SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Farooq Ahmed Wani was driving home on his motorcycle with his 6-year-old niece in Indian-controlled Kashmir when they were stopped by paramilitary soldiers, one of whom he said used a verbal slur.
“I objected and asked him ‘Why are you using this kind of language? This is not done,'” Wani recalled. The soldier was furious, Wani said, and without warning aimed a slingshot directly in the face of his niece and fired a marble into her right eye.
As the soldiers left, his niece, Muneefa Nazir, howled in pain as blood dripped down her face.
Wani’s account, told from near the little girl’s bedside in a Srinagar hospital, is just one of the stories of alleged Indian abuse slowly trickling out of disputed Kashmir since an indefinite curfew and near-total communications blackout were put in place 12 days ago, the night before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government revoked the Muslim-majority region’s special constitutional protections.
Police and soldiers have since fanned out across the region of 7 million people, enveloping it in a maze of razor wire and steel barricades, and authorities have suspended all telephone and internet services.
The lockdown has forced an eerie quiet on the region’s main city, Srinagar, even during Monday’s Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, when the streets should have been bustling with people going to pray and to shop for the holiday. While there is an ongoing ban on public assembly, that was eased slightly for the holiday and the faithful were allowed to go to mosques, though only alone or in pairs.
That was the day Wani said his niece was attacked.
Despite the lockdown, anti-India protests and clashes with security forces occur daily, mostly when soldiers begin to withdraw around dusk. Young Kashmiri men barrage the police and soldiers with stones and abuse, shouting slogans demanding the end of Indian rule.
The demands aren’t new. But the change to Kashmir’s constitutional status on Aug. 5 — coupled with a bill passed the following day downgrading the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federally-administered territories — has allowed India to strengthen its hold on the disputed Himalayan region, claimed by both India and Pakistan.
Shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces Thursday over the line of control, the mutually agreed upon border dividing Kashmir into parts administered by each country, was expected to escalate tensions in the region.
In the same hospital ward as Nazir, 20-year-old student Suhail Ahmed was also undergoing treatment. He said he came under buckshot fire from paramilitary soldiers as he was leaving the mosque after Friday prayers last week. His right eye was injured and pellets were embedded in his abdomen and right arm.
“It felt like I had been put on fire,” he said.
The hospital had treated at least two dozen injured people since Aug. 6, including about 10 people with pellets lodged in their eyes, a hospital administrator said, speaking on condition of anonymity because authorities have barred medical staff and hospital officials from talking to reporters.
Moses Dhinakaran, deputy inspector general and a spokesman for the Indian government’s Central Reserve Police Force, said he had no knowledge of Nazir’s case and declined to comment on paramilitaries’ use of force, and declined to comment on whether paramilitary soldiers have used slingshots since the lockdown began.
Associated Press journalists have documented soldiers using slingshots with marbles to disperse protests in the past.
Security forces also began using buckshot, locally known as pellet shotguns, in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2010, when massive protests erupted against Indian rule in the region. Officials defended them as non-lethal weapons meant to control large, unruly crowds.
However, at least 18 people have been killed and thousands have been injured from pellets, according to the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society human rights group.
During a widespread public uprising in 2016, thousands of protesters and bystanders were wounded by the pellets, including hundreds who were blinded in one or both eyes, fueling anger locally as well as criticism abroad. The accuracy of the shotguns, which spray hundreds of metal pellets in a single blast, is poor.
Eye specialists will determine whether Nazir needs surgery, two of her doctors said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the press.
The 6-year-old lies in her hospital bed, her right eye covered by a bandage. She’s now sleeping peacefully, surrounded by relatives, a marked difference from the hours after she was assaulted.
“She was crying the whole night,” said Sara Ali, the girl’s grandmother. “Her cries cut through my heart like a dagger.”
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