Families in Kashmir say several civilians have died amid clashes between security forces and protesters since India announced its decision to withdraw the region’s autonomy, despite the government’s official stance that there has not a single casualty.
India has imposed an unprecedented military lockdown on the restive region in Jammu and Kashmir since 5 August, when Narendra Modi’s government declared its plan to split up the state and put an end to its special constitutional status.
Despite a near-total shutdown of both road networks and all means of communication, eye-witness reports have trickled out of small-scale protests breaking out across the state, during which at least three civilians have died, their families say, as a result of the actions of security personnel using teargas, pepper spray, shotgun pellets and other tactics.
Ten days after the imposition of restrictions, the state’s police chief Dilbagh Singh boasted that “there has been not a single casualty as a result of clampdown”, and at a more recent press conference government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said he had “no reports” of civilian deaths.
But speaking to The Independent in Srinagar, the regional capital, one doctor who asked to remain anonymous says hospital staff have received clear verbal instructions from the authorities to keep admissions related to the clashes to a minimum, and to discharge victims quickly, in order to keep statistics down.
And in the cases of the three deaths, relatives spoke of their frustration at trying to get doctors to formally acknowledge the role played by the clashes – or even to issue them with death certificates at all.
Late in the afternoon of 9 August, Fehmeeda Bano, a 35-year-old mother with two young sons, was at her home in Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar when clashes erupted between security forces and protesters outside.
Her husband, 42-year-old Rafiq Shagoo, took the children inside a room as they started to panic.
“After the protesters were chased away, the security forces started pelting stones at the houses, breaking glass windows,” Shagoo recalls. “If a vehicle parked outside the house came in their way, they damaged them [too].”
His wife, with bedsheets in her hand, rushed upstairs to cover the windowpanes. Shagoo says he could hear police firing at least four teargas canisters just outside the house.
Their neighbour, Tasleema, was also covering her own windowpanes at the time, and recalls seeing the house fade behind a cloud of teargas and pepper spray smoke.
“Fehmeeda was at the window as smoke, in huge quantities, entered through their window. I could hear her coughing,” she says.
She then started complaining of chest pain and breathlessness. “I could see her struggling to breathe. She had inhaled extreme [amounts of] teargas,” says Shagoo.
He says he decided to take his wife to hospital, but had to convince a neighbour to take them as he had parked his own car away from the house in a bid to keep it safe from the clashes.
By the time they arrived at Jhelum Valley College (JVC) hospital, a kilometre away, Bano was suffering heavily from a lung injury sustained – according to her emergency ward chart – due to massive smoke inhalation. She died within 40 minutes of arrival.
After four days, Shagoo went to get his wife’s death certificate, but the chief medical officer (CMO) told him that the certificate was with the police.
Days of continued efforts to get the certificate were finally rewarded, but only after a doctor and friend intervened. On the final document, shown to The Independent, the cause of death is listed as “sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest”.
The only hint that this may have been an unlawful killing is a subsequent line suggesting “toxic gas inhalation?” as a possible factor in the death. The “actual cause” should be determined in a post-mortem, it says – one which the family says they have been told will not take place since this is “not a police case”, according to the CMO.
“They lied, they dodged me,” Shagoo says. “When I managed to get the certificate, it didn’t mention the real cause of death. I am not able to register the real cause of my wife’s death. They have been told by the authorities to manipulate the cause of death to keep the casualty record clear.”
Bano’s relatives at least received a death certificate. For the family of 55-year-old Ayoub Khan, who was the only breadwinner in a family with three daughters, the wait continues.
On 17 August at 4pm, clashes between forces and protesters broke out in Yaripora, in the Srinagar district. Like in Bemina, after protesters were chased away, security forces started pelting stones at homes in the area, according to witnesses.
Khan was home when he heard announcements from a mosque, asking people to come out of their homes as the police were damaging private properties.
Khan told his seven-year-old daughter Mehreen to remain inside the home as he went out. He met his friend, 60-year-old Fayaz Ahmad Khan, on the main road.
“Both of us were standing together, as the forces launched teargas canisters. A couple of them exploded between Ayoub’s legs and he started suffocating. Immediately he was taken to Shri Maharaja Hari Hospital (SMHS),” says his friend.
Khan’s brother Shabir remembers seeing blood was coming out of Ayoub’s mouth, as he lay in his lap in a three-wheeler auto-rickshaw on the way to the hospital.
“When we reached the hospital, doctors told us he was already dead,” he says. “We asked them to mention on the record that he died due to teargas, but they refused.”
Fearing a public outcry at Khan’s death, police ordered the family not to conduct the usual funeral procession and limit the number of attendants to no more than 10.
Even after they got the body home in an ambulance, security forces personnel broke up a crowd gathering at the home by opening fire with shotgun pellets, injuring Shabir and other family members.
After a few days, the family approached the hospital to collect the death certificate, at which point doctors told them they must beforehand get a crime First Information Report (FIR) from the police, something the family say would be impossible to get in the current climate.
“It is clear that in any case against the police, they won’t mention the real cause of death,” says Shabir. “It’s injustice, we aren’t able to register the casualties. We are helpless.”
Friends and family say the first casualty of the current Kashmir crisis actually took place on 5 August itself, when 17-year-old Osaib Altaf jumped into the Jhelum river as security personnel chased protesters in northwest Srinagar.
Speaking to The Independent, a friend who asked only to be identified as “S” said he, Altaf and others became trapped on a footbridge when police approached from both sides of the bridge.
“Osaib didn’t know how to swim. When we jumped, I decided to carry Osaib on my back, but one of the army personnel came and banged his stick on Osaib’s hand that was holding the bushes,” S says.
Altaf was taken to SMHS hospital but it was too late. His father, Altaf Ahmad Marazi, says that aside from not giving him his son’s death certificate, doctors refused even to give him documentation confirming he had been admitted.
“Doctors are under pressure not to give the death certificate. India claims the situation is normal in Kashmir, which is not true. If they revoke the communications ban, the truth will come out,” he says.
When asked for the Indian government’s latest toll of injuries and deaths in Kashmir since 5 August, officials in Delhi were not immediately available to comment.
Police officials in Srinagar say they are unable to “give exact data of any such casualties” but that they are looking into the cases being raised by The Independent.
The chief medical officer at JVC hospital, which treated Bano, defended his doctors’ conduct saying that they could not mention teargas as the reason for death unless it was definitively proven. “On the certificate there is a question mark which means ‘probably’,” he says. “We haven’t mentioned the exact cause of death.”
More than 20 days after the extraordinary restrictions were brought into place in Kashmir, officials say they believe the situation in the valley is “returning to normal”, adding that they cannot comment on an end to the communications blockade, but that they do not see connections being restored “any time soon”.
Additional reporting by Adam Withnall in Delhi