Hours before the security grid declared the Hyderpora ‘encounter’ over, a couple of tweets by a slain builder’s relative pushed Kashmir to an edge, triggering a quick systematic rethink that led to the return of mortal remains of two slain and a probe by a magistrate. The political class, however, seeks more for speedy justice and restoring shattered confidence, reports Masood Hussain
On Monday, November 15, 2021, people were rushing home by around 6 pm, when the newsbreak came that an encounter has started at Hyderpora, on the bypass. Moments later, the frantic calls started coming to newsrooms about a major traffic jam. Less than 10 minutes later, the police spokesman broke the news that a militant is already slain and thus started the story that dominated Kashmir last week.
Newsrooms knew it could not be an ordinary gun battle because the spot is crucial for the movement of the convoys moving towards north, Kashmir’s ‘border’ region. Around the same spot, there was a major militant attack on an armed forces convoy on June 24, 2013, on the eve of Prime Minister’s Kashmir visit, in which eight soldiers were killed and many survived injured.
The location indicated that it could turn big as the security grid might have got inputs about the rebel presence in anticipation of a possible attack.
— saimabhat (@saimabhat) November 15, 2021
One and half hours later police said “1 more unidentified #terrorist” has been killed. Sometime later, the police declared the “house-owner” succumbing to his injuries. The story seemingly was progressing normally but it had witnessed a twist in between.
“You killed my innocent uncle Mohammad Altaf Bhat in cold-blooded murder In Hyderpora, you used him as human shield and now saying he was “OGW”, return us his body @JmuKmrPolice @SrinagarPolice @IGPand,” senior journalist, Saima Bhat had tweeted around midnight. “#IGP is lying, there was no firing in the complex, they used the innocent civilian as human shield and killed inside.”
This marked the beginning of the undoing of an “operation” and questioned the security narrative on which rested the “edifice of denial” and, what Mehbooba terms “rampant culture of impunity”. These two tweets pushed Kashmir to an edge, creating a situation that it seemed as if Srinagar was about to burst on roads in anger and disorder. Systems got into a quick rethink, right from the MHA and NSA level, and 80 hours later, the bodies of two of the three civilians were exhumed and restored to the families. Sources said the PMO was in the loop, post-operation, and it had in fact sought details of the incident and the casualties.
For Bhats’ in Old Barzulla, these 80-hours were as huge as the Himalayas. The youngest in the Muqdam family, Altaf, 48, despite having multiple health issues was a model builder, whose clientele was huge and widespread. He owned the premises where the “encounter” took place and was running almost half a dozen shops on its ground floor, mostly selling construction material. “He could perhaps be the only builder who would be present at his office for most of the year barring Fridays, August 15 and January 26,” a trader operating from the same vicinity said. “I do not remember him ever missing a prayer.”
A meticulous law-abider, the family and the businessmen he worked with, said, he would ensure that he does not rent out his premises to anybody unless he did not collect all the basic documents and inform the Sadder Police station. “He would keep his own records,” one family member said. Contractor Abdul Majeed, 62, the family head being the headman of the locality said he was always in touch with the police.
“They (security grid) came slightly past 4:30 pm in Sumo and Scorpio. First, a group of cops came wearing pherans and carrying assault rifles and some people did tell them that they can easily be mistaken as militants,” Abdul Majeed Bhat, Altaf’s elder brother said. “They were in the area for some time, searching the people and various premises, and then the area was cordoned off. It was unlike an operation, which usually witnesses multiple cordons and extreme caution by the soldiers.”
In the second stage, the people started watching drones being flown over the area, according to Majeed. It was later that the army, cops and probably the CRPF started collecting people and assembling them in a nearby building where from a 2-wheeler dealer operates. By that time, the cops had collected the cell phones of the people around, which were returned past midnight. It was during this initial action when Aamir Magrey, 24, the Gool resident working and living from the premises that Altaf had rented to Dr Mudasir, 40, was caught, allegedly beaten and his cell phone was demanded (he has said he did not carry one) and let go.
“By the time, I joined the 30-odd people where civilians had been assembled, Altaf had made one round of the building accompanying the soldiers,” one of his relatives who works with the private sector, having a warehouse in the same locality, said. “Then they took him again after half an hour he returned.”
Almost half an hour later, the relative said, the soldiers came again seeking the building owner. “Altaf sahib told Dr Mudasir to accompany and the doctor reluctantly obliged.”
“Sometime later, there were cries but I could not recognise who was crying,” he said, “Soon, there was a burst, maybe 50-60 bullets from an assault rifle.” He said a similar short-span burst was heard almost 20 minutes later. He said no pistol fire was heard barring the Kalashnikov rattle.
