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New Cult of Suicide Stone Pelters in J&K Amid Political Breakdown 

Kaiser Bhat’s death reveals fault lines between the CRPF and civilians in J&K and the volatile state politics.

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Opinion
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The 28th Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) came under controversy after one of its vehicles knocked down a protestor – after hundreds had gathered to protest against the firing of tear gas shells – at Srinagar’s Nowhatta on 1 June.

On 15 August, 2016, ten of its personnel sustained injuries after a militant attack at Nowhatta Chowk. But the men did not retreat until they eliminated both the suicide bombers, even as the CRPF suffered a major setback.

Staff Officer with DIG Srinagar (North) Pramod Kumar, who had taken over as Officiating Commanding Officer of the 49th Battalion a day earlier, had rushed to Nowhatta with reinforcement. He was killed in the fierce gun battle that ensued that Independence Day.

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The following Independence Day, in August 2017, Kumar became the posthumous recipient of the Kirti Chakra, the second-highest peacetime gallantry medal, along with Cheetan Cheetah, another CRPF Commanding Officer who received nine bullets on his body in another fierce gunfight with militants in the Hajin area of north Kashmir.

The encounter at Nowhatta, in the arm of Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, won the CRPF’s 28th Battalion as many as 25 DG’s Commendation Medals in 2016 — the highest for any paramilitary battalion in a single year. The 28th Battalion is designated by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs as a law and order battalion — and is one of the fittest to deal with mob fury and arson.

On 23 June, 2017, the holiest night of the holy month of Ramzan – Shab-e-Qadr – an unruly crowd of over 200 men lynched Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Ayub Pandith at the same infamous Nowhatta Chowk. For over an hour, men of Nowhatta Police Station, around 300 yards away, did not dare to reach the spot to lift their colleague’s mutilated body.

What Really Happened on 1 June

On 1 June, SS Yadav, the second-in-command of CRPF’s 28th Battalion, and three of his colleagues survived an attack by stone pelters what could have become a macabre repeat of Mohammad Ayub Pandith’s lynching at the same Nowhatta Chowk. En route an inspection of his deployment, Yadav landed in a whirlpool when a mob of 400 to 600 stone pelters— most of them wearing masks, crash helmets, T-shirts of militant motifs, and carrying ISIS and Jaish-e-Mohammad flags besides lathis and stones in hands — attacked the bullet-proof CRPF Gypsy from all sides.

Two local reporters and eyewitnesses of the incident, who insisted on remaining anonymous, narrated to The Quint how two or three of the attackers came on top of the vehicle’s bonnet and attempted to remove its wire-mesh to break the windshield.

It was in this melee when rocks and brickbats were raining on the vehicle, that a 22-year-old youth, Qaisar Amin Bhat, fell under it and his leg apparently got stuck under a wheel. Another young attacker was knocked down too.

“It was terrible. Nobody attempted to pull out Bhat as the Gypsy had come to a halt for a minute. We failed to focus and click. Only the experienced photojournalists succeeded in capturing that horrible scene. In a minute or so, when someone succeeded in forcing open a side window, we saw the Gypsy bump straight towards the opposite road. Bhat was left critically injured. Later that night, he died at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS).

“Unfortunately, they were held in a situation where there were only four options: Getting lynched to death like Deputy SP Pandith, getting roasted to death, opening fire in self-defence that could have turned into a massacre, or driving towards a safe location. Our driver used the last option. Unfortunately, one of the mobsters got killed but we believe that was the best option in that situation,” CRPF Public Relations Officer Sanjay Sharma told The Quint.

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No Violation of SOPs, Claims CRPF

Sharma insisted that there was no violation of the standard operating procedure (SOP) by the driver and his officer.

We believe that this driver must be recommended for a medal. A wrong decision could have proved catastrophic. Unfortunately, in the media it was projected as a hit-and-run case. It has been widely reported as if the CRPF Gypsy was looking for a gathering to kill civilians and it rammed into a crowd to quench its thirst. When you guys report ‘mowed down’, it suggests an act of deliberation. That is factually incorrect
Senior CRPF officer to The Quint

The senior officer took objection to newspapers using only the picture of Bhat coming under the wheels and suppressing the pictures and videos of a fierce mob attack on the vehicle.

The narrative of the security forces being wrong and anti-people in all matters has been so emphatic and overwhelming, that nobody from mainstream political parties or the government comes forward with counter-facts.

In the ‘being politically correct’ race, mainstream politicians tend to outsmart even the separatists. And, this is not for nothing. It’s easy to pick instances of brazen human rights abuse in the last 28 years of strife to buttress a populist narrative. Even as there is a marked difference in such behaviour between 1990-2002 and 2002-2018, incidents like parading a civilian strapped to the hood of a vehicle do occasionally aid the discourse.

