Mountain Massacre

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The killings in Gool, a Godforsaken bowl nestled in the Pir Panchal peaks, offered residents a day to be on roads for the first time in more than two decades. Syed Asma offers a snapshot of how the government cooled the high-altitude embers.

Gool-Ramban-killing

The atmosphere in the chopper was so tense that the inmates were hardly listening the noise that rotor was creating. They say they were hearing their heartbeat because from less than a kilometer, they were witnessing what was happening on ground.

It was home minister (jr) Sajad A Kichloo, revenue minister (jr) Aijaz Ahmad Khan, who also represents the Gool constituency in the state legislative assembly and Abdul Gani Malik, who was till recently the education minister of the state – the NC team that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah sent to Gool for crisis management. They were also accompanied by the state police chief Ashok Prasad.

“It was terribly disturbing situation,” said one of the team members. “We saw the entire belt on fire.” It was from Chanderkote that the ‘high-fliers’ started seeing people on the roads. As they were flying over Ramban, they actually saw the people attacking the office of the Deputy Commissioner and could actually see the smoke billowing from its premises. As the chopper reached in the Banihal airspace, the traffic was nowhere on the highway and instead they saw thousands of people in control of the road.

The situation changed completely when the chopper gained height and entered Gool, a mountain town that has seen the worst in last 20 years. Everybody who tackled the masses, militants as well as security forces, proved ruthless. As they saw tens of thousands of people on the roads in the town, they started sweating. The more the flying machine lost height, the situation become clearer. Gool was out and they were out almost entirely.

Injured being taken to hospital.

(Injured being taken to hospital.)

It created a scene in the chopper that some of the members started suggesting that they should not land at all. “Why do not we permit the situation to ease a bit more and then come the next morning,” one suggested. As others started giving considerate looks, somebody said: No, we must land. If they want to kill us, let them.

Chopper finally had a smooth landing.

Gool was boiling, literally and metaphorically. It had not slept last night as it felt hurt over what some BSF personnel were accused of by a seminary caretaker. It was around 9 am, when a seminary caretaker Abdul Latif said a group of BSF personnel barged into the Dhadam religious school and beat him. Versions are galore. One is that he was beaten and taken out for further marshalling. Another is he was beaten and asked to explain who the students were? And then the security men tore away the holy Koran after breaking a bookshelf.

There are people ready to be witness to the fact that the beaten caretaker stopped a truck and requested him stand witness to what BSF men are doing in the seminary. The truck-driver or some people who knew it, informed the police and the local civilian administration. As the police and the local Tehsildar came, there was a settlement that people should go home and the issue will be tackled the next day. The officials had agreed in the meeting that the BSF (76 Bn) camp will be shifted. Local Imams are reported to have persuaded the people to go home.

“There was massive mobilization during the night, people had talked to each other and the entire region was restive”, Munir Ahmad, a Gool resident said. “We actually talked to DC, SP, our own MLA and many others in the government, informing them about the situation that was created in the town.” All the Imams of the mosques briefed the people about the happening at the Fajr prayers. The seminary caretaker Latif has admitted that he talked to lot many people.

At least two of the more than 40 persons injured in the incident were driven to Srinagar by their relatives. M Ikhlaq Wani, is a young man, who has accompanied them to the SMHS hospital. He told reporters that the mobs tried to enter the BSF installation in the morning but were persuaded to return. Later, they tried again and it was firing from inside that killed the people.

“We first tried to enter the BSF camp, and there was stone pelting and aerial firing from within it which was retaliated with stone throwing by the protesters. At around 7: 30 am, the Deputy Commissioner arrived at the spot, asserting that there was no one inside the camp. Later as we tried to enter the camp again, BSF men started target firing in which dozens were injured,” Wani told a newspaper.

But not everybody says this. Latif says that after DC and SP reached the spot, Meena started assuring people action within a month, something that was unacceptable.

When the crowds were out at Dhadam Thursday morning, DC Shyam Vinod Meena and SP Javed Matoo were already there. There was lot of sloganeering and lot of interaction at the same time. There are many versions to what happened during the negotiations. One version, quite popular with almost everybody Kashmir Life talked to, is that the people acknowledged the response of the government machinery and agreed that certain basic demands would be met and they started dispersing. They want a formal case against the BSF, and shifting of their camp.

