Srinagar: In all of 2020, 225 militants were killed in 103 gunfights in Jammu and Kashmir. But the last of those gunfights, that took place in Srinagar Tuesday, has sparked a major controversy, with the police defending its claim that those killed were militants and not civilians.
The encounter has stirred tension in the Kashmir region, with Pulwama and Shopian shutting down in protest. Several parts of Kashmir, particularly Srinagar, observed a spontaneous shutdown Friday.
Families of the alleged militants — Ajaz Maqbool Ganai (20), Ather Mushtaq Wani (16) and Zubair Ahmed Lone (22) — held a protest outside the police control room in Srinagar Wednesday to demand their bodies, and claimed the youth were innocent civilians. While Ajaz’s father is a J&K Police constable, Lone’s two older brothers are local police officials as well.
The J&K Police stated Friday that it had cross-checked the claims made by the families, and digital evidence as well as background checks on two of three deceased had revealed that they were over-ground workers (OGWs) who provided logistical support to militants.
The police had initially issued a statement Wednesday, claiming the killing of three youth and identifying them as militants. It said although the trio did not figure on the list of active militants, two of them were “hardcore associates of terrorists”.
However, in neither of its two statements did the police elaborate on the profile of the third deceased, Lone.
The families, in their protest Wednesday, had accused the security forces of staging the encounter, and claimed that their wards left their homes Tuesday to go about their work.
Ather Wani, who was a class 11 student, was supposed to appear for his Urdu exams Thursday. “He was not a militant,” said his father Mushtaq Ahmed Wani from Bellow village in Pulwama, adding that the son had had lunch at home Tuesday and then left for Pulwama.
“He last spoke to his sister at 4:30 pm, conveying that he was in Pulwama,” Mushtaq said.
Security forces have claimed the encounter, which took place in Srinagar’s HMT area around 40 km from Wani’s residence, began at 5:30 pm Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Ajaz Ganai’s sister Asiya told ThePrint that he had left home at 11 am to go to the Government Degree College in Pulwama (Kashmir University), to submit his exam form for the sixth semester. He was pursuing a B.Sc. degree, she said.
“He was bedridden for 35 days due to a back problem. And Tuesday was the first day after five weeks that he left home. He called me and said he is collecting notes and is accompanied by Ather. He also said that if he is late, he will stay with Ather for the night,” Asiya said.
The third youth killed in the encounter, Shopian resident Lone, was the youngest of five siblings who earned a living as a construction worker after dropping out of class 10, his family said.
His father Ghulam Mohammad Lone (65), said: “He would work around the village and would hardly stay out for night. On Tuesday, he told me he was going to Pulwama for work and he never returned.”
The J&K Police, in its Friday statement, rebutted two of the families’ claims.
“In so far as claims of the parents that Aijaz Maqbool Ganai went to the university to fill up form is concerned, the same was verified and cross checked through the modern techniques including records of telecom department. Contrary to the claims, the verified digital evidence revealed and corroborated that Aijaz and Ather had gone to Hyderpora and from there to the place of occurrence only (sic),” the statement read.
“Similarly, Zubair had gone first to Pulwama, then Anantnag, then Shopian to Pulwama and finally came to place of occurrence,” the police said.
“Background check also reveals that Aijaz and Ather Mushtaq, both OGWs (over-ground workers) variously provided logistic support to terrorists. Antecedents and verifications too shows that both were radically inclined and had aided terrorists of LeT (now so-called TRF) outfit,” it added, referring to a new outfit called The Resistance Front.
“One of OGW presently under police custody has also corroborated Aijaz’s association with LeT terrorist Faisal Mustaq Baba who was killed in Meej (Pampore) encounter in June last year,” the police said.
It claimed that Ather was a relative and OGW of Hizbul Mujahideen top commander Rayees Kachroo, who was killed in 2017. At the time of Kachroo’s killing, Ather was 13 years old.
The police added that it was investigating the case “from all possible angles”.
The Friday statement said the “encounter started with Army inputs and eventually fructified into a joint operation of Army, CRPF and police”. The police had not called the encounter a joint operation in its Wednesday statement, saying instead that its personnel reached the spot after the Army’s Rashtriya Rifles battalion had initiated a search operation upon being attacked by militants.
Sources in the CRPF had told ThePrint Wednesday that the paramilitary force had withdrawn its troops “as the Army was handling the encounter”. Friday, senior CRPF officers maintained that its responsibility in the anti-militancy operation in Srinagar was restricted to maintaining law and order of the area where the gunfight took place.
Mainstream political parties in Kashmir have demanded a probe into the encounter.
Before the police issued the Friday statement, the National Conference had said its MP Hasnain Masoodi had spoken to J&K Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha, who assured him of an impartial inquiry.
MP Anantnag @masoodi_hasnain spoke to J&K LG @manojsinha_ yesterday evening and expressed his anguish over the reports surrounding Wednesday's encounter around HMT area in Srinagar. Mr. Manoj Sinha assured an impartial enquiry into the matter.
— JKNC (@JKNC_) January 1, 2021
Masoodi said in a statement: “The police version is not convincing and clear-cut; it is an admitted case of police that none of the three youth in their early twenties were in the militant list. The statement joined together is far from convincing and lends support to the version of families of the slain trio that they were innocent and not involved in any militant activity.”
PDP president Mehbooba Mufti wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, also seeking an impartial investigation.
“Questions are also looming over this encounter & there are conflicting versions & reports from police & the Army. Justice can be served only if it is swift & therefore I request you to initiate an impartial investigation into the matter immediately,” Mehbooba wrote.