Hospital — An Excerpt from Freny Manecksha’s “Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley” (Speaking Tiger, 2022)
December 30, 2022
Freny Manecksha presents an excerpt from the sixth chapter of her latest book, Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley, published earlier this year by Speaking Tiger Books. As a major portion of the chapter aptly titled “Hospital”, this excerpt Manecksha provides a thorough insight into what transpired in Kashmir’s hospitals from the 90s all the way up to 2016. Traversing a harrowing timeline full of violence, killing, injury and loss, Freny is able to recount multiple stories from the perspective of the medical professionals, victims of war, volunteers, patients and the family members who she cites and whose version of the accounts she retrieves from a wide array of published (and verified) sources and archives.

Note: This excerpt is published with the exclusive permission of the book's author, Freny Manecksha, and its publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

Sarkari Militants Target Medical Community

The process of directly targeting the medical community began in the latter half of the 1990s with the Indian State deploying Ikhwanis, the ‘sarkari’ militants, to unleash unparalleled savagery. There was no official recognition of such an outfit; consequently absolutely no accountability. With their insight into Kashmir society, these sarkari militants began to kill members of the medical fraternity who, they thought, were being outspoken. The Human Rights Watch Report, 1996, noted: ‘They have been given free rein to patrol major hospitals in Srinagar, particularly the Saura Institute, the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital and the Bone and Joint Hospital. They have murdered, threatened, beaten and detained hospital staff; in some cases these abuses have occurred in full view of security bunkers or in the presence of security force officers. They have also removed patients from hospitals. These abuses constitute clear violations of medical neutrality.’8

One of the most chilling accounts, documented in a report brought out by a human rights team from India, is that of Imtiaz Ahmed Wani, a lift operator at the Lal Ded, Kashmir’s largest maternity hospital.9

Wani, Publicity Secretary of the Medical Employees Association, was active in organizing protests against harassment of medical employees by armed forces during searches. After one such protest on 5 May 1997, he went back to his home. His wife was away but his nine-year-old daughter and young son were with him. Around 9 p.m., men in Kashmiri dress, armed with guns, got down from two white jeeps used by the Jammu and Kashmir Special Task Force (a special counter-insurgency outfit that was set up by the state as part of a revised strategy to distance the army from day-to-day terror tactics). They took Wani away by force, telling his daughter he would soon be sent back. A neighbour later identified the men as Ikhwanis belonging to the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a dreaded outfit led by ‘Papa Kishtwari’. Wani’s colleagues believe they were directed by the state to silence all protests against harassment of medical employees. The day after his abduction, Wani’s mother went to all the police stations making anxious inquiries. On 26 May, she approached the State Secretariat where she happened to meet a young man, who was also searching for his missing brother. He told her there was a body in the Nowgaon police station, with a description that might fit with that of her son.

At the police station she was told the body, which turned out to be that of her son, had been found in the waters of a lake, weighed down by a stone.

A booklet, ‘Kashmir Under Torture’, brought out by the Institute of Kashmir Studies, reports the death of Dr Farooq Ashai, director of the Bones and Joints hospital in Barzulla. He had reported human rights violations to Amnesty International and Asia Watch. On 20 February 1993, he was shot while driving his car over a new bridge near Barzulla. His wife, who was with him, had to ask the daughter to take over the wheel. He died in the same operating theatre where he had saved many lives.

Official sources claimed the doctor was killed in cross-firing between armed forces and militants, but his wife said he was shot in cold blood by the BSF following an argument.

Barely a month later, there was another gruesome murder. Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, noted cardiac surgeon at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Saura, who had been vocal on the plight of torture victims and had met a delegation from Amnesty International, was abducted by two armed gunmen on 31 March 1993. His dead body was found a day later. Police opened fire on the funeral procession, killing his brother-in-law Ashiq Hussain. Despite a public outcry, an inquiry into his abduction and killing revealed nothing.

