Late Sunday night, a sentry at an Air Force station on the outskirts of Srinagar shot and killed a 65-year-old man who had crossed the security fence and come very close to the perimeter wall of the station. J&K Police said the man was fired upon after he ignored repeated warnings, including warning shots in the air. The man was barefoot, wore no winter clothes, and carried no ID card. He was identified as Syed Habibullah, a mentally ill man from Soibug, Budgam.
“He had come very close to the perimeter wall of the Air Force station. They (the sentries) shouted and shouted, asking him to stand still. But he kept moving. There is a video, too. The sentry got a bit nervous and opened fire,” I-G (Kashmir Zone) S P Pani said on Wednesday. “It is unfortunate. We have asked every district to make a list of homeless people. They are mostly mentally unwell. As there are no shelters, they just roam around. “We have repeatedly issued advisories asking people not to venture close to camps. For a sentry, it is difficult to guess their intentions. Only yesterday, two men on a motorcycle rode close to a security vehicle outside the Koel (Air Force) camp (in South Kashmir) and threw a grenade,” Pani said.
The Valley’s top psychiatrist, Dr Arshad Hussain, estimated that perhaps 70% of mentally ill people were cared for by families, but there were still many who were mentally ill and homeless. “Though the mentally ill are vulnerable across the world, it is worse in a conflict zone,” Dr Hussain said. “We don’t have halfway homes and rehabilitation homes anywhere in Kashmir. This infrastructure is essential.” This, he said, was despite a team monitored by the Supreme Court having recommended the setting up of such homes.
Social Welfare Minister Sajjad Lone told The Indian Express that the government planned to bring an ordinance to help mentally challenged people. “In fact, the Finance Ministry has already pledged funds to set up a home (for the mentally challenged). We are fast tracking,” Lone said. Khurram Parvez, coordinator of the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a major human rights group based in Srinagar, however, said “the way mentally challenged people are shot dead can’t be reduced to a coincidence”.
The problem in Kashmir, according to him, is that “draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) allow security forces to shoot at anybody merely on the basis of a suspicion”. And because “the government promises probes but nobody is ever held responsible, there is no accountability”. Even before the February 19 killing of the 65-year-old, the JKCCS had documented 15 alleged killings of mentally ill people in J&K between 2003 and 2011. The circumstances of most of these deaths were similar, according to the JKCCS’s records.
March 16, 2003: Security forces allegedly killed a woman who was roaming around their camp in Nowgam, Banihal. Her identity was not established, but it was confirmed that she was mentally unwell.
September 5, 2003: An unidentified, mentally challenged boy was shot, allegedly by paramilitary forces, in the Abi Guzar area of Srinagar.
February 20, 2004: Gul Mohammad Bhat (22) of Chattru, Kishtwar, who had been born with a mental illness and could not properly comprehend or communicate, was shot and killed as he was walking towards his home at night. Security forces initially claimed he was a militant, but in the face of an outcry, said it was a case of mistaken identity.
March 1, 2004: A mentally challenged woman, Shameema Begum, was killed during an encounter in Banihal.
April 13, 2004: Security forces allegedly killed Nazir Ahmad Chaku, a mentally challenged man from Anantnag.
August 10, 2004: Mentally challenged Ghulam Hassan Chopan of Zainpora, Shopian, was finally buried after the government ordered a magisterial inquiry into his killing. Chopan was allegedly shot by troops in an orchard on August 8. Villagers said he was trying to run away from the security forces personnel who were calling him; the security forces claimed Chopan was killed in an encounter. The outcome of the inquiry has not been made public.
December 25, 2004: The BSF allegedly shot dead mentally ill Shamshad Ahmad Ganai in Tral.
June 24, 2005: Army expressed regret after shooting dead a mentally ill person at Ganwan Kangan, Ganderbal.
May 13, 2006: Army killed mentally challenged Muhammad Abdullah Sheikh on May 12-13 night. There were protests in Kunanposhpora, Kupwara. Army said the death was “highly unfortunate”, a case of “mistaken identity”.
July 16, 2006: Mentally ill Mohammad Abdullah Wani of Braripora, Handwara, was shot dead in what security forces termed a “case of mistaken identity”.
October 26, 2007: Akeel Ahmed Mir, a mentally challenged boy, was shot after he allegedly tried to enter a security forces camp at Watlab, Sopore, in the wee hours.
April 11, 2008: Mentally ill Shakeel Ahmad Malik (24) of Boniyar, Uri, was killed as he tried to sneak into an Army camp. Army termed the incident as “unfortunate”.
January 6, 2009: Army shot deaf and mute Abdul Rashid Reshi on the high-security Gupkar Road in Srinagar. Police said he had crossed the main gate of the Commander 31 Sub Area’s residence.
January 5, 2011: An unidentified, mentally unsound man was shot dead in Lolab, Kupwara, late in the evening after, according to police, he “didn’t stop despite repeated warnings” from security forces.
August 7, 2011: Army and police claimed to have killed top Lashkar commander Abu Usman in Surankote in a gunbattle, but it emerged that a mentally challenged Hindu youth had been killed in a fake encounter.