Public memory, particularly of horror, is such a heritage that often guides societies away from feeding conditions that could lead to a repeat of atrocity. But establishments sometimes seek to erase discomforting markers of times gone by. Shams Irfan reports on the changing memory landscape of Kashmir.
Memory is not always pleasant. A fresh paint seems to have permanently replaced the blood stained gloomy walls of some of Kashmir’s most infamous torture centers. Some of these buildings have already become part of many young men’s nightmares over the past many years of insurgency and government response to it in Kashmir.
Names like Butcher House [Badamibagh Camp], Papa 2, Hari Niwas Palace, Cargo and Kawoosa House still evoke heart-wrenching memories among those who have allegedly been subjected to third degree torture in these places.
“I spent 37 days in Cargo and bitter memories of every single day and night spent there are pasted on my mind permanently like my ill fate,” said Ashraf who claims to have spent most of his youth inside various alleged torture chambers across Kashmir.
Papa 2 and Hari Niwas palace, both situated at the picturesque Zabarwan foothills and wearing an peaceful and elegant appearance refuse to fade away from the memories of thousands of young Kashmiris who have spent some of the worst days of their lives there. “They stretched my legs to the point where I was sure that they will be torn apart from my body,” said Ishfaq, who agreed to recall the ‘dark days’ of his life only after he was convinced that these torture centers are no longer functional.
“During early 90’s using torture to extract information from people was a common practice but still remained largely unreported as people feared reprisals from the security agencies,” said a human rights activist who wished not to be named.
Papa 2, the most notorious alleged torture chamber of them all was finally occupied by the incumbent leader of opposition and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti and her father, the patron of the party Mufti Syeed as their official residence. The adjacent Hari Niwas Palace, after its cosmetic makeover, was converted into a state guesthouse for visiting foreign dignitaries. “They should have preserved them as museums rather than refurbishing them to change their dark history,” said Ishfaq.
“After all these years, the mere mention of Papa 2 still brings back all the pain that I have suffered there.”
Many believe that Papa 2 was transformed into a plush official residence in order to erase evidences of the horror that was perpetrated there on detained suspects and armed rebels. “They are trying to erase the dark past of these buildings with fresh paint and new furniture. But what about those who were killed inside these walls?” asks Ashraf.
With significantly enhanced control over armed militancy and the related incidents going down, efforts by the establishment seem to have been underway to erase the memories attached with such buildings that are spread across the length and breadth of Kashmir.
Despite strong opposition from certain people who wanted these alleged torture centers to be preserved as museums rather than converting them into guesthouses and residences for politicians, the transformation process continued. “It’s a desecration of the dead and disappeared by the establishment,” said another victim who has been in almost all these infamous landmarks in Kashmir including Papa 2, Cargo and Hari Niwas.
In the early years of militancy government forces frequently used cinema halls, hotels, heritage buildings, abandoned properties of Kashmiri Pandits, government offices and even government school buildings as emergency accommodations for themselves many of which still remain in their use. These places were also used as makeshift interrogation centers for suspects. “Our college chemistry lab has become part of my permanent nightmare,” said Sajad, who was detained when he was a student and is now in his mid-thirties.
“Since the day I was released, I might have crossed that building thousands of times, as it is on my way to office, but never ever did I dare look towards it,” said Niaz, while shifting himself uneasily on the cushioned seats of the bus while passing Kawoosa House in Nowhatta chowk near Jamia Masjid.
Looking down towards the busy roads of Nowhattah area in old city Srinagar, Kawoosa house reminds one more of a lost glory and built up heritage rather than a torturous history that is attached with this building.
The building, now neglected, was up till not long ago a center for anti-insurgency activities in the heart of Srinagar. High windows stacked with sandbags would drown the cries of young men who were being tortured inside by government forces, residents say.
“As a kid I was always curious to know how this beautiful house looked from inside. I simply was in awe of its big windows and colorful glasses. May be at some point of time I might have dreamed of owning such a house for myself,” said Niaz. “I still remember, when I was first taken to Kawoosa House, I was both happy and sad. Happy for being inside it finally and sad because I knew that this is no longer the same house which I once loved.”
Although now he lives half a kilometer away from Kawoosa house, he has to cross that dilapidated building twice every day while going to and coming back from office. On condition of anonymity, one of his childhood friends told me that the house that was once part of his childhood dreams had now become a permanent part of his nightmares.
