A mere sound of bullet used to send people running for shelter during early years of militancy in Kashmir, but not anymore. Saima Bhat reports how changed tactics from army and fearlessness of people is mounting civilian causalities in Kashmir, especially near encounter sites
It was an open secret in Kashmir till Major Shetal Gogoi tied a carpet weaver named Farooq Ahmad Dar to his jeep’s bonnet and used him as a human shield against stone-pelters. This act of Gogoi gave first photographic evidence to human rights defenders. Used as a deterrence against Kashmiris, it however backfired, believes Khurram Parvez, noted human rights activist. “Civilians have become so fearless that they themselves now rush towards encounter sites to save militants by putting their lives at risk.”
Till February 2016, government forces would use tear-gas shells and aerial firing to keep protestors away from encounter sites, but the strategy has changed now. During an encounter in Lelhaar Pulwama, army fired directly at protestors killing two students: Shiasta Hameed, MA Urdu and Mir Asif Farooq alias Danish, who was pursuing BTec.
Since then civilian killings at the encounter sites has become a norm. According to police figures, between July 2016 and July 2017, in more than 65 encounters that took places in Kashmir, at least 17 civilians were killed. In these encounters, more than 160 militants and around 100 army and police personnels were killed too.
However, Jammu and Kashmir Collation of Civil Societies (JKCCS), say the figure of civilian killings is between January to June 2017, and not since July 2016, as claimed by the police.
Around seven months before Burhan Wani’s funeral drew around two lakh mourners from across Kashmir, the tone was set by Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Abu Qasim’s funeral.
This trend of huge gatherings soon reflected at the encounter sites. Aqib, 18, a resident of Baghat, make it a point to reach every encounter site to help militants escape. “I have bought my shroud long back. If militants can fight for us, why can’t I put my life at risk to give them cover?” said Aqib. “Imagine, if I could save a single militant’s life, how blessed I would be. I want to die a martyr’s death, but I don’t have the courage to be one.”
There was a brief lull in encounters after Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. The first one after his killing took place in Langate Kupwara on October 06, in which three militants were killed.
On December 08, when an encounter took place in Hassanpora village in Arwani are of Bijbehara, hundreds of civilians came out to help militants escape. In the ensuing clashes, a civilian named Arif Khaleel Shah from Gund Baba Khaleel, Sangam was killed.
The encounter left two Lashkar-e-Toiba militants: Majid Ahmad Zargar aka Abu Talha (Qoimoh) and Rahil Amin (Vessu, Qazigund), were killed in that encounter.
On December 30, when government forces laid a cordon in Samboora village of Pulwama, civilians came out in large numbers to help militants escape. The clashes that erupted afterwards left at least eight civilians injured.
On January 15, 2017, three militants: Adil Ahmad Reshi, Abid Ahmad Sheikh and Masood Ahmad Shah, all residents of Bijbehara, were killed in an encounter in Awoora village of Pahalgam.
When locals came to know about the encounter they started rushing towards the encounter site and clashed with the forces.
Sixteen days later, five people were injured after forces resorted to firing and teargas shelling to disperse protesters in Samboora village of Pulwama district after forces launched a search and cordon operation in the areas.
On February 03, police and army resorted to aerial firing to disperse protesters at Nowpora, Lassipora in Pulwama. The clashes erupted after forces started a cordon and search operation in the area.
Eight days later, eight people: two civilians, four militants and two army men were killed in an overnight gun battle in Nagbal, Frisal. The militants were later identified as: Mudasir Ahmad Tantray (Redwani), Farooq Ahmad Dar (Arow in Kulgam), Vakil Thokar (Harigam) and Younis Qadir Lone (Haoura).
Slain civilians include Ashiq Reshi, son of the house owner, where encounter took place, and Mushtaq Ibrahim from Sri Gufwara.
On February 14, one militant and three forces personnel were killed and 15 others were injured in an encounter with militants in Bandipora district. A civilian named Hilal Ahamd Parrey was hit by a bullet in his thigh after protests erupted near the encounter site.
Same day, three militants were killed and a forces personnel was injured in an encounter that broke out in Handwara district.
