Handawar’s 48 Hours: The Complete Story

by Tasavur Mushtaq

SRINAGAR: With Kashmir under Covid-19 lockdown and getting stricter in coming days, the last 48 hours saw the killing of 11 persons, all in ‘peaceful’ north Kashmir. Since Sunday encounter in a village in Rajwar area to Monday evening attack on a CRPF patrol, the slain included eight members of the security-grid, two militants and a civilian, said to be a specially-abled person.

The Operation

Armed forces personnel near the spot of attack in Handwara on May 4, 2020. A colonel, a Major and two soldiers and a police officer were killed in the village. KL Image

On Thursday, April 30, suspicious movements were noticed in the Rajwar and Mawar forest area of Handwara falling in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. A search operation was launched by the army’s 15 and 21 RR besides 9 para commandoes and a special operation group of police. Moments later, a brief exchange of fire took place between the army and the militants deep inside the jungle. However, it did not last long.

On Saturday, May 2, according to the officials, around afternoon intelligence inputs indicated the presence of the same group of militants inside a house at Changimulla village. Acting on the input, a joint team of the army led by Colonel Ashutosh Sharma along with Major Anuj and Special Operation Group of police led by Sub-Inspector Qazi Sagheer Ahmad Pathan launched a cordon-and-search operation.

As the contact was established, according to reports, there was a fierce firefight, followed by a considerable lull. Presuming that the militants, believed to be around 8-10 in number have been killed, Col Sharma and four other personnel barged into a house from an adjacent cowshed.

Once inside the house, the reports said, “forces personnel came under intense firing from one corner of the same house.” With this, all the communication links with Col Sharma and his team got snapped. However, reportedly calls made on the mobile numbers of the team were answered by militants hiding inside. It was almost confirmed that the team led by Col Sharma was killed. The darkness and the inclement weather halted the operation.

A defence spokesman in Srinagar said the slain soldiers were trying to rescue the civilians.

With the first light of Sunday, the Army rushed in para-troopers and launched the final assault. As the operation was concluded, the house was searched and the bodies of five personnel and two militants were recovered along with arms and ammunition. “Due to darkness few militants managed to flee, while two were killed in the final assault,” sources said. Besides, an army man, Shinbe Mangesh sustained an injury in his right leg and was hospitalized.

One of the slain militants was identified by police as “top Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Haider from Pakistan.” Another is stated to be local but not many details are available.

Slain Soldiers 

The team of five slain personnel was led by Col Ashutosh Sharma included Major Anup Sood, two army men of 21 Rashtriya Rifles, and a police sub-inspector Qazi Sagheer Ahmad Pathan.

Col Sharma, a resident of Jaipur was a commanding officer of 21 RR in the Rajwar area of Handwara. He had been twice awarded gallantry medals for exemplary bravery in anti-militancy operations.

Survived by wife Pallavi Sharma and 12-year-old daughter Tamanna, Col Sharma hailed from Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh. His wife Pallavi has said, “I had last spoken to Col Sharma on May 1. Thereafter, he went for the operation. Last time, I had met him on February 28 in Udhampur. Thereafter, we had always spoken on the phone.”

A 31-year-old Major was a resident of Panchkula in Haryana. Son of Brigadier C K Sood, he has married a few months ago.

The two other slain army men 29-year-old Naik Rajesh Kumar and 24-year-old Lance Naik Dinesh Singh were deployed as personal guards of Col Sharma.

Colonel Ashutosh Sharma

The death of a colonel-rank officer was seen in the valley after five years. In 2015, the Army had lost two colonels, Col M N Rai of 2/9 Gorkha Rifles CO of 42 RR was killed in Tral, south Kashmir and Col Santosh Mahadik was killed in an encounter in Kupwara.

Police Sub-Inspector, Sagheer was a resident of Trad Karnah in Kupwara. Born in 1978, he had joined as a constable in 1999 in the armed wing of J&K Police. After seven years of his service, he had volunteered in 2006 for working in SOG, a counter-insurgency group. According to the police officials, slain Sagheer was awarded the Sheri-Kashmir police medal for gallantry in 2009, police medal for gallantry by President of India in 2011, and also DGP commendation medal and GOC, northern command commendation disc.

Major Anuj Sood, who was killed along with his Commanding Officer and his two guards in a Handwara village on May 2, 2020.

Tweeting his contribution, the twitter handle of police writes, “During his posting in SOG the martyr remained part of and led various successful anti-terror operations. In recognition of his immense contribution, he was granted three out of turn promotions and he rose from the rank of a constable to sub-inspector over the years.”