The government portrayed the killing as one by militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen, since Guru was associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and there was a history of internecine disputes and violence between the two militant factions. But there were many doubts. Many years later, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and first Chief Commissioner of Information, Wajahat Habibullah, claimed in his book, My Kashmir, that it was the J&K Police who got a noted ‘terrorist’, Zulqarnain, to carry out the murder. Like so many killings in Kashmir, the truth will not be conclusively known.10

There are instances too of militants who killed members of the medical fraternity. The parents of G.K. Muju, belonging to the Kashmiri Pandit community and lecturer at Srinagar Medical College, were stabbed by unknown assailants on 6 March 1990. The body of Sarla Bhat, a twenty-seven-year-old Kashmiri Pandit nurse, was found on the street in 1990. It is believed she was killed by the JKLF cadres for being an informer, passing on information of those militants who sought hospitals as sanctuaries or had been admitted.11

Trauma of the 1990s

Located in the heart of Srinagar and stretching across ten acres, the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital (SMHS) has stood witness to much of Kashmir’s history and weathered some extraordinary situations. The Jhelum river raged furiously through its ground floor during the flood of 2014. Armed personnel have entered its premises and burst teargas shells to dispel crowds of mourning protesters. A shoot-out has occurred in its premises with a gun being passed to militant Naveed Jatt, who killed four policemen and made good his escape, whilst being brought in for a check-up. In its car park, is a memorial to thirty-year-old Ghulam Nabi Bhat, an ambulance driver, killed in July 1992 by a soldier at the army hospital in Badami Bagh. Graphic artist Malik Sajad, who often maps and records Srinagar’s landmarks in his works, alerted me about its presence in a Tweet.

Dating back to 1959, this tertiary care centre is also known to many old-timers as ‘Hedwun haaspital.’ A dispensary known as Hedwun stood on the site in the early part of the twentieth century, founded by an Austrian merchant and philanthropist named C.M. Hadow. (Hedwun became the Kashmiri pronunciation for his name). Hadow, who came to Kashmir to trade in carpets, also founded a school.

SMHS is one of the six associate hospitals of the Government Medical College (GMC) which lies in the same premises. The GMC and SMHS comprise a sprawl of buildings, some of which are new. The older ones are modelled along colonial lines with long corridors and passages flanked by wards, study rooms and doctors’ rooms. It is traversed by hundreds and hundreds of patients and their attendants from the city and the districts on any given day.

One morning, I too meandered through the various winding turns and floors on my way to meet Dr Mufti Mahmood Ahmed. Outside the wards, I saw relatives squatting on the grounds, sometimes with lunch boxes. It was an ordinary day but the hospital was buzzing with activity.

Despite the milling crowds, there was an organized infrastructure in place for trauma and emergency patients. A very different picture from that of the 1990s, I was told by Dr Mufti.

Professor of Surgery and Head of the Department of Surgery at the GMC in Srinagar, Dr Mufti was a senior resident at the GMC in the 1990s and witness to the turbulent times. He recalled there was just one operating table available when the armed conflict began and a heavy load of trauma patients began pouring in.

Designed for routine emergencies, the department lacked the infrastructure and staff to cope with the huge volume of patients who came in with gunshot wounds or shrapnel injuries.

‘We were not prepared. People would come directly to the operating theatre in such large numbers, day and night, that we could not adhere to any schedule. We found it difficult to organize ourselves and routine operative work would have to be closed because of the magnitude of trauma cases. Other health issues had to take a back seat. Since the district and sub-district hospital and peripheries were even less equipped to handle cases, SMHS and the Bone and Joint Hospital at Barzulla had to bear the brunt.’

The Pandit exodus, because of the situation in the Valley, added to the crisis and severe shortage of manpower. A number of surgeons working in the faculties, left unannounced, scared by threats of violence and killings. There was also a shortage of equipment, of disposables, even dressings.

As Senior Resident at the GMC, Dr Mufti said he would leave home not knowing when he could head back. He recalled spending three continuous days in the hospital. Senior doctors would take catnaps on trolleys, having performed several surgeries in a row. ‘Most of us were not certain about our own welfare and safety. We would leave the house not knowing what we would face during the day.’

Despite the lack of resources and the hindrances, Dr Mufti spoke with satisfaction of the way they learnt to cope and adopted new medical protocols. ‘I was a post-graduate student and we were able to do a number of valuable studies, that were comparable with those on a global level. We were seeing far more trauma cases than hospitals in other places.’

One unique case in which two lives were saved was when a pregnant woman was brought into the hospital in an autorickshaw. ‘She had been caught in cross-firing and was wounded in the abdomen. Since she was nearing full-term we explored the possibility of a Caesarean. We found the bullet had gone through the uterus and nicked the earlobe of the unborn child. After surgery, both child and mother survived and a paper “Gunshot Wounds of the Pregnant Uterus: ‘Baby wins the Battle’” was published in 1995.’

