Srinagar: After more than two years, Mohammad Rafiq Shagoo, 42, a grocery-store owner in Srinagar, heaved a sigh of relief as a court in Srinagar has rekindled his hopes of getting justice for his wife, Fehmeeda.
Fehmeeda died due to tear gas inhalation from shells fired by security forces in August 2019, in the days after Article 370 was struck down by the BJP-led government at the Centre.
On August 18, 2021, the court directed the Jammu and Kashmir police to investigate the death under the supervision of a senior police officer. An order issued by the chief judicial magistrate, Srinagar, reads that there’s no harm in registering an FIR into the incident of the death of the deceased and to investigate the circumstances under which the death took place. “The court said that the investigating officer should not be below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police. It directed the officer to submit a status report on the investigation to the court after every 20 days,” the order reads.
However, one month after the court order, the police have yet to lodge an FIR.
The next hearing is scheduled for November 15, said Shagoo’s lawyer, Shah Faisal.
August 9, 2019
Four days after the reading down of Article 370 and the subsequent curfew and communication blackout, on the evening of August 9, 2019, Fehmeeda was working in her kitchen after the customary cleaning of the house. Eid al-Adha (Bakra Eid) was only three days away.
To thwart protests in reaction to the Centre’s decision, security forces lobbed tear gas shells in the neighbourhood.
According to Shagoo, it was a Friday and stone-pelting was going on in the area. In the evening, pitched battles between security forces and youth intensified and at around 6 pm, the police fired a volley of tear-gas and pepper-gas shells outside his home, some of which landed inside his compound.
Shagoo, who was having tea with family, left midway when his neighbour informed him that security forces were chasing protestors and smashing whatever came their way. He rushed outside his home to park his vehicle at a safer location.
However, when he returned, the ground beneath his feet fell away as he saw his wife struggling to breathe.
“My wife had rushed out of the house due to suffocation by toxic gases. She had collapsed and was gasping for breath just outside the door and my brother was trying to help her. She complained of breathlessness,” Shagoo said, adding that blood was oozing out of her mouth.
Fehmeeda was rushed to the hospital by her husband and brother-in-law on a two-wheeler. Making their way through barbed wires, check points, barricades, they reached the nearby SKIMS Bemina hospital by showing the hospital prescription of the same day, said Shagoo.
“Earlier, she had complained of pain in her right leg. As Eid was commencing, she had been busy cleaning and doing household chores for many days. A few hours before the protests had broken out, we had gone to a nearby hospital for a check-up,” he said, adding that the doctors had informed them that she was just tired.
“After few hours, we used the same prescription to reach the hospital as she was gasping for breath,” he said.
“As we reached the hospital, she was constantly pleading with the doctor to save her life as she has two small kids,” recalls Shagoo.
Around 7 pm, she was admitted to the hospital.
Doctors gave Fehmeeda oxygen and put her on a ventilator. “At 7.40 pm, she died,” Shagoo said. As her body was brought back home, protests intensified again but very little was reported or registered in the collective memory of Kashmir due to communication blackout.
Fehmeeda’s medical records, accessed by LiveWire, suggest that she died of a “sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest” suffering “acute lung injury” due to “toxic gas inhalation”.
As the festival was scheduled for two days later, a pall of gloom descended on the family. Her husband, who was also her cousin, battled her loss alone. They had been married for 12 years.
Two years later
As Shagoo’s sons –Aayan, 12, and Mahir, 9 – lost their mother in front of their eyes, it took them almost two years to accept the harsh reality. But things at home have been improving as they now have a stepmother to look after them – Shagoo re-married in the first week of September 2021 when authorities again imposed a communication blackout post-Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s death to maintain law and order.
They have a new mother at home, they think.
Shagoo used to have a handicrafts business in Goa. However, after his first wife’s death, he had to leave the profession and stay at home to take care of his two sons. Subsequently, he opened a grocery store adjacent to his house.
A long wait
Devastated after his wife’s death, Shagoo’s struggle started from the hospital itself when the hospital authorities displayed a reluctance in revealing the medical records.
“It took almost a week to get the medical reports ascertaining her apparent cause of death. However, the actual cause of death could only be ‘ascertained after an autopsy’,” he said, adding that one was not conducted.
Shagoo approached the police station repeatedly, but returned disillusioned every time as the police dragged their feet and kept postponing the lodging of a First Information Report (FIR) on different pretexts.
“I was ready to exhume her body if the hospital and police wanted to conduct an autopsy. Initially, I was turned away by the officials. They said that the senior officer of the post was not available. Communication was down and they kept postponing it,” he said.
Grief-stricken, Shagoo was relentless in his attempts to lodge an FIR. But every time, he was turned down.
Disillusioned with the police’s reluctance, he said, he ran out out of patience one day. During an argument with a police officer, Shagoo said, “He told me, ‘Do whatever you want, the door of the courts are open’.”
That was when Shagoo decided to approach the courts.
Amidst a communication siege and restrictions on movement, Shagoo moved to Jammu and Kashmir high court, asking for an FIR to be registered.
Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) helped him in pursuit of justice. “Initially, we approached Jammu and Kashmir High court with a plea but we were told to approach the concerned chief judicial magistrate as it is an alternate remedy available at a lower court,” said advocate Shah Faisal, Shagoo’s legal counsel.
“Under 156 clauses 3 of CRPC, we filed the complaint. However, the police argued that they have already registered an FIR –which, according to the petitioner, is a different incident. The police had lodged FIR after the protestors emerging from the boat colony appeared near the National Highway near JVC and blocked the road and pelted stones on private and official vehicles. To disperse the mob, tear gas shells were fired in the air and the mob got dispersed. An FIR bearing No. 272/2019 in respect of offences U/S 147, 148, 341, 336, 427, RPC was registered and investigation is in the process as no injury has been reported orally or written,” said Faisal.
Shagoo concedes that he had not expected the beginning of justice with the court order alone. However, he is sceptical regarding the process, considering the fate many other such cases in Kashmir have met.
“Since we are up against J&K police and they are investigating, I don’t have much hope,” he said. “How will they implicate their own?”
Khalid Bashir Gura is a Kashmir-based journalist working with Kashmir Life and is a media scholar at the University of Kashmir. He tweets @khalid_gura.
All photographs by Syed Ahmad Rufai – an independent multimedia journalist based in Kashmir. His area of interest includes politics, human rights, society, and the environment. He tweets at @ahmadrufai__.