After six decades of controversy and 18 years of heightened conflict since the Kashmiri intifada began in 1989, Kashmir is a changed place. Forget the stereotype of a man dressed in his pheran cloak, conical cap atop his head, rowing a shikara over the waters of Dal Lake. Nowadays, the picture of the typical Kashmiri is incomplete without a gun-toting trooper in combat gear nearby. The ubiquity of such personnel has made them part of the new Kashmiri folklore.
Today there is hardly a village or community where paramilitary soldiers have not been stationed at some time over the past two decades. And where there are troops, there need to be barracks. In the early years of the conflict, the army and paramilitary set up barracks in schools, government offices, heritage buildings, the abandoned houses of Kashmiri Pandits, cinema halls, orchards – anywhere they found a convenient bivouac. Even road intersections and private buildings were not spared, and the culture of sandbagging has now taken hold everywhere. These camps have now become so intertwined with Kashmir’s residential areas that few really notice them anymore; or rather, they try not to, with varying degrees of success.
Besides housing the armed forces, these taken-over premises gained notoriety for their use as torture cells and veritable concentration camps. Those who survived recall these facilities with a mixture of awe and horror; for the relatives of those who were tortured to death within, they are remembered as death chambers. Although in recent years many of these places have been vacated by the security forces, their infamy continues to haunt the local communities. Such places are scattered throughout the Kashmir Valley; although there is no public record of their locations, a stark map of them remains in the collective Kashmiri mind.
Hari Niwas, Papa II
Papa II and Hari Niwas in Srinagar city are two such buildings, situated in the picturesque Zabarwan foothills, by the banks of Dal Lake. It is hard to find anyone in Srinagar who has not heard of Papa II and Hari Niwas, and of the horrific torture that was meted out there.
Historically, Hari Niwas was a Dogra palace, named after the last ruler of united Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. Hari Niwas was the official residence of Maharani Tara Devi till 1948. In 1989, the palace was converted into a ‘joint interrogation centre’ by the army and paramilitary, where suspected militants would be brought for questioning. It subsequently served as headquarters for the Jammu & Kashmir intelligence department. Incongruously for a building with such a horrific record, it is currently being revamped to serve as the official residence of the chief minister.
Papa II, located in as serene a surrounding, also served as one of the most infamous interrogation centres of J & K. When the Indian Army and paramilitary troops vacated it some years back, the building was converted into an official residence for a senior bureaucrat. In 2002, it was subsequently taken over by former Finance Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beigh. Nowadays, the building is the official residence of Mehbooba Mufti, an MP from south Kashmir and president of the People’s Democratic Party, which advocates for troop withdrawal from J & K.
Papa II, initially built as a guest house, was overseen by the state’s Estates Department, and hosted visitors and bureaucrats. Official guests and sometimes the bureaucrats themselves would stay in the building. In 1989, Papa II was occupied by paramilitary troops, and converted into an interrogation centre; security agencies gave the place its current name in an attempt to keep the compound’s new purpose nominally confidential.
Many prisoners died due to extreme torture in both Hari Niwas and Papa II, particularly by immersing the prisoners’ heads in water during interrogation. “So many people have been killed there and so many rendered crippled or useless,” laments Mohammed Ashraf, who lives in south Kashmir. “I can’t understand how anyone is able to sleep there.” Mohammed’s brother, Riyaz, was picked up by the army during a crackdown in 1990. Some years after his disappearance, Mohammed was told that Riyaz had been seen in Papa II. Mohammed’s subsequent efforts to trace his brother failed, and today Riyaz is one of the estimated 10,000 people who have been ‘disappeared’ in the haze of Kashmir’s violence. On the 10th of every month, the relatives of these victims stage a public protest, demanding information on their kin from the authorities.
Ayaz Ahmad is a former militant, now released from state custody, living in Srinagar city. During his detention, Ayaz was taken to both Hari Niwas and Papa II for interrogation. He says that shivers still run down his spine when he thinks of the days he spent at the two facilities. “I can still hear the cries that used to echo through these buildings in the nineties,” he says. “There was hardly any moment when we would not have to listen to those painful cries.” Every time he takes a bath, Ayaz again noticed the marks of torture that adorn his body – a stark reminder of those days, particularly of the time he spent in Papa II. “I was kept blindfolded for days on end, forced to lie naked on the floor with both hands and legs tied to a bamboo stick, and subjected to electric shocks. I remember that the floor inside Papa II was covered in blood stains. I haven’t seen or heard of any place worse than Papa II and Hari Niwas in my life.”
Doctors in Srinagar hospitals continue to see the after-effects of Kashmir’s officially sanctioned torture, and new patients regularly show up seeking consultation for several torture-related ailments, many of which will last for the rest of their lives. Motivated at least in part by memories like Ayaz’s and the collective trauma attached to military occupation, in this time of relative quiet, government officials have sought to wipe away the stains from both Hari Niwas and Papa II, attempting to restore them to some of their previous glory. It was Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad who recently ordered Hari Niwas’s renovation, for eventual conversion into his new official residence and private office. The INR 600 million project is currently nearing completion. Such attempts have thus far failed to reduce the infamy of these buildings, however – nor does it appear that they will succeed in so doing until the passage of a significant amount of time.