The slow build-up of infrastructure and manpower in SMHS, especially with regard to emergency and trauma, has helped it to cope with the rush of patients that still occurs during times of encounters and protests. But an undertow of uncertainty persists. The conflict is always there, says Dr Mufti.

Another associate hospital of the GMC is the Lal Ded Maternity Hospital. It sits on the banks of the Jhelum, close to the old site of the GMC. When the river ran amok in 2014, it caused even more havoc here than at SMHS. The waters gushed into this tertiary maternal care hospital causing flooding up to the first floor and leaving the doctors, medical staff and patients marooned for two days.

Seven months later, I clambered over the debris of huge bricks and construction material strewn over the grounds, to meet Dr Shehnaz Taing, Head of the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Department.

This collapse of infrastructure, recalled Dr Taing, was the second crisis the hospital faced. In the 1990s, she had also been witness to the exodus of doctors, paramedics and staff from the Pandit community who comprised almost 50 per cent of the medical staff.

Since exams could not be held for years, the peripheral health services like primary health centres, district and sub-district hospitals were the worst affected. Many complications of pregnancy were referred to the Lal Ded Hospital that had to function all hours of the day and night.

This situation was made worse by strict imposition of night curfews when even the neutrality of medical transport was not respected by government security forces.

Dr Taing recollected, ‘It used to be frightening. In the middle of the night, they would stop the vehicle and make us stand by the road as they searched.’

‘The overload was such that sometimes there would be three or four women patients sitting on the same bed. The delays in getting medical treatment were the cause of so many instances of ruptured uteruses among pregnant women. One indicator of the gradual build-up of institutions and medical staff was when the number of ruptured uteruses began coming down,’ she said.

The floods of 2014 saw a collapse of another kind, she added. In the half-submerged hospital, doctors continued to perform surgical procedures by candlelight as the electricity snapped. They used dupattas of patients as dressings. When food supplies ran out, Dr Taing recollects, raw rice mixed with dextrose was consumed. Helicopters whizzed overhead but they were ferrying tourists to the airport. There was no rescue for the hospital and its inmates. ‘Hum toh Titanic ho gaye,’ was how a young staffer summed up the disaster. A day later, an evacuation plan was carried out. Mothers with their newly born babies tied to their bodies, made their way across the narrow embankment, with the swirling waters around them, towards the safety of a relief camp.

Deceptive Lull and a New Generation

Kashmir is a land where years are calibrated amidst gigantic swells of turmoil and then calmer waters. The gradual restoration of services in Kashmir’s hospitals coincided with the de- escalation of armed militancy in 2003. There was a period where deceptive normalcy prevailed. A new generation of doctors were now in the hospital even as their seniors were registrars. Dr Adil Ashraf, of the Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA) spoke of the transition, as ‘a period when everything seemed dormant, because actually things were never normal.’

In 2008, Kashmir’s reconciliation with the status quo was shattered with the decision to transfer 99 acres of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board to set up shelters for pilgrims. Fears of a planned demographic shift triggered protests that rocked the Valley. For the first time after the 1990s, a strict curfew was imposed. Defying curfew, thousands of Kashmiris spilled onto the street. In Jammu, Hindu nationalists blocked the key highway to the Valley to deny movement of essential supplies. It is estimated fifty-seven people were killed and at least 1,500 injured (of whom nearly 600 suffered bullet injuries) between 22 June and 12 September of 2008.

Dr Adil Ashraf, whom I met in a room in a busy ward, spooled back memories to that year when he was a medical student.

‘The illusion that ‘sab theek chal raha hai’ (everything is going well) was destroyed. We had grown up thinking it was the end of an era of bloodshed,’ he recollected.

‘Suddenly, we saw a new generation going on the streets to protest. We saw a father having to shoulder his own son’s coffin. As doctors we had this perspective because we were part of the Kashmiri community. It was impossible not to be affected. When a youth was brought into the casualty with bullet injuries or head split open by a teargas shell canister, I felt it was some part of me. These were our cousins, our neighbours. It was a very emotional time but, as yet, we did not experience direct interference with our work.’

The direct interference and obstruction resurfaced in 2010. It was the year of the Machil fake encounter, when three young men of Nadihal village were lured to the Line of Control (LoC) with the promise of employment as porters for the army. They were shot dead and it was claimed they were terrorists, who had infiltrated the border. Police investigations concluded it was a blatantly fake encounter, to avail of the cash and gallantry award that is part of the state’s incentives. The army tribunal at first court-martialled the guilty personnel but later suspended the sentence.