“When the people had started leaving, there was a huge procession that came from Upper Gool,” state’s Home Minister Jr Sajjad A Kichloo, who spent one complete day in managing the situation, said. “They were angry, and I am told some of them were pelting stones as well. And this procession was quite huge.”

From L to R : DG Police Ashok Prasad, MoS Home Sajad Kichloo, MoS Revenue and MLA Gool Aijaz Khan and former Education Minister Abdul Gani Malik

(From L to R : DG Police Ashok Prasad, MoS Home Sajad Kichloo, MoS Revenue and MLA Gool Aijaz Khan and former Education Minister Abdul Gani Malik)

Everybody says there were two instances of mass gathering. The first was around 8 am and police did use cane-charging and aerial firing to disperse part of it. It was amid negotiations. The second took place at around 10:30 am. There were many people injured in the first incident but most of the casualties took place in the second one.table to them. This, he said, was despite the fact that SP, SHO and Tehsildar were supportive of the idea. Some of them had assured the people of this last night as well.

It was at the end of this discussion that Meena asked SHO and SP to take people along and settle the issue with the BSF. As the crowds followed the two police officers, they reached the camp of the BSF. While officers went into the camp, the people stayed out and busied themselves with sloganeering. A few minutes later, a BSF official comes out and asks people to go home as the authorities are discussing the issue. It became a hot exchanged between the crowd and the official. Somebody from the crowd resorts to stone pelting. And that triggers gun on them.

The first casualty that took place in the second incident was that of political science lecturer Manzoor Ahmad Shan. A father of three, his eldest son is a fourth primary student, Shan was teaching in the higher secondary school at Thatharka. “He had gone with the people and was persuading the people to disperse because the authorities have assured action,” his relative Mohammad Arif told Kashmir Life on phone from Gool. As the mobs were marching towards the camp, he was trying to push them back and that is why he was facing the mob with his back towards the camp. “He was shot at by a state police SI Abdul Qayoom and the bullet hit his head from rare,” Arif said. He said Shan was killed brutally in presence of the district administration.

Also killed in the firing was a twelfth standard student Javed Ahmad Manhas, the only bachelor among four. Both Farooq Ahmad Beg and Choudhary Abdul Latif were married, had children and families to earn for. The four were buried a day after. Interestingly, Pari Begum, the widow of Choudhary Abdul Latif  gave birth to a daughter within four hours after he was laid to rest. He already had three children – two son, the eldest studying in fifth primary and a daughter still crawling. He was the sole breadwinner of his widowed mother and an aged sister who had stayed unmarried by choice.

Matoo, the SP, told reporters that he was fortunately inside the camp. “I myself had a miraculous escape,” he told a newspaper. “The BSF men opened fire suddenly. I too would have been killed had my colleague not dragged me away.” He has also asserted that slain Shan was with him and was pacifying the angry crowds.

There were two police men who received bullets. And a BSF cook who was also on his way to the camp was caught in the mess. He received a bullet and had a providential escape from death.

The firing continued for many minutes. Official sources said the scene was so gruesome that nobody knew who is where and who is firing at home. A highly placed official said after the second procession defied the community elders, DC went straightaway to the BSF camp just to tell them that they should exhibit restraint. By that time, the mob was closer to the camp and a rumour was set that DC had ordered firing. Now the people were seeking DC and when he got a tip of it, “he fled from the scene taking a jungle route”.

It was in this situation that the wrong information was fed to the systems by various government functionaries and even people. “As the firing started, people fled to safety,” a senior official revealed. “On the spot were many people who did not flee, he were lying in pool of blood. They were six and officials and people dished the information that six are dead.” After 20 minutes or so, after the firing stopped, when people went closer to the bodies, they saw two of them alive and breathing. By then, six figure was at the tip of the tongue, on websites, officials and the TV anchors.

For Dr Anil Raina, it was a very difficult day. A resident of Seer Jagheer in Sopore who migrated to Jammu at the peak of militancy, Dr Raina is posted in the mountain town for around 11 years now. He was posted somewhere else on Wednesday but given the situation, he was given express orders to take over Sanghaldan Primary Health Centre (PHC). “I have never seen so much of casualties in a single day. It was painful because I knew many of them,” Dr Raina told Kashmir Life. “We could barely manage a few at the local level and we instantly started shifting them to the District Hospital in Ramban.” Dr Raina, now expecting a transfer from the mountain region after serving it for more than a decade, was especially painful because after tackling this load within a few hours was later assigned the job of conducting the post-mortem of the dead.

