Can destruction of property during encounters be avoided

  • Syed Aaqid Andrabi
  • Publish Date: Jul 3 2018 8:08PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 3 2018 8:16PM
Can destruction  of property during  encounters be avoided

IF NOT, WHY AREN’T THE AFFECTED FAMILIES COMPENSATED?

 

In the reportage and commentary on the violence that has roiled Kashmir since Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, one aspect has attracted relatively little attention: the wanton destruction of property by government forces. They almost always blow up or burn down any house they trap militants in. Tral in Pulwama district, which has seen a series of gunfights over the last two years, stands testimony.

A few months ago, the forces trapped Hizbul Mujahideen militant Aaqib Moulvi in a house at Haiyun Sheikhpora and gunned him down. In the process, they destroyed the house completely. 

The affected family of eight was taken in by their neighbours, mostly Sikhs, and money was later collected to help them rebuild their home.

Another house belonging to the family of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat was also destroyed in the encounter. “My house was nowhere in the scene as there was no one inside,” he said, referring to the rebels. “The army and the police conducted three searches but found nothing. At one point, firing and blasts stopped and I thought it was over but then a volley of gunshots could be heard and I found out that the forces had targeted my house. There were bullet marks all over the walls, windows and doors of my house, which I had built after selling my land. The windows and doors the bullets and grenades hadn’t damaged were later smashed in by the forces. If it wasn’t for the generosity of our neighbours, we would be living in some shed or under a tree. I have a family. My wife hasn’t been the same after that day.”

A few days later, government officials visited to assess the damage. But Ghulam Mohammad hasn’t heard back from them yet.

Sometime after the destruction in Haiyun Sheikhpora, a gunfight took place in Saimoh village. Here too the same script played out.

Government forces destroying property, especially during encounters, is, of course, not a new development in Kashmir. But it had markedly declined in the decade or so before Burhan’s death breathed fresh life into the militancy, inviting a violent crackdown from the State.

According to data made public by the government, at least 5,368 shops, houses and other privately-owned structures in Kashmir suffered damage from 1989-90, when the militancy began, to 2001. No such data is available for the last 17 years but the number can be reasonably estimated to have increased manifold.

One of the most egregious episodes of the destruction of property took place at Jan Mohalla in Shopian on July 14, 1998. The military cordoned off the village and began searching the houses for militants. They didn’t locate any militants, the residents recall, but found some weapons in one house. Angered by the discovery, they started smashing homes – though not the one where the arms were found – and blew up three of them. One belonged to a contractor who has been bed-ridden since. He doesn’t even remember his name at times now. A family that fed and clothed several others is now nearly destitute, mostly surviving on support from their elder daughter, who is married in a relatively well off family. The contractor and his wife live with their other daughter who is in her mid-30s and unmarried. That their daughter is not getting unmarried has furthered traumatised the aged couple.

“My father’s life savings and his health were blown up that day in a matter of hours,” the daughter said. 

A fact-finding team, led by the Sub Divisional Police Officer of Shopian, which was sent by the United Insurance Company to verify the family’s claim confirmed that the family had not been involved in any “anti-State activities”. This was further verified in writing by the commander of the local 1 RR Battalion camp. Yet, the family never got the insurance money.

This raises many important questions. Why is civilian property targeted during anti-militancy operations? Why can’t government forces fight the rebels without almost always destroying property? If at all property has to be destroyed, why isn’t the affected family compensated, especially when they can’t do much if militants come asking for shelter?

Just before midnight on July 14, 2017, a militant commander and a couple of his comrades knocked on Bashir Ahmad Ganai’s door at Dialgam village in Anantnag (Islamabad). Bashir heads a family of 16, mostly women and children. His eldest daughter Rubeena tried to keep them from entering her home but they said they would only spend a few hours. “I was reluctant to let them in. The fear of being ratted out and punished by the police and other agencies doesn’t let you sleep peacefully,” Rubeena explained. “But they promised they won’t cause any trouble. My father and elder brother were sleeping and I thought better not to tell them and hoped and prayed they would leave soon. When the family got up for Sheri, I told my father there were guests in our home. When I revealed their identity, he slumped to the floor with his head in his hands and started to cry. Minutes later, our house was flooded with blinding lights. Army and police were all around. The babies in the house began wailing and there was nothing we could do about it now.”

In the encounter that ensured, Bashir’s house was burned to the ground and the police and the army allegedly didn’t let him rebuild it for a while. The family finally started construction sometime ago because of the efforts of their neighbour Peer Ajaz Ahmad who took it upon himself to fight for the family’s right to rebuild their home. The fight took a toll on Ajaz and his family who had to suffer nocturnal raids from government forces.

“Someone posted about the family’s ordeal on Facebook and mentioned my name. That very evening I got a call from some person claiming to be from the security department and asked me rudely what I had done. He threatened with ‘dire consequences’ if ‘I didn’t step back and stop being a hero’,” Ajaz said. “Bashir has a large family and they need a roof over their heads. How long can a family live at the mercy of others? Is it a crime to help a family you have known for decades when they need it the most?”

In Arwani village of Anantnag (Islamabad), Muhammad Shafi Malik’s house was burned down during an anti-militancy operation early this year. Two homes of his extended family were blown up as well. “That unfortunate day we did not just lose our homes but also our food supplies that were supposed to last us for two years. It is nearly six months but none of our families has been able to get back on our feet. We live at the mercy of our neighbours,” said Muhammad Shafi. 

In the same village, Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai is still rebuilding his house, which was destroyed during an encounter in December 2016. “I was tending to the cow and my daughter-in-law was doing some chores around the house when some kids entered our house. We didn’t know about their presence until a neighbour informed us. Only two or three minutes must have passed when the locality was cordoned off by the army and the police and we couldn’t do anything but leave everything behind to save ourselves,” said Hajra, Mushtaq’s wife. “Fortunately, my daughters weren’t in the house at that time. Who knows what would have been their fate.” 

It was to get worse for the family. In the summer of 2017, their eldest son, Jahangir, was killed when the military fired on the funeral procession of a protester killed earlier. 

None of Arwani’s affected families has received any relief from the state government.

On May 11, 2018, many commuters stopped their vehicles to put money in a donation box placed on a platform by the roadside at Chinar Bagh in Pulwama’s Wagam. Such donation boxes are usually meant to collect money for mosques or shrines. Here, it’s for Bashir Ahmad Bhat’s family whose home was burnt down after militants gave slip to the government forces comprising the state police, army and CRPF. “This family is yet another victim of the brutality in Kashmir,” said a commuter after putting money into the box. “But it’s heartening to see everyone doing their bit to help this unfortunate family in these testing times.”

Bashir’s family said the army searched the house twice but couldn’t find anything. His next-door neighbour added, “The second time they went in, they took Bashir with them but were again unable to find anyone. They were about to come out when a bullet fired from outside the house hit Bashir in his right shoulder. Hours later, when it was almost time for the morning prayers, the house was sprayed with some chemicals and burned. Nothing could be salvaged.” The fire damaged two of the rooms of the neighbour’s house as well.