In a hushed tone Niaz narrated his horror story while traveling in a local passenger bus. “After a shoot out in our locality, I was picked up by security forces. At that time we used to live quite close to Kawoosa house. But after spending a week inside during the peak of military rule in Kashmir, I tuned my back towards that house forever.”
Displaying a lost involuntary gaze, it was clearly hard for Niaz to wade through his memory of being inside the building. “That night they [government forces] broke my bones along with all my childhood dreams,” he said sadness enveloping his face. “There were no beautiful rooms which I had imagined as a child.
The entire place smelled of alcohol, urine and vomit. It was unbearable for a normal person to even stand inside that torture room for five minutes.”
His imagination of the beautiful rooms of the magnificent building did not help Niaz overcome what he was put through, he says. “I still remember, when they were giving me electric shocks, I would try hard to concentrate on the beautifully carved windows instead. But it never worked.”
“Once when I was hanging upside down, I remember planning the entire renovation of Kawoosa house in my mind as I was interrupted for another round of beating by the person who was supposed to keep me awake for the night,” Niaz said.
Clustered amidst some of the finest residential addresses in Srinagar, Cargo building looks like any other secure government structure in Kashmir. High walls fitted with concertina razor wire on them and guarded round the clock by armed police in two concrete bunkers, Cargo hardly wore that death like look on its exteriors which it has been infamous for. “It was just like a butcher house. Once you are inside Cargo building your chances of getting out alive is automatically reduced to zero,” said Zubair. Cargo now serves as cyber police station.
Zubair, 45, who claims to have been inside almost all torture centers in Kashmir never misses a chance to thank his stars to have come out alive after spending a decade in transition from one detention center to another.
“The worst form of all tortures was the humiliations at the hands of your oppressor who would strip you off your dignity in front of everyone. Physical pain was nothing as compared to mental trauma that one goes through while in captivity at Papa 2,” said Zubair.
“When my mother came to visit me at one of the camps where I was being tortured I refused to meet her as I was afraid that she will die if she saw my wounds,” he said with a pained expression on his face.
They would beat me with big belts used for industrial purpose only. These belts had very funny inscription in Urdu and Hindi written on them, ‘Aan milo sajna’ and ‘fir kab miloge’. Irrespective of the circumstances you are in, these inscriptions would often bring a strange smile on your face. Giving electric shocks to detainees at these torture centers was a routine, he says.
“Torture was the biggest weapon used by government of India to discipline people and punish Kashmiris for being part of the popular movement,” said Khurram Parvez, Liaison IPTK and Programme Coordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “Torture as a method of disciplining people became one of the most openly guarded secrets of the establishment as they covered their deeds with deniability.”
Many across Kashmir echo such impressions.
“Solidarity towards freedom movement was targeted through torture by India. And to a great extent they succeeded in their designs. But the events of 2008 and then the summer of 2010 shook that indifference to a great extent,” said another alleged torture victim who has spent twenty-two days in the Joint Interrogation Center (JIC) Islamabad. He wished not to be identified.
In order to wean people away from sympathizing with militants, many allege, the government forces used techniques like mass rape of Kunan Poshpora, beating up of elderly persons in public, humiliation of village heads and mosque Imams in front of everybody.
Majid Ahamd was only 14 when government forces first picked him up. Recalling the events of March 1995, he said, “I fell flat on my face within fifteen minutes of torture. I was unconscious. Considering my young age they let me off after three days.”
But then again in the winter of 1996 Special Task Force picked him up from his house in the dead of the night. This time, he alleges, Majid was taken straight to some place near Pahlagham where after stripping him naked they kept him in the freezing waters of Lidder for half an hour. “At that time I thought this is the worst they could do to a person. But I was wrong. Worst was yet to come,” Majid said. From there he claims he was taken to JIC. He can still remember that officer’s face. “He had a very hoarse voice, one that penetrates you like a sharp weapon. He said in accented Urdu, ‘Isko Jahaaz banao’ and they tied my hands at my back and hanged me some fifteen feet up in air using a single rope that was tied to my hands. I was hanging there like an airplane trying to keep my balance and nerves intact.”
He shivers while describing how he was allegedly tortured with iron rods. “You feel like being skinned alive. It was a routine technique at most of the torture centers I was sent to.”
Majid says the idea was to demoralize the detainee when he was asked to “call your God for help let’s see if he can save you from us.”
“There were no mechanisms in place to protect an accused from torture. They would be on their own at the mercy of the security forces,” said Parvez.
