The ruling BJP has given a free hand to the police and army in disputed Kashmir and locals say the latest custodial death of a young teacher is one of the tragic results of that muscular policy.
On March 17, 29-year-old school teacher Rizwan Assad Pandit was detained by police in India-administered Kashmir. Two days later his body was handed over to his family.
The family said police killed Pandit in custody and the marks on his body suggested he was subjected to brutal torture.
"His entire backbone was broken. What else is there to say?" his grieving father told reporters on Thursday.
"Here's the one picture we have of his body," said another family member. "Look at the burn marks on his thighs, look at these deep cuts. They have cut his thighs with wood cutter [chainsaw]."
The police says Pandit was arrested in pursuit of cracking a 'terror activity.' Some Indian newspapers quoted unnamed police sources as saying Pandit possibly had a hand in the February 14 suicide bombing in south Kashmir, which claimed the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers.
With general elections in India slated for April and May this year, the bombing changed India's political climate. Many observers say Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at the receiving end of immense criticism over a slow jobs market and poor economic growth, saw an electoral opportunity in the bloody event. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to blame Pakistan for planning the deadly attack, and even dispatched fighter jets into Pakistani territories, where they claimed to have struck a 'terror hideout'. In response, Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured its pilot. The entire episode brought the two nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war.
The threat faded within a week, thanks to international pressure and Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan's 'friendly gesture' of releasing the captured pilot, but the BJP claimed both military and diplomatic victory over Pakistan.
Modi's shrill rhetoric against Pakistan has gone several decibels higher. At recent election rallies, he has often criticised the opposition Congress party for being 'soft' on Pakistan when they were in power and praised his own government for attacking the Pakistani territories in response to the suicide bombing, saying that such type of response shows that a ‘new India’ is gaining its foothold.
At one recent rally he even said that India “will go and hit people inside their homes" if they try to engage with its forces.
Amidst this intense climate of election fervour and military machismo, the ruling BJP has trained its guns on the disputed Kashmir region.
As part of its military policy to curb the armed rebellion and other non-violent anti-India campaigns, the Indian government recently picked a religious organisation named Jamaat-e-Islami as one of its prime targets.
Although New Delhi sent additional military deployments into the disputed region, where an estimated 700,000 soldiers are already stationed, it also banned Jamaat-e-Islami, the south Asian equivalent of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, arresting close to 400 of its workers and sealing its offices and other properties, according to the party's spokesperson Mohammad Abdullah.
As per local accounts, Pandit's arrest was part of that wider crackdown on Jamaat-e-Islami. Rebuffing the police claims that Pandit had 'links' with militants, the family said it wasn't Pandit but his father who had been a member of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Although police are keeping the circumstances of his killing under wraps, local media reports that the initial post-mortem examination suggests that Pandit died through loss of blood.
“The blood loss in soft tissues due to multiple injuries was extensive internally, and this must have led to irreversible shock,” an official privy to the findings told Indian newspaper The Indian Express.
Pandit's killing has once again revealed the dark underbelly of India's security apparatus in the disputed territory, where the "impunity of armed forces persists", according to Amnesty International, under the blanket of India's heavy military presence.
In Pandit's case, the local police arrested him on the night of March 17 from his home in south Kashmir's Awantipora district. He was handed over to the Special Operations Group (SOG), an armed wing of the local police with extraordinary powers.
According to Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez, the Indian government has laid out 'standard operating procedures' that allow the police to transfer arrested individuals to the SOG, a notorious armed group of the police who lead counterinsurgency operations and have been given the right to interrogate suspects anywhere in the disputed region.
After arresting Pandit, the local police handed him over to the SOG. He was taken to the Cargo, an SOG-run detention centre which many Kashmiris say is nothing less than a torture chamber.
In light of the counterinsurgency guide, or SOP, Parvez said the local police should have escorted Pandit to the Cargo, so a "suspect can be interrogated anywhere outside his local police station's jurisdiction".
"In this, the SOP was followed. He was accompanied by the police from the local station, but he was not produced before the magistrate within 24 hours."
Although Parvez says some policemen did go to Cargo along with Pandit, it's unclear whether they were witness to his interrogation.
Speaking to TRT World, Tahir Saleem, Police Superintendent in Awantipora district, the hometown of Pandit, refused to confirm or deny whether any official from his station was present while Pandit was being interrogated by the SOG. "We won't comment on this case," he said.