Animal deaths in the Kashmir conflict have gone mostly undocumented and are treated as collateral damage unworthy of headlines.
Indian-Administered Kashmir—“I never imagined she would die just four days before delivering a calf,” Mohammad Abdullah Hajam says as he feeds cattle inside a 'cowshed', or barn, made of mud and low-grade bricks.
“For more than a week she literally fought with the angel of death for her life but could not beat him,” he adds after a brief pause.
The remote village of Pinglena was the scene of a catastrophic eighteen-hour shootout between Indian forces and militants this February. Pinglena is around 30 Kilometres from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir,
In the fierce gunfight, thirteen lives were lost, but only ten made headlines. The report published by several newspapers claimed: “A civilian, four army personnel, a policeman and three militants were killed while five houses were damaged.”
Three other lives were overshadowed. The other three lives were those of cattle. Four cows, one of them pregnant, and a calf belonging to the Hajam family were in the barn when the gunfight started.
Ironically, these deaths in Kashmir go unnoticed while in the rest of mainland India cows have occupied centre stage in the social and political discourse of the country.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in India came to power, cows and incidents related to cows have created headlines regularly. In a country where cows are revered, worshipped and considered holy by a large segment of the Hindu population, cow slaughter and eating beef is banned in most of the states.
So-called cow vigilante violence involving mob attacks in the name of “cow protection” according to Human Rights Watch have swelled since 2014 in tandem with the Hindu-nationalist BJP's tenure.
According to a report published by Reuters, a total of 63 cow vigilante attacks took place in India between 2010 and mid-2017. In these attacks between 2010 and June 2017, 28 Indians—24 of them Muslims—were killed and 124 injured.
Indian media reports, however, claim that more than two dozen people were beaten to death, on the mere suspicion of having beef or smuggling cows from 2014-2018. But surprisingly the killings of cows, mainly involving Indian troops in Kashmir, go unnoticed in the “national interest” of the country and are passed on as “collateral damage.”
In a bid to save their own lives the Hajam family rushed towards safety, but before that, one of the family members, Noor Mohammad Hajam, set their cattle free.
In the ensuing chaos and confusion, Noor was not able to guide the cows in the direction he wanted, and instead, the cows rushed in the direction where militants and Indian forces were facing each other.
“Once the cattle reached there, guns started roaring. Two cows fell on the ground within minutes, one took a bullet to her leg and another cow along with her infant managed to escape safely,” Abdullah recalls.
The cow hit by bullets lay injured at the spot the whole night, bleeding profusely, only to be rescued by locals the next morning after government forces officially declared the operation was over.
The cow's owner called a team of senior veterinarians to treat her. “The doctors conducted multiple surgeries and amputated the badly injured leg for her betterment,” Abdullah says.
On the morning of February 27, 2019, Abdullah went to see his cow hoping for good news. But the moment Abdullah unlocked the shed, he saw the cow lying flat on the floor.
“My cow was dead,” Abdullah says. “I believe she had lost strength due to heavy blood loss and multiple operations,” he adds.
In most gunfights like these, families have to leave their cattle to save their own lives. In one such instance, four cows and a few hens were burnt to death in three back to back gunfights, which erupted in northern as well as southern districts of the Kashmir valley, as the owners could not set them free amid the chaos.
The Hajam clan’s love towards their cows was unconditional. The families of four brothers had spent rupees approximately $2000 on the purchase of the cattle by saving a portion of their hard-earned money for over two years.
“A cow’s death, especially for people with low income, is similar to that of a son,” Abdullah believes.
“A cow helps a family to overcome poverty by generating income,” he adds.
People living in rural Kashmir usually depend on farming for their livelihoods, but due to inflation, they fail to meet the necessary income needed to survive. To overcome inflation, these villagers rear domestic animals for extra income either by selling them or their produce.
Ghulam Hassan Bhat, a resident of Adoowa area of district Shopian in south Kashmir, is yet to recover from the losses he suffered last year.
A joint team of government forces, consisting of the Indian Army, Central Reserved Police Force and Jammu and Kashmir Police, on 4 January, 2018, carried a Cordon and Search Operation (CASO) in their area to hunt a local militant, Sameer Ahmad Wani, who had come to meet his family along with his associate.