Pathan is survived by three daughters and a son besides aged parents.

This is for the second time 21 RR lost its Commanding Officer. Earlier in 2000, the then CO, Colonel RS Chauhan was killed in an IED attack. Interestingly, both the slain CO’s of the 21 RR were recipients of the Sena Medal.

On August 21, 2000, Col Chauhan was killed along with the Sector Commander, Brigadier BS Shergill, near Warpora (Baramulla) not far from the battalion headquarters. A wireless operator travelling in the vehicle with the two officers was also killed. Shergill had taken over the command of the sector just three days before and was on a familiarisation visit to areas under his command when the IED blew up his vehicle.

Police Sub Inspector Qazi S A Pathan killed in Chanjmulla village of Handwara on May 3, 2020.

Among the slain was Naik Rajesh Kumar, a resident of Rajrana village of Punjab’s Mansa district. He was a soldier for 10 years and the lone source of the family income. Punjab government has announced an exgratia relief of Rs 10 lakhs and a job to Kumar’s family.

Lance Naik Dinesh Singh, another slain soldier, belongs to Mirgaon village in Almora district of Uttarakhand. Son of a retired Army Subedar, the family was planning his wedding this summer.

The Sunday attack is the second major attack in the region in a month. Early April, five elite Special Forces commandos were killed in a gun battle lasting several days near the LoC. The gun-battle saw the killing of five militants also.

Tributes

President Ram Nath Kovind, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, paid tributes to the soldiers and security personnel saying “…a grateful nation will always remember their supreme sacrifice. The entire country stands united in the fight against the forces of terror and evil. Thoughts and prayers with the families of martyrs.”

IGP Kashmir Vijay Kumar Paid floral tributes to slain soldiers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Their valour and sacrifice will never be forgotten. They served the nation with utmost dedication and worked tirelessly to protect our citizens. Condolences to their families and friends.”

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described it as “deeply disturbing and painful”.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said the anti-terror operation highlighted the determination of the security forces to safeguard the lives of the people of Kashmir.

The Army, in a tweet, said Chief of Army Staff General M M Naravane and all ranks of the force paid tributes to the “valiant braves of our Army and JK Police for their supreme sacrifice while fighting and eliminating terrorists in Handwara.”

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah also paid tribute on micro-blogging site Twitter, “Sorry to hear about the army & police officers & the jawans who laid down their lives in the line of duty in Handwara this morning. May their souls rest in peace & may their families & colleagues find strength at this difficult time,” he wrote.

The Explosion 

As the news of the major gun battle was dominating the TV screens, there was a blast in the neighbourhood. On Sunday when two boys were playing with a device they found in their Ahgam village of Handwara, it exploded. The blast injured at least seven persons. The injured were shifted to the district hospital from where four were moved to Srinagar.

Falling in a radius of 1.5 kilometres from Changimulla village where the deadly encounter took place, it is four kilometres away by road from the village.

A case has been registered and investigation has been started. Medical staff at the Handwara hospital said they have shifted two of the seven injured for “specialised treatment” to Srinagar.

Monday Attack

Around 5:30 in the late afternoon, militants attacked 92 Battalion of CRPF (A Coy) party Wangam area of Qaziabad Handwara. According to the initial reports, two CRPF men were killed on the spot while many others were injured. While the injured were being shifted to the hospital, one among them succumbed to his injuries on the way.

Confirming the death, PRO CRPF Kashmir, Junaid Khan said that militants attacked the CRPF party at Wangam. “In the attack, three CRPF men were killed, two of them on the spot and another on way to the hospital,” he said.

The specially-abled Omar Shafi Bhat who was killed in a Handwara village where militants killed three CRPF personnel in an attack on May 4, 2020.

According to reports, the fire exchange continued for around five minutes. After the firing stopped, another body was spotted around a half kilometre from the shootout site. He was identified as a 14-year-old boy Omar Shafi Bhat, a class seventh student. A resident of Khipora village, Omar who was also known as Hazim was physically handicapped.

“He along with other boys in the area had taken animals for grazing. While others fled, he could not as he was physically handicapped. He could not even talk properly and would occasionally fell down,” said Mohammad Ramzan, his neighbour.

Initially dubbed as ‘militant’, family termed it as “unfortunate”. “He could not properly walk or talk, how he could be a militant,” asked his uncle Ghulam Muhammad Bhat.

Later a police official said the boy was killed in the “cross-firing”.

The slain CRPF men were identified as Constable Santosh Mishra, Constable Chandra Shekhar, and Ashwani Kumar Yadav.

When the last reports came in, the search operation was going in the area.

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