By that time, another development had taken place. The soldiers were seeking “laptopwalla”. This apparently was in reference to a room where a “call centre” was operating. The computer centre was operating from part of the floor that Altaf had rented out to Dr Mudasir and his partners. The soldiers required Aamir. So Mudasir, his employer got in touch with one of his partners who accompanied two cops and got Aamir from the neighbouring Classic Hospital where he was resting and smoking for almost 30 minutes. People saw him being taken out of the Classic Hospital premises, where he would sometimes have his meals in the restaurant, but nobody saw him again.
Unlike Altaf, Dr Mudasir’s fate was not known for a long time. Most of the cops told his acquaintances that he was all right. More than 12 hours later, police confirmed his killing as well. The confirmation came hours after he and three others were laid to rest in the remote Rajwar graveyard where all bullet casualties are being buried since March 2020. Barring the police, interestingly not a single person is offering any idea about the fourth person who was within or around the spot.
The Police Version
By all indications, the police had some input. Was it human intelligence or technical one, nobody knows? Kashmir Police Chief, Vijay Kumar addressed a hurriedly arranged news conference to counter “rumours” in which he talked about the unauthorised call centre and the presence of militants.
Announcing the constitution of a Special Investigation Group (SIT) led by a DIG rank officer, Kumar said the joint posse of SOG, Army (2RR) and CRPF killed a foreign militant Bilal alias Haider, his local associate Aamir Magrey, Dr Mudasir Gull, an Over Ground Worker (OGW), besides, Altaf, the building owner, who was killed in crossfire. Earlier he had tweeted about Altaf saying: “As per source and digital evidence, he has been working as #terror associate.”
Kumar said they do not know whose bullet hit Altaf. “I am saying [Bhat] was killed in cross-firing,” Kumar told reporters. “I am not saying if he was killed by militants or if we fired at him. During the encounter, whose bullet hit him is a matter of investigation. If he was hit by a pistol bullet, then terrorists have killed him; if hit by AK rifle, then we can say he was hit by our bullet.”
Offering details, he said they took the two for searching the premises. Initially, when they knocked on the door the militants did not answer. “After a while, they knocked again and this time militants opened the door and fired from a pistol. Our people also fired in self-defence,” Kumar said. Insisting that attempts were made to rescue the two, but “they were standing at a difficult spot and were injured in the pistol fire from the militants.”
Now, Muddasir became the OGW for allegedly giving his rented space to Haider. Kumar held Mudasir responsible for converting the space into a hideout, running an unauthorised call centre, and also driving the militant to this hideout after he attacked a police party in Jamalata, last week. Recoveries included two pistols, two magazines, half-a-dozen mobile phones, a few computers and many other things that Kumar listed.
Lending his weight to the police claim, Lt General DP Pandey, who commands the Srinagar based 15-Corps said Mudasir was a “white colour terrorist”. Impressed by Mudasir’s specious office, the General said that this cannot be owned by a commoner. “Only a person who can have a wrong profession and earn from outside can have this (office) who will be pushing people to terrorism so that his family and home is all right,” the General told reporters on the sidelines of an event. “People who act behind (earning money, status, great jobs for their own families and children) to recruit and fund terrorism in Kashmir should be questioned by our people”.
By the time Kumar’s press conference was over at the Police Control Room, Dr Mudasir’s family was protesting in the Press Colony. Humaira, his wife, said they never lived in the building. Currently living in Rawalpora, she said her husband had his office in the complex and he was moneyed which “is not a sin”. She said Aamir was an employee of her husband.
Mudasir, as the subsequent investigations revealed, was a trained dentist. Son of a retired forest official, Ghulam Mohammad Rather, he graduated from Darbhanga (Bihar) and did house jobs at various hospitals. Given the situation in which Jammu and Kashmir’s trained dentists are, he was unsure if he would ever get adjusted in the government so he started his real estate business.
“Apart from looking after a shop near Hyderpora, he joined a group of other businesses in real estate and started operating from this building,” one of his relatives said. His wife is serving NRHM and the couple has two daughters. “He was not into brokering alone,” the relative said. “He was also building homes on a contract basis and was earning well.”
Since the group of contractors had a full floor to themselves, it was in one room that a computer centre was started. Mohammad Imran, one of the contractors said that the computers were purchased barely three to four weeks ago and the centre was yet to start. “They (the contractors who wanted to start it) were actually trying for a client following which they would formally register and start it,” Imran said. “Part of the equipment was yet to be opened.”
However, everybody does admit that Aamir was living there and taking care of the customers who would visit the contractors.
