Months after three civilians were branded as ‘hardcore terrorists’ and killed in a fake military operation in Shopian, J&K police’s fact-finding has dragged erring Indian army men in the dock in yet another gruesome addition to the dark underbelly of thirty-year-old armed impunity.
Early this year in March, Imtiyaz Hussain had earned applauds from an Indian Army officer whose unit had organised a running event in Jammu’s Rajouri district.
He had come first in the race and was awarded with Rs 5,000 price money, shoes and two track suits.
Four months later, on July 18, he was killed in an “encounter” in Kashmir’s militancy-hotbed, Shopian, alongside two of his cousins – Ibrar Ahmad, 26 and Mohammad Ibrar Khan, 17.
As per the charge-sheet filed by the Jammu and Kashmir police, the trio were picked up from their rented accommodation, taken to an apple orchard in the dark of the night, and were shot dead in cold blood.
“Illegally acquired weapons” were as well planted on their lifeless bodies to establish their ‘terrorist-identity’.
The families had last heard from them on the evening prior to the so-called encounter. Imtiyaz had called his uncle Lal Hussain to inform them of their whereabouts. His ‘last seen’ status on his WhatsApp was 11:30 p.m.
“At first,” Imtiyaz’s father, Sabar Hussain, says, “we thought they may have been quarantined under these COVID protocols, but when there was no contact established for more than 20 days, we decided to file a missing report.”
It was on August 10, the missing report was lodged. On the way back home, Mohammad Yousuf, father of Ibrar Ahmad, who had accompanied Sabar Hussain all this time, received a call from an unknown man in Srinagar.
“It was at this moment my heart missed a beat,” he recalls.
The person from across the line asked him: ‘Is your name Mohammad Yousuf? Is Ibrar Ahmad your son? Hello…’
Yousuf says he took a brief pause, and gathered all the strength to answer: ‘Yes, what’s the matter?’
‘Three kids have been killed here in an encounter. I am sending you the photos of the dead body, can you recognise if any of the three belongs to you?’
“He then sent me the photos on WhatsApp, and I recognised at once – these are my kids,” Yousuf says.
The walk back home…
Sabar Hussain, meanwhile, broke down at once when he identified his Imtiyaz. “I still remember the fateful day,” he recalls, “my legs were trembling and I could barely walk my way home. It was raining – heavy.”
Sabar did not go home that evening, he couldn’t; he did not “have the courage” to face his wife and kids.
“How was I supposed to break the news of his death to his mother?” he asks.
According to him, Imtiyaz saw “pride” in uniform and had always “dreamt” of joining the Indian force. Today, he lay dead, branded as a Pakistani terrorist.
The three cousins come from traditional pahaadi families, residing far up in mountain villages of Budhal tehsil, deprived of as basic a facility as motorable roads and uninterrupted electricity.
Sabar has been a hard-earning labourer all his life. He may not have had a comfortable lifestyle, but he was never ignorant of it. He says: “I was aware Imtiyaz need not go through the same.”
Imtiyaz was the intellectual one among his three siblings. Only recently he had secured distinction in class 12. Until class 8, Imtiyaz studied in a private academy and to be able to fund the fee, Sabar would double up the tough work on field.
He did everything to ensure his son a “safe future”.
In-return, Imtiyaz was aware of his father’s hardships. When the COVID lockdown financially shackled the family, the 21-year-old stepped up to give Sabar a helping hand.
Sabar says: “He told me, ‘Abba, I am going to Shopian… I will work there and earn money; save some for my further studies and shall give rest of it to the family.’
“I let Imtiyaz do what he thought was right.”
The final hour
On June 16, Sabar’s son left for Kashmir. Exactly a month later, followed his other two cousins, Ibrar Ahmad and Mohammad Ibrar Khan.
Imtiyaz had settled down in one month time. He started working at a construction site and had figured out a temporary accommodation. By the time the other two arrived, Imtiyaz rented out a room for Rs 1,600 a month, which would be shared between the three.
The same evening, they gathered in the room, and in the intervening night, were killed, with their bodies riddled with bullets.
The milk bottle they had bought the previous evening, the food they cooked for dinner, all remained untouched.
Patriot – or – traitor?
