Dated 2019-04-23

Blazing Guns and Marching Victims

As Kashmir observed 28th anniversary of Gawkadal Massacre early this year, nothing has changed on the ground.

By Bilal Handoo


What does the Gaw Kadal massacre and contemporary Kashmir situation have in common? Many things. Impunity, for example. But two stand out: the cordon-and-search operation (which has, oflate, come to be known by the acronym CASO) and complaints of attendant oppression, and the tendency among the civilians to save trapped militants at great risk to their lives.

In the build up to the massacre, in which the soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force, the largest paramilitary force in the world, killed 52 unarmed civilians and injured dozens of others on 21 January 1990, both these factors came together. Fatally!

The state apparatus had collapsed in Kashmir. New Delhi was ruling Kashmir directly through Jagmohan Malhotra, one of the most-hated figures in Kashmir. The then Indian Home Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed had facilitated Jagmohan’s appointment as Governor of Kashmir, barely 36 days after his abducted daughter Rubiya Sayeed was set free by militants in exchange for the release of some of their colleagues. Streets were thick with new freedom slogans and songs. One famously said Jago Jago Subha Hui (wake up, the morning is here), which made it appear that azadi, freedom, was only an embrace away.

Jagmohan wanted to silence the revolt at any cost.

His address, a day before the massacre, made it clear thus: “I have come as a nurse. But if anyone creates law and order problem, mere haath se aman ka patta khisak jayega (the cards of peace I’m carrying will slip away from my hands).”

Like today, New Delhi treated the situation as a law-and-order problem—a few insurgents who needed to be killed or arrested and curfew to keep the rebellious population under control.

After a series of massive freedom rallies, some of which saw the participation of about half a million people, Srinagar was under curfew. The city in 1990 was the epicentre of the revolt, a lot like the southern districts of the Valley today.  In his earnestness to keep Kashmir, which he saw slipping away irretrievably, Jagmohan launched cordon-and-search operations, primarily with the aim to crush the revolt.

During one such operation in Chotta Bazar, Kani Kadal and neighbouring areas, on 20 January 1990, the forces apprehended about 300 people. A few women, who are believed to have resisted the detention of men, had allegedly been molested. Several people had been beaten up and household goods ransacked. The stories about the search operation spread in the city.

The headline in Alsafa, the largest circulated Urdu daily those days, read: Chotta Bazar Aur Guru Bazar Mein Changezi Dour Ki Yadein Taza – the search operations in Chotta Bazar and Guru Bazar are reminiscent of Mongol tyranny. The daily also reported that women had been molested. Jammu-based political activist and writer late Balraj Puri wrote in his book, Kashmir Insurgency, that during his meeting with various affected families immediately after the incident, “people complained that most of those arrested persons were beaten up or dragged out of their houses, barefooted.”

Besides the reports of atrocities, there were reports that some militants were also trapped in the areas being searched by the troopers. During a few hours of relaxation in curfew, on the evening of 20 January, shortly after Jagmohan’s ominous speech, three Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militants—Muhammad Yasin Malik, Showkat Bakshi and Javed Zargar—left a hideout in Rawalpora area on the advice of their then Commander-in-Chief, Ashfaq Majid Wani. They were travelling in an auto-rickshaw toward Lal Chowk. Bakshi was carrying a pistol.

But a Border Security Force trooper stopped them at Rambagh Bridge. The driver was asked to come down and frisked. Malik instantly came up with an idea to save the situation: he would feign illness. He was perfectly in a condition to do so. Malik was actually suffering from a heart ailment because of the torture by the forces at Red 16 torture centre shortly after the rigged 1987 elections.

Malik put his head in Zargar’s lap and acted as if he was critically ill. Bakshi came down from the auto-rickshaw and requested a trooper to let them pass because “the situation of our younger cousin is very critical.”

Before letting them go, the trooper body-frisked Bakshi but to the luck of the militants, he missed the pistol. The trio took a detour and went to Rajbagh. They called Majid upon arrival for further orders. They were asked if they could do anything to stop the crackdown in the city. For the entire night, the trio mobilised the locals.

“We were not optimistic because the perception was that the residents of Rajbagh and Jawahar Nagar, most of them elites, wouldn’t come onto streets. But in the morning, a huge number of people joined the march toward the old city,” said Zargar.

