Is Kashmir’s uneasy silence gradually eroding?

“Who knew in the 1990s that guns would come? Now, you don't know what is coming; it would be more than 2008, 2010, and 2016 [a reference to civilian uprisings in the Valley]. Either today or tomorrow, people will burst.”

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To 58-year-old Noor Mohammad Sofi, a view of the shuttered Maharaj Gunj in Srinagar’s downtown is way too familiar. But as he sat with a hookah on his side, he said it was after several months, the city was shut in protest of killings — marking the first day of 2021. 

“By this shutdown, these people will know that they have killed innocents,” he added, in anguish, looking at the government forces’ personnel dotting the city. “This oppression has crossed its limit — it is worse than the 90s [a period immediately after the outbreak of militancy].” 

On 30 December 2020, the government forces, in an alleged gunfight led by the Army, killed three young men on the outskirts of Srinagar and claimed that they were militants. Merely four days ago, the police had issued a statement on the Shopian fake gunfight and revealed how an Army captain, along with two south Kashmir locals, had abducted three youth from Rajouri – including a minor – staged a gunfight, and planted weapons on their bodies.  

Addressing the press that afternoon, the Army’s General Officer Commanding (GoC) of Kilo Force, H. S. Sahi, said: “With the first light the firefight again resumed and militants used heavy ammunition against security forces.” Sahi claimed that the “three militants killed in the gunfight at Lawaypora on Srinagar outskirts were planning a big strike”. 

As soon as the photographs of the killed trio in the Srinagar “gunfight” went viral on social media, three families from south Kashmir — in a very similar fashion as Shopian fake gunfight — scrambled to vouch for their kins’ innocence and demand the bodies. 

Two back to back allegations of staging gunfights have further degraded the already severed bridge of trust between masses and the state. In protest, Srinagar and south Kashmir’s Pulwama and Shopian observed a shutdown. 

However, the curiosity factor is: no one seems to know who called it. “Pakistan gave a call,” said another man, sitting next to Sofi in downtown. Another man, now sitting in a small group, replied: “No, no one gave a call. People shut on their own.” 

“This is oppression, today it is their son, tomorrow it will be mine,” feared Sofi. “They were innocents.”

 “What if he was your son?” 

On 30 December, the bodies of the killed trio were brought to the Police Control Room (PCR) in Srinagar — barricaded by barbed wires and government forces’ personnel standing guards. As the families gathered outside to demand the bodies, more police personnel were rushed. “At least give me his body,” shouted the mother of Aijaz Ganaie, one of the killed persons. “He is a civilian. Give me his body.”

The government forces have recently begun to refuse to identify and handing over bodies of those it kills in gunfights. Under the new policy, those killed in gunfights are discreetly buried in designated graveyards in central and north Kashmir, statedly in presence of their first blood and a magistrate.  

Despite several pleads, slogans, and silence, the government forces denied to hand over the bodies. Dispersing the cloud, the police made way for forces’ vehicles leaving the PCR that the family presumed that the vehicles were carrying the bodies. As one of the family members of the killed trio attempted to stop the vehicles by lying down on the road — he was dragged away by police personnel. “What if he was your son?” the protestor shouted at police personnel. “Their sons haven’t been killed. Is this justice?” 

Srinagar gunfight, Kashmir killings, Srinagar gunfight killings
Father of Ather Wani, demanding body of his son, in front of the Police Control Room in Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

At some distance, 17-year-old Raul Bashir, a cousin of another person killed in the alleged gunfight, Ather Wani, grieved quietly. He had met Wani just two days before his killing, near their home, in Bellow, Pulwama. “We are of the same age, we always played and studied together,” he said. “First, my family told me that he had been killed. I didn’t believe but when I saw his photograph on social media in the morning, I was shocked.” 

Raul looked at the vehicles moving away and tried to say something but his voice failed him. “I can’t believe it,” he said, as he moved back into the crowd. 

Who was the trio? 

On the morning of 29 December, on Tuesday, 23-year-old Aijaz Ganaie, left his home in Pulwama’s Putrigam for Srinagar at about 11 am “to fill the form [to enroll in] a PG [program]”, according to the Ganaie family. He, however, didn’t return. 

The next morning the Ganaie family was shocked after pictures of Aijaz’s body went viral on social media. Aijaz’s father, Mohammad Maqbool Ganaie, a police constable posted in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal, had identified Aijaz from the picture of the three youth killed in the alleged gunfight. He called his daughter, Aijaz’s elder sister, Asiya Ganai. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Asiya. “Then I saw the photographs. It was him. I know my brother, it was him.”

