The stillness in the dense orchards of Amshipora in the apple district of Shopian, south Kashmir, was disturbed with the sounds of gunshots at around 2:30 am on 18 July. In the village close to the orchard, 60-year-old Lal Mohammad Khattana was alarmed; though army troopers regularly patrolled the area, it was the first time an incident had taken place.
At about 4:30 am more shots were fired, he said. “It did not seem like the firing was from two sides,” said Mr. Khattana, a slim man with a more salt than pepper beard. “If there had been militants there, the firing would have been [more intense]. We did not dare come out.”
Sometime later, around 7 am, a blast was heard and soon a plume of smoke rose from the orchards, said Mr. Khattana. “It was only after the blast that we realised and that something had happened,” he said and added that the gunfire had ceased shortly after that and he began walking towards the site of the alleged gunfight in Amshipora.
A two-storey brick and mortar structure, used as a store by the orchard’s owner Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, had been damaged–the troopers claimed to have killed three militants hiding inside it. “I saw three bodies lying on the ground, underneath a tree,” Mr. Khattana said, pointing to the spot near the structure. “They wore old, tattered clothes and slippers. We didn’t know who they were.”
A jittery police?
Shortly after the gunfight, the Commanding Officer of the Indian Army’s 12 Sector Rashtriya Rifles, Brigadier Ajay Katoch, while addressing cameras of the national press had triumphantly said that “three terrorists were neutralised” in a gunfight after the army search party “came under fire”.
Brig Katoch further claimed that the army recovered “IED (Improvised Explosive Device) materials” from the trio and that “with this operation, we are hopeful that in this area, which [had] for quite a time not seen any operations, there would be curtailment in any kind of recruitment by Pakistani terrorists.”
We told them they are civilians. But they did not listen to us. They shouted back at us saying they are [militants].”
Interestingly, the customary statement issued by the police after every gunfight had this time departed from the standard script of crediting operations to the joint forces–the police, paramilitary, and the army–to instead declare at the outset: “On a specific input by 62RR about the presence of terrorists in village Amshipora area of District Shopian, an operation was launched by them in the said area.”
The statement further emphasised that the police and paramilitaries had joined the operation “later on”. It also mentioned that “in case any family claims the killed terrorists to be their kith or kin, they can come forward for their identification and participation in last rites at Baramulla.” However, the police did not disclose photographs of the killed individuals.
Just hours before the first shot was fired in Amshipora, three families in the Rajouri district had heard from their sons — Mohammad Ibrar, Imtiyaz Ahmad, and Ibrar Ahmad — for the last time. The trio had gone to Shopian in search of manual work and have remained missing since then.
On 9 August, the family members lodged a missing complaint at the Peeri police station in Rajouri. The next day, pictures of three dead bodies, one of them visibly bullet-riddled, circulated online. The family immediately identified them as the missing labourers, alleging that they were killed by the troopers in a “fake encounter”.
The army troopers, Mr. Khattana said, were jubilant at having killed three “terrorists” and refused to believe local residents, who had denied that the three were either militants or locals. “We told them they are civilians,” he said. “But they did not listen to us. They shouted back at us saying they are [militants].”
Unnamed and unmarked
A subsequent press release by the police on 11 August claimed that the police “had provided sufficient time for identification of dead bodies” but “the dead bodies could not be identified” and were buried in a graveyard in north Kashmir’s Baramulla.
However, Rajouri based activist Guftar Choudhary questioned the sincerity of the claim as he pointed out that no efforts were made to identify the killed. “Let us assume that they are unidentified,” he said. “Between 18 July and 10 August, why weren’t the photos [of the bodies] shown through social media or through the media to verify [identities]?”
Since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy on 5 August 2019, the government forces have intensified the crackdown on all hues of political opinion in Kashmir, particularly pro-freedom and has adopted an even aggressive stance against the militants to stem any opposition.
Had the photos [of the dead bodies] not made their way onto social media, we would have never found out where they vanished.
The erstwhile state is also now under direct federal oversight with the bureaucracy, law enforcement, and defence forces now finding a free hand in their operations. Perhaps, a direct outcome of this was the adoption of the policy of not naming militants killed in gunfights or handing over their dead bodies, raising accountability concerns in a region where forces already operated with impunity.
This has come into effect since April after hundreds turned up for the funeral of a local militant, Sajad Nawab Dar, on 9 April in north Kashmir’s Sopore. Even though large funerals for militants are not uncommon, Mr. Dar’s funeral had raised eyebrows as it came amid an eerie calm that has prevailed since the abrogation.
According to the new practice, enforced after Mr. Dar’s funeral and citing the coronavirus pandemic as a reason, killed militants are buried discreetly far from their native villages–in different graveyards in the north and central Kashmir. While initially the families of the killed militants were not given a chance to participate in the funeral rites, the authorities have since then allowed family members to now quietly be part of the burials.
Following the same protocol, the authorities quietly buried the three persons killed in Shopian. “Had the photos [of the dead bodies] not made their way onto social media, we would have never found out where they vanished,” Mr. Choudhary said. “The family identified them as their own after the pictures went viral.” Mr. Choudhary is convinced that the gunfight was a “fake encounter”.
