Updated: Jan 24
Chill–Brass (Budgam): Northwest from the central Kashmir town of Budgam, a bumpy road winds uphill towards a tiny village called Chill. This is where Farooq Ahmad Dar, an artisan, was once used as a human shield against stone-pelters by the army.
More than three years have passed, and a reporter’s visit to his home here made Dar, 30, nervous. He ushered her out, agreed to an interview, but requested that his wife not be told the story forever linked with his name since 9 April 2017.
“I married a girl from Jammu in 2018, and she doesn’t know that I was used as a human shield,” said Dar, who spoke in a field near his home, so that his wife could not overhear the conversation. “My marriage will break if she gets to know this.”
Once an embroiderer of shawls, Dar is now a peon at a sub-district hospital in Budgam and a father to a year-old son. His wife is illiterate.
In the summer of 2017, when by-elections to the state legislature were underway in capital Srinagar and Budgam, Dar, who was, according to his account, on his way to cast his vote, braving a boycott call given by separatists, was used as a human shield by an army major named Leetul Gogoi, who alleged Dar was a stone-pelter. Dar was allegedly beaten and tied to the bonnet of an army jeep and paraded through nearly 28 villages for five hours.
“My body has become weak, and there is constant pain in my arms after the incident,” Dar said, who abandoned his artisanry after his trauma. “I take painkillers now, because the pain is excruciating.”
A medical report of Dar, who was examined by government doctors a few days after the incident, said he was diagnosed with “acute stress disorder” and reported vomiting, bleeding from the mouth and “nightmares”.
The report said Dar, who had no past medical or surgical issues, “also gave a history of loss of consciousness for about 20-25 minutes after the assault”.
Four days after being used as a human shield, Dar along with human rights activist Ahsan Untoo complained to the former State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which on 10 July 2017, ordered the state government to pay Dar a Rs 10-lakh compensation.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Farooq Ahmad Dar was subjected to torture and humiliation besides being wrongly confined,” said the SHRC report. “It is medically also established that Farooq Ahmad didn’t suffer only humiliation publicly but also faced a trauma which resulted in psychiatric stress which may remain with him for the rest of his life.”
The SHRC said protection of the life and liberty of citizens was the “basic responsibility of the state government”, even if it sought assistance from central forces.
“I was happy that a government body acknowledged that the army had done wrong and was happy to know that the culprit will be punished,” said Dar.
But Dar’s happiness was fleeting.
The government run by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)–Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to pay the compensation. Instead, the then army chief and current Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat commended Major Gogoi for his “sustained efforts” in counter-insurgency operations. In May 2018, the army court-martialled and punished Gogoi, cutting his seniority by six months, after he was found with a local woman in a Srinagar hotel.
“The refusal broke my heart, and awarding the culprit outraged me,” said Dar, who now has little or no hope of getting the compensation or official acknowledgement of his trauma, ever since Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was reduced to a union territory.
Justice Is Elusive
When the special constitutional status of J&K was revoked on 5 August 2019, more than 150 state laws were repealed, including the law that governs the functioning of the SHRC.
With the closure of the commission, many cases of human-rights violation before it came to a sudden end, including that of Dar.
“The commission was a hope,” said Dar, who said he drew solace from the fact that the SHRC was undeterred by the government response. “I know that the government refused the recommendation of SHRC, but still the case was not closed. The commission was pushing to get that accepted.”
The SHRC, formed in August 1997, was a four-member recommendatory body with its own investigation wing. Though most of its recommendations were not accepted by the government, it provided hope to those who wanted their voices to be heard and demanded accountability, as Article 14 reported in April 2020.
Over 8,000 cases of torture, disappearances, extra judicial killings, harassment by security forces, service matters and other cases of human rights violation were pending before the commission when it was closed.
Dar said he found the process of visiting the commission once or twice a week cathartic. “It was a window between the government and the people… now whether a case will ever be reopened or buried silently, no one knows.”
Dar has now approached the J&K High Court, but there has not been significant progress.
In over two years, the court has only heard my case once,” said Dar. “I have lost hope and I know justice won’t be done. With the closure of commission, my case has also been closed.”
In March 2020, as Article 14 had reported, the government notified the J&K Reorganisation (Adaption of Central Laws) order. The order said the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) would hear cases that the SHRC was hearing.
“No previous cases have been shifted to NHRC for hearing,” J&K law secretary Achal Sethi told Article 14. “We are figuring out how to do it.”
Life After Being Used As A Human Shield
Life was never the same after Dar was used as a human shield. He became insomniac, depressed and introverted.
“Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night and cry and then there were times when I would hide myself after seeing an army vehicle,” said Dar. “I was frightened to walk alone for many months.”
When neighbours and relatives came to offer comfort, he would walk away and sit alone in a corner of his kitchen. “I didn’t want people to talk about that incident, didn’t want them to console me,” he said. “It made me feel weak.”
For over a year, Dar confined himself to his home, occasionally traveling to Srinagar for the hearing of his case. At SHRC also, he said, “I would be with (rights activist) Untoo sahab. The fear of being beaten and arrested had gone deep into my head. I was on antidepressants for a long time”.
When the government of the former state refused to compensate him and awarded Major Gogoi, Dar said he was frustrated and considered leaving Kashmir permanently. A friend accompanied him to Poonch and Jammu.
His friend advised him, he said, to get married to help him overcome his depression.
“But I knew it would be difficult to marry a Kashmiri girl, for no one would want to marry a man who has been used as a human shield and had become a controversial figure.”
His friend, who had relatives in Poonch, found a woman there who agreed to marry Dar. In 2018, he married.
“Life is now slowly limping back to normal,” said Dar. “But my wife, who doesn’t understand Kashmiri language and culture has no idea that I was used as a human shield.”
‘I Fear Losing Her’
Dar said he had told his relatives and neighbours not to tell his wife about his past.
Last year a reporter came to Chill and asked locals about his address. “My wife, who was on the road, asked him to come home, and the reporter started interviewing her and asked questions about the incident,” said Dar.
“My wife yelled at the reporter and then started questioning me, and I lied that the reporter was looking for some other Farooq,” said Dar. “I fear that if she gets to know about the incident, she will leave me.”
The conversations of men at shops or women around her talking in hushed tones about Dar, has made Afroza believe that something is “fishy”.
“I know she knows something is not right, and she needs to know from me,” said Dar. “But I hide the truth, because I fear losing her. I don’t want to hide the truth from her for too long. I will tell her the truth—when the time comes.”
(Shafaq Shah is an independent journalist based in Srinagar)