A firing incident almost coinciding with the Zubin Mehta show, triggered a chain of reactions in entire South Kashmir. By the time cabinet responded, the toll was up. Suhail A Shah visits the bereaved families to explain why South is still smouldering.
As the clock struck noon on 7th of September the red carpet was rolled out for the Bavarian State orchestra at Shalimar Garden in Srinagar while the international media, who had arrived to cover the 90 minute concert, interacted with activists at a parallel event organised by the Coalition of Civil Societies (CCS).
At the same time CRPF personnel of the 14th Battalion shot 4 people dead and injured another in Gagren area of Shopian, some 53 Kilometres South East of the Srinagar city.
Ever since, different versions of what unfolded in Gagren that fateful day have been tumbling out.
That day nineteen-year-old Adil Ahmad Wachkoo left home, in Bonna Bazar area of the Shopian town just before noon.
He was to appear in BA first year bi-annual examination to be held at the Government Degree College, Shopian, situated near the CRPF camp in Gagren.
In the market place Adil’s friend Tawseef Ahmad Bhat, 19, from Baba Mohalla Shopian offered him a lift, which he gleefully accepted and both started to ride towards the college.
“We were stopped by the CRPF personnel guarding the camp gate,” said Adil, the lone survivor of the shootout.
The CRPF personnel, according to Adil, demanded to see the papers of Tawseef’s bike which he failed to produce.
“The uniformed men made us stand there for about ten minutes, hurling occasional abuses at us,” Adil said, “and then everything went blank.”
He recalls standing there and then sound of the gunshots; however, he remains unsure of where exactly the fire came from.
“Shot at, we ran from the spot,” Adil recalls, “And collapsed in a nearby alley.”
They were spotted by some locals who ferried them to the hospital in separate vehicles.
While Adil, shot in the abdomen, made it to the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, Tawseef succumbed to his injuries on the way.
“I was later told that he breathed his last at Pulwama,” says Adil.
Two others killed in the shootout were later identified as Tariq Ahmad Mir, 32, of Wokai village in neighbouring Kulgam district, a Walnut trader by profession and Muhammad Yousuf, 29, a businessman from Zainapora area of Shopian.
According to the families, Tariq was in Gagren area to pick up a consignment of walnuts, while Yousuf, was there to purchase some cardboard boxes used to pack apples which he was to deliver at some other place later.
The fourth slain was buried unidentified in Digam village of Shopian.
Police maintained that while three among the four slain have been identified as civilians with no militant records, the fourth one could not be identified by anybody.
“However the evidence collected from the scene of the shootout gives the impression that he might have been Pakistani National and a Lashkar-e-Toiba operative, Abdullah Haroon,” the police maintained.
The statement was in contrast to the earlier police statement, issued on the day of the shootout, wherein the police had claimed that two of the slain were ‘anti-national elements, who had attacked the CRPF personnel, standing guard at the camp gate’.
The CRPF on the other hand said that six youth riding two bikes came towards the camp gate and when they were questioned by the guards they started abusing.
“Moreover one of them drew a pistol and fired two rounds at the guards,” CRPF spokesperson, Kishore Prasad told Kashmir Life, “The pistol however got locked after that.”
He said that in retaliatory fire four of them were killed, one was injured and another managed to flee the scene.
Regarding the police clean chit to three of the slain, Prasad said that a thorough investigation into the matter will reveal that all of them were militants. “We too have ordered a procedural probe into the matter,” Prasad said.
The families of the victims, however, have denied that their slain kin had any militant links whatsoever and their claims have been attested by the police version of the story.
Barring Adil, the key eyewitness of the shootout, so far only one other eyewitness has come forward, a local woman.
The woman, identified as Maroofa Bano by a local News gathering Agency (CNS) was quoted as saying that she saw the CRPF personnel killing the youth in cold blood. “They shot the youth at a point blank range,” Bano was quoted as saying. “Sensing that a Bihari mason had witnessed the blood bath from across the road, they shot at him as well.”
Bano told the news agency that the CRPF personnel also tried to shoot her, however, she managed to flee.
Bano’s version that the fourth deceased person was a Bihari mason has put a question mark on the police claims dubbing him as a Pakistani national and a Lashkar operative.
Dismissing her claims, a senior police official from the area, on condition of anonymity, argued that if the slain was a mason from Bihar somebody would have at least identified him. “Besides two hand grenades and a pistol has been recovered from the scene, that punctures her testimony,” said the police official.
The State cabinet, expressing displeasure over non-clarity of facts in the incident even after five days, has directed the Director-General of Police Ashok Prasad to ensure that the fourth person be identified “within the next 48 hours.”
Joining the separatists, some pro-India politicians jumped into the fray claiming all the four slain youth were innocent civilians. President of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress, Saifuddin Soz, termed the killings highly deplorable and painful.
Another Congress leader and former Minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, said that all four youth were civilians, “The fourth slain, dubbed as a militant by police, was a Bihari labourer who just happened to witness the barbarism of the CRPF personnel.”
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) President Mehbooba Mufti said that dubbing the innocent civilians as militants is like rubbing salt on the wounds.
Calling the action of the troops inhumane National Conference (MP) and Parliamentarian, Dr Mehboob Beg demanded an immediate probe into the killings.
The NC patron, Dr Farooq Abdullah, however, was the only one to reject a probe into the matter.
