This is the first of a series of fact-finding reports on the recent violence in Kashmir. The fact-finding has been conducted independently by a team of BELA BHATIA, VRINDA GROVER, SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN and RAVI HEMADRI. For a introduction to this series, see here.
REPORT # 1, 12 November 2010
Attack and killing on Pattan hospital premises: urgent need for accountability
Horror stories involving the excessive use of force by security personnel have been rife through Kashmir’s summer of turmoil. But few have been more chilling than accounts of what transpired on the premises of the Government sub-district hospital at Pattan on July 30.
The historic town of Pattan in Baramulla district, situated on the highway to Srinagar, is just a few kilometres from the village of Palhallan, which has attracted a disproportionate measure of repression since the current phase of mass civil unrest began in Kashmir. Palhallan has been under a virtual siege for over two months, shut away from public attention, only now beginning to emerge into the light.
Doctors and other staff at the Pattan hospital vividly recall July 30, when armed personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forced their way into the hospital early in the evening, shortly after several injured civilians had been brought in for urgent medical attention. They shattered windowpanes, broke down doors and destroyed vital medical equipment, while hospital staff were thrown into a state of sheer terror. Surgeons performing urgent life-saving procedures in the casualty ward and the minor operating theatre, were alerted to the incursion of armed forces and warned to stay indoors.
The more senior among the two surgeons on duty then, judged the risks of not responding to the demands of the armed intruders greater than actually opening the door. He was then attending to between ten and twelve patients on an urgent basis, besides which the casualty ward was packed with the numerous volunteers that had brought in the patients, in the absence of adequate ambulance and stretcher services. His recollection is that there were then about five volunteers within the ward for every patient. A possible panic by the assembled crowd within the casualty ward could potentially have proved fatal for the seriously injured patients under his care.
The moment he opened the door, the senior surgeon found three rifle barrels thrust into his chest. He kept his composure and managed to avert further danger by explaining that he needed to return quickly to urgent life-saving tasks. As he turned to go back into surgery, he saw the CRPF men roughing up numerous other staff and bystanders within the hospital precincts. A car belonging to the hospital’s chief medical officer was smashed, as was a recently acquired ambulance.
Other members of the hospital staff recall that the CRPF men then made their way to the women’s ward where they broke down the door before the terrified staff withdrew into an adjacent room. But for a shopkeeper from the neighbourhood who happened to be on the premises at the time and locked the staff in, drawing the wrath of the intruders on himself, the women staff of the hospital fear that they too might have been seriously endangered. Likewise, three doctors are reported to have locked themselves inside a bathroom in order to avert danger.
Eye-witness accounts of the day’s events at Pattan cannot naturally offer a full reconstruction, since every account is confined within the limited canvas that any particular individual could see. And much would have been obscure to any individual’s gaze in those frenzied moments, when everybody was looking out for his or her own safety. There is however, an account by a family from the village of Palhallan which demands attention, since it points towards a crime that would shock the conscience.
Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh, like several other residents of Palhallan, had been taking part in protests against Indian security forces since the current cycle began with the killing of innocent civilians under the cloak of an armed “encounter” in April 2010. On the afternoon of July 30, he set off to the spot assigned for the protest, accompanied by his 12-year old son, Adil Ramzan Sheikh. Mohammad insists that he always kept the little boy at a safe distance from the epicentre of the demonstrations. But on July 30, the boy seemingly escaped the attention of his father.
At around 3 pm, Mohammad was informed by telephone that his son Adil had been shot and been taken to the Pattan hospital. He was told that a bullet had grazed his shoulder and the wound was bleeding profusely. But soon after Adil was admitted in the Pattan hospital, his wound staunched and an intravenous (IV) drip administered, his father recounts – based on the narration he heard from others present there – the CRPF personnel raided the premises, ripped out the IV cord from Adil’s arm, pulled him off the bed and shot him dead at point blank range.
Mohammad asked his informant to bring back Adil’s body for burial. With the roads closed by a heavy security blanket, the body was brought back late evening by some people who carried it on their shoulders. Mohammad reported seeing one wound on his son’s upper back and another wound in the lower chest that seemed to have been caused by a bullet fired at close range. Adil was buried the same night. The family does not have any papers relating to the case. There has been no FIR registered, nor does the family know if a post-mortem report exists.