Anger over these killings was heightened by the murder of Tufail Mattoo, a young boy returning home from tuition classes. His skull was split open by a teargas cannister hurled at him. No one has been arrested as yet for this killing and the report of the Koul Commission that conducted an inquiry was never made public.

The killings sparked off the summer of defiance in the Valley. Youths came out on the streets, whipped off shirts and confronted the troops barechested. It was also the year of Kani jung or the war of stones. Young men and even boys hurled stones at security forces and troops fired at them in turn. Escalating violence did not spare even medical ambulances. Systematic attacks on ambulance drivers and deliberate prevention of ensuring medical treatment for civilian populations was a weapon ruthlessly deployed, much like the 1990s.

Malik Sajad’s Tweet of a memorial to an ambulance driver brought home the déjà vu of violence. The memorial he mentioned refers to thirty-year-old Ghulam Nabi Bhat, an ambulance driver, who in July 1992, was deputed to pick up serum from the army hospital in Badami Bagh for a patient with gas gangrene. Accompanied by two attendants in an official ambulance clearly marked by a red cross, Bhat approached the hospital but was killed when a soldier fired at him. Hospitals then stopped plying ambulances at night.

In 2010, direct interference resurfaced with the armed forces’ refusal to honour curfew passes and attacks on ambulances. This denial of access even to routine medical attention had repercussions. Patients could not come in for chemotherapy sessions or other treatment. Vehicles could not ply, affecting crucial supply of drugs and other essential medical supplies. Those suffering from diabetes, cardiac ailments, hypertension and other chronic conditions faced immense problems in procuring medication.

Dr Syed Amin Tabish, then Superintendent of SKIMS, told me he had to send out the hospital’s own vehicles and seek help from the International Red Cross and the Jammu and Kashmir Health Ministry. ‘On at least three occasions I had to publicly appeal to both the security forces and the youth (who were protesting on the streets) for safe passage of medical personnel and their vehicles.’

A fact-finding team of lawyers and human rights activists from India documented how security forces took the battle of the streets right inside the Pattan hospital on 30 July 2010. Testimonies from people and staff revealed how CRPF personnel stormed into the hospital. They broke windowpanes and vital medical equipment. A surgeon, who was among those performing urgent life-saving procedures in the casualty ward and the minor operating theatre, was forced to open the door to the theatre. He found three rifle barrels thrust into his chest. Keeping his composure, he managed to return quickly to the theatre. He saw the CRPF men roughing up staff and bystanders. Some doctors were forced to hide in the bathroom. A young boy, aged around twelve, who had been admitted, was killed, but there are conflicting reports on the killing. It is not clear whether he was shot in cold blood or, as a result of firing on what some media reports allege, was an ‘unruly mob’.12

It was also the year when pellet guns were introduced as crowd control weapons in Kashmir. Seldom deployed elsewhere in India, this so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapon is the pump action shotgun fired at high velocity, scattering pellets over a large area. Each cartridge contains 500–600 pellets. The 2020 UN guidance on ‘less-lethal’ weapons in law enforcement says, ‘Multiple projectiles fired at the same time are inaccurate and, in general, their use cannot comply with the principles of necessity and proportionality. Metal pellets, such as those fired from shotguns, should never be used.’

Injuries caused by these weapons posed a new medical challenge. Dr Tabish explained, ‘There is no visible entry point so one cannot predict its path through the body. One is not sure where the pellets have lodged. Often, the entire body is affected, necessitating a whole team of doctors—some working on the abdomen, some on the head and throat and chest.’

Over the years, the use of pellet guns would grow extensively as a form of ‘crowd dispersal.’ Pellet guns were used indiscriminately on protesters, people participating in a funeral or then on those who simply happened to be out in public during a spell of unrest. The deliberate targeting of the upper portion of the body resulted in severe injuries to the eyes and the word ‘pellet blindings’ entered Kashmir’s medical lexicon.

2016: An Epidemic of ‘Dead Eyes’

On 8 July 2016, as Eid celebrations were winding down, word spread that state forces had gunned down Kashmir’s iconic militant leader, twenty-two-year-old Burhan Wani, in an orchard. Spontaneously, hundreds of people began making their way to his parents’ home in Tral. Multiple rounds of funeral prayers had to be held to accommodate the vast number of people and in many parts of the Valley, people poured out into the streets to offer funeral prayers in absentia.