Army chief Bipin Rawat and other top police officials warned locals from engaging in the clashes with forces at encounter places. But such ‘threats’ were mostly ignored.
On February 17, Muhammad Akbar Lone, a lawmaker from National Conference, said people of Kashmir love to save militants. “They come to rescue of militants whenever any militant is trapped to show a sense of belonging with them.”
But Rawat’s statements didn’t change anything on ground, instead, government forces became more aggressive while dealing with civilian protests.
On February 23, three forces personnels were killed when militants ambushed an army patrol party in Shopian. In exchange of fire a local woman named Taja Begum was killed.
On March 09, one militant was killed in an encounter in Bandipora. Same day two militants, two civilians were killed in Pulwama. They were later identified as Mohammad Shafi alias Ahsan (Banderpora) and Jahangir alias Saifullah (Koil) were killed in Padgampora, Pulwama. As clashes erupted near the encounter site, forces fired bullets, and teargas shells on the protesters.
In the clashes, a 16-year-old Amir Nazir (Begumbagh, Kakpora) was hit by bullet resulting in his death. And another civilian Jalal-ud-Din, 22, was also killed near the encounter site.
On March 14, three LeT militants and a 6-year-old girl were killed in an encounter in Kupwara. The girl, Kaneeza, was allegedly hit by a stray bullet and she died. Her brother was also injured in the incident. One police constable identified as Danish Ahmad was also injured in the encounter.
On March 28, forces killed three civilians during an encounter in Chadoora where a lone militant with a pistol was holed up in a house. The youth killed were identified as Ashfaq Ahmad (Rangret), Zahid Rashid (Chadoora) and Sakib Ahmad (Wathoora Budgam).
On April 27, four army men and two militants were killed when militants entered a camp in Kupwara. Later a civilian, Mohammad Yousuf, 55 was killed when army opened fire on protestors demanding the bodies of militants for burial.
On May 06, five JKP personnel and two private bank guards were killed in a militant attack in Kulgam. In the encounter one civilian, Mohammad Hussain Dar, was injured who later succumbed on May 14.
On May 27, two militants: Sabzar and Faizan and a civilian Molvi Aqib were killed in an encounter in Saimoh village of Tral. More than ten civilians were injured after being hit by bullets during clashes near the encounter site.
On June 06, a civilian Adil Farooq was killed by a bullet when clashes erupted near an encounter site in Ganowpora village in Shopian. Ten days later, Ahsan Dar, 14, from Shamsipora, Kulgam and Mohammad Ashraf Khar, a resident of nearby Kharpora village died of bullet injuries.
On June 21, two militants were killed in an encounter in Pazalpora Sopore. They were identified as Basit and Gulzar, both locals and members of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
On June 22, three Lashkar militants: Sheeraz Ahmad Bhat (Padgampora), Shariq and Majid (both from Kakapora) were killed in an encounter in Pulwama. Later over a dozen protesters were injured after clashes erupted in several parts of Pulwama district in which a local Tawseef Ahmad Wani from Tengpuna was killed.
On July 01, two civilians: Tahira and Shahdab, were killed near an encounter site in Dailgam Islamabad. In the encounter two militants were also killed including Bashir Lashkari.
On July 03, two civilians were injured by bullets after forces opened fire to disperse the stone pelting protesters near the encounter site at Behmnoo village of Pulwama district. The injured were identified as Mohammad Saleem, a resident of Chawan Keller and Jahangir Ahmad Wagay son of Abdul Hamid, a resident of Abhama. In the encounter, three militants: Kifayat, Jahangir and third a resident of Reasi were killed.
Agreeing with the remarks of Akbar Lone, a senior police official, wishing anonymity, says, “Civilians come to encounter places because these militants are locals. They come to save a friend or a neighbour. This feeling was not there earlier and yes people have become fearless as well.”
Such situations, as per a leading psychologist in Kashmir, have three things to narrate: One it can be seen as mass suicide due to hopelessness. Or it could be happening because this generation feels they have been pushed to the wall where they don’t find any solution. Or it could be happening because of the group influence.