Saturday, January 2, 2010

Grieving families: Why did our sons die?

Srinagar; The Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley has been beset with violence as Indian security forces confront huge rallies by Kashmiris calling for independence from India. In a picture taken on a mobile phone 10 days before his death, 25-year-old Imran Ahmed Wani fixes a shy gaze at the camera with a disarming smile. As his friends tell it, Imran was an average young Kashmiri man, working hard, playing cricket, and watching Bollywood films. He also exemplified those in the region's new generation, trying to make the best of opportunities thrown up by a modest economic boom during the years of relative calm since Indian and Pakistan signed a ceasefire in Kashmir. Imran recently quit his job as a field officer with a mobile telephone service company to work as a building contractor in his hometown, Srinagar, which has seen a frenzied real estate boom. His sisters were on their way to what looked like promising careers: Aniza, 27, had begun work as an engineer in the irrigation department; and 22-year-old Shabila, was working as an accountant.
In his middle-class Baghibehtab neighbourhood, Imran's big ambition was to finish constructing the family home. All that was before 13 August, when Imran died, shot in the chest by Indian security forces. He joined some 26 others who were shot dead as the forces battled to restore order in the troubled Muslim majority Kashmir valley.
What began as a reaction to a controversial row over transfer of land to a Hindu trust has now snowballed into a fully-fledged nationalist uprising in the valley
"Look at the bricks, look at the stone chips. These are the last things he bought," says his friend, Sheikh Suhail, 24, standing on the dusty second storey of the house. Two unfinished rooms, some bricks, a heap of stone chips - that's what are left of the last memories of his friend. "He was a sportsman, he was a good worker. He was never interested in politics. But he had to die," says Suhail, his eyes welling up. Why did Imran Ahmed Wani die? Truth in Kashmir is often subjective - it is home to a conflict which is, as foreign policy analyst Stephen Cohen says, "a clash between identities, imagination, and history as it is a conflict over territory, resources and peoples".
Shots rang out
Imran's friends and family say that he was standing on the side of the main road that skirts their neighbourhood. He was watching retreating protesters who were being chased by soldiers. Then the shots rang out and Imran slumped. He lay on the road bleeding till an ambulance arrived. Sheikh Suhail and a few others dragged him inside the ambulance. On the way, they say, it was stopped by more troops, its passengers hit by them, and only then allowed to proceed. Imran had bled to death by the time he reached the hospital. Imran's friends show local newspaper photographs of the ambulance surrounded by security forces - it is obvious that there is a scuffle going on - with the dying man's legs dangling outside the vehicle.
The security forces tell a different story. A spokesman for the federal paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force, Prabhakar Tripathi, says that its soldiers retaliated after somebody in the mob had fired on them. And no, he insists, the forces have not attacked any ambulances. "Of course, some innocents can get killed. When mobs attack us and we are forced to open fire as a last resort, some people who get killed may not be militants," says Mr Tripathi. So the circumstances of Imran Ahmed Wani's may always be disputed.

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