Mourning came at a heavy price for the civilian population. Protests and unrest were countered by disproportionate violence and the magnitude of the crisis in hospitals drew comparison with the 1990s.

A report by PHR quotes a trauma surgeon on the sheer scale and volume of injuries and injured people:

‘There were just too many patients. It was unbelievable how these young boys, girls, men and women were being wheeled into the operating theatre in threes and fours and sometimes even more. Just when we would feel a little relieved for saving a life, for doing a good job on a badly injured patient, the door would open and we would suddenly be staring at a couple more dying boys.’13

Dr Ashraf recalls, ‘It is difficult to express what one felt at seeing these young people with such awful injuries. The only time we paused in our work was when the operating theatres had to be disinfected.’

The SMHS Hospital, which received the highest number of referrals from district hospitals, reported to the media that between 8 July and 9 August 2016 it received 933 people injured by pellets including several who died. The hospital also treated sixty-seven bullet injury cases and thirty-five people injured by teargas canisters.14

The summer of 2016 would also witness the ‘epidemic of dead eyes’, a phrase coined by Ellen Barry of the New York Times, to describe the horrendous blindings perpetrated by security forces using the erroneously named pellet guns.15

Hospitals witnessed heart-rending scenes with these blinding cases, one of them as young as four-year-old Imran, being brought in by ambulances from various districts. Burhan, a young volunteer who was stationed at the SMHS Hospital to help rush them through to the operating theatre, described the mass anguish. ‘The patients would be distraught. “Will I be able to see again?” they would keep asking. The attendants and family would be equally disturbed. There would be huge crowds weeping in sympathy. I would try to reassure them.’

For the doctors in the Ophthalmology Department, the question of ‘Will I see again?’ was a difficult one. The challenges of treating eye injuries caused by pellet guns were numerous as Dr Sajad Khanday, consultant ophthalmologist attached to the SMHS Hospital, explained to me.

‘Patients come together in high numbers and managing them simultaneously is the first challenge. Then there is the unpredictability of the visual outcome since the injuries do not follow a defined course. You have patients with injuries to the cornea, to the conjunctiva, the retina, the lens or the optic nerve. It is really a very complex injury. It is not as if you operate on a patient and you know that post-operations/he will respond in a particular way. Sometimes despite multiple surgeries, patients don’t respond well.’

Since these injuries have not been seen on this scale anywhere in the world, there is a paucity of medical literature on the subject and doctors have had to devise new strategies and medical protocols. The Ophthalmology Department has had to treat at least one thousand pellet eye injuries till date.

Besides the medical issues, the blindings presented another challenge—that of keeping hospitals as a ‘safe zone’ even as police intimidation and obstruction to duty occurred in multiple ways. Besides the routine practice of attacking ambulances, the police roamed in plain clothes through corridors of the SMHS Hospital, seeking information on those brought in so that they could then lodge cases of ‘unlawful assembly’ against them—a charge which according to the Ranbir Penal Code, then in force in Kashmir, applied to the assembly of five or more people with criminal intent. (The Ranbir Code, similar to the Indian Penal Code was in force till the abrogation of Article 370.)

The PHR report of 2016 notes how patients were terrified, not just that they would be blinded for life, but that they might be arrested later. Doctors said that they would refuse to give their real names or addresses, making it difficult for follow ups. A common name used was Burhan, after the dead militant.

Hospitals then responded by giving pellet gun victims a particular number which they could use instead of the names on their medical records. Said a doctor, ‘We had to ensure that our patients could not only get the best possible care in this centre but that we can reassure people to seek medical treatment as urgently as possible without apprehension or fears.’

Whilst plain-clothes personnel roamed the corridors surreptitiously, the presence of security troops was manifested in other more visible ways. On one occasion the security forces used teargas shells on people who had assembled in the corridors of the hospital to offer prayers for a deceased person. The smoke worsened the condition of admitted patients and made it difficult for doctors to work. The RDA was compelled to issue a strong statement.16

Four days later, on 10 August, the doctors made an even more powerful symbol of protest with a sit-in during which they had one eye bandaged. It was their way to register a silent but strong statement against the unconscionable way in which the state was deliberately blinding Kashmir’s youth.