Doctors at Pattan hospital recall that the boy they received for treatment that day was already grievously injured and offered at first sight, little hope of survival. The circumstances in which Adil suffered the fatal wound remain a matter of conjecture. Doctors think that he could have been admitted to the ward as a case not requiring immediate attention and administered the IV drip. In the turmoil and confusion caused by the CRPF intrusion, he may possibly have been one of many who fled for shelter. Several patients admitted to the ward at that hour are known to have fled when the wrath of the CRPF descended on the hospital, some of them leaping out of the windows. And then, according to various eyewitnesses who have given their accounts to the doctors, Adil may have run towards the compound wall of the hospital which adjoins a school, where he could have taken the fatal bullet from a CRPF firearm.
Whatever the truth about the events that led to Adil’s death, there is little question that Pattan hospital on July 30 suffered an attack which by all acknowledged covenants, puts the CRPF and all other elements party to it, under the cloud of a serious crime. This constitutes a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law, and calls for an urgent and impartial investigation.
From all available accounts of the day’s events, it appears that protests in Pattan began late afternoon on July 30 after news was conveyed of a police firing in the north Kashmir town of Sopore, some 20 kilometres away. Passions were raw after two protestors who took to the streets that day were reported killed in Sopore. When protests in Pattan escalated, with people from Palhallan participating, the forces deployed at the site opened fire. As reported the next day in Greater Kashmir, as many as 90 may have been injured in these rounds of firing. Protesters in retaliation, reportedly attacked the police station and sought to set it afire.
Given the severe restrictions on movement in place then – not to mention the various curbs on communication links and the virtual blockading of the press – there have been mixed and varying accounts of the Pattan hospital attack. While Greater Kashmir, reported the attack on the hospital in some detail, it identified the boy who was killed that day as 14-year old Mohammad Rafiq Bhat.
The other two English-language dailies published from Srinagar, Kashmir Times and Rising Kashmir, have registered the incident in Pattan in their editions of July 31, though without agreeing on the precise sequence of events. (See “4 killed, 17 Injured in CRPF, police firing”, Kashmir Times, 31 July 2010 and “Bullets kill 4, injure 250”, Rising Kashmir, 31 July 2010.) Kashmir Times reported that security forces had attacked the hospital, ransacked it and beaten patients and staff. Rising Kashmir did not have this detail. Both newspapers however, agreed on the identity of the 14-year old boy who was killed at the time, reporting his name as Mohammad Rafiq Bhat.
A report on the news portal Rediff (www.rediff.com) which may well have been sourced from a news agency within Kashmir, reported the event as follows: “An unruly mob also attacked and torched a portion of the north Kashmir Pattan police station, 30 km from Srinagar on Friday evening. Security forces had to resort to firing to quell the mob, killing a teenager identified as 14-year-old Adil Sheikh on the spot”.
Within weeks, the reporting had been transformed, with Adil’s death being ascribed not to a randomly fired bullet at the protest site, but to a cold-blooded murder within the hospital compound. Greater Kashmir in a report on the travails of Palhallan on October 6, over two months since the event in question, reported that eight persons from the village had died in the course of the “ongoing unrest”, among whom the first was “twelve-year old Adil Ramzan Sheikh (who) was shot by troopers in sub-district hospital Pattan on July 30”.
The fact that the Jammu and Kashmir Police has filed charges against a few of its own men, apart from some army and CRPF personnel (as mentioned to this team by Director General of Police, Kuldeep Khoda), is an acknowledgment of numerous instances of the illegitimate and excessive use of force through Kashmir’s long summer of turbulence. The incident at Pattan on July 30 falls within the majority of cases where serious investigations have not been undertaken. In the circumstances, security forces have repeatedly breached the red lines which should not be crossed under any circumstances. Medical personnel, ambulances and other facilities have been frequently targeted when they should be under all applicable rules of engagement, exempt from the slightest threat of the use of force.
Pattan doctors recall that on September 6, they were unable to respond to urgent calls to deploy staff to the medical post in Palhallan, after numerous injuries were suffered in the village in a clash between protesters and security forces. Victims had to be transported through dirt roads running at a considerable distance from the highway, rendering a ten minute transit time in to something closer to two hours. In the circumstances, many preferred to take the casualties through to Srinagar directly. Two lives were perhaps lost that day because of delayed medical care.
Though the staff of the Pattan hospital are outraged at the July 30 attack, they are discouraged from pursuing remedies because of the widespread climate of impunity. They have not sought an intervention by the doctors’ association, because they are aware of its futility. And the quest for criminal prosecution is laughed away. “Who should we file an FIR against?”, asks a witness to the attack: “against all of India?”