The Ganaie family immediately set out for the PCR, in Srinagar’s Batamaloo after identifying Aijaz from the pictures. Outside the PCR in Srinagar, Aijaz’s sister Asiya Ganaie’s throat had dried up and she couldn’t cry anymore. “He is innocent,” Asiya said. “My brother was not a militant…he was sick and suffering from disc [prolapse].”  

The family shouted slogans against the government forces, accusing them of killing Aijaz in a “fake encounter”. “Aijaz had called us at 3 [pm] and I asked him if he had had lunch,” she told The Kashmir Walla on 30 December. “He told me that he will stay at a friend’s home in Newa [a village in Pulwama district].” Asiya said that Aijaz couldn’t be reached on his phone after that. 

However, the police have refuted this version. In a statement released on 1 January, the police claimed to have “digital evidence” that contradicted the family’s claims, and “revealed and corroborated that Aijaz and Ather had gone to Hyderpora and from there to the place of occurrence only”.  

“Background check also reveals that Aijaz and Ather Mustaq, both OGWs [Over ground workers] variously provided logistic support to terrorists,” the police claimed. “Antecedents and verifications too shows that both were radically inclined and had aided terrorists of LeT (now so-called TRF) outfit. [sic] One of OGW presently under police custody has also corroborated Aijaz’s association with LeT terrorist Faisal Mustaq Baba who was killed in Meej (Pampore) encounter in June last year.” 

“He was a student of eleventh class in Higher Secondary Rajpora and had gone [from home on 29 December] to get books,” claimed Mohammad Shafi, Ather’s uncle, on 30 December. “Tomorrow is his exam. Who is going to write that now?” 

According to Shafi, Ather had lunch at home and “left by 4 pm”, stopping by at his shop nearby. Shafi’s son and Ather’s cousin, Rayees Kachroo, was a Hizbul Mujahideen militant who was killed in 2017 during an attempted ambush on police officers. “You already killed my son. How many will you kill more,” he had said, vouching that Ather wasn’t a militant. 

While a brother of Zubair Ahmad Lone, 25, the third person killed in the alleged gunfight, Mohammad Altaf Lone, who works in the police department, told a local newspaper that his brother had been wrongly killed by the forces. Lone had studied up to 10th grade and was a carpenter at a local shuttering unit.

“He was at home on Tuesday and had lunch with the family. After that, we have no knowledge about his whereabouts,” said Altaf Lone. “We thought he might have visited relatives.”

The police claimed that “Zubair had gone first to Pulwama, then Anantnag, then Shopian to Pulwama and finally came to place of occurrence”. “Nevertheless police is investigating into the case from all possible angles,” the police statement added.

Unionists, including former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, have asked for an inquiry into the allegations. Abdullah also said that the J-K’s Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha, has also assured him of an impartial inquiry. 

“You don’t know what is coming” 

Srinagar shutdown
Parts of Srinagar observed a shutdown on 1 January 2021 against the killing of three in an alleged gunfight in Lawaypora. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Since August 2019, when the limited-autonomy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked, the shutdowns and protests have almost ended in the region. With authorities on the watch to control any form of dissent, whether on digital spaces or physically on roads, people have mainly stayed away from protests. It is for the first time in the last year that a shutdown was observed in the capital city over killings. 

Sitting in the narrow lanes of Nawab Bazar, in Srinagar, a 19-year-old said that despite no call for shutdown, “people shut voluntarily”. “We heard that shops have shut from Jamia [Masjid] side, then boys came out and asked people to shut their shops,” he said. “Those who were killed are our brothers — what if they lived in the south?”

For him and his teenager friend, who both refused to be identified by their names fearing reprisal, this shutdown spoke volumes. “It is our voice against the oppressions as we are helpless,” he said. “They killed hundreds when people came out to ask for their right of self-determination. If India is a democracy, can’t we leave our home and say what we want to say?” 

The state has cracked down heavily on any anti-government voices. “I’ve been very afraid to do anything since then,” the teenager said. “But it is like a volcano, we have that passion intact inside us, and it will burst anytime, and it will be the last fight.” 

The public solidarity in Srinagar was soothing, said the teenager. “I can’t express it in words, I feel really happy,” he said. “We have shut in solidarity.” 

Back in Maharaj Gunj, taking another drag from the hookah, Sofi said: “Who knew in the 1990s that guns would come? Now, you don’t know what is coming; it would be more than 2008, 2010, and 2016 [a reference to civilian uprisings in the Valley]. Either today or tomorrow, people will burst.”

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