A brief gun-battle triggered a chain of events that consumed seven lives including two young men who joined militancy in different situations, as two girls are still fighting the bullet-induced vegetative status. Taking a long, deserted route, and negotiating passage with the new groups of angry vigilantes, manning the new chain of drop-gates, Muhammad Younis visited the twin villages to offer the first ground report about the silenced outlaws and the failure of the law in protecting the human loss at a time when lawmakers were keen to seek votes for the local body poll
Last Monday, a couple of days after the killing of two civilians in Gunovpora village, the road from Bijbehara to Shopian was almost conspicuous by the absence of vehicles. Almost everywhere people could be found on roads: some as though standing guard, some sitting in front of shuttered shops with Kangris slipped under their Pherans, and others, most particularly the youth, playing cricket.
At certain places enroute, the smashed windowpanes scattered on the roads offered a slight idea why so many people had bordered the deserted roads, sitting and gossiping in groups. “They are to make sure the strike continues, and no passenger vehicle ply the road, until the men responsible for the killing of the civilians are brought to book,” said Aadil Ahmad from Bunpora Shopian. “The whole area simmers in anger.”
For the last one week, Aadil Ahmad, a salesman at a hardware store at main Chowk Shopian had been sitting idle at home. The reason was a sort of civil curfew imposed by the local youth. “From the local mosques every day, announcements are made for shopkeepers against opening shops.”
At Zainapora, a new tehsil, between Bijbehara and Shopian, a group of boys had set up a border of small boulders across the road, literally a line drawn for no one to transcend without their approval. On either side of the line, many vehicles were stranded, waiting to be permitted to move, which seemed not to happen anytime soon.
“Didn’t you know the whole district is on strike,” the leader of the group, probably in his twenties, was telling a person, elder, to him. The latter was bargaining for an approval to move past the spot. Showing a prescription letter from a doctor, he said he only had to buy medicines for someone in his family. “Otherwise I would never have brought my vehicle out without purpose. I know we are on a shutdown for the killings… and I’m with you.” His story had no buyers.
“We don’t ask you speak for us… only what we request you is to write the truth,” the leader of the group, told this reporter, after checking the I-card.
After driving through 30 km of Karewas, planted with the apple trees, stripped from leaves, however, reinforcing the high and dry condition of the area, and dozens of drop-gates raised by the youth, it was villageAudoo. The gun-battle in which Firdous and a local militant of the village, Sameer Ahmad Wani, were killed on January 24 happened here.
Wani for most of his life had been as calm as his village. “The army rarely visited our village, so we had no grudges against them,” said Hilal Ahmad Wani, Sameer’s father. His white beard overstates his age; he is only 40. The first militant of the village now, Sameer’s life took turn when he opted for Commerce subject at higher secondary Pulwama. “He saw a whole new world out there in Pulwama: protests, militant funerals, shutdowns.”
Days passed, and Hilal found the nature of his son taking on a “strange hue.” After Burhan’s killing, Sameer started participating in stone pelting at places away from his home. Three months before he joined militants, Hilal had a firm hunch about the same. He talked to his son, and wanted him to wait for at least two more years. “Will see,” he gave me a laconic reply, and changed the subject,” Hilal said. “And now he couldn’t even live half a year, and died at such a tender age.” Sameer joined Hizb in September 2017, and before he could have completed an age of 16 years, the bullets cut short the journey of his life too early.
On one hand, while the family was mourning the death of their son, on the other they were busy praying for the recovery of their daughter. Saima Hilal, 18, the little sister of the deceased, was also shot during the encounter. Currently she is in an almost vegetative state in the Sher Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Srinagar.
That day, Hilal Ahmad Wani said that Sameer and Firdous were actually in his house when the area was cordoned off. Trying to help the duo sneak-out, as Saima, along with other neighbouring girls, accompanied them out, the army opened fire at them. Saima and Sumaya were hit, but they could make to the hospital. Shakir Ahmad, a 14-year-old boy from Kalampora, a pedestrian, however, couldn’t.
With the cover gone, the militant duo took position in the cowshed of Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat. The shed owner stayed for his cattle, including 40 sheep and a pregnant cow. “I begged them to permit me take away my sheep and the cow, my only means of livelihood, but the army did not allow me,” Bhat said. “When I heard the officer asking his men to kill me along if I didn’t leave, I immediately took flight.”
The encounter stretched for five hours. From the cowshed, apart from the two corpses of militants- burned to black, and arms separated from elbows- half of Bhat’s herd was brought out dead. “Since then, losing one or two each day, only half a dozen of my sheep have been able to survive,” Bhat said while making arrangements of shelter for the rest of his cattle. From the debris of his destroyed structure, which Bhat had piled up in the corner of his courtyard now, a live shell had gone off on the next day of encounter seriously injuring a boy Musharaf Fayaz Najar. The 10-year-old boy lost his battle for life on February 1, 2018 morning.