Puri wrote in his book: “It was the protest against the use of force in the search operation and ill-treatment of women.”

Gowher Bhat, a resident of neighbouring Ikhraj Pora, a bank employee now, remembers hearing some passionate voices—Zargar calls them JKLF men—exhorting the people to come to the rescue of their besieged brethren in Srinagar.

Excesses by forces, which later became a routine, were new to people, like the revolt itself. The protesters began to swell.

“Many wanted to go to the UN (observers’) office at Sonwar but then the people in the march decided that people from downtown should also join,” says Gowher. That’s why, he says, the procession took the Gaw Kadal route toward old city.

Jagmohan Malhotra

Fearing a similar crackdown, residents of Gaw Kadal and neighbouring areas had spent the night on the streets, burning tyres and singing freedom songs and slogans from the mosque loudspeakers. The areas that complained of forces’ excesses were only a kilometre away.

At the crack of the dawn, many tired residents of Gaw Kadal had gone to sleep. Among the early risers that day was Shabir Qureshi, a class 8 student then. He rushed out to join the marchers from Civil Lines areas at about 11am.

“They (the troopers) had a strange grin on their faces. It seemed as if they had foreseen what they were about to do,” says Shabir, a cab driver now.

From the loudspeaker of the local mosque, Shabir said, a man repeatedly advised the marchers that no one should touch the Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus, most of whom had left Kashmir) and their homes nearby.

Shabir Qureshi (survivor)

As the procession stepped onto the bridge, one of the shortest in the city, the troopers fired into the people.

Muhammad Sultan, a resident of Gaw Kadal said, “I saw a trooper fire with his machine gun from Basant Bagh side. The troopers deployed on the Maisuma side also fired into the people. Many jumped into the river. The troopers chased the fleeing marchers and shot them dead.”

“They say the doomsday would be terrifying. But that day I already witnessed once. In my head the cries of those helpless people…” he said.

Eyewitness accounts in the past have talked of Abdur Rauf Wani, 24, of Saraibala, who vainly attempted to stop a marauding trooper by snatching his rifle. He sustained more than 20 bullet wounds in his chest.

Dilshada, widow of Farooq Ahmed, a taxi driver from Court Road, said her husband also took “countless” bullets in his belly when he tried to save people by snatching a trooper’s gun.

Farooq had been appointed as a driver at the Gulmarg Cable Corporation the same day. He left behind a daughter, Neelam, then three years old. Neelam had penned down her pining for the father in her poems. One reads:

They say you’ve gone to a special place

And console me not to cry

But I don’t care what they say

Papa, it’s between you and me

After the guns stopped, the bridge was strewn with bodies and the injured. A bullet had pierced class 8 student Shabir Qureshi’s buttocks and grazed his testicles.

“I was dying of pain and losing blood. I was numb with pain. Near me was a youth who rubbed my blood on his face and clothes and feigned death. After a few moments I saw a few troopers staring at me. They were about to shoot me but they held back the fire. Probably they thought I was going to die anyway,” Shabir said.

The January cold turned the dead stiff. The injured tried everything to look like the dead. The people in the neighbourhood wailed in their homes.

“I smothered my daughter’s mouth lest her shrieks attract those murderers towards us. They could have killed anyone that day,” said Sara Begum.

Sara then saw the local Imam, Habibullah Kirmani, walk among the bodies, searching for those who might be still breathing. He had been asked by a CRPF officer to come out of the mosque where bodies of the two victims had been brought.

“I was told by them to look for those who might be still breathing and take them away. I wanted to cry but I controlled myself. I think it took us two hours to ferry the injured to the hospital,” said Habibullah, who is a popular spiritual healer. Shabir Qureshi was still on the bridge.

Veteran photographer Mehrajuddin, who arrived late at the spot, said, “I broke down. Never have been so emotional! I struggled to shoot pictures. The bridge was one big stretch stained with blood. I saw the forces hauling bodies in a truck.”

Shabir was dragged by his injured leg and dumped into the truck.

“There were 15 people in the truck, dead and alive. We fretted they might be taking us somewhere to burn us. I heard a man sporting a green bandana shout slogans. Till then I thought he was dead. The truck stopped. I saw an official in a white ambassador car. He asked the troopers ‘what is inside the truck?’ Dogs, they said. But the official persisted and said ‘it is dripping blood. Show me what is inside’. The troopers didn’t oblige him. The truck was then taken to the Shergari police station,” said Shabir.

