Report #2: Palhallan Under Siege

This is the second 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 an introduction to this series, see here, and also see the first report.

Broken windows in Palhallan testify to a widely used strategy of intimidation

REPORT # 2, 13 November 2010
Palhallan Under Siege

Saqib, a 13-year old in the orchard village of Palhallan in Baramulla district of Kashmir, knew Adil Ramzan Sheikh, a slightly younger boy, killed on July 30, in circumstances that remain contentious.

He struggles to cope with the abrupt disappearance of a young playmate, but has no serious doubt that the future of Kashmir lies in azaadi. Like most Kashmiris, he is aware of the various options on the menu: between a return to the 1953 situation, a fuller accession to India or Pakistan, or just plain azaadi. And he is able to recite out aloud — almost like a catechism — that the commitments made by “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru”, necessarily mean that India owes Kashmir the right to decide between these options.

What possibly could azaadi mean to Saqib? A major criterion emerges a little while into the conversation: azaadi means in part, to be free of “Major Sharma”, the local army commander who has made it a regular routine to swagger into Saqib’s school in the company of other soldiers from his unit — all displaying lethal firearms — to threaten children that they participate in protest demonstrations only at enormous risk to their lives.

This fact-finding team had no opportunity to meet “Major Sharma” but was able to assess that he looms large in the consciousness of the residents of Palhallan, since the last many weeks. As the village has suffered a comprehensive lockdown for weeks together, Major Sharma’s iron first has stirred fear within its residents, who hesitate before they go about their usual routines for fear that they may invite an unpredictable and violent retribution.

Members of the fact finding team at the mosque where Munna was killed.

October 24, when this team visited Palhallan, was the first day in many that the village was exempt from the heavy-handed restraints on movement. These severe restrictions were imposed since an upsurge in protests on September 6 was met with ruthless fury by the security forces. A virtual lockdown of civilian movement was soon afterwards declared in the village. All points of entry and exit were sealed by Indian army units and J&K police deployed in force within the village.

It has not been easy to reconstruct what happened on September 6. The Rising Kashmir report the following day, has recorded a statement issued from the Kashmir range police headquarters — within at the most a couple of hours of the bloodshed — acknowledging that lives had been lost and injuries suffered. The Kashmir range police headquarters then went on, reportedly, to commit itself to an inquiry that would fix responsibility for the loss of life that day.

Rising Kashmir has reported though, that within two hours, another statement came out of the same source, which claimed that two senior police officials – the Inspector-General for Kashmir range and the Senior Superintendent for Baramulla district – were passing through the highway when their convoy was blocked and pelted with stones by demonstrators from Palhallan and Pattan. The trouble erupted at the point where the highway forks towards Palhallan. Police and other security men then dispersed the demonstrators but found that force had to be applied to “prevent mobs from merging into the police party”. The demonstrators were on this account “chased” away from the spot where they could have posed a danger. This, in the sanitised narration of the security agencies, resulted in injuries to three, who later died.

This team met Altaf Ahmad Wani, a civil engineering graduate in the class of 2005 from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, now employed with a project consultancy firm in Baramulla town. Wani commutes to and from his place of work regularly by public transport. As he returned from work on September 6, he found that the road leading into Palhallan was blocked where it intersected with the highway. He took an alternative route in as a precaution, but as he walked home, found his path meeting with another, down which security forces, firearms at the ready, were in hot pursuit of a group of protesters. Wani sought to flee from the danger but was struck by a bullet on his left leg, just above the ankle. His bone was shattered and he had by the end of October, undergone the first of many rounds of surgery to repair the damage. There is little possibility that he will be able to return to work before four months. Despite being in evident pain, Wani did not let his immobility interfere with his offers of hospitality. He was visibly disappointed that this team chose to decline his repeated requests to enjoy a round of refreshments. As the team took its leave of him, he had his family fill up a bagful of walnuts for us to take away.

Altaf Ahmad Wani

Khan Javed, on his way back from a sawmill in Pattan, also took a bullet in his leg at the same time. A blood vessel was cut just below his knee and he had to have a vein and skin graft from his other leg to repair the damage. He was taken to a hospital in Srinagar shortly after suffering his injury as his immediate family remained immobilised and isolated for two entire days because of restrictions on movement that allowed no exemptions.

Declared a “model village” in April this year and designated for special attention in terms of funds allocation, Palhallan has been under curfew for a length of time that is difficult to assess. Local residents claim that the village has been under complete closure since at least September 8. Media reports put the duration of the closure at about the same.

The official account though is different. On October 23, Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of J&K Police, claimed at a meeting with this team, that Palhallan was not under any form of closure, merely under heightened surveillance to check the movements of “undesirable” elements.

Khoda concedes that Palhallan does have ‘genuine’ grounds for grievances. Intake from the village into the state administration for instance, has been way below par. Against one employee for every 25 individuals in the rest of Kashmir, the average for Palhallan is just one in 150. The allocations in development and welfare too may have been below the state average.