The first official detail on the pre-dawn operation had come at 7:15 am on July 18. Fourteen hours later, Jammu and Kashmir police issued a press statement where it claimed the ‘terrorists fired upon Army’ leading to an encounter.
Ironically, Ibrar Ahmad comes from a family of army veterans. His uncle had fought the 1999 Kargil war for India.
“Back during the days of militancy in Rajouri,” Zakir Hussain – a relative of Ibrar and also a soldier himself – says in a firm tone, “every male member from our family had a personal gun. No one from this village dared going against the state. It’s simple: we live in India, and we are Indians.”
“They labelled Ibrar as a terrorist,” he then exclaims, “What does this mean? The kid leaves from his home, gets killed the next day – what is this supposed to say? We are training him here in this house to pick up gun against India? This is as good as calling our family traitors.
“I swear, had he been alive today, and had I known he has joined militancy, I would have been the first one to shoot him dead.
“Ibrar was a mature man, he could never do something this silly,” Zakir rubbishes at once. Followed by a dull silence, Mohammad Yousuf adds: “Listen, if they prove my son was actually a militant, I would be happy that he was killed after taking the wrong path.”
Ibrar was a class 6 pass-out, but he was a composed personality, as his father describes. “Books never interested him, but he was no less in comparison to a graduate. He was skilled. He had learnt to plough when he was still a kid – not an easy job,” Yousuf says, as his pride elevates.
Ibrar had worked as a small-time worker in Kuwait for a Korean company for two years. Only recently he had moved into a new house with his wife and 15-month-old kid, and to earn money and feed them, he had visited Kashmir.
“My son died an innocent death,” Yousuf says, takes a brief pause, and adds: “I do not want blood for blood.
“I just want to stare dead into the eyes of those who gave my son this cruel death.”
Decoding the state
What’s amusing is the fact that their accommodation was only a few metres away from nearby army camp of the 62 Rashtriya Rifles – the unit which carried out the controversial operation.
The three were killed 10 kilometres away in orchards of Amshipora.
The police charge-sheet has named one Captain Bhoopendra Singh of the same army unit as the prime accuse in this case.
“Say I am a smoker,” Zakir Hussain explains, “But will I smoke inside the house, or in front of my father? No, isn’t it? I will find an isolated corner for that. You are telling me that these militants had their ‘hideout’ just a few metres away from the army camp? Wouldn’t that be foolish of any militant to do so?”
It is pertinent to mention that the 62 Rashtriya Rifles regiment has had a ‘disappointing’ counter-insurgency run in the last three years, compared to other units in nearby areas of militancy-raged south Kashmir.
According to figures independently cumulated, 62-RR has had only one instance of successful operation, in which, it claimed to have killed a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant way back in February 2017.
Since then, it laid 19 more traps in search of militants in multiple areas – gunfights triggered in only five of them, including the Shopian encounter, and in one instance, the militants happened to escape the cordon.
In one of the encounters, it also lost two of its soldier, including a Major.
Indeed, it was after a long period of time did Army’s 62-RR claimed to have carried out a “successful” counter-insurgency operation.
Moving further, in a very unusual move, Brigadier Ajay Katoch of Rashtriya Rifles had called for an individual press conference a day after the encounter. Generally, the post-encounter pressers are given by the joint team of involved units of the Indian force; here however, there was no presence of J&K police or the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
Here’s Brigadier’s version of the story:
“On night, 17/18 July, we received human intelligence from a unit source at around 0200 hours of presence of 4-5 unidentified terrorists in village Amshipora… We were also getting inputs of certain identified Pakistani terrorists in that area. At 0245 hours, while cordon was being laid, they (the army party) came under heavy fire from the fringe of the cordon, and after 5 minutes, they came upon fire from centre of the cordon. The fire was immediately retaliated, the cordon party were re-deployed, and additional parties were rushed to the spot…”
It should be noted that when the Indian army’s twitter handle, at 6:20 am on the morning of the ‘encounter’, broke the news, it said the 62-RR unit was fired at from the “cowshed” of a lone house.
Brigadier Katoch does not mention of any cowshed in his version.