In 2018, there was an incident in the Shopian sub-district hospital when security forces opened fire inside the casualty block and blood bank after an altercation with a doctor who had asked them to let them function without hindrance. Doctors were compelled to protest with a sit-in.

One of the reasons why it is easy for the Indian State to get away with such gross human rights violations is that it has refused to use the terminology of ‘conflict’ with regard to Kashmir and application of international humanitarian law.

Kartik Murukutla, a lawyer in international criminal law and human rights, who worked in the Office of the Prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, Rwanda, and then with the JKCCS, for seven years, explained that international humanitarian law (IHL) through the Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocols and customary international law, recognizes categories of personnel and objects involved in relief and humanitarian activities. It grants them general protection and specific rights (such as use of emblems indicating their role) to carry out their activities.

‘This is the case for international and non-international armed conflicts and would cover categories of medical personnel and objects including ambulances and hospitals. Breach of these protections by any of the parties to the conflict could constitute war crimes (as also recognized by the statute of the International Criminal Court). These protections are based on fundamental principles of IHL on who may be attacked in conduct of hostilities with distinction between combatants and civilians and civilian objectives and military objectives and proportionality.

‘But in Jammu and Kashmir,’ he notes, ‘there is absence of state recognition of application of IHL. Parties to the conflict (particularly state forces) are not guided by IHL and the protections for medical personnel and objects.

‘The local criminal law protecting body and property does not really capture the gravity of these violations. In any case these violations are almost never investigated or prosecuted.’

‘Shared Suffering’: Volunteering in Hospitals

Despite these huge challenges, Kashmir’s hospitals have been the sites of amazing stories of resilience and fostering of community spirit. The notion of shared suffering can be explored through the informal but highly organized army of volunteers that sprang up in 2016.

It drew from a concept deeply rooted in Kashmir’s Islamic society: Baitulmaal (an Arabic word meaning house of money). Essentially it involves a pooling in of resources, time, labour and efforts to nurture and care for one another, especially in times of calamity like the catastrophic 2014 floods in the Valley. In 2016, it provided succour in hospitals.

At a small café, I met Burhan, a young businessman in the travel trade, who was a volunteer at the SMHS Hospital.

‘I was at home when on the radio I heard an appeal for blood donations. I went to SMHS and saw lots of volunteers and I too decided to pitch in.’

So began an extraordinary life for almost four months when he, and several others, literally camped inside the hospital’s sprawling premises, and functioned like a parallel government.

Duties were divided up. Some volunteers took it upon themselves to cook food in makeshift shelters or tents for the patients and their families and distribute these food packets. A network was set up to speedily procure medicines or medical supplies with appeals often going out on social media. Blankets and linen were provided, arrangements made for financial help and so on.

Burhan was entrusted with the task of ensuring that patients, who arrived in the ambulances from the districts, were shepherded through formalities and rushed to the doctors and operating theatres as quickly as possible.

‘I saw patients with horrendous pellet injuries, those with bullet wounds, those who had been severely beaten.’

There was fourteen-year-old Insha Mushtaq of Shopian, whose face was peppered with pellet gun injuries. An ugly gaping wound between the eyes left her unconscious for days with an infection near the brain and she lost vision in both eyes.

One of the most horrific of cases, that still haunts Burhan, is of a nine-year-old boy brought in an ambulance after being shot in the head. He was in an army trolley and had probably been brought in after being taken to an army camp.

‘I had to rush him to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I don’t know if he survived. But, when I was washing out the trolley as part of my duties, I saw bits of what must be his brain sticking to it. Trust me, I had to turn my heart to stone to just concentrate and stay focussed on that task and my work that day.’

Another time an ambulance arrived with two young women who wouldn’t let him touch the patient. Weeping bitterly they said, ‘Don’t touch our brother. He is dead. He has already suffered so much. He was tortured.’

‘It broke our hearts. We could not sleep that night. Many of us suffered from depressive spells.’

There were times when the human spirit seemed boundless. A woman handed over her family income for the month, a sum of Rs 40,000 to be used for the wounded. Another man, simply dressed in an ordinary kurta pyjama, gave them the keys to his car and asked them to help take away the stack of notes amounting to Rs 4 lakh, cash he had been saving for his daughter’s wedding.

Burhan and Dr Ashraf stressed that the food and volunteering were extended, not just to Kashmiris but also to non-Kashmiris who were admitted in the hospital, as when some pilgrims from elsewhere in the country were hospitalised after a bus accident.

