An alleged gunfight in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality, in which four persons were killed on November 15, has now snowballed into a major political controversy.
The deceased included Srinagar residents Dr. Mudasir Gul and Mohammad Altaf Bhat and a 22-year-old from Gool Gulabgarh in Ramban district, Mohammad Amir. Members of all the three families have openly contested the police’s ‘encounter’ claim. They allege that it was a “staged gunfight” during which their relatives were used as “human shields” and “murdered.”
“Why have you killed him? His one-year-old daughter wants to see him one last time,” says Dr. Gul’s wife. She had brought the girl to the Press Enclave in Srinagar for a protest that sought the mortal remains of the slain civilians.
Dr. Gul and three others were killed in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality on November 15. Jammu and Kashmir Police had claimed that Gul and the others were killed in crossfire during an encounter with armed militants purportedly hiding in a building near a busy highway in Hyderpora,
Apprehending a law-and-order and problem, the police hastily buried the bodies of the slain civilians at Handwara in North Kashmir.
“Give me evidence that my husband was an overground worker of the militants, as claimed by the J&K police. I am his spouse. I know he was not an OGW. He has committed no wrong,” she said.
The family of Mohammad Altaf Bhat, a businessman from Srinagar, carried placards seeking justice. They alleged that Bhat was first used as a “human shield” and later killed in a “staged gunfight” by the forces on the evening of November 15.
Nayfa Altaf, 14, Altaf Bhat’s daughter, said, “not a shot was fired from the other side. There was no militant present in the building. My papa (father) was first taken from his home and used as a human shield, and let go. He was taken along for the second time, and let go. But when he was taken by the forces for the third time, he was killed. After killing my father, the police left the scene. My cousin is an eyewitness,” Nayfa said, breaking down not knowing how to console her younger siblings — a girl and a boy. She said her father was a committed family man, an innocent person, and a hardworking businessman.
Abdul Majid Bhat, Altaf Bhat’s elder brother, went to the police Control Room in Batamaloo area in Srinagar seeking the body of his brother. He was caned and abused.
Mohammad Lateef Magray, father of Mohammad Amir, too, does not believe the police version of the Hyderpora incident. “My son was a labourer, not a militant. I am a migrant. We have fought the militants. Are we militants now? I appeal to the Lieutenant-Governor to deliver justice. Hand over the body of my son to us,” Lateef Magray told The Kashmiriyat, a local news portal.
A day later, addressing a press conference, Vijay Kumar, Inspector-General of J&K Police, said, “on 15th afternoon, on receiving information about the presence of two-three militants near Hyderpora bypass, the state police, the Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF) and the Army did a joint operation. They laid a cordon and conducted a house-to-house search,” he said.
“At the top floor in one of the buildings, there were three rooms. Since we did not have a clue on the exact location of the militants, the house owner (Mohammad Altaf Bhat) and a tenant (Dr. Mudasir Gul) were called in. The militants had locked the doors from inside. They did not open the bolted doors and started firing indiscriminately with the pistols. In self-defence, our search party too returned fire. An encounter started,” the officer said.
“We halted the encounter to rescue the civilians, but it was getting difficult. Two civilians received bullet wounds from the pistols of the militants and got killed. Meanwhile, we killed the two militants. One of them was Bilal Bhai, alias Haider, most probably a Pakistani. The second one was a local from Ramban-Banihal, we have called his parents for identification,” he said.
Vijay Kumar said the family members of Altaf Bhat and Dr. Gul were asked to participate in the final rites. “Fearing breach of law-and-order, we did not hand over the bodies to their families,” and instead, “buried them at Handwara, on the morning of November 16,” he said. He claimed that “the tenant, Gul, was running an unauthorised call centre from his rented office in Altaf’s building.”
Kumar said, “One of the rooms was being used by the militants as a hideout. We recovered two pistols, three magazines, and four mobile phones from the site. In the call centre, there were six computers and other material including a map of the US, warm clothes, food items and some injections.”
All major political groups, including the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), condemned the killings and demanded an “independent, time-bound and credible” probe into the incident.
Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of J&K and vice-president of the NC, tweeted: “The police admit they took the building owner (Altaf) & the tenant (Gul) into the building & used them to knock on doors. How can these people be termed as militants? They are civilians who died because they were put in harm’s way.”
In a joint statement, the NC’s Members of Parliament, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone, and Justice (retired) Hasnain Masoodi asked the Centre to “spare a thought on the impact such killings and subsequent culture of impunity had on the psyche of the people.”
“Apprehensions have been raised by the victims’ families on the veracity of claims made by the police and its investigation agencies. It is therefore incumbent upon the J&K administration to ensure that there was no foul play involved and ensure that the bereaved families’ version is heard and respected,” the statement added.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti took out a protest rally demanding an “end to the culture of impunity” in Jammu and Kashmir. “Using innocent civilians as human shields, getting them killed in cross fire & then conveniently labelling them as OGWs is part of the government’s rulebook now. Imperative that a credible judicial enquiry is done to bring out the truth & put an end to this rampant culture of impunity,” Mehbooba tweeted.