People who knew Mudasir said that he was very intelligent and would live an impressive life. “He was such a kind of person that even if he would get a whiff of something fishy, he would actually leave there and then,” one trader who knew the dentist said. “His focus was his business and family, nothing else.”
Unlike Altaf and Mudasir the information about Aamir, now a “militant associate” started trickling in. A resident of remote Thatharka village in Ramban’s Gool belt, he turned out to be the son of Abdul Lateef Magrey, 58, an assistant lineman in Public Health Engineering (now Jal Shakti), who had been bestowed the honour for bravery by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2012. Besides, he was also a recipient of some honour that the armed forces bestowed upon him for his contributions to the counter-insurgency.
Lateef had an interesting story.
On August 6, 2005, Lateef had some arguments with militants. Later that day, a local militant, Yasir Bhat, barged into his home and opened fire. His cousin, Abdul Qayoom got killed and his sister Ruqaya was injured. Lateef personally survived injured. In retaliation and apparently in self-defence, Lateef took a stone and killed the militant on the spot.
Not an ordinary incident, that very day, Magrey family migrated from his village and started living somewhere around Nagrota (Udhampur). He told reporters that for five years, he worked with the armed forces in counter-insurgency. It was only in 2011 that Margey returned home but continues to live under tight security. Even now, his home on a peak is guarded by personnel of the IRP battalion.
It was for this contribution that the army had honoured him (GOC-in-C Northern Command acknowledged his services on January 15, 2005) as the state government bestowed upon him the State Award for bravery. NN Vohra, Kashmir’s long time governor, presented the gold medal and citation to him on July 25, 2014. The citation mentions that when Lateef was hit by a bullet, he hit the militant with a stone. As the militant fell down, his sister-in-law snatched the militant’s rifle which Lateef eventually used to kill Bhat.
After hearing about his son’s killing, Lateef accompanied the village Sarpanch to Srinagar where police refused him Aamir’s mortal remains and insisted that he was a militant.
Rather than the killing, it was the allegation that made him restless. “I was an Indian, am an Indian and shall remain an Indian for times to come,” Lateef told almost everybody. “But I will continue to fight for justice for my son, who was killed because somebody in police or army wanted to have more stars.”
Lateef is not ready to accept that his son was a militant or an associate. “He was living in that complex with his sister till recently,” Lateef said. “How could he get militants there?”
Aamir, second of his four sons and daughter, according to his father had done two-year molvi course in Bandipora followed by two further years of study at the famous Deoband seminary. Then the Covid19 lockdown imposed restrictions on the movement of the people so his son returned home. For a living, he started working for Mudasir as his aide. He insisted that he has raised his kids with extreme caution and difficulty while being a migrant.
Lateef’s elder son is a labourer in Delhi where he lives with his family. His other son is pursuing B Tech in Gujarat as another son is in twelfth standard. Interestingly, Aamir’s brother-in-law was employed by Altaf and the couple was putting in with Aamir till recently.
“An Indian who killed a militant with a stone, his son is labelled a militant and killed by pumping bullets into him. And, then even his body is not returned,” Magray regretted. “What kind of justice is this?” Magray has alleged that his son, after being taken from the hospital, was killed outside the building.
But his arguments did not help him secure his son’s body. He was only shown his photograph. So he returned home to get into instant mourning that is still going on. Later, some police officers had visited the family offering them a free ride to Handwara where they can see their slain son but not for reburial. They rejected the offer.
A Day Long Sit-In
Protests by the two Srinagar families and the display of emotions of loss and anger had already pushed the system to rethink. As the political class gathered its own details from ground zero, they lent their voice to the demands for the return of bodies. Cutting across party lines, they started demanding an impartial judicial probe.
The civil administration was also convinced that the civilians stand killed. They were willing to exhume the bodies moments after the security grid gives them a green signal that it would not lead to any law and order situation. They also admitted that not involving the respective families in the funeral process was yet another breach of new protocol governing burying the casualties in far away cemeteries.
When the families did not get their bodies on November 16, they appeared in Press Colony and sat in a protest, the whole day. It added to the reportage of the issue that was already published the world over. By late evening it was clear that the families were unwilling to go home unless they are adequately assured of their demand. Some of the social media users actually pricked Kashmir’s political class by saying that merely tweeting will not help and they should actually join the protest, instead. This proved a tall order for Mehbooba Mufti who was put under house arrest after flying in from Jammu.
The way the two distraught families protested, impressed people. Omar Abdullah praised them for being “reasonable in their demands and dignified in their conduct”.
