SRINAGAR: The 11-year-old boy set out for a stroll with a friend in the main city of the disputed region of Kashmir. It was a sunny spring day, and quiet, during a general strike and after anti-India protests and clashes had subsided with no injuries reported.
But Wednesday’s walk quickly became traumatic, Mir Mehran recounted, as he and his friend were stopped by Indian paramilitary soldiers who mocked them and questioned why they were out walking and then punished the boys in the street.
“They asked us to hold our ear lobes and do sit-ups for 10 times. As we were doing so, they laughed at us,” Mehran said after photographs began circulating and sparked outrage among Kashmiris.
The other boy quickly did the sit-ups and then ran away, but Mehran said he was too terrified and waited until the soldiers allowed him to go. He said that later that evening, “I was thinking they could have killed me or done something else. I was scared”.
Seeing Kashmiri residents doing callisthenics on the side of the road was common in the 1990s, as government forces sought to humiliate people as a way of dissuading any support for militants fighting against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan territory.
As the Kashmiris’ struggle for their right to self-determination was crushed, Indian soldiers mostly stopped using public sit-ups as a form of punishment.
So when photos appeared on social media showing the skinny boy in a red sweater forced to sit, squat and crunch awkwardly while surrounded by armed soldiers in riot gear, Kashmiris were outraged. Some called the episode “shameful”— one person said it represented Indian “subjugation at its peak”.
Mehran’s father was relieved the boy’s experience wasn’t worse, but is still appalled as he explains that such acts reinforce residents’ mistrust of Indian troops.
“This is wrong and tyrannical against a child,” said Mohammed Qayoom Mir, a clerk in a government office. “They spare neither elders nor children. Thank God they made him do only sit-ups and didn’t beat him up.”
Most people in India-held Kashmir favour its independence or a merger with Pakistan, which also administers a part of the territory across a heavily militarised de facto border through the mountains. Since 1989, at least 70,000 people have been killed in the Kashmiris’ movement and ensuing Indian military crackdown.
“A child being humiliated by soldiers, this is a devastating sight for any parent,” said rights activist Khurram Parvez in a message posted on social media. Rights groups have long accused Indian forces of using systematic abuse and unjustified arrests.
The Indian government has acknowledged the problem exists, but denies it is part of a wide strategy to intimidate residents. India’s paramilitary force said it would investigate the incident.