How A Teacher’s Death Revived Brutal Memories of J&K’s Cargo Camp

When Mubashir Pandit got to know on Monday, 18 March, that his teacher brother has been taken by police to ‘Cargo’, his heart skipped a beat. A notorious detention centre in Srinagar, ‘Cargo’ bears testimony to Kashmir’s brutal past, from which few have come out unscathed.

On Tuesday night, 19 March, the body of his brother, Rizwan Pandit, who died in police custody earlier this week, arrived in a makeshift tent for the funeral bath. Mubashir couldn’t help but notice the injury marks on it.

“It was as if a saw was used on him during torture. Pieces of flesh were plucked from his body as if by tongs. I have never seen such brutality in my life. His legs had turned blue due to brutal lashing,” Mubashir told The Quint at his home.

Women present at Rizwan’s house in Awantipora.

The double-storied house in Awantipora saw people of all ages and genders pour in since Tuesday night when the last rites of Rizwan were being carried out.

Also Read: ‘Killed in Cold Blood,’ Say Kin of J&K Teacher Who Died in Custody

‘He Was My Mentor, My Brother’: Students Mourn Rizwan’s Death

The principal of a private SAPS school, Rizwan Pandit, died at the Cargo detention centre in Srinagar – in police custody. Many of his students mourned his death.

“He was our best teacher. And more than a teacher, he was my mentor and an elder brother. I will miss him badly,” a young student Kashif, who gave his first name only, said with moist eyes.

Brother of Rizwan Pandit, Mubashir showing torture marks on his brother’s body on his phone.

Before the news of custodial death became public, Mubashir said the police initially told the family that Rizwan was injured, and that he had “tried to escape from custody.” It was only when the news circulated on social media that the family got to know the tragic news.

"“Police told us to go to Srinagar and collect Rizwan’s body from there. Later they brought the body to the local police station, from where we brought him home. Doctors told us he died of spinal cord injury but the exact cause will be known only after the post-mortem report is prepared.”" - Mubashir, brother of Rizwan Pandit

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Horrors of Cargo

Shut down in Awantipora after massive protest over Rizwan’s death.

The Cargo detention centre, where the young teacher from south Kashmir’s Awantipora died, is a massive concrete building in Haft Chinar locality of Srinagar headquartering the J&K Police’s elite, anti-militancy Special Operations Group.

It has been at the centre of many controversies over human rights abuses in Kashmir with even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) unable to gain access to the facility “even after multiple attempts,” according to Wikileaks.

Although the state has tried to wipe the Cargo’s troubled past by converting it into the J&K Police’s surveillance unit, it continues to function as a detention facility. Even today, a mere mention of Cargo sends a chill down the spine of people who have been tortured there.

“A burning iron rod was inserted in my anus and I was forced to pee on electric heater. It changed my life for worse. Now that I am out, I think it would have been better if I had died there,” a former militant from Anantnag, who was held at Cargo in early nineties, said.

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‘Cargo Tops the List of Worst Torture Centres in Kashmir’

Abdul Qadeer, who runs a human rights group, Voice of Victims, in Srinagar said dozens of victims who have been held at the Cargo approached him for help. “Denuding inmates, water boarding, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, all these techniques have been used at Cargo. But the situation is such that the victims will not speak on record about their ordeal,” he said.

Neighbours and relatives of Rizwan, consoling his mother at his residence in Awantipora.

According to human rights groups, there are hundreds of documented cases where suspects in police custody were tortured at Cargo.

“In the list of worst torture centres in Kashmir, Cargo stands at the top. The scale of brutalities committed on inmates there, will make Abu Gharib pale in comparison,” Khurram Pervez, convenor Coalition of Civil Society, an independent rights group based in Srinagar, said.

During the mass agitation of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016, hundreds of young Kashmiri boys who were accused of pelting stones at security forces were also reportedly held at Cargo. Many of them claimed to have been tortured there.

“As a matter of policy and in line with international laws J&K Police doesn’t use torture for interrogating suspects. Sometimes we may have to turn a bit harsh to extract information from suspects,” a senior J&K police officer, who is not authorised to speak with media, said.

In a strange twist on Wednesday to the custodial death, the J&K Police has claimed that Rizwan was being taken to Pulwama for conducting searches at a militant hideout when he tried to escape from police custody. A case under FIR number 09/2019 under section 224 RPC (When a person escapes or attempts to escape from custody) has been registered against the deceased.

“On the basis of a report submitted by the police which states that the incident (custodial death) occurred on way to a search location, the magisterial inquiry has been shifted to Pulwama. The inquiry will be completed in four weeks,” the police officer said.

Also Read: Protests in Zanskar: Communal Politics in Other Parts of J&K

Battle for Justice

In the meantime, Rizwan’s family can draw solace from the fact that the J&K Police acknowledged his death in their custody, “They could have simply made him disappear. They did it with JNU student Najeeb. They could have done it with Rizwan also. That the crime has been acknowledged gives us hope,” a family member said, wishing to remain anonymous.

Despite merely a day having passed since the tragic death, Rizwan’s family is hopeful of justice, “People don’t die in police custody. They are killed in police custody. I saw my brother’s body and it is clear that he was tortured by his captors,” Mubashir, a teacher at Delhi Public School said.

Wary of the bureaucratic and legal hurdles that usually arise in such cases and the abysmal conviction rates of forces involved in abuse of power in Kashmir, the family of Rizwan is nevertheless committed to take their fight for justice to the highest court of the land, if need arises.

“Even if we have to take the case to the Supreme Court, we will do it. We will fight so that the killers of my brother are dealt with in the same manner they treated him. We will ensure that Rizwan’s perpetrators are identified and brought to justice,” Mubashir said.

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