Shortly before midnight, when the families were somehow managing to sit under the sky with blankets and empty stomachs, the electricity supply was snapped. Moments later, the cops in battle gear with their hoods on reached the spot and started pulling protesters into an awaiting vehicle. In one case, however, the cops lost their patience in managing Abdul Majeed Bhat and his daughter, Saima. While the latter somehow was spared from manhandling, Bhat could not be. They were driven out and sent home, apparently with a promise that their demand is seriously being considered.
By now the ruling class felt that the situation was getting out of hand.
A Magisterial Enquiry
The ice broke in the forenoon on November 18, when the Lt Governor, Manoj Sinha tweeted: “The government will take suitable action as soon as the (inquiry) report is submitted in a time-bound manner”. His administration, he said “wants to reiterate its commitment of protecting lives of innocent civilians and that it will ensure there is no injustice”.
“We are open to corrections if anything has gone wrong,” Police Chief, Dilbagh Singh, said, perhaps for the first time. “A police probe will also find out what went wrong. We will find out what happened in the Hyderpora encounter. We are for the safety of people and will not shy away from a probe.”
Post haste, the orders were issued in the afternoon with Additional Deputy Commissioner appointed as the enquiry officer for the case registered with Police Station Hyderpora! Since Hyderpora lacks a police station, a corrigendum to the order was issued mentioning the actual place, Sadder Police Station.
This, however, did not help ease the tensions triggered by the “encounter”. All political parties came out in protest. PAGD, Peoples Conference, National Conference, and PDP – almost everybody ensured that they speak up and it is reported and recorded.
Attacks from Kashmir politicians were scathing. Omar Abdullah termed it “naya Kashmir of 2021” in which Jammu and Kashmir Police fulfils the Prime Minister’s promise to remove “dil ki doori & Dilli se doori.” Almost ridiculing the police, the former head of the Unified Headquarters said he has neither heard nor seen a “hybrid militant”, a description assigned to Aamir.
The erstwhile loner and now leading an impressive flock in his Peoples Conference, Sajjad Lone was angry. “What on earth has happened to the administration? Why can’t they present a human face? Why are they so intent on presenting a very inhuman and ugly face?”
By then, the Hurriyat had called for a strike. Rather than media, the word of mouth prevailed. Even though the bodies were returned to the families at the midnight on Thursday, the strike was complete in most of Kashmir. For the first time, the separatist block returned to the scene.
For the first time after adopting the new protocol of ceasing the bullet casualties and burying them in secrecy without their families, the administration returned the bodies for reburial at their ancestral graveyards.
People neutral to Kashmir situation and the local political class, even after acknowledging the government response, were unimpressed by the decision. Yashwant Sinha, former Finance Minister in the Vajpayee era, who heads the Concerned Group of Citizens on Kashmir, said the government response was “as clear as mud”. He suggested the probe be up-scaled to the sitting Supreme Court judge level.
“The magisterial probe ordered by the Jammu and Kashmir government cannot be fair as it is against the principles of justice that the accused administration investigates the charges against itself,” PAGD spokesman, Yousuf Traigami said. He wants a judicial probe. In fact, the group has requested President Kovind for this. Mehbooba is also seeking “credible judicial enquiry”.
Congress is also seeking a judicial probe. Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is touring Jammu, told reporters at Kathua that while he has respect for the security grid, it will have to be ensured that Hyderpora like incidents do not happen. “If such things take place in the capital city then people ought to raise eyebrows on what must be happening in the hinterland,” Azad said. He unearthed a series of murders when he was the Chief Minister that led to the arrest of 13 cops including an SSP. “There should be a judicial inquiry by a High Court Judge into the Hyderpora encounter to find out how and why these people were killed.”
“We demand a judicial probe by a sitting judge so that neutrality in the investigation is beyond doubt,” Sajad Lone said, insisting an ADC cannot go against his employer. “It is imperative to not only deliver justice but also mitigate all doubts about the impartiality of the probe.”
Even Bhim Singh talked, for a while, in the same language, seeking a judicial probe.
It Just Began
Both the families have thanked the LG for the return of the bodies and the announcement of an investigation. They, however, said the battle for justice is yet to start. “They gave the bodies of innocents back, it is no favour,” one relative said, terming the enquiry a ‘momentary relief’. “We have to see why they were killed and how their children get justice.”
‘Guilty Would Not Be Spared’
Addressing a gathering of members of the Sikh community in the Jammu region on the occasion of Guru Purab, LG Sinha said that whosoever is found guilty in the Hyderpora “encounter” won’t be spared and the administration is committed to ensuring justice. “One incident has taken place as far as the security situation is concerned. I want to assure people those found involved won’t be spared,” he said, adding that in three to four days, things will be more clear and “he would be able to discuss more on the issue.” Some people quoted in this report talked anonymously and wished not to be named.