Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir — On the eve of Eid al-Adha last month, 17-year-old Asrar Khan lay in a vegetative state at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, a hospital in downtown Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city. The unconscious teenager was barely hanging on to life, connected to a ventilator and blinded in one eye — the result, his family says, of pellet injuries at the hands of India’s armed forces.
Six days earlier, on August 5, India’s government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, had unilaterally abrogated a constitutional provision that gave special rights and a degree of autonomy to Kashmir, one of the country’s only Muslim-majority regions. Kashmir, already one of the most militarized places on earth, has been under near-total lockdown since then, with a communications blackout, mass arrests, and an intensified military presence.
After arriving in Srinagar on August 11, I made it to the hospital by passing through nine checkpoints manned by paramilitary forces, which I navigated with the help of a local reporter. The next morning, on the first day of Eid, I visited Khan’s mother, Shaheena, at her family’s home in the Ilahibad neighborhood of Srinagar, where she lives with her husband and Khan’s two siblings. With her son in the hospital, there was no qurbani — the ritual sacrifice that is the focus of the four-day Muslim festival. Instead, there was a palpable sense of doom.
She stared at me for some time, as though she were vetting me, before breaking her silence with an air of defiance. “I challenge Modi to give my son’s eye back. Modi’s government is the killer of small children. He keeps saying all is calm in Kashmir. Is this calm?”
“I challenge Modi to give my son’s eye back. Modi’s government is the killer of small children.”
Shaheena, who is 37 years old, told me that on the evening of August 6, she had warned her son not to go out to play carrom — a board game — with his friends. “Am I a stone pelter?” Khan responded, ignoring his mom’s advice and noting that he would not be joining the Kashmiris in the streets who were fighting back against the Indian forces. “Nothing would happen to me, I am a studious kid.”
Shortly after sunset, a cavalcade of army vehicles withdrawing from daytime deployment passed through the neighborhood, launching tear gas and firing pellet guns, three eyewitnesses told me in interviews. His friends and family members described Khan, who attended the well-known Kashmir Harvard School, as an excellent student and cricketer. “He didn’t want to play state level, but international-level cricket,” said Khan’s childhood friend and next-door neighbor, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution. “Asrar told me, ‘One day, I will definitely play international cricket [for India].’”
Khan’s father, Firdous Ahmad Khan, told me that his son’s education had been of paramount importance. “The gun is not going to give us our sustenance, education will,” he said. “We need our boys to eat, study, move ahead. All we want is peace.”
A review of Asrar Khan’s medical records, shared with me by his family, revealed extensive pellet injuries to his head and eye. His doctors told me that he had suffered severe brain hemorrhage, but that he was likely to survive.
On September 4, a few days before his 18th birthday, Khan succumbed to his wounds, becoming the first confirmed civilian death in Kashmir Valley caused by security action during the current period of unrest, according to the New York Times. The authorities have denied culpability, claiming that Khan was part of an unruly mob engaged in stone pelting and was responsible for his own death. “There is not a single death in security forces action since August 5,” Munir Khan, a police official in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, told reporters. Eyewitnesses, however, reject that account. “There was no stone pelting happening that day,” Asrar Khan’s friend said. “It was just so sudden and inexplicable.”
Kashmir acceded to India after the violent British partition of the subcontinent in 1947, but the region is hotly contested by Pakistan, which also administers part of the territory. Years of confrontation, repression, and support from Pakistan led to the outbreak of an armed Kashmiri separatist movement in the late 1980s. Modi has taken a hard-line nationalist approach to Kashmir since he entered office in 2014. His party, the BJP, has floated the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of India’s constitution — which gave Kashmir its special status and barred Indians from outside the state to settle there — for more than five years, and made it a reality just months after the prime minister’s May re-election.
In early August, thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces were deployed to Jammu and Kashmir, which already had an estimate security force presence of 600,000 amid a population of about 13 million. After Khan’s death, all roads leading to his family’s house in Ilahibad were blockaded with barbed wire and barricades, according to news reports and eyewitnesses.
