As Shopian killings paralysed Kashmir for almost a week, yet again, Umar Mukhtar spent crisis-time down south in locating and meeting the families of the four civilians who became the latest edition of the surging collateral damage of Kashmir’s unending war.
On April 1, 2018, at around 2 am, in Dragad village, Mushtaq Ahmad Thoker, 35, was into slumber with his family including his 10-year old twins. In other room, his aged parents Ghulam Mohammad, 110, and Khadijah 100 were sleeping. They were woken up by frantic knocks at their door. Mushtaq put on a Pheran over his undershirt, picked a solar lantern and opened the door, still being knocked at. Even his father joined him.
As the door opens, a posse of army personnel was standing. They were in a visible hurry. Mushtaq was ordered to accompany them. He and his elderly parents resisted the order. They did not let Mushtaq go. Enraged, soldiers kicked frail Ghulam Mohammad and whisked Mushtaq away.
Without knowing the happenings outside, a heartbroken Rakeeba, Mushtaq’s wife, bolted the door from inside and started praying for her husband’s safe return.
Almost 10 minutes after Mushtaq’s involuntary departure, firing started adjacent to their home. It added pain to the worries of the family, already shrunken in fear to the corner.
So intense was firing, that the family members, still sobbing, said, that the bullets hit the glass windows of their home. Rakeeba while kneeling, dragged Mushtaq’s old parents and his children to the kitchen and kept them under the kitchen stand. To her, this small concrete structure was the only safe spot in her home.
For the whole night, they stayed under that stand.
Next morning, the firing stopped and the army started searching the homes. Restless, Rakeeba, defied the restrictions and came out in search of Mushtaq. “Where you have kept my husband,” she asked the army men who were outside her house. She was told that he is in a vehicle, and would be set free soon.
The gunfight ended and the army columns left the place along with seven body bags, all militants. People started assembling and moved towards the spot. But Mushtaq did not return.
Gossip was around that a civilian was also killed in the gunfight. Rakeeba tried to find her husband in the swarming crowds, but she could not.
Minutes later, the family went to the police station Zainapora to lodge a missing report. Initially, they were not allowed to enter the police station premises. They were asked to stay outside, alleges Mukhtar Ahmad, Mushtaq’s brother-in-law. After some time a policeman came out and showed them a video of seven militants and told them to identify if somebody resembles Mushtaq. To them, the blood-drenched faces were strangers.
Mukhtar said he insisted to get in and finally went inside. The first corpse lying inside the station premises was that of Mushtaq. A bullet had borne a hole in his neck, visible from a distance.
“We do not know the circumstances in which he was killed. We do not know whose bullet hit him,” Mukhtar said. “The only thing we know is that he was taken away by the army from his home and was used as a human shield against the bullets.” Overhearing Mukhtar, Rakeeba cries: “Ame Khot Kyazi Aayene Maye Goul.” (Why didn’t the bullet hit me, instead.)
Mushtaq, however, was not the only human shield. Though he was the unluckiest one. Mohammad Ayoub, 24, and Shamim Ahmad, 20, are brothers, who also live in Dragad, not far away from the house where the encounter took place. They are scared. Both of them were taken away almost in the similar situation, the same night.
One of them has an injury to the eye. They are very reluctant to talk. “They kept us at the front with their rifles on our shoulders and asked us to move from house to house,” one of them said, cut the conversation and left.
Another young man was also taken by the soldiers that night. He talked anonymously. “One militant was alive but injured and he was hiding behind a shed,” the young man said. “When we approached towards the shed, on seeing a civilian in front of him, the militant did not open fire. Had he opened the fire I would not have been talking to you right now.”
While the residents are willing to talk about the outcome of the operation, they are not ready to offer any idea what the seven militants were doing in the village. Nobody is ready to tell where they were?
“They all were killed in the open orchards,” one resident said. “How do we know where they were?”
Police sources in Srinagar, however, said the operation was the outcome of “meticulous intelligence”. They, now say, the operation was implemented in hurry. “Had we waited for six hours more, there would have been more militants,” police sources said, insisting, some more rebels were meeting in Dragad. “In fact, four of them escaped and all the four were high-value.”