After returning back home, the people of the neighbourhood found many of their household things gone missing: water motors, invertors, matting, and many other things. “From my house only, the golden ornaments of my daughters, valuing Rs 4.5 lakh had been stolen away by the forces,” Hilal said. “They hadn’t even spared the microphone of the local mosque.”
Almost half a dozen kilometres away from Audoo is Gunovpora. The village wore a gloomy picture. Within a period of one week, it was witness to four killings; half of which were its own: Firdous Ahmad Lone, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant, killed in Audoo encounter, and Suhail Javaid Lone, a civilian, who was killed in a post-encounter shooting by the army.
Gunovpora residents knew Firdous as Jig Moulvi for his religiosity. “An ardent follower of Islam he was. He offered five-time prayers… and about the early morning prayers, don’t ask me if he had ever missed one since he turned adult because I don’t remember,” said a person who ushered me to Firdous’s erstwhile abode. Firdous, he said, had a small home library in which he used to spend most of his time. “From his interests, everyone knew the village would have its own Islamic scholar in the near future. In fact, for some period, he even taught the Quran to the village kids at the local Darsgah.”
At the main entrance of Firdous’s house, there was a lot of ebb and flow of the people. In a recently pitched tent in the courtyard, the bereaved family was receiving condolences from the people coming from different areas. “We, unfortunately, have to watch the precious blood of our people spilt until the issue of Jammu and Kashmir is resolved,” a person with white beard cascading down his chin, was addressing a gathering inside. “Don’t know how long we will have to shoulder our little ones?”
For consecutive five days, Abdul Rashid Lone, father of Firdous, had made the tent his resting place, patiently listening to each speaker with somewhat similar theme. “Like every parent, the dead body of my son was too heavy on my senile shoulders,” said Lone Sr. Firdous was only 22 years old when he was killed. Too introvert to voice his desires; his decision to join militancy had been a bit of a “louder” surprise for his father. “Until I saw my son’s photo on Facebook wielding an assault rifle, I never believed that he would’ve joined, given his sober disposition.”
Given the respect of his son in the locality, Rashid was satisfied with his upbringing. And deep in heart he preserved this wish that his son, the most competent person in the village, would be there to lead the funeral prayers of his father when he is dead. “I didn’t know it would be me to do it for him,” said a septuagenarian Rashid, a retired R&B official.
Firdous was known for his prowess in education as well. After qualifying his eighth standard from a local school, Firdous was sent to SSM College, Srinagar for further studies. He passed his matriculation with 93% marks. In the twelfth, he obtained 90% marks in medical stream. According to Rashid, in 2014 NEET exams, his son was one of the only three qualifiers from Kashmir. For an MBBS seat that Firdous earned at Faridabad Medical College, he even submitted an amount of Rs 8000 as admission fee but because of some discrepancy in the process, he wasn’t able to join the college.
“First the medical counsel at old secretariat Srinagar told us to wait for few months until the admissions would start in the Faridabad College, then as we visited them a couple of times for follow up, we finally got the answer that there was no vacancy left in the College.” Eventually,Firdous applied for a Junior Assistant post in Medical College Srinagar. When the results of the same came up, he was on serial number five. “Every exam, he took, he did well in each.”
Drawing a salary of Rs 25000, Firdous worked in the college for 10 months, until September 5, 2016. The same day, almost a month past the killing of BurhanWani, his phone number came repeatedly switched off. On the next day, the family contacted the principal of the college to know the whereabouts of their son, but to their dismay, the principal was ignorant about the development. The family lodged an FIR, but still, there was no clue for two consecutive months until Firdous showed himself on FB, dressed in militant fatigues.
On Firdous’s last visit home from the college, his father had found him very upset. When asked what the reason was, he had told his father that he was fed up seeing a lot of people, injured in the ensuing protests of Burhan’s killing, driven to the hospital for treatment. “Father, I see hundreds of men, in a pool of blood every day,” he told me. “From Burhan’s killing up to the time he picked up the arms, he was constantly attending the injured patients in the hospital. He would have hardly slept during the nights of that month. Now it seems he needed a long deep sleep,” said the emotional Rashid.
Across a small wall, bordering the premises of Rashid, lives his brother Javaid Ahmad Lone. His courtyard was also occupied by a tent. Taking leave from Rashid, the people went there to pay condolences to Javaid as well. On Saturday, barely three days after his cousin, Suhail Ahmad, Javaid’s eldest son, 17 years old, a student of the twelfth class, was also killed by the army. The incident took place outside their house.
