Jammu & Kashmir

After the November 15 encounter in Srinagar’s Hyderpora, anger on the streets again

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Relatives of Altaf Bhat, one of the two civilians killed in the Hyderpora encounter, during his funeral procession at Barzulla in Srinagar on November 19. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

Families members of Altaf Bhat and Dr Mudasir Gull, the other civilian who was killed in the Hyderpora encounter on November 15, demanding a probe and return of the dead bodies, in Srinagar on November 17. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

Omar Abdullah, N.C. leader, at a sit-in protest on November 18 at a municipal park near Gupkar Road demanding the return of bodies of the civilians killed in the encounter. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti along with party workers at a protest in Jammu on November 17. Photo: PTI

The protests after the encounter killings in Srinagar were notable because for the first time since August 5, 2019, civilians and politicians alike took to the streets and compelled the administration to partly address the issue at hand.

ON November 15, in yet another police operation mired in controversy, four people, including an “overground worker” and a civilian, were killed in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality. By the time the police came out with a statement on the killings on November 16, word had spread that at least two of those killed were civilians—Altaf Bhat, a businessman residing in Srinagar’s Barzulla and Mudasir Gull, a medical practitioner, also based in Srinagar—which led to widespread allegations that this could be another “staged encounter” on the lines of last year’s Amshipora encounter in Shopian.

According to the police, the encounter left two militants dead: one foreign militant named Haider and his local associate from Banihal, now identified as Aamir Magray. Whereas the police maintained from day one that Bhat was not linked to any militant activity, they accused Gull of facilitating terror. Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said: “It is not sure whether he [Bhat] was hit by militants’ or the security forces’ bullet. Militants were carrying pistols. The cause of death will be clear after investigation.” According to Vijay Kumar, Gull was a suspected facilitator of terror. “He may have provided shelter to Haider and his associates. He was harbouring and ferrying militants. Mudasir [Gull] was also involved in ferrying Haider from the site of the [November 15] attack at Jamalata Srinagar, where a policeman was injured after a bullet hit him. He was an overground worker and was directly involved in harbouring militants,” said Vijay Kumar while briefing mediapersons on November 16.

Human shield?

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the operation was the result of a tip-off they received that day. “Forces laid a cordon and started search operations. There are three rooms on the top floor. We did not know the exact location, so we called the owner of the building (Altaf) and the person who had rented the place (Gull) and was running his business from there.” The police said that Gull “was running a fake/unauthorised call centre from there. One of the rooms was being used as a militant hideout.” But if reactions on social media and sound bites from political leaders were any indication, people rejected the police version of events. By that time, different interpretations of the police “encounter” were floating around by word of mouth, most of them pointing to the police using at least one of the slain persons, Bhat, as a human shield.

Also read: Hyderpora encounter: Bodies of civilians exhumed and returned to their kin

This theory gained ground as Bhat’s niece, Saima Bhat, also echoed it on the basis of her own interactions with eyewitnesses in and around the business complex at Hyderpora. The Kashmir Walla, a Srinagar-based web-portal, quoted Saima Bhat as saying: “My uncle has been murdered. He was used as a human shield in a staged encounter. He runs a hardware shop and owns the complex where the forces had come for checking.... There was no gunfight in that complex. He was taken three times as a human shield [when the police were looking] for … [the hiding militants] and when they couldn’t find anything, he was killed there.” By this time, videos and images of Gull’s wailing child were circulated relentlessly on social media, with Gull’s family holding street protests and maintaining that he was a doctor with no links to militancy whatsoever. In Aamir Magray’s case, his father, Mohammed Latif, is an employee of the Department of Public Health Engineering who received a bravery award in 2005 for killing a militant. Latif maintains that his son is innocent.

The police had buried all four at an undisclosed location in North Kashmir, now identified to be Handwara, without the attendance of the family members. The speculation over the nature of the police operation, triggered in part by the police’s own reluctance or inability to show a picture of the dead foreign militant accused of leading the plot, and the Bhat and Gull families’ public demand for the bodies of their kin soon turned into limited but important public demonstrations against the government. This was an important landmark in the context of post-August 5, 2019, Kashmir, which has seen the administration successfully thwart any form of public expression of resentment.

Before long, political leaders from diverse backgrounds issued press statements, and the “return the bodies” campaign attained a feverish pitch. The National Conference (N.C.), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and other parties condemned the killings. Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister and an N.C. leader, demanded an inquiry via Twitter: “An impartial & credible inquiry in to the recent encounter in #Hyderpora is an absolute necessity. There are far too many questions being raised about the encounter & about the people killed.”

Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), condemned the alleged use of civilians as human shields. “Allegedly using unarmed civilians as human shields is shocking and must be probed through judicial process. The circumstances in which these killings happened need to be thoroughly probed,” he said. He added: “The rule of the law is being violated with impunity in Kashmir, which is highly unfortunate. From arbitrary arrests of people, including youth, to booking them under draconian laws and now allegations of using civilians as human shields, the situation is turning from bad to worse.” PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti had planned a protest march in Srinagar along with her party leaders, but the administration foiled that bid by putting her under house arrest.

Also read: Tarigami demands judicial probe into Hyderpora “encounter” killings

Sensing that the families’ demonstrations, which were gaining widespread coverage in Kashmir’s local press, could snowball into something uncontrollable, the administration attempted to disperse them in the middle of the night. Bhat’s family had been staging a sit-in protest at Press Colony in Srinagar since the noon of November 17, demanding that his body be handed over to them. They were removed forcibly in a police van in the dead of night. The detained people were taken to an undisclosed location far from the protest site and released in the intervening night of November 17-18.

Demand for bodies & inquiry

The police appeared to be in no mood to return the bodies of Bhat and Gull to their families. What shocked Bhat’s family in particular was the fact that even the police version of events made it amply clear that he was neither part of nor suspected to be part of any militant activity, and yet, the state buried his body. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the police have jettisoned the practice of handing over the bodies of local militants to their kin. What began as pandemic protocol has now apparently become the unsaid custom.

On November 18, as anger over the incident swelled, with several politicians and civil society members taking to the Internet to register their protest, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration ordered an inquiry. “A magisterial inquiry by officer of ADM [Additional District Magistrate] rank has been ordered in Hyderpora encounter. Govt will take suitable action as soon as report is submitted in a time-bound manner. J-K admin reiterates commitment of protecting lives of innocent civilians and it will ensure there is no injustice,” the Lt Governor’s office said in a Twitter post. As the call for returning the bodies grew louder, Omar Abdullah held a sit-in demonstration late on the afternoon of November 18 at Sonwar in Srinagar. He was joined by Sajjad Shafi and Salman Sagar among other top N.C. leaders. As the political and civil-society pressure mounted, the administration relented, and by the evening of November 18, it ordered the exhumation of the bodies of Bhat and Gull.

The bodies were exhumed on the night of November 18 and taken back to Srinagar and handed over to their respective families after midnight (the intervening night of November 18-19), more than 72 hours after the killings. Whereas Bhat’s body was buried at his family’s ancestral graveyard in Srinagar’s Barzulla, Gull’s mortal remains were taken to the Pirbagh graveyard, also in Srinagar, for burial. Emotional scenes were witnessed at the residences of both Bhat and Gull, with images and videos of inconsolable women and children flooding social media.

Also read: The BJP game plan to consolidate its position in Jammu and Kashmir

The Hyderpora incident was notable on several counts. Firstly, as Omar Abdullah pointed out: “Look at what we [Kashmiris] have been reduced to....We are not protesting for justice right now, not protesting for an inquiry, we are being forced to protest for a body to be returned, a body that the police itself says is of a person who is killed in crossfire.” Although Kashmir had always been a hotspot of grave injustices, the Narendra Modi years have seen the authorities act with a degree of impunity that has no parallel. Erring officials do not even have to maintain a veneer of neutrality. The new practice of confiscating dead bodies on the pretext that the slain have militant links appears to be strengthening an unsaid edict that guilt will be proclaimed and innocence has to be established.

Secondly, however limited the demonstrations may have been, this was the first time since August 5, 2019, that civilians and politicians alike took to the streets and compelled the administration to partly address the issue at hand, which was returning the bodies of at least Bhat and Gull.

Lastly, the Hurriyat for the first time called for a large-scale shutdown of Srinagar and also effectively saw it through on November 19, when most of the city’s businesses and transport did not operate. The call to observe the shutdown came from both factions of Hurriyat Conference: the one led by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who is under house arrest in Srinagar, and the one led by Masrat Alam Bhat, who is in jail. Both the civilian demonstrations and the shutdown have the potential to recreate a space for civil society members to democratically express dissent, something that has been lost under the unyielding repression of the state in the last few years.

But to build on that momentum, there has to be willingness among the mainstream parties, the Hurriyat and civil society groups to come together and chart out definitive short-term and long-term goals along with a well-envisaged course of action to meet them.

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