It’s a vast compound of burnt buildings. The ceilings have been ripped out; there are black voids where the doors and windows once stood; bricks lie scattered. On one side are scores of vehicles reduced to skeletons of rusty steel, their tyres burnt and paint scorched.
Once the police station of Damhal Hanjipora, or DH Pora, this is now a grim reminder of the rage that erupted over the last two weeks in Kashmir, following the killing of militant Burhan Wani on July 8.
The government has pointed to this compound as an example of what they had faced and as an explanation for the use of force by security personnel that led to a high number of civilian deaths and grievous injuries.
But the big question that remains is this: what happened in this south Kashmir town, where 81 per cent of the electorate cast their votes in the last assembly elections, that its residents ran over the police station with a bulldozer and burnt it down?
J&K police have said that when “a mob attacked and burnt down the police station, where 20 policemen were held hostage, the forces exercised restraint”. Police officers also said that the protesters looted the armoury, taking away 40 automatic weapons. Initially, they also denied that any civilian had been killed here.
On the ground, however, the sequence of events of July 9, narrated by around 50 villagers gathered at the house of 21-year-old Yasmeena Akhter, who was shot dead that day, is different.
“That Saturday, at around 10.30 am, there was a procession at the chowk. People wanted to offer a gaibana jinaza (funeral prayers in-absentia) for Burhan Wani. It was peaceful, with slogans for azadi,” says Shakeel Ahmad, a young man who was part of the procession.
“As the slogans became louder, police, CRPF and army suddenly attacked the mourners and everyone started running. But some of the boys were caught,” says Ahmad.
Insha Wani, another local resident, takes over the narrative. “We were home when someone shouted that our 13-year-old younger brother Moin had been arrested. We ran out and saw two armymen beating him,’’ she says.
“Three of us ran towards him but Yasmeena reached there first, grabbed his arm and ran. A soldier opened fire and Yasmeena fell,” says Wani, a cousin of Moin.
“She had applied for college and enrolled for an ITI course. She also earned money for the family by doing embroidery work,’’ says Haseena, Yasmeena’s mother.
“Her older brother is in the BSF, and posted in Tripura, but we haven’t told him yet. We are afraid. We don’t know what he will do once he learns that the army killed his sister,” says Haseena.
Another brother of Yasmeena, Moin-ur-Rehman, points to the alley where his sister ran with her younger brother before being hit by a bullet in the head, killing her on the spot. Scores of bullet-holes mark the shutters of shops in that alley.
“I lifted her on my back. Two more boys helped me carry her. She was bleeding all over me. We ran to the hospital nearby (a few hundred metres away from the spot). The doctor said my sister was dead,” says Moin.
While Moin rushed back to inform the family, Insha Wani and Yasmeena’s younger sister stayed at the hospital with the body. “Several police and armymen came to the hospital and tried to take away Yasmeena’s body. I resisted but they dragged me by my hair down the stairs towards the police station (across the road). I kept shouting that they killed my sister and wanted to take away her body. But the soldiers said they would kill me if I didn’t shut up. Then, they hit me on the back of my head and I passed out,” says Insha Wani.
“Insha’s cries brought the people out again, and the sight of her being beaten up and falling unconscious made us run towards her. The soldiers left her on the street and ran away,” says Mudasir Qayoom, one of the protesters.
While Insha Wani was taken to a hospital in Kulgam — she was treated there for two days — thousands of people gathered in DH Pora as news of Yasmeena’s death spread.
“As soon as her body was buried at around 3.40 pm, the mourners started shouting slogans of azadi and marched towards the police station. The police, CRPF and armymen, who were inside, shot in the air and fired tear gas shells. But they soon left,’’ says Zahoor Ahmad, another local resident.
“In no time, the police station was on fire. The angry villagers also brought a bulldozer to demolish the building,” he says.
When contacted, SSP Kulgam M Irshad said the sequence of events narrated by Yasmeena’s family “is correct”. “It was a day after Burhan’s killing and people came out in places where we had least expected them to. There was stone-pelting at an army camp. The army subsequently asked its camps to step up security. Two army Caspers (bullet-proof vehicles) were deputed from the camp in DH Pora. The troops came out when they saw the protesters and opened fire in which the girl was killed,’’ says SSP Irshad.
“The villagers then attacked the police station. The forces fired in the air and left before the station was burnt down. We have recorded the statements of at least five eyewitnesses,” says the police officer.
Responding to claims that the protesters looted weapons from the armoury, the villagers accused the police of “lying”, saying that once the station was set on fire, everything inside was burnt down.
In fact, amid the debris at the ravaged compound is an iron drawer with burnt casings of grenades still inside.
“Nobody went inside the buildings before they were burnt. No policemen was held hostage. They fled. If they had stayed, they would have been burnt alive. Such was the anger. We saw burnt rifles in the debris later,” says Zahoor Ahmad.
According to SSP Irshad, “There were 83 weapons in the police station at the time and none of them has gone to militants.”
He adds that 41 weapons have been recovered. “They were all burnt. The grenades and the ammunition, too, were burnt in the fire. There were also 42 service weapons, of which seven are missing. A few of the service weapons had been taken by local boys. One youngster had kept three rifles at his home and we have recovered them. We have also arrested a timber smuggler who had taken a pistol,” he says.
“There is no Hurriyat or militant presence in DH Pora. Those who attacked the station were either PDP or NC voters,’’ says Irshad.
The villagers claim that they had told police to stay away during the protest at the chowk. “But once they killed the girl and tried to snatch her body, the rage among people was beyond control,” says one of the protesters.
The villagers say that the protesters also pelted stones at the residence of local PDP legislator Abdul Majid Padru. But when contacted, Padru refused to comment on the events of July 9.
Former legislator and NC leader Sakina Itoo says the situation was “mishandled” and alleges that the government hasn’t allowed her to visit the area yet. “Such a thing has never happened in our area. There are NC and PDP supporters here. But today, there is no distinction,’’ says Itoo.