“They attacked women, children”: Kashmir’s pellet-riddled Muharram procession

The 23-year-old lay on the street, on his chest, when police personnel “cocked his gun and fired pellets at me,” he said, writhing in pain. “He knew I couldn’t move.”

Bashir Hajam remembers attending Muharram processions in Khomeini Chowk, on the outskirts of Srinagar, holding his father’s hands as a child. Today, on 29 August, the 23-year-old was on a stretcher at a hospital, his right hip bears the mark of a tear gas shell while his back is pockmarked with wounds from metal pellets fired from shotguns.

Mr. Hajam was with a friend when the police reached the Khomeini Chowk area. Within a moment, he said, police personnel jumped out of the vehicle and fired a teargas shell at them. As he lay on the ground, on his chest, the personnel “cocked his gun and fired pellets at me,” he said, writhing in pain. “He knew I couldn’t move.”

Mr. Hajam could not even bear the thin sheet that covered his wounds. “It hurts a lot,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “My entire body is aching.” In the hallway at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS), Mr. Hajam was not alone. Besides him, with at least five other young men who were injured by metal pellets. 

It was the ninth day of Muharram, the Muslim month in which mourners commemorate the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain; authorities in Kashmir have imposed strict restrictions in parts of Srinagar and Budgam districts, to disallow mourners from taking out processions. 

The procession that was taken out in Khomeini Chowk was organised by three-four local anjumans — or groups — said Syed Ali, a local resident, and was attended by nearly 500 mourners. The mourners were taking out the procession peacefully and “there was no stone pelting”, he said. 

“People were following the SOPs for the COVID-19 [to curb the spread of the virus]. They [authorities] are deliberately provoking people,” said Mr. Ali. “If it was for COVID-19, they should have facilitated the processions – what does it mean when you fire pellets and teargas shells at a hundred people out for processions.”

Senior Superintendent of Police in Srinagar, Haseeb Mughal, told The Kashmir Walla that the procession was not allowed implementing directions by the Supreme Court and the Jammu and Kashmir administration’s “orders that no procession shall be taken out in view of the COVID [19].”

On the use of force against the mourners, Mr. Mughal said: “When there is an apprehension of law and order [situation], when they are pelting [stones] on the force, that [teargas shells and pellets fired] was done to restore the highway and to keep it through. Why does the police use force? It is to keep law and order under control and we have used the minimum force.”

The injured were initially taken to a nearby Imam Hussain Hospital. An administrator at the charitable hospital spoke with The Kashmir Walla on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from the authorities. “Forty of them [mourners] had pellet injuries and were referred to other hospitals including SMHS and Barzulla [to the Bone and Joint hospital],” he said. “Two were very critical and needed immediate surgery; their eyes were badly injured.”

Another mourner, 21-year-old Shabir Hussain, was injured when he was marching towards the Khomeini Chowk, at the head of the procession coming out from the Hamdania colony in Srinagar. He and other mourners had not anticipated the police’s actions, he said. 

“The elders of the area were standing near the police [personnel] and they had allowed the procession [initially],” he said, adding that he before could figure out anything, things had changed. “The police resorted to the lathi charge [on the mourners]including on me, and I tried to run,” he said. 

A police personnel fired pellets at him from a close range, “not more than 15-meter distance”, Mr. Shabir told The Kashmir Walla; other eye-witnesses, his friends, corroborated the same.

Mr. Shabir’s upper body is scarred with wounds from metal pellets while his left eye had blackened and his hair was clipped on his face as the blood dried. An attempt to remove strands of hair from his wounds prompted him to cry out in pain. “I can’t see from this eye,” he said of his left eye. “The vision comes and goes.” 

An unrelated old woman, standing next to him, said: “You went out for [Imam] Hussain. He’ll take care of you. You aren’t alone.” But it doesn’t lessen Mr. Shabir’s pain as he keeps asking for a piece of cotton to clear and soothe his wounds, which later, however, did not help his pain.

“This is mourning for Imam Hussain and we have to do it. If they had restricted it for coronavirus, why would they fire pellets? Then they would have been saving us. They want to disallow mourning,” he wondered. 

If he loses his eye-sight, he said that he would not regret it. “This is a mazloom’s (the oppressed, a reference to Imam Hussain) mourning and we have to do it.”

Adil Hyderi, who owns a shop in the Khomeini Chowk area, said that the mourners in the procession were ready to wrap the procession within two hours — a practice, he said, would normally take six hours. He doesn’t understand why the police would fire teargas shells at the mourners, he said. 

“They attacked women and children in the area,” said the 25-year-old shopkeeper. “A 10-year-old was hit in front of me. We have been experiencing this oppression since our childhood. This is what we expect from them.”

Mr. Hyderi’s friend, who was attending to another injured youth at the hospital, was anguished at the administration for disallowing the processions. “From Batamaloo to Lal Chowk, the people have hoarded the markets without masks,” he said, angrily. “But to stop coronavirus, they disallow the mazloom’s procession. They are trying to finish the Hussainiyat but we are telling them it won’t end till doomsday.”

The friend was rushing towards the CT scan room; the youth he was attending to was bleeding from the dozens of wounds on his chest and stomach. The mourners, who brought him to the hospital, helped lift him from the stretcher to put him on the scanner bed. The young boy’s face, splashed with blood, remained unmoved. Following the scan, he was to be taken to an X-Ray room across the hallway.

Another group of mourners was pushing a young man, dressed in a black t-shirt, in a wheelchair; his left leg was swollen, wounded with metal pellets on his thigh. “The police shot at me very closely,” he said, pointing at a wall, barely 6 feet away from him. 

He was unable to move his leg and waited for doctors to pluck out the metal pellets. “Tomorrow is Ashura and Inshallah we’ll take out the procession,” he said, determined.

In fact, he doesn’t even want to wait for the morning. “We’ll sit from tonight only,” he added. If the police again tried to stop them, he said, “We will die but will take out the procession. These pellets have pumped more passion in me.”

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