By LYDIA POLGREEN
SHOPIAN, Kashmir – On a sunny late spring afternoon, Asiya and Nilofar Jan left home to tend to their family’s apple orchard. Along the way they passed a gantlet of police camps wreathed in razor wire as they crossed the bridge over the ankle-deep Rambi River.
Nilofar Jan’s husband, Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger, left, with Nilofar’s father. Nilofar and Asiya Jan vanished on May 29.
Little more than 12 hours later their battered bodies were found in the stream. Asiya, a 17-year-old high school student, had been badly beaten. Blood streamed from her nose and a sharp gash in her forehead. She and her 22-year-old sister-in-law, Nilofar, had been gang raped before their deaths.
The crime, and allegations of a bungled attempt by the local police to cover it up, set off months of sporadic street protests here in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. It is now the focal point for seemingly bottomless Kashmiri rage at the continuing presence of roughly 500,000 Indian security forces. The forces remain, though the violence by separatist militants whom they came here to fight in the past few years has ebbed to its lowest point in two decades.
“India says Kashmir is a free part of a free country,” said Majid Khan, a 20-year-old unemployed man who has joined the stone-throwing mobs. “If that is so, why are we being brutalized? Why are women gang raped?”
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, and the Himalayan border region remains at the heart of the 62-year rivalry between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Settling the Kashmir dispute is crucial to unlocking the region’s tensions, something the United States hopes will eliminate Pakistan’s shadowy support for militant groups and allow its army to shift attention toward fighting Taliban militants.
Despite Kashmiri rage and the damage to India’s image, the Indian government has bridled at any outside pressure to negotiate a solution, let alone reduce its force level here. Caught in the middle are Kashmir’s 10 million people. The case of Asiya and Nilofar is only the latest abuse to strike a chord with Kashmiris, who say it is emblematic of the problems of what amounts to a full-scale occupation.
Kashmir has its own police force, but it works in close tandem with the Indian forces here and is seen by many as virtually indistinguishable from them. Four Kashmiri officers are suspected of trying to cover up the crime.
Kashmiri activists and human rights groups say that rapes by men in uniform, extrajudicial killings and a lack of redress are endemic, not least because security forces are largely shielded from prosecution by laws put in place when Indian troops were battling a once-potent insurgency here. Both local and national security forces here operate with impunity, they say.
The question for India, Kashmiris say, is whether the huge security presence is doing more harm than good.
“Maybe at some point in time when the militants were in the thousands it made sense to have so many soldiers here,” said Mehbooba Mufti, leader of a major opposition party here. “But at this point they are not helping in any way. Their mere presence has become a source of friction.”
Indian government officials point to statistics showing a decline in infiltration from Pakistan as proof that their tough methods have worked.
According to the government, 557 civilians died in 2005 in what the government calls “terrorist” violence in Jammu and Kashmir, which is India’s full name for the area. By 2008 that number had plummeted to 91. The number of militants killed has fallen by nearly two-thirds, while the deaths of security personnel in the region have been more than halved. Where tens of thousands of armed men once roamed, government officials now estimate there are as few as 500.
Analysts say that other events have also played a role in reducing militancy and infiltration. Secret talks between India and Pakistan over Kashmir made progress but broke down in 2007, when Pakistan’s president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, began losing his grip on power.
In addition, after two decades of militant separatism, in December 2008 voters ignored separatist calls for a boycott and cast ballots in huge numbers in state assembly elections. It was a hopeful sign that Kashmiris believed they could influence their destiny by peaceful means.
The election brought Omar Abdullah, the scion of Kashmir’s most famous political family, to power as chief minister of the state. He promised to roll back the laws that shielded Indian security forces in Kashmir from oversight, and to put Kashmir’s police force, rather than federal police and troops, at the forefront of securing the region. But that has not happened, and the details of the Shopian killings have fed the darkest and most personal fears of Kashmiris as the investigation into the deaths has stalled.
“Who does not see their wife in Nilofar, their daughter in Asiya?” said Abdul Rashid Dalal, who lives in Shopian.
Nilofar and Asiya Jan had walked to the orchard around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, May 29. When Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger, Nilofar’s husband, came home at 7:30 p.m., the two had not yet returned. He went to search for them but found no trace.
By 9:30 p.m. he was frantic. He went to the police station, and along with several officers scoured their route, including the shallow bed of the Rambi River. The police called off the search at 2:30 a.m., urging Mr. Ahanger to return at daybreak. After his dawn prayers, he went back to the bridge with police officials.
“Look, there is your wife,” the local police chief said to Mr. Ahanger, pointing at a body lying prone on some rocks in a dry patch in the middle of the stream.
He rushed to her, but she was dead. Her dress had been hiked up, exposing her midriff. Her body was bruised. “I knew immediately something very bad had happened to her,” Mr. Ahanger said. His sister was found a mile downstream. Their bodies were taken for autopsies, but the cause of death seemed clear to residents who have longed lived in the shadow of the security forces.
“Two girls disappear next to an armed camp,” said Abdul Hamid Deva, a member of a committee of elders set up in response to the killings. “Their bodies then mysteriously appear in a river next to the camp. It does not take much imagination to know what is likely to have happened.”
Men at the grave of Nilofar Jan, including her father, squatting. Four officers are accused of a cover-up in the case.
Town residents gathered at the hospital for the autopsy results. Initially a doctor said the women drowned. But the crowd rejected the conclusion; the stream was barely ankle deep. Residents pelted the hospital with stones. A second team of doctors was called in. They confirmed that the women had been raped.
“What was done to these women even animals could not have done,” the gynecologist who examined the women told the crowd, weeping as she spoke, according to witnesses.
Two men who had been at a shop near the bridge would later tell investigators they saw a police truck parked on the bridge and heard women crying for help.
Initially, the chief minister, Mr. Abdullah, also told reporters that the women had drowned. Later security officials said that advisers had misinformed him. A few days later he acknowledged that the women had come to harm and appointed a commission to investigate. But investigators say that crucial evidence has been lost and that they are no closer to finding the culprits despite the arrest of four local police officers on suspicion of a cover-up.
Kuldeep Khoda, the director general of Kashmir’s police force, admitted that his forces had made mistakes. “There is a prima facie feeling there was destruction of evidence, whether deliberate or inadvertent,” Mr. Khoda said. “The investigation is going on and the results of that investigation will come.”
Indian government officials say that the security forces here are needed to head off more insurgent violence or a Pakistani invasion. “If there would not be a war that is fought by external forces, our soldiers would not be there,” said a senior Indian intelligence official, referring to groups in Pakistan.
But residents of Shopian say the security forces are the only threat. “The only thing I can do now is hope justice will be done,” said Mr. Ahanger, Nilofar’s husband, who is struggling to care for his 2-year-old son, Suzain. “Nobody is safe in Kashmir – even a child, an elderly man, a young girl. Nobody is safe.”