Reminiscent of the past
In response to the allegations of “staged killings” of three civilians, including a 16-year-old, the Srinagar-based Defence Spokesperson, Colonel Rajesh Kalia issued a three-line statement, saying that the Army has noted “social media inputs” and is “investigating the matter”.
The brief statement reiterated that the “three terrorists killed during the operation have not been identified and the bodies were buried based on established protocols.” The police have simultaneously claimed to have opened an investigation into the matter as well.
However, rights groups in Kashmir have expressed little faith in these claims given the long history of such violations. According to a statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Person (APDP) the Shopian incident of 18 July is a “crime” that “is a continuation of the unaccountable nature of counter-insurgency measures taken by the Indian state in Kashmir for nearly three decades now.”
Five days after the massacre of thirty-six members of the minority Sikh community in south Kashmir’s Chittisingpora—that the government blamed militants for—on the eve of the President of the United State’s India visit in March 2000, five civilians were killed by army troopers in a fake gunfight in Pathribal in Anantnag district. The victims were passed off as militants.
Years later, in 2006, two civilians were killed by police and army personnel in separate fake gunfights and passed off as militants. Four years later, in 2010, three civilians were killed by army troopers in a fake gunfight in north Kashmir’s Machil. This had led to a massive uprising in Kashmir against the government.
Even then, investigations were ordered in each case but remain inconclusive or saw the accused walking free. The Army closed the Pathribal case in January 2014 claiming a lack of evidence against the accused personnel while in the case of the murders in Machil, the life sentence that had been awarded—much to the surprise of rights activists—to five accused troopers was later suspended by a military tribunal.
The policy of denial of bodies of killed militants to their families “creates an atmosphere of lack of accountability”, the JKCCS and APDP have said. “The practice of not identifying the slain militants and refusal to hand over their bodies to their families raises the suspicion of staged encounters.”
Lieutenant General (retired) Deependra Singh Hooda, who commanded the army’s Northern Command between 2014 and 2016, said that even though “the human part of it [current practices] and the fact that it will cause more alienation”, the “[fears] that this will lead to unaccounted killings, [and that] security forces and the army will throw human rights to the wind, I don’t think [that it will happen].”
The fact is too much of a security-centric approach will lead to more anger, alienation, and frustration among the people. They [Kashmiri civilian population] are people. You have to have a little human-centric approach also.
Authorities in Kashmir have long considered large funerals for militants, where sometimes other militants deliver speeches or perform the gun salute to their killed colleagues, have acted as recruiting grounds for the militancy. “It was leading to some more people getting recruited [into the militancy],” said Lt Gen (retd) Hooda.
However, a better approach would have been to prevent crowds from gathering at funerals, said Lt Gen (retd) Hooda. “The fact is too much of a security-centric approach will lead to more anger, alienation, and frustration among the people,” he said, noting that a “balance” in approach was required. “They [Kashmiri civilian population] are people. You have to have a little human-centric approach also.”
With no buffer between the iron hand policies of the government forces and the people of Kashmir, there is little opposition to the current practices from within the system. The increasing intimidation of journalists and the imposition of the media policy—described as an “Orwellian tool”—the press in Kashmir has either avoided asking questions or have faced a wall in trying to do so.
These policies implemented after the abrogation were “absurd policies” that should be discontinued respecting basic fundamental rights of citizens, said Avinash Mohananey, a former intelligence officer who has served in Kashmir and Pakistan. New Delhi’s success in Kashmir was not to be measured in the quantifiable—the numbers of militants killed or arrested—but in whether “the people are getting angrier by the day or not,” he said.
Referring to the issue of thousands of unmarked graves in north Kashmir, Mr. Mohananey said that the current practice of burial of killed militants in faraway graveyards would haunt the government in the years to come. “Don’t forget the issue of graves in the border areas with no epitaphs. We would be creating more unmarked graves,” he said. “Ten years down the line [from now], the government will be [again] asked who they [the killed] are.”
The government forces were, unlike the militants, bound by the law of the land and there should be no scope to flout those, said Mr. Mohananey. “The rules of engagement have never changed,” he said. “[Militants] don’t follow the rules of engagement but on the government’s side, we have to because we are bound by the law and constitution.”
However, even though there was no popular government in the region, there is still “an elected layer” despite the “doubts on their backgrounds” — the panches in the rural areas and the councillors in the urban areas — that had the potential to act as a buffer. “Let all of them raise this issue,” said Mr. Mohananey. “They should take a pledge to ensure [limited attendance in funerals] so that the bodies are handed over to the panchayats.”
The Shopian incident of 18 July, in the absence of an elected government in the region, was an “acid test” for the recently appointed Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha, said Mr. Mohananey. If the allegations of the fake gunfight turns out to be true and the families of the killed are not given justice as per the law, “it will be a continuation of the same trend of denying justice to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir”.
“It will create [more] problems for India,” he added.
The story was originally published in our 17-23 August 2020 print edition.