Even so, clashes erupted across Srinagar where youngsters took to the streets to pelt stones at the forces. More than 1,000 locals defied the curfew and descended on the playground that was the site of Khan’s martyrdom, or shahadat, for the funeral, eyewitnesses told me. The protests reverberated with the now-famous Kashmiri chant: “There is only one solution. Gun solution, gun solution.”
The Indian government’s repeated assertions of calm and peace in the Valley, and subsequent dismissal of these protests, seems to be adding fuel to the collective anger. Portions of the present lockdown in Kashmir are reminiscent of the violence that gripped the region in 2016, after Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old militant was gunned down by Indian security forces. The killing of Wani, who had gained cult status after promoting his separatist ideology through social media, led to months of protests, during which at least 92 people were killed, according to a conservative estimate.
“Extra troops are now deployed with three times the ammunition used in 2016,” a Kashmiri journalist told me before Khan’s death, noting that the local population would resist the state’s use of force. He predicted that the province was one major event away from mass statewide protests. “There needs to be something very little, not even as big as Burhan Wani. Explosives have been laid all around Kashmir — now it needs the smallest of sparks, and it will burst.”
n the Srinagar district of Soura, I witnessed Kashmiris adopting guerrilla methods of organizing, building makeshift fortresses to keep security forces out. It started on August 9, where an estimated 10,000 people had gathered at a large mosque, known as Jenab Sahib, in Soura to protest the revocation of Article 370, prompting a violent crackdown by the security forces who used tear gas and pellets to quell the resistance. Later, New Delhi claimed that the protest was not attended by more than 20 people, calling the detailed reports of some international media outlets “fabricated.”
In the days following the protest, security forces arrested dozens of young boys in nighttime raids, according to local residents. They responded by converting Soura into a fortress, blockading all entry and exit points with huge boulders, erecting tin walls, and digging deep ditches into the roads to block the forces from getting through in their vehicles. Young boys in groups of 20, armed with sticks and stones, stood guard at the various entry points all night.
I tried entering Soura with a group of reporters on August 11. When we reached the fourth and final checkpoint, we told the special counterinsurgency officer on patrol that we were journalists from New Delhi. In what appeared to be an attempt to silence the rest of us, the officer beat the Kashmiri journalist among us with a fiberglass rod and then turned us away. “I told you they’re going to go violent now,” the journalist, Jaris Zargar, told me when we re-entered the car. “I don’t know how I managed to keep my calm.”
On August 16, a day after India’s Independence Day, I watched as an estimated 4,000 protesters — men, women, and children — gathered at Jenab Sahib, which has become the epicenter of resistance in Srinagar. They carried signs that read: “GO INDIA GO BACK,” “BBC, Al Jazeera THANK YOU,” (for showing the protests), and “TERRORIST MODI.” Some protesters pelted stones at government drones that were flying overhead, and a teenage girl chanted, “We are not scared, and you should not be either.”
“We have dug holes into the roads, to protect our women and children and ourselves. It starts at 10 p.m. every night. Now all the roads to Soura are closed,” said Mohammad Yusuf Kandu, 38, who weaves pashmina scarves for a living. “If the army tries to enter here by force, there will be a lot of bloodshed.”
Kandu had sustained pellet injuries to both his hands and feet as he tried to assist other victims during the Soura protests. Indian forces have been using pellet guns to quell resistance since a wave of protests in 2010. These guns have become a source of terror for the area’s residents. “People are willing to have a bullet in their body, but not pellets — pellets usually damage your eyes,” said Zohaib Butt, a Kashmiri photojournalist who was blinded in one eye with pellets while covering the 2016 protests in Srinagar.
“Just like them, I’ve given my eye to the Valley.”
Last month, Butt picked up his camera for the first time since the incident. As he walked into Soura under siege, he looked at me with faint pride and said, “I have a connection of suffering with these people — it is like they’re talking to a stakeholder. Just like them, I’ve given my eye to the Valley.”
Forty days after Modi revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status, Butt, Asrar Khan’s family, and the roughly 13 million people of Kashmir remain under lockdown — largely unable to communicate with the outside world.
This story was produced as part of a reporting fellowship with the GroundTruth Project, with support from the MacArthur Foundation and Henry Luce Foundation.