In the early years of insurgency, torture was the only way to extract information from a detainee but as the number of militancy related incidents reduced and peaceful protests by unarmed youth replaced direct encounters with security forces, it appears that the methodology of torture also saw some changes.
“First they would strip you naked and then leave you like that for hours then they would humiliate, cajole and sometimes blackmail you with dire consequences if you do not cooperate,” said Majid.
“Torture was more result oriented as the methods used by security agencies included blackmailing, humiliation, maligning of image of a person in the society etc,” said a human right activist on condition of anonymity.
After being released from the torture centers people would often get disconnected from the society realizing that nobody came to their rescue when they were being tortured.
Observers say that some people became ideologically more hardened after coming out of torture chambers and never actually gave up. That many joined fidayeen (suicide) squads. But a large number of torture victims would become indifferent towards society, as they were unable to cope with their traumatic experiences. “Torture actually disengaged many people from the movement,” said Parvez
Rough estimates put the figure of torture victims at around 2 lack in Kashmir, but these figures are often contested by human right organizations like People’s Rights Movement and Human Rights Watch who were never granted an audience with these victims inside these torture chambers claiming that the phenomenon may have been more widespread.
“People would often not complain against torture as they consider themselves lucky to be out of a torture center alive,” said Parvez.
According to Wikileaks, the International Committee of the Red Cross briefed American diplomats on widespread torture in prisons in Kashmir between 2002 and 2004. However, many people have alleged that detainees were subjected to severe torture since 1990.
“By changing the status of these buildings they are tampering with the evidence that these sites of crimes contain,” said Parvez. “Systematically they are trying to change the understanding of the people attached with these sites.”
Ice Chamber Inside Hari Niwas?
Sahil (name changed) was 21 when he was first picked up from the market near his house in south Kashmir and taken to High Ground camp near main town of Islamabad by soldiers of 3 RR.
“That moment changed my life forever.” He remembers his traumatic journey through different torture centers in Kashmir during his detention. “After spending a night at High Ground, I was shifted to Khundru Camp where I was tortured for 22 days.”
They wanted me to confess that I was a field worker of some militant organization and had been active in transporting weapons. On my first night at Khundru camp they tied two electric wires to my body, one to my right foot and another to my private part and then gave me electric shocks till I passed out.
They would give us alcohol instead of water after every dinner. Water was like a dream for detainees as it was rarely given. I was tortured without any break for first eighteen days of my detention there. The worst of all tortures was when they would tie our hands at our back and leave us like that for the night. Neither you could sleep nor could you complain to anyone. After 22 days I was transferred to Kotbalwal jail in Jammu.
I was finally released by the court in 2003 but was again picked up by CIK from outside the court complex and sent directly to Hari Niwas palace.”
By then Hari Niwas was not the feared torture center that it once used to be. Because of the shift in policy they tried to win our hearts back through counseling, I was not tortured at all. At Hari Niwas palace, I was put in a small cell with other two detainees. One day we all demanded a proper place for offering prayers. First they refused to relent but when we all threatened to go on hunger strike they handed us one big room for prayers. We were told to clean it ourselves. It was the main torture room of Hari Niwas which has been forgotten for some time now. There were bloodstains everywhere. We even found human teeth and a huge stash of human hair lying all around the room.
After we started praying regularly they isolated me from the rest of the detainees suspecting that I am using the prayer room for anti state activities. They then put me in an ice cell. It was a small room filled with ice slabs all over. There was space for only one person to stand. They left me locked there for god knows how much time because when I woke up I was lying near a furnace, still shivering as if my heart would stop any moment. In February, 2004 I was finally released from Hari Niwas. I was happy. But I had no idea that the worst was yet to come.
In April 2005, I was picked up again and taken to Joint Interrogation center (JIC). They made me to pass urine on a live electric heater. For days I would pass blood with urine. Then during one torture session someone put a small aluminum rod down my throat and pushed it in till I started vomiting blood. I passed out and they immediately took me to Janglaat Mandi Hospital in Islamabad. From there doctors referred me to SHMS hospital. Six days later I was handed over to my family from SMHS. They were completely unaware of my condition.
Three months later I was taken to PGI Chandigarh and there I underwent a surgery for filling the hole in my food pipe. The aluminum rod had pierced my food pipe leaving a big hole there. Now every year I have to visit Chandigarh for treatment. It’s a lifetime pain for me.
Recently both High Court and Session Court quashed Public Safety Act which was slapped on me saying that, “It was a mistake.”
I have even been issued a passport now.