SRINAGAR, India – 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 earlobes and do situps for 10 times. As we were doing so, they laughed at us," Mehran told The Associated Press after photographs began circulating and sparked outrage among local Kashmiris.
The other boy quickly did the situps and then ran away, but Mir 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 calisthenics 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 armed rebels fighting against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan territory. As the rebellion was crushed, Indian soldiers mostly stopped using public situps 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 Mir'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 situps and didn't beat him up."
Most people in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir favor its independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan, which also administers a part of the territory across a heavily militarized de facto border through the mountains. Since 1989, at least 70,000 people have been killed in an armed uprising 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 Facebook. 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 and that such allegations are meant to demonize troops.
India's paramilitary force said it would investigate the incident.
"We'll check out and identify the troops. If there has been any wrongdoing, action will be taken," said spokesman Bhavesh Chaudhary of India's Central Reserve Police Force. He did not elaborate on what sort of action might be taken.
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