Kashmir: Death of school principal in police custody sparks protests in Awantipora

The family of Rizwan Pandit, who was picked up from his home by the police on Sunday, say they heard of his death via social media.

by Safwat Zargar 19 March 2019

Kashmir: Death of school principal in police custody sparks protests in Awantipora
Kashmiris in South Kashmir’s Awantipora shout anti-India slogans on March 19 following the death of school teacher Rizwan Pandit in police custody. | AFP

Asadullah Pandit’s family was spending just another Sunday evening at their home in Awantipora in South Kashmir on March 17, when they heard a knock at the door shortly before midnight.

A team comprising unidentified security forces and police personnel from the Awantipora police station, 200 metres away, wanted entry. They went on to search the premises.

“They locked women in a separate room and conducted searches in our two houses,” said Mubashir Pandit, the oldest son of Asadullah Pandit and one of six siblings. A third home standing in an adjacent plot, which belongs to Asadullah Pandit’s brother, was also searched.

“We do not know what agency they belonged to but they were accompanied by cops from the local police station,” said Mubashir Pandit. “They also seized our laptops and mobile phones.”

After concluding the search, the security forces took back with them Rizwan Pandit, a 29-year-old school principal and the second of Asadullah Pandit’s sons.

On Monday morning, when family members went to the police station to ask about his whereabouts, they were told he was being interrogated. “They told us he has been lodged at Cargo in Srinagar for some investigation and will be released once they are done questioning him,” said Mubashir Pandit.Advertisement

“Cargo” is the local name for one of the main centres of the Special Operations Group, the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s counter-insurgency unit.

By Tuesday morning, Rizwan Pandit was dead. The Jammu and Kashmir Police issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that he had “died in police custody”. He had been taken into custody for a “terror investigation”, the statement said.

The Pandit family said they came to know of his death through social media. “None of the police officials thought it necessary to inform us,” said Mubashir Pandit, who works as a teacher in a private school. “When we enquired with the police, they said he had been injured. But later, they told us he has died.”

The police have reportedly launched a magisterial inquiry and a separate police investigation into the incident.

The family has rejected the inquiry. “We know the fate of other probes,” said Mubashir Pandit. “For us, justice means telling us what crime he was picked up for, and the death sentence to those who killed him in custody.”Advertisement

Rizwan Pandit’s death is the state’s first custodial death this year. The last such death was reported in August 2016, when school teacher Shabir Ahmad Mangoo from Khrew, Pampore, was allegedly tortured to death in Army custody. The police had lodged a first information report against the Army in that case, and investigations are still going on.

Both Pampore and Awantipora are areas in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

The scene outside Rizwan Pandit's house in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).
The scene outside Rizwan Pandit’s house in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).

‘Youngest principal in the area’

Rizwan Pandit was the principal of Sabir Abdullah Public School and one of the partners of a private tuition centre in the area. “He was the youngest school principal of this area,” said Mubashir Pandit, adding that his brother had a Bachelors degree in Education, a postgraduate degree in chemistry and was also planning to pursue a PhD.

On Tuesday, Farman Shabir, one of Rizwan Pandit’s students, was among the hundreds of mourners gathered outside the Pandit home, waiting for the body to arrive. “He was a very responsible teacher and had brought crucial reforms in the school,” said Shabir. “Even though he remained busy with administrative work, he would teach chemistry to Class 9 and Class 10 sometimes.” Advertisement

No one in the crowd seemed to know when the body would arrive but they waited outside as some women mourners shouted pro-freedom slogans and dozens of youth pelted stones at security forces nearby.

“It was the police that picked him up; they have to return him to us,” said Mubashir Pandit. “None of us will go to Srinagar to collect the body.”

The body finally arrived at the house at 8 pm on Tuesday.

Women mourners outside the Pandit home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).
Women mourners outside the Pandit home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).

Detention in 2018

The patriarch of the family, Asadullah Pandit, is a member of the recently banned Jamaat-e-Islami, a socio-political religious organisation. The family, however, said they were not “touched” during the ongoing crackdown on Jamaat activists by security forces.

But this was not the first time that Rizwan Pandit had been detained by security forces, according to the family. In August, he was booked under the Public Safety Act and lodged in Jammu’s Kot Balwal jail.Advertisement

The Act is a preventive detention law that allows the state police to lock up individuals in the interests of “public order” and “security of the State”.

Rizwan Pandit was released in January after the Jammu and Kashmir High Court quashed the charges against him. “We still have no idea why he was picked up that time,” said Mubashir Pandit. “Neither do we know why they arrested him on Sunday.”

Mourners sit inside the compound of the Pandit family home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).
Mourners sit inside the compound of the Pandit family home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).

Politicians react

The custodial death triggered a wave of criticism from the Valley’s mainstream political parties.

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah demanded “exemplary punishment” to the “killers” and also asked for a transparent and time-bound enquiry into the case.

Peoples Democratic Party president and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti alleged Rizwan Pandit’s death was the result of the Union government’s “repressive” approach in the Valley. Advertisement

Mufti tweeted on Tuesday: “Innocent men hauled up from their homes for interrogation return home only in coffins now. GoI’s repressive approach leaves young educated men vulnerable who are forced to take up arms. Stop using Kashmir to exhibit your sick chauvinistic nationalism. We have suffered enough.”

The Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee also “condemned the custodial killing” and stated that the Governor-run administration must take stern action against those responsible for Rizwan Pandit’s death.

The state has been under Central rule since June, when the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party, causing the elected government to fall.

“Congress Party strongly condemns the innocent killing and believe that the death of any person in police custody will have serious implications on the overall situation in the Valley,” the statement said.

The separatist leadership of the Hurriyat Joint Resistance Leadership, a union of separatist groups, has called for a Valley-wide shut down on Wednesday against the “gruesome custodial killing” of a teacher.

Youngsters throw stones at security forces outside Rizwan Pandit's home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).
Youngsters throw stones at security forces outside Rizwan Pandit’s home in Awantipora on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Safwat Zargar).
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