Security forces having condoned flagrant violations of human rights and provided institutional support even to the army officers proved guilty of the murder of innocent civilians by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the infamous Pathribal carnage is a reality that speaks for itself.

This explains why Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government, in spite of a partnership with the BJP, does not lose a second in filing FIRs against security forces. Lashing out at the armed forces for human rights abuse has been Mufti’s trademark politics since 1999.

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A Tainted CRPF

Last week, the police booked CRPF driver Dara Singh in a matter of “rash and negligent driving” after he lost control, allegedly due to stone pelting, and his truck overturned on a road in Srinagar.

A similar FIR has been filed against the CRPF driver whose Gypsy crushed Bhat at Nowhatta. This appears to have stirred a hornet’s nest in the CRPF, as officers are heard brooding that the “appeasement policy” could have a demoralising effect. That is perhaps why the ambience was melancholic when Rajiv Kumar Choudhary, Commanding Officer of CRPF’s 28th Battalion, handed over the command to his reliever Randeep Sharma in Srinagar on 5 June.

The Nowhatta incident has washed away all of the battalion’s commendation cards and Choudhary’s success in dealing with challenging law and order situations in the last two years or more. Choudhary was already under transfer to a different state.

“We will not let the FIRs demoralise the force. We are motivating our boys. We will deal with this situation effectively. Our men did not violate SOPs. They did a wonderful job by preventing what could have been a huge bloodshed,” Ravideep Sahi, Inspector General of the CRPF, Srinagar, told The Quint.

Not many in the force are reassured by Sahi’s statement. “One day, everybody in the force will forget this incident. One day Mr Sahi will retire, and there will be no organisational support to our driver who will be shuttling between his home in a different state and the courts in Srinagar to defend himself. This is bound to have a demoralising effect,” said an officer, insisting of remaining anonymous.

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Why J&K’s Youth Took Up Guns

Officers of Srinagar District Police maintained that filing such FIRs was a “legal requirement” which could not be dispensed with. “We have filed the same FIR against our own driver whose vehicle left a stone pelter dead on 5 May. This is not a concomitance of any political appeasement,” said an officer of the Jammu and Kashmir Police who was not authorised to speak to the press.

Observers insist that suicidal attacks by stone pelters on security forces turned into a fad only after a fervent reception to separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani came as a turning point in April 2015, in the months of Kashmir’s most successful Assembly election that had marginalised all separatists and militants.

“That rally, which was permitted by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed within days of taking over as chief minister, spoiled everything. Youth, who had forgotten the strife and were pursuing studies, began picking up guns and stones. It made Burhan Wani an icon and inspiration for rebellion and defiance. It’s now unceasing and intractable, with everybody making a point either for ceasefire and withdrawal of FIRs against stone pelters or for crushing the turbulence with an iron fist. They seem to be totally confused and pulling in different directions. It’s a total political breakdown,” said a professor of political science at the University of Kashmir.

Videos and pictures of the mob at Nowhatta indicate that the masked youth were eagerly in search of a target.

They were reportedly indignant over the Jamia Masjid management’s “truce with police”, which, for the first time, witnessed no police or paramilitary deployment around Nowhatta. The hosiery shop of the head of the local traders’ union was gutted the same evening under mysterious circumstances.

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‘Better to Die a Martyr’s Death’

Apologies and clarifications to the uncontrolled stone pelters began to pour in from all quarters. Even the Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who controls the religious seat of Jamai Masjid, seemed to be mollifying the stone pelters in his tweets and statements.

Sheikh Irfan, one of Bhat’s cousins, sounded bitterly critical of the separatist narratives at a condolence meeting. However, he retracted his statement within hours. Thereafter, nobody from the family agreed to speak.

A day prior, Bhat’s relatives revealed to media persons that after both his parents died, he developed an addiction for pelting stones on police and security forces in the street turbulences of 2008, 2010, and 2016.

“He used to be clever enough to defend himself,” one of Bhat’s cousins was quoted as saying. “I don’t know what happened this time around.”

In the last year, however, he is known to have been trying for a job in Dubai. He had finished his Class 12 exams. He was living with his aunt’s family, along with his two younger sisters.

After a militant of his Fatehkadal neighbourhood, far away from his aunt’s house, got killed in an encounter, and a stone pelter was killed by a police bunker the same day, Bhat was again on a different course. “He used to tell us that death is certain, and it is better to die a martyr’s death,” his cousin was reported as saying.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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