Days after the sleuths completed investigations in the July 2020 fake encounter involving the killing of three Rajouri labourers, the killing of a teenage trio in a gun battle in city outskirts, has run into controversy with their families claiming they were innocent students, reports Umar Mukhtar
On the cold evening of December 29, Mohammad Maqbool Gannie, a head constable posted at Ganderbal police station received a message in his police WhatsApp group that an encounter had started between militants and a mixed contingent of army, CRPF and police at Lawaypora, in Srinagar outskirts. Given the routine of gun-battles, he treated the news lightly. Hours later, he was informed through a call from his family at Putrigam (Pulwama) that his son Ajaz Ahmad, 22, had not returned home.
Ahmad had earlier left home for Degree College Pulwama. Late afternoon, he had rung up his sister to tell her that he was with a friend and might stay back for the night.
Where Is Your Son?
Gannie called Ahmad’s number multiple-times but it came switched off. “I thought he might be at a friend’s place and might have some issue with his cell phone,” Gannie said. Later that night, he saw another update of the encounter on his WhatsApp and it was still going on. After that, he slept.
The following day, around 9 AM, when Gannie was getting ready for work, he got a call from police station Rajpora. It was the Station House Officer (SHO).
“Where is your son?” he asked Gannie. Bewildered, Gannie told him the same story. The officer asked Gannie for a photograph of his son. A policeman himself, Gannie knew what the context of the demand for a photograph meant. He was told about the encounter he had been reading about in the WhatsApp messages.
The SHO told him to rush to Police Control Room Srinagar. “I had no inkling about what was going on,” Gannie said.
Hoping Against HopeEnroute to Srinagar, Gannie hoped that the situation could be a result of some confusion. Once he reached PCR, he saw a crowd there. He was initially denied entry and told that the bodies are not here. Gannie identified an SI rank official and showed him his identity card. The SI then let him inside the room where the bodies were kept.
“Three naked bodies were lying on the trollies, I identified my son. He had many bullet holes on his body,” said Gannie, as tears welled up in his eyes.
By then, Ahmad’s mother and uncle had also reached PCR. They too saw him lying there. After some time, the body was snatched from them and bundled in a police vehicle. Ahmad was driven to Sonmarg, a 100 km distance from Srinagar and buried there.
“My son was not a militant, he left home for college, he was innocent. He had told me that he wanted to pursue his masters in Chandigarh,” said Gannie. The family said their son was sick for the past many months. “He was suffering from orthopaedic problems. The doctor had advised him complete rest. He had not left his home for the last 35 days. How can a person who has been at home for a month be in contact with militants?”.
A Yearend Death
Barely 3 km away in Bellow, lived Ather Mushtaq, 16, who was also killed in Lawaypora. Like Ahmad, Ather was at his home till 1:30 pm on the day. He had left home to meet his friend. “I left for Shopian at 12 noon to attend my business, he was still at home,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, his father.
Mushtaq too had rung up his sister to tell her that he will not come home and will stay at a friend’s place.
“We called his number. It was switched off. We thought he might be at some friend’s place preparing for the exams,” said Wani.
The following morning, Wani left for Srinagar to drop business partner at the airport. “I kept trying his number but it was switched off. I was beginning to get worried as the night had passed without any contact,” Wani said.
As he returned from the airport Wani said that he thought his son would be home by now. It was then that his phone buzzed. It was SHO Rajpora on the line, seeking details about his son. “I had no answer to give, I told them what I knew,” Wani said.
Wani then sensed that all is not well. He drove home very fast. Once he reached home, he saw many people had gathered at his home. His brother broke the news of Ather being killed in an encounter at Srinagar to him. They had read the news on the internet.
“Ather was a kid and was home till afternoon. He had lunch with his family. How could he be a militant?” Wani asked.
Wani and some of his relatives drove to PCR Srinagar. They saw Ather lying naked on a trolley with two bullet holes in his chest. Soon after Ather’s body was wrapped in a plastic body bag, kept in a police vehicle, and driven to Sonmarg.
Ather was the only son of Wani. He had everything a youth of his age would wish for—an iPhone, car, and access to other luxuries.
A twelfth class student at Rajpora Higher Secondary, Ather had attended four papers of his final examination. He had to sit in his last paper, Urdu on December 31.
“I asked them for the body of my son but they denied. I begged them that he is a kid and I wanted to bury him in our graveyard,” said Wani.
The relatives of both the families said that the army from a local army camp often took phone numbers of young boys from the area and called them at night to enquire about what is going on in the villages. “They call boys every Friday to ask what the local preacher said in the sermon,” said a young boy who came for the mourning to Ather’s home.
Wani and his family members followed the police vehicle to Sonamarg. But they were stopped. They protested and Ather’s uncle Mohammad Shafi laid in front of the police vehicle. Then only they were allowed to proceed. At Gund, a place in Ganderbal en route to Sonmarg, there was a checking point and there they were stopped again.
“I pleaded with them to let us go, I wanted to see the place where they will bury my son,” said Wani.
When disallowed, Wani along with mother and wife started on foot towards Sonamarg around 6 pm. After walking for 2 km, they realised they could not cover the distance of another 23 km in cold and dark.
