdul Rashid Mir, Sajad’s youngest brother and youngest son of Ghulam Din Mir. “My wife fainted when they kicked open the door and started breaking the windows. They were looking for my younger brother, but he was not here. They locked us inside the room and repeated the assault in other rooms,” Sajad says in a soft voice. The family lives in a two-storied house in Stadium Colony of Baramulla’s Azad Gunj locality. The house is bereft of several window-panes. Small heaps of shattered glass lie at each end of a porch where two women are picking vegetables. A broken window is set against the wall of the lawn, as if to showcase the police assault. “It was tore of its ridge by policemen. They smashed everything that came in their way. They behaved like beasts,” one of the women said.

Over the past several years in Kashmir Valley, nocturnal raids carried out by police at the houses of youths involved in protests has left their families terrorized. Since the beginning of Amarnath land agitation in 2008 which brought down the People’s Democratic Party – Congress coalition government, police has been making profile of youths who are frequently involved in street protests, based on which they are booked under various charges. Thousands of youths held in such raids are languishing in jails, many under Public Safety Act, a ‘draconian’ legislation condemned by Amnesty International which gives police powers to make arrests without warrant and hold detainees without trial for months.

“There are three categories of protesters; first-time offenders, habitual but redeemable youths and hardcore criminals who are sometimes paid to throw stones. Youths held in protests are accordingly booked under various cases, depending on the gravity of cases and frequency of their involvement in protests,” a senior official in J&K police’s Criminal Investigation Department says.

In the last four years since 2009, 9166 youths have been held in 1733 cases including attempted murder, waging war against the state and rioting in nine districts of Kashmir Valley. Out of these, 228 cases involving 1811 youths were withdrawn under a policy announced by Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah, in August 2011. A senior police official said the activities of these youths are almost always known to the department through an intricate network of spies and the use of technology.

“Some of them return to normal lives, but in some cases there are repeated offenders. It becomes difficult to keep track of them. We may call their parents to police stations and urge them to convince their wards to give up their activities. It is quite possible that they (family members) may be held to put pressure on the offender but it doesn’t mean they are harassed or tortured,” he said.

This tactic was used at the Stadium Colony residence of Ghulam Din Mir on two occasions previously. The first raid took place in middle of the night of November 14, 2013 when the family was preparing for the wedding ceremony of Sajad and Muneer Ahmad Mir. “They came at around 1 am and asked for the whereabouts of Rashid,” says Sajad, the eldest among the three sons of Mir. When the family feigned ignorance and asked police to leave without creating fuss, this agitated the police personnel and they took away Sajad to Baramulla police station. “I had to show them wedding cards and Nikah papers to set me free,” he says.

Rashid, his family claims, didn’t visit home in eight months. He has been on the run ever since he was first caught while throwing stones at police in 2008, but he no longer participates in street protests which are a frequent occurrence in old town of Baramulla. “He gave up stone-throwing and joined Tableeghi Jamaat. He doesn’t come home, but police refuses to believe us. They punish us by detaining us and damaging our property. In his place, they take away father and my brothers just to put pressure on us,” Sajad says in a lamentable tone.

“Since the day we came here as brides, we have not seen Rashid,” Neelofar Jan, wife of Muneer Ahmad, says thoughtfully, pointing to a sallow young women sitting cross legged across her.

On May 8 when police conducted the third raid at their residence, they detained Muneer and his father when they couldn’t find Rashid. While senior Mir was released after two days, Muneer says he had to spend eight days in police lock-up. “Why is police harassing us in this way? There is a design behind this which is to steal our belongings,” Muneer says. “They took Rs 3 lakh cash and jewelry worth Rs 15 lakh on May 8. We don’t know what our crime is. They come in the night and steal like thieves?” his wife, Neelofar, says.

Neelofar is an earnest, voluble young woman who is angry with the way police broke into her house and damaged their property. She remembers the night of May 8 when she was dragged from her room by uniformed men and locked inside the kitchen with her mother-in-law. “There were around fifty policemen in the lobby. I was scared to death. I feared for my honor. They kept demanding where Rashid is. They looked frustrated and went berserk, hitting everything that came in their way,” she says.

“What kind of justice is this? They were unable to arrest Rashid and instead we had to pay the price,” Sajad says, “we complained to the district administration about the police harassment but they didn’t hear our grievances. Many people told us to register a case against police but we know we can’t get anything out of it. It’s obvious that police will deny all of this. They carried out these raids during nights and every time they scaled walls of the compound to enter the house. It was all planned that way.”

The night of May 8 was another signal to Rashid to show himself before his family was punished further. Following the raid, the family decided to give him up. “He came home a couple of days after the raid. We talked him into showing himself before police and finally he gave himself up on June 1,” Sajad says.

The family runs a successful business and is fairly well-off but the police raids has left them fuming. Sajad says it took ten years to build their house, “We toiled hard. We put our blood and sweat together but there is no peace here. Our brother is in jail and the police are harassing us now,” says Muneer.

The family thought about seeking judicial intervention to prevent harassment and nocturnal police raids, but they are apprehensive of getting involved in a protracted legal battle. Their son is in jail; their house is broken and cash and jewelry are gone. “We are simple folk. We don’t have much money and we don’t want to get into any legal hassles,” says Muneer.

Kashmir police has, however, denied claims of Mir family that their jewelery and cash was looted by the raiding party.

Sajad’s mother walks into the room. She is a talkative woman who shows me around the house, like a zealous in-charge of museum. In every room, there is a broken window. To keep dust away, they have covered broken windows with polythene sheets. There are broken wash-basins and smashed mirrors. “This is the extent of police brutality. They went berserk that night,” she says. There is also a broken LCD television in one of the rooms. “They threw a marble tile at it,” Sajad points out.

