Staged encounter in Shopian?

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Army jawans walking towards an encounter site in the Amshipora area of Shopian in South Kashmir on July 18. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Inspector General of Police Kashmir Zone Vijay Kumar at a press conference in Srinagar, on July 17. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Questions surround the fate of three young men who came to Shopian district in search of work and went missing at the same time that the security forces killed three unidentified “militants” in an encounter.

ON July 17, acting on specific inputs the 62 Rashtriya Rifles battalion provided regarding the presence of militants at Amshipora village in Shopian district in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Army launched an operation. As per the statement the Jammu and Kashmir Police issued on conclusion of that operation, which left three alleged militants dead, there was an exchange of gunfire between the security personnel and the armed combatants.

“During search, terrorists fired upon Army personnel and encounter started. Later on, police and CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] also joined. During the encounter, three unidentified terrorists were killed. Dead bodies of all the killed three terrorists were retrieved from the site of encounter. The identification and affiliation of the killed terrorists is being ascertained,” the police spokesman said on July 18.

According to this official version, “incriminating materials, including arms and ammunition, were recovered from the site of encounter”. After the encounter was over and the necessary medical and legal formalities were completed, the bodies were taken to Baramulla in North Kashmir for the last rites. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Kashmir, the bodies of militants are not handed over to their families. The administration says this is to prevent the large gatherings that are witnessed at funeral processions of militants. Up until this point, there was nothing unusual about this encounter. Since the launch of Operation All Out in January 2017, the security apparatus has been focussed on a chase-and-kill-the-insurgent policy, which it believes can effectively annihilate militancy from Kashmir’s soil, no matter arguments to the contrary that point to accumulated rage amongst the youths who continue to join the militant ranks undeterred.

In 2019, at least 119 youths took to militancy and 173 terror strikes were reported despite the increased security after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked on August 5 that year. In the first seven months of 2020, at least 20 security personnel, including a commanding rank officer, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma in Handwara, died in anti-militancy operations. The security grid’s own assessment puts the number of home-grown militants constant at around 120; five boys take up arms every month.

However, now that July 17 operation is being seen as a fake encounter, and three families, roughly 130 kilometres away in Rajouri district of Jammu region, are fretting about their missing sons. Saleem Peeri, a first cousin of one of the slain youths, 17-year-old Ibrar, said: “The family last spoke to Ibrar at around 7:30 p.m. on July 17.” Ibrar, and his 26-year-old cousin, also named Ibrar, had joined another cousin, 21-year-old Mohammad Imtiyaz, in Shopian to work as daily wage labourers. Imtiyaz had gone to Amshipora village a month or so ago, and the two Ibrars thought they could earn some money if they followed suit. Imtiyaz was living at a construction site, but after the two Ibrars joined him, they rented a room.

Twenty-six-year-old Ibrar Ahmed was the son of Mohammad Yousuf, a resident of Tarkassi, while Imtiyaz was a son of Sabar Hussain, a resident of Kathuni Mohalla of Dharsakri. The younger Ibrar lived in Kathuni Mohalla of Dharsakri, near Peeri. His father, Bagha Khan, lives in Saudi Arabia.

According to Saleem Peeri, the three men were using the same phone, which belonged to Imtiyaz. The younger Ibrar had some issues with his SIM card, and the older Ibrar had given his phone to his wife when he moved to Shopian, Peeri said. He shared with this reporter the details of the conversation he had with Imtiyaz and the two Ibrars on the night of July 17. “They said they had just returned from work and were cooking rice. Ibrar told his family members that everything was all right, and they need not worry,” Peeri told Frontline. After that, the three became untraceable. “Their ‘last seen’ status on WhatsApp was at 11:30 p.m. on July 17. The next day when we tried calling them, the phone was switched off.”

Two weeks later, on August 1, when the three failed to call their families on Eid, a decision was taken to file a missing report. Peeri said: “The family members were very upset. Initially, they thought the phone may not be working. But when they did not even call on Eid, we knew something terrible had happened. I lodged a missing complaint at the police chowki in Peeri, which is nearest to our place. The Additional S.P. [Superintendent of Police], Rajouri, Liyaqat Ali, heard us patiently and said an enquiry would be done, but soon their [the three deceased] photos went viral on the Internet. The worst had perhaps come true.”

Since the morning of August 10, social media has been inundated with posts claiming that the three residents of Rajouri who had come to Shopian for labour work had been killed in an alleged fake encounter. As the unremitting chatter snowballed into a controversy, the Army said on the same day that it was probing the matter. “We have noted social media inputs linked to the operation at Shopian on 18 July 2020,” Col Rajesh Kalia, Public Relations Officer, Ministry of Defence, told the media. He added: “The three militants killed during the operation have not been identified and the bodies were buried based on established protocols.”

Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir Police also jumped into action and launched a separate investigation. Local media reports stated that a team headed by Deputy S.P. Wajahat went to Rajouri on August 13 to collect DNA samples of the family members who are claiming the deceased as their kin.

Vijay Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Zone, told the media that the DNA samples of the family members would be examined at central laboratories. He did not rule out the possibility that the slain youths could be militants. He told mediapersons that there would be a fair, twofold investigation. “There are two aspects of the investigations. One is matching the DNA and then we will be also investigating whether these youths, who had come to work in Kashmir, had any links with militants. We will be going through their call details and other technical aspects as well,” he stated.

Saleem Peeri and the other family members are firm that they lost their kin in a staged encounter, if indeed the DNA samples match. “How could they be militants? There is not even one FIR [first information report] registered against them anywhere. [The younger] Ibrar had just passed class 11 and was a hopeful student. He went to Shopian to work because he wanted to use the lockdown period to earn money and pursue university studies after completing his 12th this year,” Peeri said. The police team has assured the bereaved families that the results of the DNA sampling would be known in 10 days.

In the past two years, Kashmir has come under serious scrutiny by prominent rights groups. On August 5, Human Rights Watch stated that there have been several “cases of arrests, torture and ill treatment by the security forces”. “Indian government claims that it was determined to improve Kashmiri lives ring hollow one year after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status,” it said, adding, “The authorities instead have maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights.”

The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, an informal group of jurists, former civil servants, former military officers, academics and human rights experts, stated in July that the “eleven months of lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir has not only resulted in an ‘across-the-board violation of human rights’, it also led to the ‘denial of the right to bail and fair and speedy trial, coupled with misuse of draconian legislation, such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), to stifle dissent’”. Justice Madan Lokur, former Supreme Court judge, and Radha Kumar, former member of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir, are the forum’s co-chairs.

A cursory glance at the facts at hand for the Shopian encounter reveals the holes in the official version. If these young men were indeed militants, why would they choose as their “hideout” a place that was so close to an Army camp? The rented room where the deceased were staying is a few hundred metres from the Chowgam camp, which has earned notoriety amongst local people for alleged human rights transgressions. A general discussion with people living in Amshipora and Chowgam also reflects this point of view, said a Srinagar-based journalist who visited the spot on August 12.

According to this journalist, there was a lock on the house in which the deceased were living. “The house owner, Shakeel Ahmed Lone, was not present; his neighbours, scared as they were and reluctant to speak with the media, indicated that it had been some time since they last saw him,” he said. The role of the house owner comes under the scanner when one considers the fact that he apparently kept quiet about his tenants’ “disappearance” for nearly two weeks.

“In a place like Kashmir, deep inside militancy hotbed Shopian, if three of your tenants go missing, how do you do nothing about it?” is the question that is on everybody’s mind in and around Amshipora. Whether Lone was a mole tasked with providing some unscrupulous elements within the Chowgam camp with easy prey is something that only a fair investigation can reveal.

Cash reward

It is pertinent to mention here that generally for every militant killed, a cash reward is given. This has been the source of frustration and fear amongst Kashmir’s residents, especially those living in militancy belts, as this reporter has found out in his numerous field visits across South Kashmir. Allegations of the Army looking for “encounterable” youths and, in some cases, coercing youths to take up the gun are common in Shopian and Anantnag, though next to impossible to prove.

Human Rights Watch has called for an “an independent, impartial investigation into the killings”. “Security forces have long operated with impunity in Kashmir, and past army investigations have been more focussed on shielding those responsible for abuse than providing justice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “There can be no end to the cycle of violence in Kashmir if security forces are not held accountable for their past and current abuses.”

The major political parties based in Jammu and Kashmir have also questioned the authenticity of the encounter. The official spokesperson of the National Conference said in a statement: “The entire incident stands mystified due to the diverse versions of the security forces and families of the missing youth. It is highly excruciating to see innocent people losing their precious lives and their blood being spilled.... Only an impartial and time bound inquiry into the matter will reveal the circumstances revolving around the three missing boys... we can only anticipate that justice is served to the affected and circumstances revolving around the killings are made public.”

Iltija Mufti, daughter of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted from her mother’s handle: “Shocked to hear about reports of 3 missing labourers reportedly killed in a staged encounter at Shopian. Armed forces have a free hand to operate with impunity. Explains why bodies are allowed to decompose at unknown locations. Probes into recent encounters must be ordered.”

On August 18, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) filed a complaint on the matter with the National Human Rights Commission. The CITU expressed serious concerns over the questionable Shopian encounter and demanded a thorough investigation. It issued a statement demanding that the facts surrounding the three missing labourers and the alleged encounter be made clear, that action be taken against the human rights offenders in accordance with the law and that adequate compensation be made to the families of the victims.

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