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'It's a killing field here,' says father of teen killed in Kashmir

Weeks after his teenage son was killed by security services in Kashmir, Mohammad Ashraf Matoo is still seeking justice. And on the streets, angry protesters have lost hope as a sickeningly familiar cycle of violence looks set to flare up again.


Less than a month after he lost his only child to a bullet fired by security forces in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, Mohammad Ashraf Matoo recounts the events of that fateful day in meticulous detail.

Like a criminologist laying out a case, Matoo’s tale moves with precision from street to street, noting relevant objects, autopsy reports and witness accounts. It’s the grieving of a father trying, in his own way, to make sense of a senseless loss.

On June 11, his son Tufail Ahmed Matoo, a 17-year-old medical student, was travelling from a private tutorial in downtown Srinagar to his uncle’s house. “He took the bus,” explained his father in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from his Srinagar home. “He had a 10-rupee-note [less than 20 cents]. He paid five to the bus conductor. The conductor gave him back a five-rupee coin. He had the coin in his hand. On his back, he had a backpack with his books. He was walking near the Gani Memorial Stadium when three cops came inside the small lane and shot him.”

Minutes later, the boy was dead. Hours later, as word of the killing spread through a city that’s no stranger to excessive force by security services, a silent crowd of mourners gathered at the Matoo residence. Days later, demonstrators took to the street to protest the killing.

That’s when the sickeningly familiar latest cycle of violence started. Demonstrators started pelting stones at security forces, waging what is locally called “kani jung”, or stone war.

Troops in turn responded with force, killing at least 15 people over the following weeks. The ages of the dead - 17, 16, 14, 9 - read like the scores of a batsman in bad form, as one commentator in this cricket-mad country put it.

By July 8, the situation had spiraled out of control. A 24-hour curfew was imposed across most of the Indian state for the first time in two decades. Kashmiris woke up Thursday to no newspapers. Local reporter Shahnawaz Khan said he has been unable to leave his house. “Our curfew passes are not respected," said Khan. “Journalists are either stuck at home or in offices with the printing presses closed.”

This lush Himalayan region - over which two nuclear power nations, India and Pakistan, have fought for more than six decades - is once more under lockdown.

As India and Pakistan battle for control of the disputed region (and most locals seek independence from both nations), Kashmir has long been a synonym for conflict. A brutal insurgency, which started in the late 1980s, has claimed more than 45,000 lives, according to official figures. Human rights groups put the toll at 68,000.

Paradise lost, and never really regained

But that, according to Indian government officials, was in the bad old days of the 1990s. Normalcy, according to officials, was returning to Kashmir following the 2008 local elections, which saw a high voter turnout and the election of the state’s youngest chief minister, the charismatic Omar Abdullah.

Travel pieces on “Paradise on Earth” – as the history books describe Kashmir – started to reappear, with titles such as “Paradise Regained” popping up as journalists coming from the Indian capital of New Delhi filed stories of houseboat owners on Srinagar’s picturesque Dal Lake opening their intricately carved floating abodes to tourists.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna' s planned trip to Pakistan next week to meet with his counterpart sparked hopes for a renewed bid to normalise ties between the two arch foes.

But Kashmiris were never convinced by the official discourse. “There’s a disconnect between high policy talks and the situation on the ground,” explains Basharat Peer, a fellow at the New York-based Open Society Institute and author of Curfewed Night, an acclaimed book about the situation in his native land. “There’s a disconnect between what’s happening in New Delhi and what’s happening on the ground in Kashmir.”

Laws granting a licence to kill

The situation on the ground, for Matoo, is desperate. Three weeks after his son’s death, the 53-year-old native Kashmiri is still seeking justice as he confronts a criminally inefficient and inhumane bureaucracy.

Matoo’s efforts to get justice, to file police complaints and push the case through judicial magistrates have been hitting stone walls.

“People are very quick with killing, but justice takes a long time or it never happens,” says Matoo.

One of the primary reasons for the impunity enjoyed by security services in Kashmir is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which human rights groups say gives forces “a license to kill” without fear of prosecution by civilian courts or international bodies. (Click here for more on AFSPA.)

The cycle of human rights abuses committed by security services against civilians and the failure of the state to deliver justice, according to Peer, makes Kashmir an intractable conflict. “We have a generation of young people who have been living in the world of extreme violence,” says Peer. “There’s a whole political economy of insurgency and counterinsurgency.”

State use of force to handle a political situation

It’s a situation the political powers are either unable or unwilling to change. “The use of force has to be seen in light of the situation,” says the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “It’s important to understand that the security forces are not able to open fire on civilians. These are youngsters who are trying to make a law and order disturbance.”

However, human rights campaigners in Kashmir criticise what they call the state’s endorsement of force to handle an essentially political situation. The Matoo family maintains that Tufail was not participating in a protest or in any way disturbing law and order.

Even Abdullah concedes that there is a need to review the rules of engagement of the security services. “Reforming our crowd control measures is high on the agenda,” says Abdullah. “But we need a period of calm and normalcy to conduct an audit of crowd management techniques.”

From his home in Srinagar though, Matoo is impatient for justice. “Can you help me?” he asks plaintively, his reserves slowly crumbling. “It’s a killing field here, if you will permit me to say it.”

For now, all he has is a five-rupee coin that his son was holding when he was shot. Witnesses retrieved the coin from the site and handed it to the family. “His mother has kept the coin,” he explains. “But what’s gone is gone. Nothing can bring him back. The world is not the same since he’s gone.”

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