The custodial death of a private school principal from southern Awantipora police district Tuesday triggered a fresh wave of anger across Kashmir, even as the administration ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident that evoked widespread condemnation from the mainstream and separatist circles in the Valley.
A police spokesman said in a statement that “in pursuance of a militancy case investigation, a suspect Rizwan Pandith of Awantipora was in police custody. The person died in police custody. In this matter, while following the procedure laid down in section 176 of CrPC, a magisterial inquiry is underway”.
“Separately, the police investigation has also been initiated in the area where the incident happened,” the statement said.
A police officer said the post-mortem of the 30-year-old victim was conducted and its report is awaited.
Asked about the nature of the case in which Rizwan was detained, the officer said it was a “militancy related case” and refused to elaborate further.
Talking to Kashmir Post, deputy commissioner Srinagar Shahid Iqbal Chaudhary said he has appointed additional district magistrate Srinagar to inquire into the custodial death.
Rizwan, according to his brother Zulqarnain, was a principal at a private school in Awantipora and was booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) six months ago. His PSA was, however, quashed by a court.
“My brother was a Jamaat-e-Islami activist and (being so) is not a sin,” Zulqarnain said.
Soon after the police confirmed the custodial death of Rizwan, announcements were made in various mosques in downtown Srinagar, including the historic jamia masjid, asking people to observe shutdown in protest against the “killing” of Rizwan.
A witness said soon after these announcements, shopkeepers in Nowhatta, Gojwara, Rajouri Kadal, Hawal, Khanyar and other adjoining areas downed their shutters. A spontaneous shutdown was also observed in Maisuma area of civil lines against the custodial death.
Taking to Twitter, Hurriyat Conference (M) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq wrote: “Distraught at the brutal custodial killing of young Rizwan Asad of Awantipora. The brutal killing once again exposes the helplessness, vulnerability and insecurity to the lives of Kashmiris as impunity of the authorities keeps rising (sic).”
Meanwhile, several mainstream political parties Tuesday strongly condemned the custodial death of a school principal from Awantipora, Rizwan Pandith, and demanded a time-bound probe into it.
Taking to Twitter, former chief minister and National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah said: “I had hoped that custodial killings were a thing of past. This is an unacceptable development and must be investigated in a transparent, time-bound manner. Exemplary punishment must be handed out to the killer of this young man”.
NC’s general secretary Ali Muhammad Sagar said: “Incidents like these do not augur well for the return of peace to Kashmir. I condemn the death of this young boy in the strongest possible terms. The sanctity of the human life has to be respected at any cost. I demand a through inquiry into the incident. The perpetrators should be brought to justice”.
“My thoughts and sympathies are with the family members of Rizwan. The NIA has to be held accountable and the authorities must conduct a thorough time-bound investigation into the unfortunate incident,” he said in a statement.
Former minister Syed Altaf Bukhari demanded a time-bound probe into what he called the “extrajudicial killing of Awantipora teacher”.
“I express my heartfelt sympathies with the bereaved family and pray for eternal peace to the departed soul,” Bukhari said in a statement.
“It is highly unfortunate that a young man, a teacher by profession, has lost his life in police custody and it needs to be thoroughly investigated to know what went wrong and who are responsible for his death in custody. At a time when the police had to learn to behave responsibly and sensitively, such sad incidents only add to the prevailing mistrust among the people with the system which nobody in a civilised society can afford.
Authorities, especially the courts and the national human rights commission (NHRC), have already set out detailed procedures to prevent and punish police use of torture and ill-treatment,” the statement read. “However, such incidents of torture wherein suspects are punished to gather information are totally unacceptable in light of the laid down rules by the Supreme Court. Police abuse reflects a failure of any regime at the helm of affairs to implement accountability mechanisms”.
Bukhari said that despite strict guidelines in place, “the authorities in Kashmir routinely fail to conduct foolproof investigations and prosecute police officials implicated in torture and ill-treatment of arrested persons. Police investigators often close cases relying solely on the accounts of the implicated police officers. This unfortunate trend that has grown mistrust among people in probes needs to be done away with”.
“In a democratic set-up we live in, the police must follow proper arrest procedures—including documenting the arrest, notifying family members, conducting medical examinations, and producing the suspect before a magistrate within 24 hours as has been directed by the Supreme Court,” Bukhari said.
He said that when these procedures are not followed in letter and spirit, the suspects “become more vulnerable to abuse and may have contributed to a belief by some officials in police department that any mistreatment with the inmates could be covered up”.
“The guilty in the custodial killing case of Awantipora resident need to be immediately identified, arrested and brought to justice so that punishment given by the courts in this case becomes deterrence and prevents others from committing such heinous crimes in future,” he said.