The idea of converting Hari Niwas into the official residence of the chief minister does not sit well with sufferers like Ayaz. While going through a local newspaper, he looks with scorn at an item reporting the estimated cost of the revamping. “Look, they are trying to wash it of its stains. Can it help?” he asks. “I still remember the rectangular palace having so many rooms, with concrete floors. The guards used to feed us leftover food infested with ants and other insects. It was terrible.”
Forty-year-old Yousuf is a vendor who has been selling tea on the streets of Srinagar since he was a child. In 1992, he spent 17 days inside Papa II. He had not been associated with any militant outfit, but was picked up from a marketplace near the city centre following a militant attack on an army convoy. At the time, neither Yousuf nor his family realised that he was being held in Papa II. “After a week’s heavy torture, when I came to know that I was in Papa II, I lost the hope of life,” Yousuf recalls. “When I managed to return home alive from that place, it was an incredible time for my family and me.”
In the decade and a half since his release, Yousuf says that he has never walked the neighbourhood of Papa II, despite the fact that it stands on a beautiful and heavily trafficked route overlooking Dal Lake. “The mere name of ‘Papa II’ brings fear and panic to me,” he says. “This is my 16th year of marriage, and I am yet to become a father. In there, they would pass electric currents through my private parts.”
Kawoosa Building, Gujjar Hostel
Some privately owned buildings also joined the league of eerie locales. Situated to the east of the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, the Kawoosa Building used to be the private residence of a business family. After 1990, it was taken over by paramilitary personnel and converted into a troop camp. Today, the building is in shambles – its roof crumbled and window frames stacked high with sandbags. Jana, a middle-aged woman living in the neighbourhood, refuses to believe that the troops have vacated the premises. Every time she looks at the Kawoosa Building from her window, the scenes from her son’s arrest flash through her mind.
In 1994, an army informer mistakenly identified Jana’s son, Arif, as being a militant. Arif was rounded up and taken to the Kawoosa Building, which is directly in sight of his mother’s window. “I kept on pleading with them that he was innocent,” Jana recalls. “But they refused to listen to me, and tortured him through the night. I was sitting inside my house the whole night long, looking towards the building.” The following day, Arif was released, and his parents decided to send him out of the valley. Arif was subsequently admitted to Aligarh Muslim University, joining the huge number of Kashmiri students who left J & K during the 1990s to pursue their education in mainland India. It is unlikely that the night of torture will hasten his return to his birthplace.
Buildings sporting a terrible past are by no means confined to the state’s urban areas. In rural J & K, one can still find many desolate and ghostly buildings, with windows and doorways packed high with sandbags. One such structure is in Anantnag’s cantonment area – the building known as Gujjar Hostel, originally meant to house schoolchildren of the Gujjar community.
Mubashir lives in Anantnag, and his brother, Afroz, was a militant. One night in 1992, a group of soldiers came by in search of Afroz, who had already gone into hiding. So, they picked up Mubashir instead. “They took me to the Gujjar Hostel, and tortured me to get information about my brother,” Mubashir recalls. Although he knew nothing of his brother’s whereabouts, his interrogators took Mubashir’s silence as a refusal to speak, and the torture continued. Released after 25 days, Mubashir was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and remains under treatment. More than what he himself endured, Mubashir attributes his current psychiatric condition – depression, panic disorders and sleeplessness – to the “sky-rending cries” of those being detained in the Gujjar Hostel.
When paramilitary troops finally vacated the Gujjar Hostel building in 2005, the ruined structure was handed over to J & K’s Education Department, which assigned it to a boy’s school. More than two years have passed since then, but the remnants of sandbags still flank the building’s entrance. An Save d there is no getting away from the fact that the building’s rooms continue to look more like torture cells than classrooms: no window panes, no floor, just a nightmarish ruin that reminds of a cruel history. Teachers recall that the bloodstains were still conspicuous on the walls when they moved into the building, and that labourers came across skeletons while digging in what has become the schoolyard. “It is horrible to be here,” says Murtaza, a class-12 student. “This doesn’t look anything like a school. The authorities haven’t spent any money to clean up the debris of sandbags and soil from the rooms. It always haunts me while I am here.”
Although Hari Niwas, Papa II, the Gujjar Hostel, the Kawoosa Building and countless other structures remain open wounds on the Kashmiri psyche, human-rights activists say that the state government’s attempts to ‘restore’ the former torture centres makes a mockery of the people’s experiences. Many are now demanding that the buildings instead be preserved as memorials to the dead, disappeared and tortured.
“First they killed the people in these places. Now they want to wash away the bloodstains and enjoy the luxury,” says Khuram Parvez, an activist. “For us, places like Papa II and Hari Niwas will always signify terror, and remind us of the hundreds of people who have been killed and buried there. Revamping these buildings amounts to playing with the sentiments of the people. When the conflict ends, we will fight to see them converted into museums – for the peace of mind of families whose dear ones have not returned from such places.”
~ Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a journalist based in Srinagar