SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — “The soldiers came from two sides. The boys were trapped. They jumped into the river,” said the dry fruits seller. “We heard them yelling ‘help, help.’ Six or seven of them knew how to swim, but three were drowning.”
“We managed to save two boys, but the third one drowned,” he concluded, seeking anonymity as he fears police retaliation.
The boy who could not be saved was 17-year-old Osaib Altaf, the first casualty of the Indian government’s snap-decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status on August 5, and impose a military-backed lock-down the valley.
On 7 August, HuffPost India was the first to report Altaf’s death. Yet the local police, the Union government, and even the Indian judiciary, has refused to acknowledge this fatality — to the extent of reporting false information to India’s highest court.
On 1 October, the J&K Juvenile Justice Committee, a group of four sitting judges of J&K High Court, told the Supreme Court that reports of Altaf’s death were “baseless as no such death has been reported to the police authorities.”
This week, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said, “not a single bullet has been fired nor a death reported in Kashmir” since the abrogation of Article 370. Shah is wrong; there have been at least four other deaths, which families claim have occurred as a result of the activity of security, including asphyxiation by tear gas, but the government refuses to acknowledge these deaths let alone investigate.
Today, the Indian government is shepherding a private delegation of European Union parliamentarians from an assemblage of far-right parties including France’s National Rally, the UK’s Brexit Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, and Spain’s Vox, on a tightly controlled visit to Kashmir.
The EU delegation’s guided tour, juxtaposed against the Indian establishment’s refusal to acknowledge deaths like Altaf’s, illustrates how the Modi government’s oppression of Kashmiris is aided and abetted by fringe-elements of the international community.
Multiple eyewitnesses on 5 August
On the afternoon of August 5 this year, the dry fruit seller was sitting by the banks of the Jhelum River with his friend, when they spotted “nine or ten boys” jump into the river to escape a group of troopers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
The dry fruit seller says that he and his friend jumped into the river to try and save the drowning boys — but Altaf could not be saved.
“It’s not just me. Everyone who lives on this side of the river and that side of the river saw what happened,” he said. “Go ask anyone. We can’t all be lying.”
HuffPost India spoke to at least 10 eyewitnesses, all of whom said they saw Altaf jump into the river as he was pursued by security forces. Altaf was buried following a public funeral procession, and images of his face are plastered around protests sites in Srinagar.
Yet the local police, Altaf’s family told HuffPost India, refused to register a first information report (FIR) about his death. The lack of an official record of Altaf’s death has given the Indian government an opportunity to pretend it never happened.
“I don’t know what to say. The boy is dead.” Mohammed Rafiq, Altaf’s uncle, told Huffpost India. “Why won’t the police register an FIR? Investigate? Or is the death of a Kashmiri not even worth taking note of anymore?”
The local police, Rafiq said, were using the fact that Altaf died when he jumped off a bridge spanning two police jurisdictions, as a pretext to airbrush his death from the official record.
Rafiq said he first went to the Parimpora police station, but Station House Officer (SHO) Javid Ahmad refused to register his report on Altaf’s death and told him to leave.
“The SHO said that no such incident had occurred in the Parimpora jurisdiction,” Rafiq said. “When I said the entire mohallah had seen where the incident had occurred, he said bring me these mohallah wallahs. He said that if I was going to make trouble then he would register an FIR against me.”
Ahmad, the SHO of Parimpora police station, told HuffPost India the incident did not occur in the Parimpora jurisdiction, but in the jurisdiction of the Safakadal police station, which is the area that starts from the other end of the bridge and includes Palpora locality where Altaf and his family lived.
“This is not in our jurisdiction,” Ahmad said.
Adil Rashid, the SHO of the Safakadal police station, told HuffPost India the incident did not occur in his jurisdiction.
“This is not in our jurisdiction,” he said.
Ahmad, the policeman from Parimpora, also asked why Rafiq approached the police in October, two months after Altaf’s death.
“Why won’t the police register an FIR? Investigate? Or is the death of a Kashmiri not even worth taking note of anymore?””
Scared of the police
Rafiq, who took charge of Altaf’s case for his family, admitted that he delayed registering his nephew’s death with the police.
The delay, Rafiq said, was for three reasons: he was afraid of backlash from the police, he thought it would be pointless, and he thought “human rights lawyers” would take care of his nephew’s case.
“I was not sure whether it was worth taking the risk. I’m also a father of two children and I did not want to take the risk,” Rafiq said. “This is Kashmir. If you make trouble for the police they will come and take you away in the evening.”
Fear of the police is also why people in Kashmir have taken to giving false names at hospitals when their loved ones have been injured or killed following an encounter with the security forces.
The people who had rushed Osaib Altaf to the S.M.H.S Hospital in Srinagar, Rafiq said, gave his name as ‘Osaid.’
Now, Rafiq says the hospital authorities insist on releasing a death certificate with the name Osaid instead of Osaib. The family has refused to take the death certificate without the correction.
Rafiq said his family simply wanted the government to acknowledge Altaf’s death.
“We have land. We are comfortable. We don’t want compensation, we want justice. At the very least, accept that he died,” he said. “Say those boys were throwing stones, should that result in the death of a boy. Should the police not register an FIR and carry out an investigation to at least find out what happened?”
“We don’t want compensation, we want justice. At the very least, accept that he died.”
Other deaths on the same day
The day that followed Home Minister Amit Shah announcement abrogating J&K’s special status on the morning of 5 August was a particularly bloody one in Srinagar.
Not a lot was reported because mobile services, the internet and even the landlines had been snapped by the local administration the night before the announcement. The local media was incapacitated.
There is still no internet in Kashmir. Mobile service was restored on postpaid phones earlier this month.
Shortly after Altaf’s death, locals say that two men, who were among the many angry people that had come out spontaneously to march in his funeral procession, were shot at by the CRPF.
The large gathering was in contravention of the curfew that was imposed under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code following the abrogation of Article 370.
HuffPost India spoke with one man, a 40-year-old sales manager, who was injured in Altaf’s funeral procession.
The father of three children says that he normally does not take part in any public processions, but that day he felt “very angry.” He showed the gash from where the bullet had ripped through his shoulder.
“I thought my arm had fallen off. What you feel is unbearable pain. You won’t believe it but what you are still thinking is how will I explain this to my family,” he said.
Like the people who rushed Altaf to the hospital, the people who had rushed the sales manager to the hospital did not give his right name to the authorities. His family isn’t sure whether those people had deliberately tried to conceal his identity or made a mistake, but they have decided not to correct the hospital records.
The sales manager’s wife insisted this reporter not use his real name.
The family decided not to register an FIR.
His father said, “What if they turn around and say he was pelting stones? We don’t want any kind of trouble with the police. You never know what happens in Kashmir. He is a father of three children. We don’t want any trouble.”
“You never know what happens in Kashmir.”