By then, the chopper, representing the state, had landed and the first issue they flagged as priority was to manage the injured. Gool is around 55 kms from Ramban. They started hunting for a chopper that could accommodate a good load of people bleeding and unconscious and some attendants too. In such situations, it is the IAF that comes to the rescue of the people and the government. This time, however, they were having their own problems.

Ramban-protest

The initial response, officials told Kashmir Life, was that IAF can spear a chopper that can fly a couple of patients. That was the problem because Dr Riana had shifted 42 to Ramban. Immediately, the ministers sought the help of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who used his influence. Almost an hour later, a MI-17 was arranged. By then, all the injured had crowded the District Hospital in Ramban that lacks facilities and capacities to manage such a huge load.

Since Ramban was seething in anger, somehow the officials managed a spot where the chopper can land. It finally landed. Dr Mohammad Anwar Bhat and his team urgently shifted 13 serious cases to GMC Jammu. “We have managed this much of casualty load for the first time despite being a very young hospital,” Dr Bhat said. “WE got ambulances and doctors from peripheral hospitals and did whatever was possible within the means.” Within 24 hours, most of the 25 civilians admitted to the hospital stand discharged after removal of pellets and “right now, we have three admitted here”. Dr Bhat said if some more investment is made in the hospital, it will improve its potential of catering to such problems, especially because it is strategically located on the highway.

People in Gool were unwilling to leave the streets. It was the second major issue for the ministers. People were quite angry with some of the politicians to whom they talked in evening. So they were running the risk of being attacked.

They finally started towards Dhadam. And how they started was they got closer to the mob and a minister shouted the slogan Narie-Takbeer. Part of the crowd responded by Allah-u-Akbar. The ‘contact’ was established’. He shouted a few more slogans and then the interaction with the people started.

“We faced three different situation and three different problems and audiences,” one of the ministers said. Dhadam we managed by accepting the peoples’ demands and people assured they will help situation improve. The government agreed that the BSF will be removed. It was sent to Ramban and now the post is managed by police. The BSF was there not for counter-insurgency, it was securing an upcoming bridge that separated the camp from the seminary that the four BSF men allegedly barged into. Ministers assured a government job and adequate compensation. The cabinet has already approved half a million rupees each to the four families. They also agreed that a criminal case will be lodged against BSF, both for murders and desecration.

Once they moved to Gool, it was a “terribly huge” procession, angry and hurt and the immediate problem was that of Shah, the lecturer who was the first to get killed. Slain belongs to an influential family. While his brother is heading the PDP in the district, his sister is head NC. They were insisting that a murder case be registered against Abdul Qayoom Wani (some reports identify him as Mohammad Fazl), the SI who, they alleged, killed Shan from a point black range.

Arif said Wani might have some animosity with the Shan in past. “But there are 200 people who are witness to the murder”, Arif said.

Somehow ministers started interactions and after protracted talks the government agreed that they will lodge a murder case against Wani. The mob wanted the government to file the case and the ministers somehow encouraged some of the elders to write an application on basis of which a case would be registered.

Police, on the other hand, would swear for Wani. And convincing the police to register a case was another explosive situation that the ministers had to mange. They did it. By then, it was 7 pm and the chopper waiting for them near-by put on its engines and took off. The exit was sealed!

Post-registration of the case, with ministers in the police station and around 5000 people around it, came with another demand. If there is a murder case against somebody, he must get arrested? Somehow the ministers convinced the mob that they should permit the law to take its own course.

It was Iftaar time. At the police station, the ministers were offered three glasses of water to break their fast. As the mosques in Gool started humming with Tarawih, the late evening Ramzan prayers, the ministers started their return by road. They reached Sonawar when the Seharkhan was beating the trumpet to awake people and have the first Sehr on the first day of curfewed Ramzan 2013.

The mountains are calm. It was time to handle plains. But that is different story.

(Editors Note: This is an updated version of the print edition that went to the press on Friday.)

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