Campaign to return bodies of Srinagar ‘encounter’ victims to their families gathers steam in Kashmir

Published : January 06, 2021 12:26 IST

Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, holding a picture of his slain son Athar Mushtaq, 17, demands the return of his body and justice for the innocents killed in the so-called encounter on December 30, during a protest at Press Enclave in Srinagar on January 4. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

A “Return the bodies” campaign aimed at pressuring the Jammu and Kashmir administration to return the bodies of three men killed reportedly in an encounter in Srinagar on December 30 has gathered steam in Kashmir despite unprecedented snowfall in Kashmir bringing life to a standstill. The encounter has been the source of much controversy. While the J&K Police maintain that the deceased — Aijaz Maqbool Ganie from Putrigam in Pulwama, Zubair Lone from Turkwangan near Shopian, and Ather Mushtaq Wani from the Belov village near Pulwama — were recruits of The Resistance Front, the bereaved families allege the encounter to be fake.

The encounter, which took place at Lawaypora, Srinagar, with the Army’s 2 Rashtriya Rifles in action at the spot, came barely three days after a rare revelation made by the J&K Police that last year’s Amshipora encounter in Shopian was staged. In a statement issued on December 27, the police noted that Captain Bhoopendra Singh of Rashtriya Rifles 62 battalion, Tabish Nazir Malik of Chowgam area in Shopian district, and Bilal Ahmed Lone from Pulwama, conspired to abduct and stage the ‘encounter’ of three youths who had been reported missing by their families based in Rajouri. A court of inquiry which the Army ordered also found the encounter to be staged.

There was widespread apprehension that the Lawaypora encounter too could be a staged one, with former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti writing to Lt Governor Manoj Sinha requesting that the families of those killed “be allowed the burial as per their wishes”. “Questions are also looming over this encounter and there are conflicting versions and reports from police and the Army. Justice can be served only if it is swift and I request you to initiate an impartial investigation into the matter,” she wrote.

From January 1, the “return the bodies” campaign grew loud, with parts of Kashmir observing a shutdown on New Year over the alleged fake encounter. On January 1, shops and private offices in Lal Chowk, Srinagar's commercial hub, and across Pulwama and Shopian remained closed.

The police, meanwhile, released purported videos of the house where the three alleged militants were holding up, claiming that they were repeatedly asked to surrender. In multiple tweets, the Police stated that the militants were given a chance to surrender but they refused.

The persons’ families, however, maintain that they were students and innocent. According to the families, Athar was a class 11 student, Aijaz was an undergraduate student, whereas Zubair was a skilled worker. Aijaz's family has questioned the encounter, claiming that he had been on complete bed rest for over a month due to a serious back problem and there was no question of his being involved in any militant activity.

On January 4, the family members of Athar Mushtaq and Zubair Ahmad held demonstrations at Srinagar's Press Colony carrying banners that read “Stop innocents killings” and “We want complete investigation”. They also demanded that the bodies be returned without delay. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the administration has not been returning bodies of local militants killed in encounters which is a departure from its past practice. The administration is believed to bury the bodies at an undisclosed location in North Kashmir.

In picures that went viral on social media and helped step up the ‘return the bodies’ campaign, Athar's father is seen digging a grave at the family's ancestral graveyard in Pulwama. In the past two days, civil society members, politicians and those from the media fraternity have trended #ReturnTheBodies on Twitter and other social media platforms. In more than 30,000 tweets and over 25,000 Facebook posts, civil society members have come together to pressure the administration into returning the bodies of the deceased to their families for last rites. Users are also using the photos of protesting families of the youths and demanding a fair probe into the matter.

Meanwhile, senior National Conference leader and Lok Sabha member from Anantnag, (retd.) Justice Hasnain Masoodi met Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha, and told him that the police version of the encounter is vague. Masoodi briefed the media that Sinha had assured him of a probe into the matter.