“We went back to the checking point and begged the security personnel to at least let one vehicle go to Sonamarg. They finally relented,” Wani said.“Once we reached Sonmarg we saw that the bulldozer had already dug up three pits”.
In the dark, Wani had to lit up his phone torch to be able to see.
“I lowered my son into that pit while holding my torch between my teeth. That was not a grave even. We were not even allowed to sob or cry. The policemen there were repeatedly asked to not make any kind of noise, else they will drag us away from there,” said Wani. “I had to bury my 16-year-old son in silence”.
Around 25 km away from Wani’s home is the house of Zubair Ahmad, 22, the third boy who was killed in the encounter. A mason by profession, Zubair is the younger brother of two cops posted at Ganderbal and Budgam, respectively.
A relative of Ahmad said that Zubair would usually remain busy with his work.
This relative who spoke anonymously asked how could Zubair have been able to arrange weapons in just an hour and reach Srinagar. As per the family, till 3 pm, Zubair was in Shopian and the encounter started around 5:30 pm.
One brother of Zubair, posted at Ganderbal, is reported to have has buried many militants at the Sonamarg graveyard.
By December 30, when the operation was declared over and the slain were identified, these statements started circulating offering the other version of the Lawaypora gun battle. Kashmir’s political class sought an investigation into the encounter.
The first information came in a joint presser within an hour after the operation was declared over. It was presided over by Major General H S Hali, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) Kilo Force. Commander of 10 sector RR, Naresh Mishra and SP West Shehzad Saliar were part of the press conference.
“For the last many days, intelligence inputs were pouring in continuously about the movement of militants on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway. Yesterday, we developed leads and came to know that militants are hiding in a house right opposite to Noora Hospital at Lawaypora in HMT area,” Sahi told reporters. “The militants fired indiscriminately at forces and lobbed grenades as well. The operation was put on a halt due to dark but cordon layers were tightened. With the first light, the fire-fight again resumed and militant used heavy ammunition against security forces.” The mixed contingent of army, CRPF and Police suffered no loses.
The police statement got delayed but eventually came late evening on December 30. It said the operation was launched by 2-RR “on a specific input” and the police joined it later. The statement said the holed up militants refused to surrender and were eventually killed. Recoveries included one AK rifle, two pistols and some ammunition.
“Although the three slain militants in today’s’ encounter were not mentioned in our list of militants, yet two of them are hardcore associates of militants (OGWs). Pertinently, one of the two is relative of top HM commander Rayees Kachroo who was killed in 2017. Reportedly, third might have joined very recently,” the police spokesman said. Responding to the statements made by the families, the spokesman added: “Generally parents don’t have an idea about the activities of their wards. Several OGWs after committing crimes like grenade throwing and pistol shooting etc stay normally with their family. For instance, one student from Pulwama who was taking coaching in Srinagar was caught for lobbying a grenade with the help of CCTV’s footage. His parents were totally unaware of his militant activities.” It promised an investigation.
Preliminary enquiries by reporters suggested the police lacked any complaint against either of the three slain in their respective areas.
On December 31, police chief, Dilbagh Singh touches the issue during his press conference in Jammu. “I have no reason to dispute what the GoC Kilo Force (H S Sahi) has stated about the Lawaypora encounter,” Singh said. “The families of two slain youth claimed that their children had gone to submit forms at a University, I want to ask them what were their children doing at encounter site if they had gone to submit a form.” He, however, said the police will still investigate allegations levelled by the families. “It is not important that every militant is listed with the police. When a person leaves his home to join, he doesn’t tell his parents,” he argued when asked about the police statement, made a day earlier.
On the first day of the New Year, there was a spontaneous strike in Srinagar and parts of South Kashmir including Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag. Residents told reporters about their apprehensions including that the abandoned house being searched by the army a few days back. In the afternoon, police issued another statement.
“Contrary to the claims, the verified digital evidence revealed and corroborated that Aijaz and Ather had gone to Hyderpora and from there to the place of occurrence only,” the statement said negating that Aijaz had gone to the University to fill his form. “Similarly, Zubair had gone first to Pulwama, then Anantnag, then Shopian to Pulwama and finally came to the place of occurrence.”
The statement said that a background check revealed that Aijaz and Ather were OGWs who provided logistic support to militants. “Antecedents and verifications to show that both were radically inclined and had aided militants of LeT (now so-called TRF) outfit,” it said. “One of OGW presently under police custody has also corroborated Aijaz’s association with LeT militant Faisal Mushtaq Baba who was killed in Meej (Pampore) encounter in June last year. Pertinently, Ather was relative and OGW of HM top commander Rayees Kachroo who got killed in the year 2017.”
Police, however, have stated that they are still investigating the case. “You and I may not agree in most political matters that concern J&K but I am certain we agree that such incidents bring disrepute to the armed forces and are a grave violation of human rights,” Mehbooba Mufti wrote to LG. The National Conference said the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has assured one of their leaders that the investigations will be fair and impartial.
Interestingly, the Lawaypora erupted at a time when the police had finally charge-sheeted an army officer and two of his civilian agents, including the son of a BJP activist, in the July 2020 fake encounter of Shopian. The investigation into the incident was personally assured by LG Sinha to the Rajouri families. The officer killed three labourers, planted weapons on them and dubbed them militants. The army is taking the case for court-martial.