Also, the tweet says a “joint operation was launched” and that a “joint operation” was in “progress”; however, according to the Brigadier, it was at “0430 hours, the police and the CRPF reached the operation site”.
Brigadier Katoch had also not mentioned of any surrender opportunity given to the ‘holed-up terrorists’, an official norm.
“At 0530 hours, after there was visibility,” he continued briefing the media, “a search party was moved into the target house. While the search party moved inside the house, it came upon a fire from inside the house. The search party immediately got deployed, lobbed grenades and retaliated the fire that came from inside. In the ensuing action, three terrorists were neutralized. The dead bodies of the terrorists, along with arms and ammunition and IED material were handed over to Jammu & Kashmir police.”
Now, the approach of J&K police towards this case is noteworthy.
Its party reached the encounter site 50 minutes after the first fire, despite the nearest police station being only 20 minutes away. They were even late on twitter, sending the first tweet at around 5:20 am, after nearly two and a half hours.
If these complications are to be overlooked, one can say the local police’s attitude towards this case has certainly been exceptional.
It called for its own investigation in the case. Although it oddly took nearly 40 days to carry out the DNA tests of victim families, it did, fair and fine. And as were the family demands, the dead bodies were handed back.
The police team has also been quick in making breakthroughs in this case. In the charge-sheet it submitted to the local court on December 26, they pieced together the detailed sequence of events that led to this ‘encounter’.
Certainly, the J&K police have come into good light, but justice may still be a long shot.
A long lost battle?
Odds may be heavy against the Indian army in this ‘fake’ encounter, but justice, is still a far cry. This case draws shades of a staged encounter that took place nearly a decade ago; today, not much has changed.
It was the month of April, 2010, the Indian army claimed to have killed three infiltrating militants from across the border in Kashmir region’s Machil sector.
However, it was later established the three – just like the Rajouri cousins – were civilians. The Indian army had promised the trio job opportunity as ‘porters’, luring them to the camp area. They were later shot in cold blood. Then, too, was the greed for rewards and awards.
Pertinent to mention, the interest of J&K Police in exposing the Machil Fake Encounter was the same as with today.
Finally in 2013, the Indian army initiated a court martial proceeding, which went on for two years, confirming the sentences of involved army men. It was then the first such instance in the valley where Indian army gave life sentence to its personnel. Justice was served, or, was it?
Two years later, in July, it suspended the life term. Justice delayed, even served, and then denied.
The Rajouri cousins could meet the same fate. It should be noted that the Indian army has yet not clarified the three ‘terrorists’ were indeed ‘civilians’. It has maintained that it only ‘exceeded’ its special power – the draconian AFSPA, Armed Force Special Powers Act.
Amnesty, a global human rights body, terms AFSPA as an ‘abusive law that feeds a cycle of impunity’.
Introduced back in 1942 by the English to curtail freedom movement in British India, the law gives special rights to the armed forces to maintain public law and order in ‘disturbed’ areas. The same was then adopted by the Indian constitution in 1958.
It was imposed in Kashmir during the uprising in 1990 and has remained since – giving a blind eye to abuses like usage of pellet guns as a crowd control method, killing of civilians in the name of ‘self-defence’, enforced disappearances, assassinations, massacres, mass rapes, extra-judicial killings – and – the staged encounters.
War of narratives
Kashmir has been burning way since the bloody India-Pakistan partition in 1947; millions have lost their lives because of the dispute. The two nuclear countries have been to war thrice over the region, and even today, the tensions remain.
Only last year in April, the two were on the brink of another war.
For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Pakistan PM, Imran Khan, Kashmir issue has been a significant tool to widen their political wings. It has served like a ‘trump card’ for both the nation’s leaders over a long period of time.
In fact, contesting for the second consecutive term, Modi’s 2019 general election agenda was fuelled by the bloodshed of 49 Indian soldiers killed by a Kashmiri suicide bomber in a Jaish-e-Mohammad fidayeen attack. Riding high on hyper-nationalism, he fed his votebank in mainland India by propagating anti-Pakistan hate. Apart from the usual blame game, Modi went a step ahead and carried out a ‘surgical strike 2.0’ in Pakistan’s Balakot area – claiming to have ‘killed 300 terrorists’ to avenge the death of his soldiers’ blood.