Peoples Conference chairman Sajad Gani Lone said: “Condemn in strongest terms the death in police custody in Srinagar. This is what the sanctity of human life has been reduced to in Kashmir. My thoughts are with the family of the deceased”.
J&K Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir said the governor’s administration is “expected to initiate stern action against the personnel responsible”.
“The innocent killing and the death of any person in police custody will have serious implications on the overall situation in the Valley. The governor’s administration must take effective measures to ascertain the identity of the persons responsible for the killing. The custodial deaths in past have alienated the people to the largest extent, besides losing faith in the system, but this time, people won’t be ready to believe any narrative except the exemplary punishment against the persons responsible for the custodial death of a young teacher (sic),” Mir said in a statement.
Awami Ittihad Party chairman, Sheikh Abdur Rashid said: “Rizwan’s death is the response shown by security agencies to Prime Minister’s declaration that security forces have been given a free hand after the Pulwama attack. There can be no excuse given by the state government and J&K police to justify the murder of Rizwan Asad Pandith who was summoned to police station, tortured in Cargo and his dead body has been sent back home. The incident should be matter or grave concern for the local policemen who often claim to be Kashmiris and claim their respect for rights and sentiments of masses”.
“The Prime Minister owes an answer that why he was so impatient to give forces a free hand to the extent that they dare to torture Kashmiris to death in custody in broad daylight. The promises of investigation and orders of enquiry carry no meaning as such sham inquiries have yielded nothing in the past. Now if Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti talk about exemplary punishment to the killers it makes no sense as not even a single man in uniform has been punished or convicted since 1990,” Rashid said in a statement. “Helplessness of Kashmiris is not New Delhi’s victory but adds to the alienation. It is the failure of New Delhi’s suppressive policies in Kashmir. People of India should rise to the occasion and ask the political establishment to stop war against Kashmiris as murdering innocent and unarmed Kashmiris does not benefit Indian masses by any standards. While people are least interested in any enquiry being ordered by the government, the governor’s administration needs to prove its credibility”.
BJP spokesman in Kashmir Altaf Thakur said: “Strongly condemn the death of a teacher from Awantipora in custody. There should be a time-bound and transparent probe into the death of youth identified as Rizwan Pandith of Awantipora. Teachers are assets of Kashmir and the death of Rizwan in custody isn’t a good sign”.
J&K Peoples Movement chief Shah Faesal said: “This custodial killing can further destroy the prospect of peace in Kashmir. Time-bound inquiry must be conducted in this incident and the culprits arrested immediately. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family”.
Condemning the custodial death of Rizwan Pandith, former chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti said the “repressive approach” adopted by the government of India was “alienating the youth and pushing them towards destruction”.
“The killing of a school teacher in NIA’s custody is very unfortunate. He was picked up and killed in Cargo (camp), which was infamous in the 1990s for murders and later shut by Mufti Saheb (former CM Mufti Muhammad Sayeed),” Mehbooba said.
“The incidents like this push youth towards militancy and more destruction. Recently a youth attacked convoy of security forces in Pulwama, after which India and Pakistan trained guns on each other and both nuclear powers literally feel the warlike situation,” she said.
Mehbooba wrote on Twitter: “Repressive approach adopted by the Government of India was pushing youth towards militancy. Innocent men hauled up from their homes for interrogation return home only in coffins now. GoI’s repressive approach leaves young educated men vulnerable who are forced to take up arms. Stop using Kashmir to exhibit your sick chauvinistic nationalism. We have suffered enough”.
She said the National Investigation Agency has been active in Jammu and Kashmir since 2009 when Congress-National Conference coalition was in power.
“The incident of custodial killing has raised question mark over NIA’s credibility. NIA should launch investigation, indentify the culprit and award stern punishment to restore people’s faith in institutions,” she said.
Reacting to Omar Abdullah’s statements blaming PDP for worsening the situation in the state by having provided free access to BJP in Kashmir, Mehbooba said: “There is governor’s rule and PDP is in opposition and if Omar still thinks that PDP is behind everything happening in the state, then what I would say about his wisdom.”
“This is not the occasion for playing politics but unfortunately most of Omar’s statements are full of political attacks.”
She added: “It was NC government in 1996 which is credited with starting arrests, fake encounters, custodial killings and talking about morality now does not suit Omar,” the former CM said.
Condemning the alleged custodial death of Rizwan Asad Pandit, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) on Tuesday called for a complete shutdown tomorrow followed by protests on Thursday and Friday.
In a statement here, the JRL, consisting of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Moulvi Omar Farooq and Mohammad Yaseen Malik, presently detained under Public Safety Act (PSA) in Kotbalwal jail, Jammu, said Rizwan was arrested from his house on Sunday.
However, he was murdered in custody, the statement alleged.