Inside the police station, the heated exchange of words continued till the troopers gave up and told the official that they were only carrying dead bodies.

“We shouted from inside the truck that we were alive. The truck was then taken to the Police Control Room,” said Shabir.

The occasional calmness on and around the historic Gaw Kadal belies the scenes it has been a witness to, none as gory and chilling as the 21 January (1990) bloodbath. | Photo: Qazi Aqeel

Eight were dead and seven had survived. Earlier accounts of the massacre had named only one survivor, Farooq Ahmad, an engineer. But Shabir said he often meets two of the survivors: “One, a vendor at Hari Singh High Street, and the other who developed mental issues after the massacre.

The next day, when Batamaloo’s Sheikh Abdul Kabir  aka Kabir Chacha (JKLF commander Hameed Sheikh’s father) was burying 12 of the 52 bodies in Sidiqabad, Batamaloo, noted writer William Dalrymple arrived in Srinagar. He went to the SMHS hospital.

Every bed was occupied, he writes, and the overflow lined the corridors. He met the engineer, Farooq, who told him how after the firing, the CRPF troopers walked slowly across the bridge and shot at the injured, half dead, again.

“Just as I was about to get up,” Farooq told Dalrymple, “I saw soldiers coming forward, shooting anyone who was injured. Someone pointed at me and shouted, ‘that man is alive,’ and a soldier began firing at me with a machine gun. I was hit four times in the back and twice in the arms.” Seeing that he was still alive, another soldier raised his gun, but the officer told him not to waste ammunition “as he would die anyway soon.”

One month later, when Shabir Qureshi was discharged from the hospital, he was shocked to see some of the shoes of the dead and the wounded still scattered around the bridge.

“If the Gaw Kadal Massacre was Kashmir’s Jallianwala Bagh,” says Hilal War, senior Hurriyat leader from Maisuma, who has been observing the Gaw Kadal Massacre anniversary since 2012, “then Senior Superintendent of Police Allah Baksh was its General Dyer.” British Raj General Dyer had ordered firing on a gathering at the Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab, massacring scores, 11 Kashmiris among them.

As Srinagar police chief at the time, Allah Baksh was commanding the police on the streets. In the intervening night of January 19-20, he had received some emergency orders through a telephonic call from Jammu. The caller was Jagmohan.

“I personally spoke to SSP Allah Bux (sic), and motivated him to stretch all his resources,” Jagmohan writes in his book, My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, “I knew he was the key man in the situation.”

Former police officer AM Watali had a chance meeting with Jagmohan at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

“I asked him ‘why did you take two days to reach Srinagar from Jammu after being appointed as governor for the second time?’ He was writing his book those days, a few years after the massacre. Before he could answer, I asked him ‘don’t you think the governor rule only emboldened the paramilitary forces who then committed the Gaw Kadal massacre?’ ” Watali said.

Jagmohan didn’t explain much. “A snag in my helicopter had delayed my flight to Srinagar,” he shrugged his shoulders. But in a public talk recently, he cited “bad weather” as the cause for his delay in reaching Srinagar in time.

Two days later, when Jagmohan finally reached Srinagar, he spoke to his advisor Ved Marwah, and called Lt. Gen. MA Zaki, then Corps Commander.

“We’ve hardly any time for discussion,” Jagmohan told them. “Within a few minutes we must act or suffer being overwhelmed.” They agreed, as he writes in his book.

“Firing had to be resorted to by the security forces at Hawal, Tulsi Bagh, Gaw Kadal, Lal Bazar, Saida Kadal, etc.,” he writes in the book.

These places are no more only the names of the areas in the city. They are also the names of massacres.

By the evening (of the Gaw Kadal massacre), Jagmohan writes, the city had become quiet. “The first effective action to pull back Kashmir from the jaws of pro-Pakistan and pro-Independence militants had been taken,” he writes.

Then inside Raj Bhavan, many bureaucrats had witnessed how Jagmohan hailed Allah Baksh for restoring some ‘uneasy calm’ in the defiant capital. For being Jagmohan’s “crisis manager,” Baksh was promptly promoted to the rank of Additional Deputy Inspector General of Police, superseding several officers. Jagmohan defended the promotion saying Baksh was promoted for his ability to “persuade people to detest violence.”