But the operation was planned so meticulously that the besieged militants had only two options: either to surrender or simply take the bullets. “It was so swift and so clean,” one official said.
Dragad operations started within less than 10 hours after militants killed a cop in Pulwama. Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a resident of Maspuna, the special police official (SPO) was not a simple hit, who was killed near Muran Chowk at around 4 pm.
Journalist Ahmad Ali Fayaz reported for Jammu newspaper State Times that Mir worked mostly for SOG Srinagar but carried out operations throughout the Valley. His report ‘Over 100 successful operations failed to get him a job in J&K Police’ suggested that the man with huge contributions to the counter-insurgency failed to get a permanent job in the state police that recruited nearly 25,000 such cases.
The news-obituary offered certain details about the counter-insurgency operations across Kashmir. “Mir held a temporary residence to hide himself in Srinagar, was as much important asset for Special Operations Group (SOG) of J&K Police as Sub Inspector Altaf Ahmed alias Laptop who was shot dead in a dramatic encounter during an operation by then Lashkar-e-Tayyiba chief abu Qasim in Ajas area of Bandipora on October 7, 2015,” his report said.
“Altaf was, in fact, a protégé of Ashraf Mir. His loss is colossal and unprecedented for SOG in the last one decade”, an officer of J&K Police who has been closely associated with counterinsurgency operations in the last over 15 years, was quoted by the report saying.
“The officer narrated how Mir and three others of his group had caused a dent in terrorist ranks in the Valley with hundreds of spectacular operations,” the report reads. “He began working with us when he was just 18 years old. He was the man who got Altaf and many others associated with us. It was a decisive victory over the terrorists as we neutralised scores of their dreaded commanders.”
“In one of his secret operations, Ashraf Mir was arrested by Police in a different district and some arms and ammunition were recovered from him. Possibly for operational and security reasons, SOG Srinagar did not own him and did nothing to get him released,” the report reads.
But Mir was not the only person who had joined the SOG and still was unlucky. “Out of four of his group, only one succeeded to get a permanent job. He is now a Sub Inspector in Srinagar,” the report quoted another senior Police officer saying. “One of them fled to Jammu and settled there permanently for fear of attack by terrorists. One of them was shot dead in 2008 and second lost his life today.”
Did Mir’s assassination lead to the quick operations in the belt? Nobody knows.
But Dragad was not the only place where guns roared that night. The gunbattle at Kachdoora, almost 20 km away, started almost the same time. Unlike Dragad, Kachdoora was different, and was not one-sided. A few homes went up in flames and three soldiers were killed. There were civilians losses as well.
Kachdoora gunbattle raged for many hours. While a few are understood to have escaped from Draged at the very outset of the operation, in Kachdoora two rebels survived the ferocious action and were “rescued” by the people after the soldiers marched out of the village after declaring the operation over.
The house in which the gunfight took place was a concrete structure. Within a few hours of the blasting, it was reduced to a few broken slabs and the perforated tin roof mangled and molten. The locals were clearing the debris with utter caution as the unexploded material being around has remained the norm for last three decades at encounter sites.
Two days later, the people were cautiously clearing the debris. Apart from the main house, many other homes were damaged in the operation. “They had taken position in my house,” one resident, not far from the destroyed house, said. He was fixing the broken windows of his house.
While clearing the debris, the volunteers found some body parts, a charred arm. When the slain militants were pulled out of the debris, some of them were charred to the extent that their full bodies could not be retrieved. “It would be the body part of Gayas-ul-Islam,” said a person who was clearing the debris with a shovel. They ensured their debris clearance is not recorded so they did not permit even opening of the camera bag.
That Sunday night, when the news of the gunfight spread in the village, the youth had come out in the night and fought pitched battles with the cops in an attempt to save militants. In fact, the stone-pelting theatre was barely 100 metres away from the real ‘war’ theatre. Somehow for the night, the counter-insurgency grid managed to keep the two battle-fronts apart and in control.