He and his organisation, the Bhartiya Janta Party, won the elections with a majority vote share. It has since been a year of rigid regime, with India already having witnessed communal attacks against Muslims in its capital New Delhi in February, this year, burning over an anti-Muslim citizenship bill.
The TIME magazine included Narendra Modi in its list of ‘100 most influential people of 2020’, crediting him with pushing the “world’s most vibrant democracy deeper into shadow“.
On August 5, last year, Modi and his home minister Amit Shah bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir and further degraded it into a Union Territory. The duo brought in additional armed force, imposed communication ban in the region, put into detention the valley’s pro-India politicians and the Joint Resistance Leadership, converted Kashmir into an open prison, and stripped it off its semi-autonomous status.
While the world was introduced to ‘lockdown’ during the COVID pandemic, the people of Kashmir have, in fact, been locked inside their homes for more than a year.
But facts did not stop Brigadier Ajay Katoch in the media briefing from saying that the army came under “heavy fire with AK-47 rifles”. The material also listed to have been recovered, according to the police charge-sheet, were four empty pistols cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of AK series weapon and other objectionable items, including two batteries and a gas cylinder.
The army was inclined that the three unidentified terrorists were from Pakistan.
India has globally blamed its neighbouring rival for ‘fuelling’ militancy in otherwise-peaceful Kashmir valley. They call it the Pak-sponsored terrorism – another overused narrative.
However, the statistics raise a few contradictions. When the militant killing this year crossed the 150 mark, only a handful of them were of Pakistan nationality – seventeen, to be precise.
A latest media report dated September 27 says there has in fact been a steady rise in local militancy.
So far, Deccan Herald reports, 130 local Kashmiris have picked up guns to fight Delhi, against 140 in 2019, and nearly 200 in the year 2018.
But numbers can’t scream.
Brigadier Katoch concluded the presser: “Amshipora area had not seen any operation for quite some time, and this successful operation will result in curtailment of any kind of recruitment by the Pakistani terrorists, and their freedom of movement would be controlled, and we would be able to affectively dominate this area.”
Amid this circus of war and games, number and narratives, awards and rewards, is the unheard tale of two mothers – ignorantly in conflict with each other, for their son having been consumed in this vicious cycle.
As one wails for her son’s innocence, alleging J&K police of “fake charges”, the other seeks justice for her son’s death in a “fake encounter”. They say, in Kashmir, truth, too, dies with the dead.
Sifat Jan, mother of youngest among the three slain, Mohammad Ibrar Khan, 17, wants her son’s killers to meet the same fate. Along with Captain Bhoopinder Singh, a civilian Tabish Malik has also been accused in the charge-sheet.
Relatives of Tabish had staged a protest after he was arrested by J&K Police in August.
In Srinagar’s press enclave, his mother screamed: “My son is being framed… he is being a made a scapegoat.”
Since August 12, Tabish hasn’t been home. His mother says: “He was first picked up by army and was then handed over to J&K police. We have been kept unaware of his whereabouts.”
Sifat, too, was kept in dark about her son’s whereabouts. Her husband, Bagha Khan, living in Saudi, did not have the courage to break the news of Ibrar’s death to her. Sifat does not even own a cellphone – that his post-dead photo doing rounds on internet, could reach her.
It was when she was reached out for the DNA test, did she realise – “Ibrar is dead.”
With tears in her eyes, the mother of Tabish continues: “My son is a labourer, just like the three poor kids from Rajouri. He is being framed to safeguard the real killers.”
Tabish’s father Nazir Malik also made some striking revelations during the protest: “When we could not establish any contact with him, we decided to do rounds of District Police Lines, Shopian, where an investigative officer tore a missing complaint into pieces to my great shock.”
“We were then asked to sign on a blank paper, and I did,” he continues. “I was also told by the officer that I should be glad he saved my son, else, Tabish was to be branded as a militant.”
What Nazir fears from, is what Sifat lives with. She doesn’t have any intellectual argument to prove Ibrar’s innocence: “My son was poor, he was in his slippers; you tell me, which militant walks around wearing slippers?”
“His feet, too, were poor,” she adds, “…slippers.”