Following the killings a strict curfew was imposed in Shopian and Kulgam towns; however, notwithstanding the restrictions, clashes have frequently broken out in many parts of both the towns.
Demanding immediate removal of the camp, the people in Gagren allege that the camp has a history of killing innocent people. “In 2004 an innocent civilian, Firdous Ahmed Ganai Son of Ghulam Ahmad Ganai of New Colony Shopian; was killed by the CRPF personnel at the camp in cold blood without any provocation,” the protestors said.
They said that Ganai was in the area to buy some bread when he was shot at and killed.
As the protests intensified on 11th of September after a bout of heavy stone pelting, the CRPF personnel at the 14th Battalion again, allegedly opened fire killing another civilian.
This time a 27 year old school bus driver, Rafi Hussain Rather of Bona Saidapora village in Shopian, fell to the bullets while he was on his way to his in-laws in Aliyarpora area of Shopian, to attend to his sick 6 month old daughter.
On 12th of September Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, after a prolonged silence over the killings, went into fire fighting mode and ordered a probe into the killings.
The State Cabinet which met in Srinagar under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister also decided that the CRPF at the Gagren camp will be replaced by the Jammu & Kashmir Armed Police.
Whether the decision is going to pacify the tempers of the people remains to be seen.
Oblivious of the Bavarian State Orchestra and the parallel event four people, with different purposes and backgrounds, started off from their homes the fateful morning, never to return back.
Tariq Ahmad Mir
Thirty-two-year old Tariq Ahmad Mir got a phone call from one of his contacts in Gagren area in the morning, asking him to pick up a consignment of walnuts.
“Father had pleaded him not to leave the house as a strike was being observed,” said Gulzar Ahmad, Mir’s elder brother, who lives in a separate house, “He left only to return dead.”
Panicked with the news of shooting from Gagren the family frantically tried Tariq’s cell phone, which was answered by somebody telling them that he found the phone somewhere. “One of our cousins works in police and it was he who identified my brother’s body,” Gulzar said. “We were informed at about 10:00 PM in the evening.”
Mir had been married only a year ago and made very little money through purchase and sale of walnuts, the only source of income for his family of six, including his aged parents and an unmarried sister.“He was blessed with a daughter just two months ago,” Gulzar said. “He named her Sidrat-ul-Muntaha and dreamt her of touching the skies.”
According to the family members, Mir had been working hard after the birth of his daughter for he wanted to provide her the best education.
“No, he had no militant links whatsoever,” said Waseem Ahmad, Mir’s friend and neighbour. “He minded his own business and worked very hard, that’s it.”
Days after death visited the Mir household in Wokai village of Kulgam, the place is engulfed into a mournful silence.
Mir’s wife Parveena sits amid neighbourhood women, her two month old daughter cuddled in her arms, probably wondering what future has in store for her.
Tawseef Ahmad Bhat
Soon after Tawseef was released from the Kathua jail in Jammu in April 2011, after serving a four and a half month detention under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), his aged father Gul Muhammad Bhat got a small furnishing shop established for him, just across the street from their house.
“I spent a lot of money to get him out of the jail,” a mournful Bhat says. “Only if money could bring him back, I would have spent every last penny.”
Tawseef was in his shop when his friend, Adil dropped by, “He had offered his friend a ride to the college.”
“He was killed in cold blood,” Bhat says. “He was not a militant and the police are well aware of the fact.”
Tawseef was shot in his back and succumbed to his injuries on the way to the hospital. “We were planning to expand his shop and had decided to get new furnishing items from Srinagar on Monday,” said Bhat. “The tyrants did not let my innocent son witness the Monday.”
He said that off late his now slain son had been persisting to attend college afresh, “I did not pay heed to him but I thought he will be better off at the shop. This will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Muhammad Yousuf Sofi
For Sami, Sofi’s wife of two months, the world has come to end – death has cruelly snatched her prince charming.
Sofi traded in the cardboard boxes, used to pack apples, and given the peak season of the trade he had gone to a Kulgam factory to buy some of them.
“On his return he stopped in Gagren to visit our sister, who has been married in the area,” said Fayaz Ahmad, Sofi’s brother, a government teacher.
Known for his helping nature in the area, Sofi, was married two months back and had been a happy man ever since. “He treated his wife like a princess,” Fayaz said. “He was more of a friend to me than a brother.”
After his marriage, he had been trying to convince his brother to leave his job and join him in the business. “He was a humble soul who wanted everybody to be happy,” Fayaz said, adding that the whole village is in mourning ever since he departed.
When asked if he had any militant links, Fayaz said that his brother was a star in the whole area, “Anybody can tell you that he had no militant links whatsoever.”
Rafi Hussain Rather
Six months ago, when Rafi was blessed with a beautiful daughter, he stopped working as a labourer and took the job of a school bus driver at Dolphin Public School in Shopian.
“His wife was at her parent’s house in Aliyarpora, Shopian and when she called to inform him about their daughter being sick, he grew restless,” said Ashiq Hussain, Rafi’s elder brother.
Despite the on-going clashes, Ashiq said, he decided to go and see his daughter. “I will return soon, is what he said to me before leaving,” Ashiq said, “But he did not.”
About two hours, after Rafi left home, the family got a phone call which shattered their world for ever.