The CASO was interrupted by residents of the area. The protesters threw stones at government forces to help militants escape from the spot and the forces responded by firing on the protesters, leaving two civilians dead.
Wani and his associate could not escape during the clash and got stuck inside a barn. The shed was located a stone’s throw from Bhat’s single-story house. Forces tracked the militants and opened fire inside the barn, killing both of them along with a herd of 35 sheep and a cow.
“I was hoping to fetch a good amount of money by selling them on Eid, but I did not know that tragedy was waiting for me,” Bhat says.
“My livestock was an important asset to support my family. Nearly two years have passed, and I have not recovered the losses I suffered that day,” he adds.
Less than six kilometres away from Adoowa lives the Lone family. The three brothers met a similar fate to Bhat during a gunfight between militants and Indian forces which broke out between May 31 and April 1 last year leaving five militants and three civilians dead.
Three houses and two barns belonging to the three brothers were razed to the ground while the home of another brother was damaged partially.
“The encounter claimed the lives of our 40-50 sheep and three cows,” Abdul Rehman Lone says.
Rehman alleged that he and his brothers asked Indian forces to allow them to take out the cattle from the shed, but the request was denied.
“The entire village heard the terrifying howling of those cattle when they were burnt to death,” Rehman says. “We recovered the remains of only a few sheep and the rest we had to collect their bones."
In 2016, 13 horses belonging to a nomadic community were rammed over by an army vehicle in Kulgam district, some 70 kilometres away from Srinagar, when they were heading towards Rajouri in Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, along with their sheep and goats.
The nomads, according to a local newspaper report, alleged that the army men rammed their vehicle, “not once, not twice but thrice onto the horses, which were lined up on both sides of the road.”
The army, however, denied their involvement.
Ever since the government of India carried, “operation all out,” to wipe out militancy from the region following the 2016 anti-India uprising, triggered by the killing of popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, the war-torn region has witnessed hundreds of gunfights.
In 2018 alone 586 people, according to the report prepared by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights organisation, were killed in encounters. The report claimed among the dead: 160 were civilians, 267 were militants, and 159 were members of Indian armed forces and Jammu and Kashmir police.
In the Kashmir Valley, barns are constructed close to the houses. Every time a gun battle rages in densely populated areas in northern or southern Kashmir, at least a couple of domestic animals get killed or are injured.
“If the encounter takes place in a densely populated areas animal killings take place but if the encounters happen in the market then nothing like that happens,” Muneeb Ul Islam, a south Kashmir based photojournalist told TRT World.
There are several civil society groups, local, national and international organisations who document killings, injuries and damage to infrastructure, but there is not a single government or NGO that has maintained a record of the lives of domestic animals lost to the ongoing conflict.
In a place marred by conflict and with a never-ending stream of human rights violations, some people might think that talking about animal rights is a joke. Even if one has to prioritise human rights over animal rights, that sentiment is unfair considering how interlinked human and animal lives are, especially in rural Kashmir.
Poultry Extension Officer Srinagar, Dr Gowher Nabi, who is also an officer of the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, believes that nobody takes animal rights seriously in Kashmir.
“There is a general perception among the local population that nobody respects human rights and respecting animal rights in a place like Kashmir is very far off,” Nabi says.
“It is unfortunate we don’t know how many animals have been killed in human conflict,” adding that, “animal rights should be respected in conflict zones.”
Noor Mohammad, Abdullah’s younger brother, stresses how damaging these animal deaths can be.
“Our past experiences could predict that our houses might turn into debris, but we never imagined that the lives of our cattle would be lost too,” says Noor.
Noor says that it now seems impossible to reconstruct their damaged houses. “Had our cattle been alive we might have had a hope that we, after some years, might be able to reconstruct our houses,” says Noor.
“Each of our cows would give 20-22 litres of milk per day and at the end, all four brothers would share a profit of $300 each,” he adds.
Ghulam Rasool Mir, a local farmer who also tames three sows, says that if someone is punished for violating human rights then the government should also punish those who violate animal rights.
“Animals too are living beings, killing and injuring them in the name of conflict should be made an [criminal] offence and anyone involved in such crimes should be punished."