The residents of Palhallan could not possibly disagree more profoundly. In the local narrative, the village’s contribution to the ongoing movement is a matter of some pride. And this stretches back through the two decades that Kashmir has been in a state of active insurgency. Ghulam Mohammad Waza, a villager who lost a son in the recent phase of disturbances, estimates that roughly eighty “martyrs” to the struggle lie buried in the village graveyard. The eight who have been killed since the current phase of protests began in Kashmir valley, are part of a wider continuum.

The killings of September 6 in Palhallan came after a week of relative quiet in the entire Kashmir valley. Three demonstrators were killed that day – one from Palhallan and two from Pattan — and several injured. Harsh restrictions on movement prevented several of the wounded from reaching medical attention.

Though the official account suggests that the lethal firing followed intolerable provocation and a possible threat to the security of senior police officials, Palhallan residents think that the motive of the shooting was quite clearly to puncture the morale of the civilian demonstrators. The day’s hartal – as determined in the protest calendar drawn up by the Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani – was formally declared over at 2 p.m. and the village was then preparing to resume its normal activities. The shooting, they say, was designed with deliberate intent, to destroy public fealty towards Geelani’s protest calendar.

Following the events of September 6, Palhallan became the focus of much of the protest mobilisations in the valley. On September 17, Geelani announced his protest calendar for the week to follow. A prominent place was reserved for a “Palhallan chalo” call the following day, when people were exhorted to march toward the village to register their outrage at the loss of life and express solidarity with those affected.

Palhallan residents recall that the conduct of the security forces became increasingly lawless and overbearing following this. Raids into the village, forced entry into randomly chosen houses, the roughing up of boys and young men who were identified as possible participants in the protests, and the destruction of household property and assets – including the shattering of furniture and windowpanes — common all through the preceding days, intensified following the “Palhallan chalo” call.

To these tactics of intimidation was added a fresh ingredient of terror through the night intervening between September 17 and 18, when the forces kept up a steady din as they discharged firearms in regular fusillades to warn the village of the dire consequences that lay in wait, if they were to take part in the protests.

The mood in the village was inflamed on September 18 and closure as enforced by the security forces, was absolute. But Palhallan’s residents were intent on seeking to go about their business as if nothing was amiss. Ghulam Mohammad Waza, who makes a living as a cook at traditional Kashmiri banquets, set out around noon that day for Pattan where he had an engagement. In the company of another eighteen villagers, he travelled through adjoining fields rather than the heavily policed roads, reaching Pattan after a trudge of one-and-a-half hours.

The next few moments are vividly imprinted in Ghulam Mohammad Waza’s memory. He had just finished lunch and begun work when he was minded to call his son Ali Mohammad, just to check that all was well. He was told by a rather agitated Ali Mohammad, that a young man from a neighbouring house, Ansarullah Tantray, alias Munna, had just been shot dead.

The news was grim, but Ghulam Mohammad Waza was by this time inured to hearing tales of sudden and unexplained deaths. Yet he says, nothing could have prepared him for the telephone call he received a bare ten minutes later, which conveyed the grim news that his son too had fallen to a bullet.

A tell-tale bullet mark on the door of the mosque

Munna’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Tantray had seen his younger son Naeem Mohammad badly hurt in the September 6 protests. On September 18, he says, Munna was one among a group who gathered in the local mosque for afternoon prayers. He recalls that without the slightest provocation, the mosque was surrounded by security forces who ordered all the worshippers out. This peremptory diktat by the security forces, he says, was accompanied – seemingly for effect – by a few bullets aimed at the door of the mosque and a tear gas shell hurled to make the exit route as painful as possible. Munna, says Ghulam Mohammad Tantray, came out through a door on the side to avoid the tear gas fumes. But he then made the fatal mistake of thinking that the wrath of the security personnel had been exhausted. He was the first of the worshippers to emerge and as he walked towards the front of the mosque to retrieve his footwear, he was reportedly shot dead on sight.

Ali Mohammad Waza then emerged from another mosque in an adjoining mohalla and walked towards the spot where Munna had fallen, perhaps to retrieve his body. He too was shot dead.

At the time that this team visited, school-going children in Palhallan were gearing up for their term exams. These had long been delayed and it was obvious that Palhallan’s children were making a laboured effort to shut out all the turmoil and suffering seen from up close, while they turned their attention to scholastic matters. The resilience of civil society in Kashmir has ensured that morale has stood up despite the debilitating closure that the village has been put through. But any complacence about the spirit of resistance being extinguished, would be grossly misplaced.

Previously in this series
Introduction: Fact Finding Team to Kashmir
Report #1: Attack and killing on Pattan hospital premises
Next in this series:
Report#3: Shooting the Messenger in Kashmir

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