Azad Gunj locality of Baramulla is restive and one of the most sensitive places in north Kashmir which frequently erupts in bouts of protests. A strong anti-India and pro-freedom sentiment runs deep among the locals of Baramulla’s old town of which Azad Gunj locality is a small part. Stone throwing incidents on the day of Lok Sabha elections were reported here, resulting in severe clashes in which many youths and police personnel suffered injuries. Some voters had their inked fingers slashed by angry youth.

“Police says that it was us who cut the fingers. Our house was, in fact, stormed by people. These are all lies,” Sajad says.

It was a crisp, sunny June day in Baramulla when I ran into several youth who hesitantly whisper about the nocturnal police raids and arrest of family members in lieu of the alleged stone-throwers. “It’s a common occurrence here,” a teenaged boy who participates in protests told me.

Ever since the 2008 uprising against the transfer of a piece of land to a Hindu shrine board, old town has become a volatile place. Pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani has a strong following here and his calls for shutdown and protests are devotedly observed here. Boys as young as seven year olds participate in street clashes with forces which has resulted in a number of casualties, most of them residents of old town, and further angered the local population.

Walking along the narrow lanes of old town, a blonde boy took me to Ganai Hamam. The aura of this place resembles that of Srinagar’s old city. Cramped houses huddle each other, as if to seek comfort. In one of the houses in a narrow lane lives another family who met the same fate as Mir’s. Around 2:45 am on May 9, the Halwai family woke up to a furious thumping at their door. Showkat Ahmad Halwai rushed down only to meet a posse of ‘wrath-laden’ policemen.

“They had come for me,” he says, “one of them abused me and I abused him back. It led to a scuffle but I managed to flee from the spot,” Showkat recalls.

A tailor by profession, Showkat says he first took to streets in the smoldering summer of 2010 when the death of a teenager, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, who was hit by a police teargas shell sparked a violent phase of third continuous mass agitation against Indian rule in Kashmir Valley. Showkat had lost his nephew in the ensuing bloodletting. “I started throwing stones after my nephew’s death,” he says.

Showkat carries a stern expression on his face while recalling the details of the fateful May 8 night. In the meantime, an aged lady enters the room, “They not only smashed our home and beat us, but they also took away Rs 25, 000,” she said in a sad voice. Showkat looked up and spoke to her in an assuring tone, “Mouji, Azadi manz tchi yim cheez aamith (In the fight for freedom, these things happen).”

Halwai family lives in a modest, two-storied house. A cramped staircase leads to a room where Sajad says his toddler son was sleeping on the night of police raid. “They fired a teargas shell into this room. My son could have died,” he says angrily. The nocturnal raid was first of its kind for Showkat and his family. “I stopped throwing stones after my marriage but police are raking up old cases to harass us,” Showkat says.

When Showkat and his younger brother escaped from the house during the raid, police detained their father. “My father remained in custody for three days. They slapped my mother and abused her,” he says. Showkat shows me a black spot on a stairwell which he says was caused by the impact of a teargas shell fired by police.  “The whole house was filled with tear-smoke,” a young lady remarked.

Showkat believes the spate of night raids by police in old town Baramulla is for nothing but money. “They stole my hard earned money which I had kept under the pillow. They damaged our modest home. They also took a piggy bank of my brother’s wife, such is the level they have stooped to,” he says.

While the tactics used by police to nab the elusive stone-throwers are not new, perhaps dating back to early nineties when armed insurgency first erupted in Kashmir Valley, it is the normalization of such practices by police that has left the rights activist fuming. “The extra-judicial arrests of family members of alleged stone throwers is despicable,” says Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender, “whether it is Indian Army, paramilitary forces or police, they have lost no opportunities in harassing Kashmiris. This has been going on since 1947.”

While the human cost of a conflict has found many voices, but the economic toll Kashmiris have borne over the past two decades has been ignored more or less. “The economic war on Kashmiris is evident. Look at the instances when the entire villages were burnt in Handwara and Sopore. Or when entire houses are blown away in an encounter,” Khurram says. He traces the economic persecution meted out to Kashmiris back to the days of armed insurgency during early nineties. “This is nothing new. In early nineties, the orchards of many pro freedom activists were cut down by Ikhwaan. Why would they cut down an apple orchard but to punish and persecute. One way or the other they have always used economic weapons to persecute people,” he says.

While Showkat Ahmad Halwai wants to live a life devoid of fear of police harassment, he says the police are not allowing him to earn a livelihood and lead a normal life, “They are forcing us to go back to stone-throwing,” he says.

Halwai family’s house wasn’t the only house damaged in the multiple night raids conducted in old town of May 9. Their neighbors’ houses too faced the wrath of police action. Noora Begum is a widow whose house lies adjacent to Halwai’s. “What was our fault? They broke our doors and windows,” she asks soberly.

“When the entire locality woke up, we came out and shooed away the police. Locals ran after them,” Showkat says.

A four day long strike was observed by the town after the May 8 nocturnal raids and it was only after the intervention of Traders Association of Baramulla that Showkat’s father was released and the strike discontinued. “They need to stop digging old cases. I have left stone-throwing. They should have verified it before barging into my home, beating and abusing my family, stealing cash and detaining my father,” says Showkat.

Lateef Ahmad Khan who lives in Tawheed Gunj locality of Baramulla is hesitant to speak about the May 8 night, “I don’t want to talk about it. We are an oppressed lot. Our media plays to the gallery,” he says. He is angry, justifiably so, perhaps, given the manner in which the protests were reported by local and national media organizations, but he brushes aside the nocturnal police raids as not unusual.

“This is war. A few broken window-panes are a small matter,” he says.

Originally published here — https://archive.authintmail.com/article/reportage/night-raids-arrests-loot-baramulla


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