Peoples’ clashes with the Police and security forces, marked by heavy stone pelting and violent demonstrators, which were a routine in Kashmir from 2015 to August 2019, have subsided after withdrawal of the erstwhile State’s special constitutional status. There has been no major news of what a section of the media and politicians used to call ‘agitational terrorism’.
The Union Territory’s summer capital of Srinagar has, however, witnessed around 18 encounters between the militants and security forces since January 2020. Besides, around 20 civilians and unarmed Policemen have been killed in Srinagar in different terror strikes. They include one CID Inspector, one probationary Sub Inspector and two constables who were all attacked from behind and shot dead. They also include popular chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo, two non-Muslim teachers and two golgappa vendors who killed selectively.
Some of these attacks were captured live on CCTV cameras; some by the assassins’ bodycams, which were subsequently made viral to spread maximum possible fear among the people perceived to be leaning towards India.
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Quite a number of the terror attacks on the soft targets as well as the encounters occurred in the summer Capital’s usually peaceful areas of Allochi Bagh, Rambagh, Hyderpora, Nowgam, Parimpora and Lawaypora on the south-western periphery.
On 7 October 2020, Police and security forces claimed to have killed two top wanted terrorists of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT)—Saifullah and Irshad Ahmad Dar of Pulwama—in an encounter at Rambagh. On 23 August 2021, Police and security forces said that the most wanted The Resistance Front (TRF) chief Abbas Sheikh and his ‘second-in-command’ Saquib Manzoor, had been killed in a ‘lightning strike’ at Rambagh’s contiguous neighbourhood of Alloch Bagh.
All the three controversial encounters, in which two former Chief Ministers—the National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah and the Peoples’ Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti—are seeking judicial inquiry, have happened on the south-western periphery at Lawaypora, Hyderpora and Rambagh. Unlike many encounters across the valley, particularly after the killing of 40 CRPF men in February 2019, three shootouts around Rambagh and Lawaypora triggered allegations of unfair play after a long time.
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On 19 December 2020, three youths from different villages of Pulwama—Aijaz Maqbool Ganai, Zubair Ahmad and Athar Mushtaq—were killed in an Army operation inside a hostel building at Lawaypora. The families claimed that all the three were innocent civilians with no links to militancy. The security forces maintained that they had launched the operation on specific information, claiming that the three youngsters were “terror associates” who opened fire and triggered an encounter in which they got killed. One AK-56 rifle and two pistols were mentioned in the official seizure memo.
However, what shook the valley for the first time after August 2019 was the killing of two well-established and well-known civilians—Altaf Bhat and Dr Muddasar Gul—whose bodies came out with two more after an encounter at Hyderpora on 15 November 2021. Initially the senior Police and Army officers described Bhat and Gul as terrorist harbourers. However, after a massive public outcry, they relented and maintained that the duo had got killed in the cross-firing. As regards the two more bodies, officers claimed that one Haider was ‘probably a Pakistani terrorist’ while his associate Aamir Magrey of Sangaldan, Ramban, was also a confirmed militant.
It was for the first time in the last 28 months that the authorities went on the back foot, ordered exhumation of the two bodies in a distant forest area in Handwara and handed over the same to the family members who conducted the funeral rites silently in the dead of night. On Lieutenant Governor’s direction, the District Magistrate ordered a magisterial inquiry which has now been completed and its report would be submitted to the government in a couple of days. The LG has said that anybody, if found guilty of a civilian killing in Hyderpora, would be severely punished.
Three of the most wanted militants—Mehran Yaseen Shalla of Jamalatta Srinagar, Mazoor Ahmad Mir of Babhar Pulwama and Arafat Ahmad Sheikh of Nikloora Pulwama—were killed by the J&K Police in a dramatic shootout, second of such kind after the TRF Abbas Sheikh’s killing in the neighbouring Allochi Bagh, at Rambagh on 24 November 2021.
The Police statement said that the three “TRF terrorists” were travelling in a Santro car which ignored the signal and jumped a checkpoint. It said that the trio opened fire while trying to jump out and escape but all the three militants got killed in the armed retaliation. The Police released a list of FIRs according to which the slain militants had committed several civilian killings. It alleged that Mehran’s victims also included the two non-Muslim teachers, including a woman, and the Police Sub Inspector (probationary) Arshid Mir.
The families have claimed that Mehran and his two associates were killed when they were not carrying any weapons but they have not insisted on their being “innocent civilians”. But some mainstream politicians, notably Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have started discrediting the Police version. With Lawaypora and Hyderpora, they are also seeking judicial inquiry in the Rambagh encounter.
On 29 November 2021, NC’s three Lok Sabha members from Kashmir—Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Justice (retired) Hasnain Masoodi—staged a protest outside the Parliament. They carried placards, demanding judicial inquiries in the three disputed encounters in addition to restoration of J&K’s special status under the redundant Article 370 and 35-A.
On 6 December 2021, Mehbooba Mufti, with a team of her party leaders, put up a similar protest at New Delhi’s iconic demonstration point of Jantar Mantar, alleging fake encounters and, like the NC, and demanding judicial inquiries into Lawaypora, Hyderpora and Rambagh encounters.
The poster carried by Mehbooba did not carry any picture of more than 40 civilians and unarmed Policemen whose blood has been spilt by militants since last year. Like a Hurriyat leader’s amphibian son, who is also seen courting some BJP leaders in Delhi, the PDP president chose the blood-splattered site of the Rambagh shootout to protest and ask questions.
“While the Hurriyat and the JKLF have been muted, the so-called mainstream leaders, including the two ex-Chief Ministers, are audaciously promoting and strengthening the Pakistani narrative”, observed a senior BJP leader. “Protesting against an established fake encounter or an innocent civilian killing is the responsibility of the politicians but Kashmir’s amphibian politicians are selectively crying over terrorists and crossing all limits of political histrionics”, he said. According to him, nobody would be spared if Bhat or Dr Gul turned out to be civilians killed in violation of SOPs in the Hyderpora encounter.