Srinagar: For the families of two civilians killed in the Hyderpora encounter on 15 November, there was no time to grieve.
Instead, they faced a 76-hour struggle, shuttling between government offices and police stations, three sleepless nights, a long drawn negotiation process with the police and a protest — all to bring back their dead, bury them and bring closure for their children.
On the evening of the fateful day, videos of the men killed in the encounter started doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups in the Valley. However, despite a video of Altaf Bhatt lying in a pool of blood becoming public, his family members were in denial, waiting for an official confirmation.
“Around 8 pm, some videos started circulating in which I saw Bhatt uncle’s body on the floor in the corridor of his office building. I saw his face but I was in denial. I did not want to believe those visuals. I kept telling myself that he is an innocent civilian, why would he get killed in an encounter?” Bhatt’s niece, Saima Bhatt, said.
Saima then comforted the family, assuring them that Bhatt would soon be back and started making frantic calls, even to people in the police establishment.
The confirmation of his death came two hours later when the Jammu and Kashmir Police officially announced that among the dead were two terrorists — Haider (a Pakistani national), his associate Amir Ahmad — and two civilians — Altaf Ahmad Bhatt and another individual, later identified as Mudassir Gul, who had “accompanied the search party”, to show the “suspect call centre in the building”, where the terrorists were operating from
This was the building where Bhatt had been running his cement and hardware shop from for the last three decades. He had rented out one floor to Gul two years ago as office space. He was working as a property dealer.
“We were shattered. I was numb,” Altaf’s 12-year-old daughter Nyfa told ThePrint.
For the family of Mudassir Gul, the confirmation came much later, as the police didn’t announce his name initially. Until the morning of 16 November, Gul’s family was under the impression that he could have been “detained” somewhere for an “inquiry” and would return home.
“All night we went from police stations to the control room to hospitals to look for Mudassir but could not find him. We made so many calls to his friends and colleagues but got no information. No one from the police called us to inform us that he was killed in the encounter. It was only the next day that we found out,” Gul’s widow, Rafiya, said.
However, Inspector General (IG) Vijay Kumar denied this claim, saying the families of both civilians were contacted and even asked to accompany the police team to Handwara, 70 km from Hyderpora in Srinagar, where the bodies were to be buried.
“The families of both Altaf and Mudassir were contacted and were even asked to accompany police for their last rites. We took their bodies to Handwara and did not return them to the families, as we did not want a law and order situation,” Kumar told ThePrint.
Kumar added that the J&K Police “regret” that both Bhatt and Gul were killed in the crossfire, “despite their attempts to save the two”.
“Altaf had given out the first floor on rent to Mudassir where he was running a fake call centre and was harbouring militants. But since he died in the crossfire, we regret that. We tried to save them but could not save them as the firing was on from all sides,” Kumar added.
The encounter took place at 4:30 pm on 15 November when personnel from J&K Police, Army and the Central Reserve Police Force reached the market area of Hyderpora, wearing pherans, cordoned off the area and started searching the premises, eyewitnesses in the area recalled.
The police claimed they had intelligence inputs about “presence of terrorists in the area”, and everyone across a dozen shops in the 200 m radius were held up inside a hospital in the area and a Royal Enfield showroom. It was from this group that Bhatt and Gul were taken to “locate” the terrorists.
Struggle to get the bodies back
After the families of the two civilians were told that their bodies had been buried in Handwara, they began their struggle to get the bodies back.
“I promised Bhatt sahib’s children that I would get their dead father back. Don’t they deserve to see his face for one last time? I told them that this is our right which cannot be snatched,” Saima said.
Saima and two of her relatives went to the local police station to seek details about the procedure to get Bhatt’s body back on the night of the encounter. The Station House Officer, however, told them that the body had been taken for an autopsy and its status would be clear the next morning.