‘Social media and television news anchors had given them distorted images of Kashmiris as brutal.

We demonstrated our work was humanitarian with no differentiation among people.’

Besides the volunteering, there were many quiet acts of heroism. Like Nurse Firdousa Rashid who walked for seven hours from her village near Tanmarg to the hospital on a curfew day because she reasoned that an ICU without staff was of no use.

A number of ambulance drivers like Abdul Aziz Kala and Mukhtar Ahmad continued to ferry patients despite being beaten up by security forces. Ghulam Mohammed Sofi of Ganderbal was fired upon at Safa Kadal by the CRPF and received injuries in the arm. He continued to drive, using one arm, till he got the patients to safety in the hospital.17

Sanna Mattoo, also spoke of a heightened sensitivity that has built up even as photographers and others jostle to capture the images. She recounted how she was at the SMHS Hospital on 1 April 2018 where dozens of people were being brought in. Family and friends of the injured were angry and apprehensive and, when she asked a young boy if she could shoot the X-rays he was holding in his hand, he was brusque and dismissive.

‘I did not want to victimise anyone further. I went up near the operation theatre and shot the blood-stained floors. I spent nearly three hours there. Next day I was back. I saw the young boy and this time he called out to me, asking if I knew how a certain medicine should be applied. A trust had built up. He was acknowledging my right to be there with my camera, of bearing witness.’

Volunteers, who wore distinctive jackets for easy identification, have been publicly lauded by the doctors for their organized and selfless efforts but they began to be singled out by troops when they left the hospital. They would be detained at police stations although no charges could be brought against them.

In October 2016, the police ordered them to stop work so they worked quietly behind the scene organizing relief networks.

The months Burhan worked in the hospital have left him with indelible memories. ‘I worked mechanically. I got used to seeing blood on clothes. It seemed normal to be peering into a patient’s eye to see where the injuries were, as part of a day’s work.’ But at night there were nightmares that still visit him.

And yet despite the memories of pain, he considers his stint as ‘an honour’ to have served and been part of Kashmir’s collective suffering.


  1. Scroll Staff. ‘Jammu and Kashmir: 2018 was the deadliest year in the state in a decade, says human rights report’, pub. Scroll. in., 31 April 2018.
  2. Makhdoomi, Rumana, Dr. White Man in Dark, pub. Partridge Publishing, 2013.
  3. ‘The Crackdown in Kashmir; Torture of Detainees and Assaults on the Medical Community’, February 1993, Physicians for Human Rights and Asia Watch.
  4. Amnesty Report.
  5. ‘Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir’; Report by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
  6. Iqbal, Javed. ‘When 30 cops forced incompetent doctor to write autopsy report in custodial killing case’, pub. Greater Kashmir., 7 March 2018.
  7. Batool, Essar, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Samreen Mushtaq, Natasha Rather. Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, pub. Zubaan Books.
  8. Report by Human Rights Watch.
  9. ‘Civil War and Uncivil Government’: Report on Human Rights Violations in Kashmir’, pub. Fact finding team consisting of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, Hyderabad, Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Bombay and People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi. http:// AND%20ARMY%20-%20POLICE%20REPRESSION/E%20 Jammu%20and%20Kashmir/06.pdf.
  10. Habibullah, Wajahat. My Kashmir. The Dying of the Light, pub. Penguin Viking.
  11. ‘The Crackdown in Kashmir. Torture of Detainees and Assaults on the Medical Community’, Physicians for Human Rights and Asia Watch.
  12. Vij, Shivam. ‘Report #1 Attack and Killing on Pattan Hospital Premises’, pub. Kafila., 15 November 2010.
  13. ‘Blind to Justice: Excessive Use of Force and Attacks on Health Care in Jammu and Kashmir, India’, Report by Physicians for Human Rights, December 2016.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ellen Barry, ‘An Epidemic of “Dead Eyes” in Kashmir as India Uses Pellet Guns on Protesters’, pub. The New York Times., 28 August 2016.
  16. Latif, Samaan. ‘Doctors protest firing of shells inside hospital’, pub. The Tribune., 10 July 2016.
  17. Ahsan, Sofi. ‘Kashmir: Ambulance driver fired with pellet while ferrying patients to hospital’, pub. The Indian Express., 20 August 2016.
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