The chilli powder incident: Alleged Army atrocities in J&K spark outcry

Did the Army torture 3 detained individuals, who later turned up dead, in the Poonch–Rajouri region? Calls for investigation amidst rising tensions

The Army has acknowledged the civilian deaths, stating that an investigation is underway. (photo: IANS)
The Army has acknowledged the civilian deaths, stating that an investigation is underway. (photo: IANS)

NH Digital

In the wake of recent incidents in the Poonch–Rajouri area of Jammu and Kashmir, where four Army jawans were killed in an ambush, reports of three civilian deaths—allegedly due to torture in custody—have sparked outrage and demands for a thorough investigation.

The incident has brought attention to the complex and volatile situation in the region, with conflicting narratives from different sources.

The Incident:

According to a report in the Hindu published on 23 December, three civilians, Mohammad Showkat (22), Safeer Hussain (45) and Shabir Ahmad (32), were allegedly picked up by the Army for questioning following the attack on Army personnel last week.

Subsequently, they were found dead on 22 December with multiple injuries. A viral video on social media apparently showed Army personnel stripping the three men and putting chilli powder on them.

The men in question are reported to belong to the nomadic Gujjar Bakharwal tribes, customarily herders by profession.

A relative of one of the deceased civilians told the Hindu that the three men were tortured to death, and the families were asked to collect the bodies from an Army camp on Friday evening, 22 December.

The 29-second video also showed severe wounds on the men's backs, as they lay lifeless. As per the Hindu, the J&K police were in the process of registering a criminal case into the death of the three civilians.

Response and Investigation:

The incident has prompted strong reactions from various quarters, including political parties and local citizens.

Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister and People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti asked, “How is this khushal (healthy and happy) Kashmir or naya (new) Kashmir, where neither Armymen nor common people are safe?” The National Conference and the Apni Party both organised protests against the civilian killings in Srinagar, reported the Hindu.

The information and public relations department of Jammu and Kashmir posted on X that legal action had been initiated in the matter. 'The death of three civilians was reported yesterday in Baffliaz of Poonch district. The medical legal formalities were conducted and legal action in this matter has been initiated by the appropriate authority. Government has announced compensation for each of the deceased. Further, government has also announced compassionate appointments to the next of kin of each deceased,' the post said.

Meanwhile, the Army has acknowledged the civilian deaths, stating that its own investigation is underway: 'Reports have been received regarding three civilian deaths in the area. The matter is under investigation. Indian Army stands committed to extending full support and cooperation in the conduct of investigations.'

Contrasting Narratives:

While the Hindu has reported on the alleged torture and deaths of civilians per relatives, the Indian Express provides an account from one of the other detainees. Mohammad Ashraf (52) claimed that he and four others were stripped, beaten and "smeared with chilli powder" until they lost consciousness.

"I am the person in the viral video that shows a man being beaten with iron rods and lathis by Army personnel," Ashraf told the Indian Express.

Ashraf and the other detainees were allegedly picked up by security forces after the militant ambush and suffered severe injuries.

"They removed our clothes and beat us with lathis and iron rods, and rubbed chilli powder on our wounds."

The Indian Express reports that in addition to Ashraf, the Rajouri hospital admitted four more individuals, identified as Farooq Ahmed (45), Fazal Hussain( 50) and Hussain's nephews, 25-year-old Mohammad Betab and a 15-year-old boy.

A doctor at the hospital reported that all five individuals had "soft tissue injuries", although specific details were not provided, according to the Indian Express report on 26 December.

Unlike with the three dead men, the Army PRO has denied any knowledge about the five men admitted to the Rajouri hospital who were supposedly from the same group of detainees, reports the Indian Express.

Amidst the conflicting narratives about the Poonch–Rajouri incident, there is clearly a pressing need for a comprehensive and unbiased investigation to unveil the truth and a need for accountability.

As the situation remains tense in the region, prioritising the concerns of the affected families and fostering initiatives to rebuild trust becomes imperative for the safety and stability of citizens.

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