On January 27, 2018, morning, according to the locals, the army men from Balpora garrison drove into the village in two vehicles. They had sought the removal of the banners portraying the militants, put up by the local youth outside Firdous’s house. “Because of the desecration of the militant bodies after their killing, the air was already charged up in the village, and there was likelihood of protests… so I went to the youth, gathered outside, to refrain them from doing any such thing, which they abided to…. and then I went to the army men and requested them to let us fulfil our rites, and honestly they also allowed and left,” said one of the relatives of Rashid.
The phase passed peacefully but the situation changed later. Around half past two, they said, the army men came back with almost three dozen vehicles to get the banners removed, to which people objected, which immediately materialized into stone-pelting and sloganeering. “Wasn’t it provocative?” he questioned. “If they (army) hadn’t come again, there wouldn’t have happened anything otherwise.”
The army opened fire on the people gathered, “and for around two and a half hours the firing went on… if we hadn’t rushed to safety, I don’t hesitate to say there would’ve been a massacre here,” a woman, witness to the incident, said, showing the marks of bullet shots, almost on everything, the windows of the houses, doors, rooftops, and trees. When the army left the spot, two boys, one of whom was Suhail, and other Javaid Ahmad from Balpora, were seen flat against the road in a pool of blood. Both had breathed their last. Among the many injured, Rayees Ahmad Ganai from Narpora, succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday morning. A second-year student, Ganai was an orphan. “People from different areas, including Balpora, half a kilometre away from Gunovpora, and Narpora, almost 4 km away, had come only to pay condolences, and not to throw stones,” said the woman.
The army had claimed that a mob of 200-250 people, tried to lynch a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) and set a vehicle on fire, and that was what had prompted them to open fire. They said they were “provoked to the ultimate” and the action was in “self-defence”. But the villagers, refuting the claims of the army, said the JCO fell off from his vehicle during the mayhem, and in the barrage of bullets being fired people were running for safety and nobody tried to lynch him.
While a formal murder case against the army has been registered by police, a senior police officer handling the security situation of South Kashmir said, “We were so seriously handling the situation that we did not offer even an iota of the reason for young men to be on the roads.”He added that they had even advised all the security forces to avoid getting closer to the locations where mournings were in progress. “But I do not know why the 10-Garwal decided to pass through the village?
The separatist triumvirate comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik, despite being restricted to their homes by the police, sponsored a day-long protest across Kashmir on January 28. Most of the Shopian-Pulwama region is yet to open, even eight days later. February 2, also remained disturbed as authorities imposed restrictions in parts of the city in wake of separatists call for protests.
On January 29, Monday, the killings even caused a hold up in the on-going budget session. Opposition benches, unmoved to the pleas of the ruling party that the killings would be debated later, brought adjournment of the question hour for the debate.
In anticipation of the debate, BJP’s lawmaker Ravinder Sharma had told somewhere near the Line of Control that the army’s “self-defence action” was “much needed”. He dared police to register “as many FIRs as you want” as army enjoys the impunity under Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
But in the assembly, the political parties spoke for first half of the day and all the speakers sounded helpless. Killings, Yousuf Tarigami said, “have inflamed the situation in past and could do the same harm again.” He asserted that condemnations seem mere fashion now as those in Delhi show only an “indifferent and callous attitude”.
Mentioning the bullets had directly hit youth in heads and chests, Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister, raised questions on Standard Operations Procedure (SOP). He also questioned the requirement of a magisterial enquiry when FIR was registered by the police.
Winding up the debate, the visibly concerned Chief Minister brought on record the helplessness of J&K’s chief executive. She talked about the directions that she issued in the Unified Headquarters for restraint and her conversation with the Defence Minister. Towards the end of her speech, however, Mehbooba resorted to drawing parallels with the records that her predecessor had created during his tenure, a point Omar strongly objected to.
“This punctured the entire debate,” a vocal lawmaker from a third party said. “Tarigami had suggested a resolution and the House was closer to this reality because he had said the resolution will be supported by the NC and Congress and it could have, at least, sent a message out. But that did not happen.” The idea, another lawmaker outside NC, Congress, PDP said, was to tell Delhi to get its act together and engage with Pakistan “but the Chief Minister accused Islamabad of not being pro-talks.”
With no visible outcome other than strike and statements, the chain of killings has started taking its toll. Most of south Kashmir is closed for all these days. The state government is in the process of formalising a request to the central government that it may not be able to hold Panchayat Polls in summer. The idea right now is to attempt a municipal poll first and push the Panchayat Poll schedule to autumn. Chief Minister is presiding over an all-party meeting to make this assessment endorsed by the other political parties.
(Tahir Bhat reported from Jammu)