On 1 May 2012, Kashmiri rights activist Ahsan Untoo held Baksh responsible for the Gaw Kadal massacre. While demanding an FIR against him, the activist accused him of planning the first incident of human rights violations in Kashmir.

Untoo’s petition in the State Human Rights Commission sought reinvestigation into the massacre.

“That day the CRPF and police personnel had deliberately fired into the peaceful protestors in their heads and chests with an intention to kill,” the petition read.

An FIR [3/1990 Police Station Kralkhud] registered in the case had the dead and the survivors as the prima facie accused. The police had closed the case as “untraced” in 1998. In such a situation, Untoo’s petition brought a new lease of life into the case because the SHRC directed the Director General of Police and Deputy Commissioner Srinagar to investigate the case.

But the state, as usual, stymied the attempts to revive an investigation into the massacre. On 24 October 2012, Baksh died without facing an inquiry. Pro-India politicians, officials, and businessmen competed with each other in offering condolences to his family.

“But Allah Baksh,” says noted human rights defender and president Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society Parvez Imroz, “would be remembered in the history of Kashmir as a killer.”

Noted writer William Dalrymple covered the events a day after the massacre.

After being promoted as ADIG by Jagmohan, Baksh had also been rewarded with the DGP’s Commendation Medal in 1991; President of India’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1992 and post-retirement benefits like his appointment as a member of Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission, which conducts recruitments for higher services.

“This encouraged many police officers to kill for awards and rewards,” Imroz says. “A pattern of impunity and unaccountability was set, which led to many other massacres.”

The state still blames the victims. As the 28th anniversary of the Gaw Kadal massacre will be observed this year, a police officer has submitted a report into the carnage that reads: “At 11:15 hours, an unruly mob pelted stones upon the personnel deployed for law and order duties in Gaw Kadal area. Some even attempted to snatch the weapons from the army (sic) personnel which compelled forces to open fire in self-defence due to which some people died and others received injuries. Therefore the allegations of human rights violation at the hand of security forces are grossly misconceived and against facts and law.”

But the SHRC castigated the police investigation for failing to establish culpability in the massacre, even after 28 years.

“If the police version is to be given credence that the mob had turned violent, it’s imperative to ask as to who functioned as the magistrate and gave orders to open fire,” the SHRC stated, picking holes in the investigation.

“The authorities have cited that no records obtain/exist concerning to this end … when then SHO Triloki Nath had kept the investigation files in his possession for many years even though he had been transferred to a different wing of the police … The insouciance betrayed in the matter is callous in the least (sic),” the SHRC has noted.

JKLF activist Showkat Khan placed a memorial stone at the Gaw Kadal crossing. On 12 March, 2002, Khan’s body was found on the outskirts of Srinagar. | Photo: Qazi Aqeel

Inside his Abiguzar office, not far away from the Gaw Kadal Bridge, JKLF chief Yasin Malik scoffs at the “official lies about the massacre.”

“It was a planned slaughter that triggered migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Jagmohan had already advised Kashmir Pandits through a few select leaders of the community to leave Kashmir temporarily to Jammu so that Muslims could be dealt with effectively,” Malik said.

The author Balraj Puri had visited Srinagar in 1990. Along with former High Court Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi, leading advocate Ghulam Nabi Hagroo and Kashmiri Pandit leader HN Jatoo, he formed a joint committee to allay the apprehensions of Kashmiri Pandits about threat to their lives.

“We also were able to persuade some other Muslims leaders and priests to issue appeal to the Pandits not to migrate,” Puri writes. “Somehow our efforts did not succeed in preventing the mass migrations of the Pandits as the contrary forces proved more effective,” Puri wrote.

A JKLF activist and former militant, Showkat Khan, built a memorial stone at the Gaw Kadal crossing. However on 12 March 2002, his body was found near Shalteng, on the outskirts of the city. He had two bullet wounds in his face. Locals believe he was shot dead by the dreaded counter-insurgency squad of the police, the Special Operations Group (SOG).

Years later, Kashmiri rapper MC Kash translated the sentiment behind Khan’s memorial stone thus: “21st January, 1990, The Bridge of No Return, is my memory.”

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