Reporting from Srinagar, India — The latest murky cycle of violence in Indian-held Kashmir began late Monday in the Gangbugh neighborhood of Srinagar. Residents say paramilitary officers chased Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat, 17, and two 11th grade friends, possibly fired shots in their direction — the details were not clear. The frightened youths jumped into a drainage canal to get away.
Bhat, who could swim, failed to return home and the community mounted a search. At dawn, his body was found floating in the canal.
As word spread Tuesday morning of the drowning, angry residents gathered to protest. Within 24 hours, they say, two more people had been killed by security forces.
The Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir has been on a knife's edge since June 11, when a 17-year old boy in Srinagar died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired at close range by security forces. Between that death and Bhat's drowning, thirteen more people have died at the hands of security forces, each sparking more protests and then more deaths.
The streets of Srinagar, the state's summer capital, were largely deserted Wednesday after the Indian army was called in to enforce a curfew and quell the demonstrations. But the deaths underscore the volatile mix of armed force and public anger that continues to plague a region long divided between India and Pakistan.
As distraught residents gathered Tuesday to protest Bhat's death, Fayaz Ahmad Wani, 28, was saying goodbye to his wife and two infant daughters as he headed off to his government horticulture job.
Wani, described by his family as a kind, conscientious worker, husband and father, wasn't the demonstrating type. But his route took him near the protests. When security forces opened fire on the angry crowd, residents said, Wani was killed. His brother said that Wani's body, returned by police a few hours later, had several bullet wounds.
This further enraged locals — in Kashmir, explanations, apologies or official investigations for killings by security forces are rare — spurring more protests.
A few hours later, death struck this tight community of about 2,000 a third time when Fancy Jan, 25, was killed as she sat at a window awaiting her brother's return. A stray bullet fired by security forces reportedly struck her in the chest.
Later Tuesday, about 200 yards from the spot where Bhat drowned, four dozen women sat on tarps in the garden of his family house. Inside, Bhat's older brother lay in a near fetal position sobbing quietly. Nearby, his mother clutched a school photo of her drowned son, showing him in a red tie and ill-fitting jacket, a rebellious strand of hair across his forehead. Her wails were almost song-like.
Residents blame the drowning on a disproportionate use of force, intimidation and provocation used by paramilitary forces. Exactly what happened was difficult to discern. His two friends have gone into hiding, reportedly fearful of the security forces.
"He was a good student," said classmate Ishfaq Ahmed Bhat, 17. "His humor lifted everyone's spirits."
A few houses away, government worker Wani's widow leaned against a yellow wall, enveloped in pain, occasionally jarred by her squirming 6-month-old daughter who was oblivious to the events that had rendered her fatherless.
"He was so gentle, how can we even make sense of this," said Zaitona Khan, 33, Wani's sister. "We're not militants, we're not Pakistanis, we're Kashmiris. Why do they kill us indiscriminately?"
A senior police commander at a nearby intersection who requested anonymity said deadly force was justified because protesters were storming police bunkers and seizing weapons. "They're targeting us," he said.
Asked to explain how a high-school boy and a government worker found a mile from the nearest bunker were seizing weapons, he said he didn't know all the details. Then he drove off. Repeated efforts to reach other senior police officers were unsuccessful.
Omar Abdullah, son of a Kashmiri nationalist leader, was elected the chief minister of India's Jammu and Kashmir state in late 2008 on a pledge to make security forces more accountable and to focus more effort on winning the hearts and minds of locals rather than wielding brute force. In a visit last month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged "zero tolerance" for human rights violations in Kashmir.
But political infighting, Abdullah's soft leadership style and a tangle of overlapping security force jurisdictions have resulted in limited change, critics say.
Politicians, academics and human rights groups have long cited a culture of impunity among security forces in Kashmir, epitomized by a controversial 1990 national law granting soldiers the right to detain or eliminate all suspected terrorists and destroy their property without fear of prosecution. Critics have called the provision, which doesn't clearly define "terrorists," as a license to kill.
Security officials counter that the legal safeguards are essential for an effective fight against insurgents.
Back in Wani's living room filled with mourners, his sister wondered how the family would survive psychologically and financially without him and bemoaned the cost the protracted conflict was taking on society.
"One death is bad enough," Khan said. "But it's almost worse to remain alive and see all the killings. First one mother cries, then another. It feels like we're dying every day."
Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.