‘CRPF men fired on people injured and crying for help. I pretended to be dead’

Muzamil Jaleel Posted: Jan 22, 2013 at 0115 hrs
New Delhi On January, 21, 1990, when a procession for ‘Azadi’ was marching towards downtown Srinagar, CRPF men opened fire, killing 51 protesters. The injured filled every city hospital.

Twenty-three years later, the police’s case on indiscriminate firing stands closed without investigation. The government failed to present a response in eight State Human Rights Commission hearings on a petition for investigation and prosecution of the troops. Recently, a division bench comprising J A Kawoos and Rafiq Fida ordered a special inquiry by the commission’s own probe wing.

What happened at Gawkadal, or bridge of the cow, was an event that marked the beginning of a long phase of bloodshed and impunity in Kashmir. Songs have been written on it; Kashmiri rapper M C Kash has come out with Bridge of no return as a tribute.

A police officer in the control room couldn’t work after seeing “that pile of bodies”. He sought voluntary retirement. Today, he says he doesn’t want to be named because he is still scarred. “DIG S S Ali sent me to check the bodies. I remember I found three men still alive. They had been put with the dead,” he said. “I have lived that day again and again all these years.”

The Indian Express spoke to two of the survivors. Farooq Ahmad Wani, 60, who retired recently as chief engineer, recalls he was “fired upon from point-blank range and left to bleed to death”. He was picked up by a police truck that had arrived for the bodies.

Zahir-ud-din, then 25, had just started practice as a lawyer. He escaped unhurt but “helplessly” saw people he knew “die when the soldiers opened indiscriminate fire on the peaceful procession”.

The account of Wani, then an executive engineer, forms part of the basis of the SHRC probe.

“I left early morning on duty. There was curfew. I started walking towards the DC’s office. I was stopped by CRPF and police personnel at Jahangir Chowk. They instead asked me to to walk with the procession to get to the DC’s office,” he said.

“I was on the Gawkadal when the CRPF picket at the electrical division at Bastanbagh opened indiscriminate fire on the procession. I lay down over the bridge and was saved. I saw the CRPF contingent coming to the bridge and opening fire on people who were injured and crying for help. I pretended to be dead. But my head was touching the hot ash from a kangri. I could bear it for only a few minutes. When I turned my head, a constable saw me. I heard him tell the officer, ‘This man is alive’. The officer, who had three stars, had a sten gun. He came towards me. I shouted, ‘Sir, in God’s name, please don’t shoot. I am a government officer on duty’. He opened fire. I could feel hot lead in my back. Another uniformed man came and kicked my head. He was about to fire again when the officer asked him to stop saying, ‘Don’t waste a bullet on him, he is going to die anyway’,” Wani said.

“After some time, a police truck came to collect the bodies. A policeman dragged me by my muffler, threw me into the truck and put a tarpaulin over us. At the control room, they saw me breathing. I was shifted to hospital. I had a bullet stuck very close to my heart and one in my forearm. Dozens of bullets had touched and burnt the skin of my back. It was a miracle I was alive,” he said.

“Later, I was called by Hameedullah Khan, adviser to Governor Jagmohan Malhotra. He told me the government would like to give me an award and wanted me to be silent. I told him I don’t need an award; ‘The best thing you can do for me is to probe the massacre’.”

Zahir-ud-din recalls a televised warning by the governor on January 20, 1990, to “behave or I will teach you a lesson”. “There was a search operation on January 20. The city was boiling because women had been molested,” Zahir said.

“The procession was intercepted by a party of police and CRPF led by a police officer, Allah Baksh. They opened fire and all of us started running. I saw my brother’s driver, Farooq Ahmad, fall but could do nothing for him. Safety was my only priority,” he said.

“A CRPF man with a light machine gun was firing indiscriminately. Rouf, a young family friend of ours, tried to snatch his gun. The CRPF man emptied the magazine into his chest. I dared not pick him up; I just wanted to get away.”

The police FIR (3/90) at Kralkhud PS says, “An angry procession had gathered illegally, violating curfew, shouting slogans against India and demanding withdrawal of troops from the city. When stopped by the troops, they started pelting stones. The troops opened fire in which a few individuals were killed or injured. The names and addresses of the injured couldn’t be ascertained... A case under 148, 149, 188, 307 and 153 of Ranbir Penal Code was registered. This is a special case, so SHO will personally investigate it.”

The police later identified 21 persons as having been killed; while according to records 51 bodies had been brought to the police control room. Around 250 persons suffered bullet injures.

Police records say the case was kept open for investigation until 1998, then closed without a chargesheet. The roznamcha (daybook) reads, “All those involved in the case are still untraceable”.

Allah Baksh, one of the state’s top police officers whose role in the massacre came under scrutiny, died last year, by then retired.

When something went missing from their lives

SRINAGAR: Sultanat was three years old when her father fell to bullets at Gawkadal in 1990. When she was asked to take a last look at his face, she had no idea why.

“I have very faint memories,” said Sultanat, now a computer science graduate. “But I remember when I was asked to look at his face, I refused. Many people had come to our house and I thought it was a celebration. It took me years before I understood that something is missing from our lives.”

Her father Sheikh, then 28, worked at Cable Car Corporation. He took 32 bullets in the chest and saved many others. Sultanat is the second of three daughters; Uzma was then five, Neelam three months old. Every anniversary for several years, the sisters have been putting out a newspaper advertisement in his memory. “We don’t want other people to forget him,” said Sultanat. “ He gave his life saving them.”

Sultanat and her siblings are crying for justice, but Ghulam Mohammad Wani has given up. As a CRPF man opened fire on the protesters, Wani’s son Rouf Ahmad confronted him and took 28 bullets. “From whom should I seek justice, from those who killed my son?”

On Monday, Gawkadal and its neighbourhood observed a shutdown on a call given by Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

BASHAARAT MASOOD

THE TIMELINE

January 21, 1990: Two days after Jagmohan was appointed Governor to control mass protests in J&K, CRPF personnel open fire on a procession at Gawkadal, killing 51 people.

* Police register a case (FIR 3/90) at Kralkhud police station. The FIR says, “An angry procession had gathered illegally, violating curfew, shouting slogans against India and demanding withdrawal of troops from the city. When stopped..., they pelted stones. The troops opened fire in which a few individuals were killed or injured. Their name, address and parentage could not be ascertained. A case... was registered. This is a special case so SHO will personally investigate it.”

* Later J&K police identify 21 killed in the firing. But records say 51 dead bodies were brought to the police control room.

1998: The case is closed after those involved are declared as “untraceable”. No chargesheet has been produced against anyone.

May 1, 2012: Human rights groups International Forum for Justice and Human Rights Forum headed by Ahsan Untoo files a petition in the SHRC seeking re-investigation.

December 26, 2012: Since the government did not submit report on the incident, an SHRC division bench comprising J A Kawoosa and Rafiq Fida orders re-investigation into the case by SP SHRC. The official is told to submit the probe report in two months.