Three weeks after an ‘encounter’ in which three ‘militants’ were reported killed, families in Rajouri said they were their young members who had gone to earn a livelihood in Shopian. Now the army and police are busy investigating the case. But a month has passed and the outcome of DNA reports is making the families restless, reports Tahir Bhat
On the morning of July 18, 2020, the army claimed to have killed three Pakistani militants in an overnight gunfight in the orchards of remote Amshipora village in Shopian.
In a quick press conference, 12 sector Commander Brigadier Ajay Kotach told reporters that, “we were also getting inputs of presence of certain identified Pakistani terrorists in that area.” He then gave media graphic details of the gun-fight. Kotach also claimed that the army recovered arms and ammunition and IED material from the slain trio.
Interestingly, the same day Jammu and Kashmir Police issued a press statement saying: the operation was launched on a specific input by the 62 Rashtriya Rifles about the presence of militants in the village. The statement also noted that police and CRPF joined the operation later.
Before the bodies of three alleged militants were retrieved from the site, a small single-storey structure nestled in an apple orchard, a few locals who were called for quick identification noticed something unusual. “They were wearing sleepers and rubber boats,” said a local resident who wished to remain anonymous. “It is unusual for a militant.”
As the word got out, local boys began pelting stones at police and army while they were shifting the bodies of the alleged militants. A few gunshots were fired in the air to disperse them. “Initially we thought they are local militants from nearby villages,” said Abid, a local resident of nearby Reshnagri village. “But when we saw the bodies, it perturbed us as they hardly looked like combatants. They were more like labourers.”
After another round of identification by parents of militants who are active in the area, the bodies were finally buried in unmarked graves at a cemetery reserved for militants.
For the next three weeks, Amshipora and its adjoining villages remained tense. People would talk about the gun-fight but only in whispers. “We knew something was not right with this gun-fight,” said Abid. But villagers kept quite as they had no proof to back their apprehensions.
On August 10, all of a sudden picture of the three slain youngsters surfaced on the internet. It showed three young men lying dead on the ground. Two among them were barely recognizable as they were shot in the face. But the face of the third one, a young boy in his teens, was clearly visible. He was instantly recognised as Ibrar Ahmad and claimed by a family in Rajouri. This helped the other two families identify their kin from their structure and clothes.
Within no time details emerged and it became clear that on July 16, three cousins: Ibrar Ahmad, 21, Imtiyaz Ahmad, 26, and Ibrar Ahmad, 18, left home to work in an orchard in Shopian. Their families claimed that they were labourers who had come to Kashmir to earn livelihoods to support them financially.
All the three were in touch with their families till the evening of July 17, a few hours before the first gunshot was heard in Amshipora. The claim by families in Rajouri instantly raked memories of Machil and Pathribal, two infamous fake encounters in Kashmir’s troubled past.
“They had gone to seek work in Shopina. They were not militants as alleged by the army,” one of the relatives said.
The Families Claim
The families are positive about the identity of their kin who were killed in the “encounter” in Amshipora and their innocence. After the picture was out the families lodged a missing report in Rajouri. The families wanted to travel to Shopian to investigate on their own but were not permitted due to Covid-19 related restriction on travel.
The Covid-19 situation closed the roads but not the mouths of the people, especially in Shopian where they already had the suspicion. People started asking uncomfortable questions.
By the end of the day, the army released a statement saying it has started an investigation into an encounter in which “three terrorists” were killed in a Shopian village in July. The army’s spokesman attributed its investigation to the “social media” inputs that the “encounter” was fake.
Army’s quick reaction to the allegations sent hoards of journalists rushing to sleepy Amshipora for more details. According to media reports the trio after reaching Shopian on July 17, had rented a room in Chowgam village on Mughal road, barely fifty metres from 62 Rashtriya Rifles Chowgam camp.
The owner of the rented accommodation Shakeel Ahmad Lone and his wife Fareeda told reporters that they had given the room to three men from Rajouri on the recommendations of a local Sarpanch. She said that on July 18 morning, she noticed that the room was locked from inside and the window at the backside was open. “All three tenants were missing,” Fareeda was quoted saying.
But what Fareeda and her husband failed to answer was why they didn’t lodge a missing report with the local police or at least inform them, when they realised that their tenants have gone missing in mysterious circumstances on July 18. Why they waited for three weeks?
“In a sensitive place like Shopian, which is considered as the hot-bed of militancy, if three young men go missing mysteriously, one is not supposed to wait for three weeks to inform the police,” said a local resident from Shopian. “This doesn’t add up at all.”
No Witnesses Around
The details of the last few hours of their life are still not clear as how they ended up in Amshipora, a village almost 8 kilometres south of Shopian town. So far no eyewitness has come forward who might have seen the trio between Chowgam and Amshipora on that fateful day of July 17.
Police’s initial press note (July 18) suggests that the said operation was done by 62 RR exclusively, on an input received by them. According to Muneer Khatana, who lives barely 300 meters from the “encounter” site, he heard a single gunshot at around 2 am. “Then there was a long silence for a few hours. Then at around 4 am more gunshots were fired followed by silence again,” said Khatana. “An hour later we heard a few explosions as well.”
On the complaint of slain trio’s families, a police team from Shopian was sent to Rajouri to collect DNA samples from families who claim the alleged militants as their labourer kin. The DNA samples will be sent to Central laboratories for matching.
Before sending the team IG Police Vijay Kumar told reporters in Srinagar that, “There are two aspects to the investigations. First is to see if the DNA matches, and second to investigate whether they had any militant links.”
While the two investigations are on, families in Rajouri are seeking exhumation of bodies so that their kin can be buried properly in their native village. Almost a month later, the report is yet to be made public. This has led the families to write to LG Manoj Sinha requesting him for personally intervening and permitting them to give a decent burial to the young trio. A few days later, the LG responded to the public appeal by the family by saying that the investigations are going on. “Separate investigations are going on in (the case, by) army and administration regarding the case,” he told reporters. “I assure, justice will be done.”
Meanwhile, in the latest statement, Army’s spokesperson in Srinagar Colonel Rajesh Kalia said, a high-level court of inquiry is in progress into the alleged Amshipora fake encounter case.
“Additional civil witnesses are being asked to depose before the court of inquiry. Concurrently, DNA samples have been collected from Rajouri under the aegis of Jammu and Kashmir Police and sent for matching with the terrorists killed on 18 July,” Kalia said.
PIL In the Supreme Court
Dr Sandeep Mawa, who runs Jammu and Kashmir Reconciliation Front had gone to the Supreme Court seeking a probe by Special Investigation Team into the “encounter”. A division bench comprising justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari heard the petition and asked the petitioner to raise the issue before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court and dismissed the petition.
(Some names in the report were changed on request.)