“Until then, we had no clue that the police had taken the body to Handwara. At around 3 am we blocked the airport road and sat there. Around 6:30 am, a deployment in the area came and told us that his autopsy was on and the body will be given to us after that and that we should leave for home,” Saima said.
“We then went to the DC office around 11 am and gave a written application demanding the body back. We even spoke to the DIG (Deputy Inspector General). At that time there was no anger, there was only sheer helplessness, just to get our dead back home,” she added.
Negotiations came next
The demand to return the body was followed by a series of “negotiations” between Bhatt’s family and senior police officers — who tried to convince the family to not insist on returning the body.
According to the family, they were given many options — from partially exhuming the body so that they can see his face, to arranging a vehicle for the family to go pay respects at the graveyard in Handwara, where he had been buried. The family, however, refused.
“Around 1 pm on 16 November we met the DIG. We asked the DIG to give us in writing that Altaf’s body will be returned, but he refused. He told us that 4-5 members of our family can go to Handwara and pay homage there, but we refused. We demanded that we want the body back and we can go to any extent for it,” Saima said.
“The DIG then said that he would speak to the IG and that we should return home. We then waited for the IG’s call and it was around 4:30 pm that we finally met him,” she said.
According to Saima, the IG told her that “he regrets the killing of Altaf Bhatt” and then offered that they would “partially exhume the body”.
“He said you can see his face and pay homage, do the rituals but it would not be possible to return the body as it has already been buried,” Saima said.
Bhatt’s family told the IG that it was not even questioning why and how he was killed. “We are just asking for the body back, is that too much to ask too? This is our right. I told him that we would move the court, if required, but since I have promised his children that I would bring their dead father back, I would do that at any cost,” she said.
It was then decided that the body would be returned if Bhatt’s family would “give it in writing” that they would bury him in the night amid a very limited number of people. The family agreed to this.
The IG, who seemed convinced by then, asked Bhatt’s family to wait for his call. “We were hopeful. But that was not the end of our misery. We waited for his call all night but did not hear from him. It is when I wrote an email to the Lieutenant Governor,” Saima said.
Turn to protests
Since Bhatt’s family didn’t receive any confirmation from either the IG or any other police officer, the family reached the Press Colony in Srinagar on the morning of 17 November for a peaceful sit-in protest. The family of Mudassir Gul too joined in.
“We had no other option but to sit on a protest,” Nyfa said.
Around 6 pm, the local SP called Bhatt’s family saying his body will be returned and they should call off the protest. “We could not believe them as they had made us run from pillar to post and so we asked for the same in writing but they refused. We also refused to move from the protest,” Saima said.
The following morning, Bhatt’s family received a call from the area SSP saying that the police were “considering returning the body”. He invited them for a meeting with the IG at around 11 am.
“When we went to meet the IG, he gave us two options — either we all go to Handwara and get the body back or the police bring it back and hand it over to us. We opted for the second option,” Saima said.
An “understanding” was reached between the families and the police. While the police promised that they would hand over the bodies to the families, the family was to remove “all the media from outside their homes”.
“According to the understanding reached, we requested all the media to leave and clear the path because we had anyway struggled to bring these children’s dead father back and did not want to take any chance,” Saima said. “The media cooperated with us and at around midnight we buried the body and that is when it brought closure to this whole episode.”
Coming to terms with loss
The two families are now trying to come to terms with what happened on 15 November. For 12-year-old Nyfa, it is yet to sink in.
“I still think he will return home. For these three days we were struggling to get his dead body back, I was emotionless. I could not understand why everyone was crying. It hit me only when I saw his dead body, his face and that is why it was so important to get his dead body back,” she said.
All Rafiya wants is her husband’s name to be cleared of the charges.
“We are thankful to the police that they returned his bodies, so that he could be buried respectfully with all rituals. Mudassir is gone, I cannot bring him back. But now, I just request appropriate compensation and a secure life for my children. This tag of a terrorist associate should be washed away, else it would ruin my children’s future,” she said.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)