Jagmohan Malhotra was appointed on January 19, 1990. That night, in response to the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed and other militant attacks, Indian forces conducted warrant-less and thus illegal house-to-house searches in Srinagar, hunting for illegal weapons or other evidence of support to the militants. They dragged many people out of their beds into the bitter cold. Many Kashmiris complained that they were beaten and abused. Jagmohan maintains that he had nothing to do with the decision.
The next morning, as word of the searches and beatings began to spread, people began to pour out into the streets of Srinagar. From the mosques, loudspeakers urged Kashmiris to come out and fight for azaadi, or freedom. Thousands of Kashmiris gathered to protest the actions of the forces.
The state government declared a curfew, but few if any Kashmiris observed it. It was early evening when one group of marchers reached the Gawkadal Bridge in Srinagar. They were shouting slogans and some were pelting the soldiers with stones. Troops from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) opened fire into the crowd. Eyewitnesses say the shooting was a brutal and excessive use of lethal force against demonstrators. Many demonstrators were shot from behind as they turned to run away. Kashmiri news photographer Meraj-ud-din described the scene:
“When I reached Gawkadal, all I could see were the dead. I saw bodies of children, bodies of women, bodies of men…. Later they brought the bodies to the police compound. I saw them again. There I cried. I shouted, screamed. ‘Don’t do this to the people.’ That day I saw everything.”
Human Rights Watch, in its 1991 report on the shootings, criticized the killings and concluded that the use of lethal force was not proportional to the threat.
At least thirty-five people died. Many estimates put the toll near one hundred. Until then, this was the highest number of persons killed on a single day since the violence erupted in Jammu and Kashmir. The killings drew international attention. The London-based daily, The Independent, carried an interview with one of the survivors, a thirty-eight-year-old mechanical engineer Farooq Ahmad, who worked for the government:
“I was just standing watching the procession of Muslims demonstrating against India. It was curfew time and there were CRPF on both sides of the lane. They should have given a warning, telling people to go back to their rooms. But there was no warning, so people thought the procession was allowed. Then there were two shots in the air, and more shots, shots and shots – people were falling down. I also fell down. Someone pushed me down. The CRPF took control of the area. There were a lot of dead and injured. But I was safe, no bullet. Then came somebody, they said I was still alive, and that fellow, an officer, came with a Bren gun, a light machine gun. He aimed at me and started firing.”
Farooq Ahmad survived. But few in Jammu and Kashmir have forgotten that incident. Human Rights Watch met with an eyewitness who recalled the events at Gawkadal.
“I remember that scene perfectly. There were so many people. I remember thinking that all of Srinagar must be out on the streets. They were shouting slogans and calling for freedom. There was a CRPF bunker just near the bridge. Suddenly the soldiers opened fire. It was machine-gun fire and all I could hear is the rat-a-tat sound. At that time, we were not used to the sound of firing like we are today. I think everyone was shocked. No one had expected the troops to start firing. Soon, there were people falling down all over the place. I remember the man standing next to me saying, ‘I know I have been shot but I can’t feel anything.’ I looked at him. And then I saw his foot. There was a bullet stuck inside his shoe… All around people were groaning with pain. Everyone that could ran away. I stayed where I was in case they fired at me. I stood there for many hours. Finally, the police brought trucks and started taking the dead and wounded away. But they had been lying there for many hours before the trucks came. I remember that there were dogs sniffing at the bodies. I will never forget one sight. I saw a dog eating a human arm.”
The shooting at Gawkadal and the way the Indian government responded may have been the turning point in the rebellion. As Human Rights Watch said in a May 1991 report, “In the weeks that followed as security forces fired on crowds of marchers and as militants intensified their attacks against the police and those suspected of aiding them, Kashmir’s civil war began in earnest”.Almost every day there were protests. Teachers, students, and government employees came out into the streets shouting slogans. At the same time, there were increased attacks from militants.
The state administration, led by Jagmohan, sought to end the militancy and the mass protests through the increased use of force. Government forces fired live ammunition on crowds of unarmed demonstrators.Round-the-clock curfews were imposed for days in major towns to prevent protests.Paramilitary troops conducted large-scale searches, called “crackdowns” in Jammu and Kashmir. Residents were forced to gather outside while troops ransacked their belongings, looking for hidden weapons. Informers, in hoods, identified alleged militants to be taken into custody, who were then often tortured and sometimes killed.
No known action was taken against any CRPF officials who ordered their forces to open fire at Gawkadal, or against the officers present during the shooting. No public inquiry was ordered into the incident.The police did file complaints against demonstrators who pelted stones at security forces, but they were not investigated. Without an investigation into what exactly happened in Gawkadal, there will be no chance of holding those responsible accountable.
The consequences of Gawkadal and the failure to hold the forces’ accountable have been far reaching. Many young Kashmiris began to join the militants, whose popularity shot up. One man told Human Rights Watch that he and other parents watched helplessly as their sons enlisted with the militants: “Boys, as young as fourteen or fifteen, crossed the border and came back with guns. No one could stop them.”