Zubair Ahmad Bhat, 18, a resident of Gopalpora Kulgam – not far away from Kachdora, left home at around 8:30 am, on April 1. A student of the local Higher Secondary, he told his family he would ascertain the happenings.
Around noon, his father Abdul Ahad Bhat said he received a phone call from Zubair’s number. “Your son is injured, he was hit by a bullet,” the caller, not his son, informed him and hung the phone. Later, Zubair was driven to the district hospital in Kulgam ‘brought dead’. “I do not know how he was killed but he was killed in forces firing on the protestors,” Bhat said.
Last year, Zubair appeared in senior secondary examinations but failed. So Abdul Ahad Bhat installed a soap making plant for him. All the machinery was fixed in a newly constructed building. It was on April 1, the family had to inaugurate it. “He told me that it is disturbance today, let us inaugurate it some other day,” recalls Abdul Ahad with teary eyes. “I was not knowing that the plant will never be unlocked.”
Muneeb Ahmad Wani, a ninth class student from the same village got bullet injuries too. He is battling for his life in the hospital.
Merajuddin Mir, 19, a resident of Kulgam’s Okay village, South Kashmir’s famous centre for Kangri-making, was also killed at Kachdoora. Mir and his friends had planned to visit Aharbal Falls, a picnic spot in the region on April 1.
When the news of the gunfight reached Mir’s father Mohammad Yaseen, he advised his son to stay home and not move around. “But he did not listen to me and left assuring me that he will be safe,” said Mir.
When he left for Aharbal, Yaseen called his son after some time. Mir had reached Kachdoora. “We are stuck here and stone pelting is going on,” he told his father. Later that evening, Yaseen got a call that his son was injured. “He was taken to Pulwama hospital but he was already dead.”
Mir was the only hope of Yaseen because his other son and daughter are physically handicapped. Yaseen Mir is a kangri weaver and his son, apart from studying, used to work as a part-time plumber to help his father’s expenses.
Mohammad Iqbal Bhat, 28, a resident of Khasipora village had gone to Chattawatan, another habitation close to Kachdoora, to bring his 18 months old daughter, Aiza Jan to home.
She was staying at her maternal home. So Bhat took the internal by-lanes to reach his in-laws. On the way, he saw protestors being chased by the police and army.“They were fired upon by the forces,” said Abdus Salaam, Iqbal’s uncle. “Iqbal tried to flee from there but a bullet pierced his chest and he fell down there and died,” Salaam was told by the eyewitness who saw Bhat collapse.
“Iqbal had seen a tragedy before that is why he went to bring his daughter back,” recalls Salaam. It was his second marriage. His first wife died after delivering twins. The twins died within 15 days. His daughter was from his second marriage. His love took him away, far away from his daughter. In his death, an orphan was born.
In Srinagar, the narrative about Shopian happenings sees the civilian killings as an extension of the encounters. That was perhaps why, the Chief Minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti restricted her condolences to Kangan where a young man Gowhar Rather was killed in police action on Tuesday, April 3.
Even Gowhar’s killing was in the strange situation. Young men came out of the local mosque and converted into a flash-gathering that resorted to stone pelting. There was police action and in this, a young man was found in a drain. He was rushed to SKIMS in Srinagar.
Police said Rather fell down in the drain as cops chased the stone-pelters. During the fall his head was impacted by the concrete of the drain. But the CT Scan nailed the claim as it traced a foreign object in the brain. Rather’s eardrum has a severe injury and one of his eyes was in a bad shape. He was put on a ventilator but could not survive long.
Unlike any action in Shopian, the government registered an FIR and quickly detained a head-constable Gulzar Ahmad, who was driving the car of the DySP and accused directly by the family of the killing. The police driver had a pistol alloted to him. Police admits they have detained the person but insist his culpability will be established by the investigations.
Chief Minister surprised her detractors by driving into Kangan at a time when a huge gathering of mourners were almost surrounding Rather’s home. The family showed her the CT scan that cleraly shows a foreign object in slain man’s head and sought dismissal of the cop and justice to the family.