Busting the Bullet 

   A wailing relative of one of the three killed youth pleads before cops outside PCR Srinagar| Photo Courtesy: Syed Shahriyar

ENTIRE Kashmir Valley is once again at the crossroads. Kashmir’s dispossessed population is in the process of summoning some courage to ask some basic questions.

Families of three young boys who were killed in the outskirts of Srinagar on December 30, 2020, in an alleged gunfight are questioning the version of the government forces. The three slain youths were identified as Aijaz Maqbool, Athar Mushtaq and Zubair Ahmad. Aijaz, a student, was son of a cop. Athar and Aijaz were from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district while Zubair hailed from the neighbouring district, Shopian. Two siblings of one of the slain youths work in the police department.

“There is no reason to dispute the version of an army commander that the three “militants” killed in an encounter in Srinagar’s outskirts had plans to carry out a “big strike”,” Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbagh Singh told media in Jammu on December 31.

“Hamara chiraag kyoun bhujaya,” Why did you put out our candle?,” said one of the protesting family members in Srinagar while accusing government forces of killing three boys in an extrajudicial manner.

Government forces had made claims in the case of the three boys from Rajouri (they had come to Shopian for work) that they were “militants”. All three were brutally killed in south Kashmir in July, 2020. Later, it turned out that all of them were civilians (labourers). Even police have now accused an Indian army officer and two associates of “planting weapons” on the bodies of the three labourers.

Their extrajudicial killing in July last year sparked furore in the Kashmir Valley. However, their killings in such a manner were not the first.

On April 29, 2010, the Indian Army killed three youths in the Machil sector of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district on the grounds that they were “foreign militants”. After hue and cry from the local residents, an Army court martial in September 2015 confirmed the 2013 verdict and awarded life sentence to six of its personnel found guilty in the Machil extrajudicial killings case of 2010. Those sentenced were identified as Colonel Dinesh Pathania; Captain Opendra; Havildar Devender Kumar; Lance Naik Lakhmi; Lance Naik Arun Kumar; and rifleman Abas Husian.

At the time, it was said that the Indian Army personnel were being punished for human rights violations for the first time in the Kashmir Valley. Later, “procedural reasons” and “want of evidence” saved the guilty personnel.

Initially, a court of inquiry was headed by Major-General G. S. Sangah, then a Brigadier of the 68 Mountain Division. The three boys killed in Machil were identified as Reyaz Ahmad, Mohammad Shafi and Shahzad, all residents of Nadihal Rafiabad of north Kashmir’s Baramullah district. The trio was persuaded to come to Machil by a former special police officer, identified as Bashir Lone, and his associates. They had made a lucrative job offer to the boys and then sold them secretly to the Indian Army personnel for Rs. 50,000 each.

In March 2000, at least five labourers from Pathribal in south Kashmir were killed in the same fashion. Initially, they too were dubbed as “foreign mercenaries”. Later, their bodies were exhumed. The DNA samples revealed who they were: civilians.

It is important to put these killings in their right perspective. To begin with, such killings executed in Pathribal, Machil and Shopian should not be described as fake encounters. Legal experts insist that such killings are extrajudicial killings. Two, these are only the reported cases. We have no idea how many such cases remain unnoticed or go unreported for lack of media scrutiny or other reasons.

To make sense of all extrajudicial killings taking place in the Kashmir Valley, it is important to read Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s book Blood On My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters. Bhattacharjee’s body of work on extrajudicial killings is a moral chargesheet against government forces.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s work is not an imaginary tale of victimhood. His book is a riveting account based on an anonymous confession by an Indian army officer, shedding light on the murky business of extra-judicial killings often referred to as fake or staged encounters. The author is not telling us something new or something that we already do not know as Kashmiris. Yet the details in the book are chilling. The book has finer details of the staged gunfights in India’s northeast,  Manipur and Nagaland, the naxal-infested West Bengal, Assam, Punjab, and also in Jammu and Kashmir.

This book is based on confessions of a senior officer in the Indian army (name withheld), narrated to the author the blow-by-blow account of what he refers to as false encounters in January 2014 in the capital city of West Bengal. Ironically, the shadowy details are divulged in Kolkata, the city of joy. Through his investigative work, Bhattacharjee tells us how everything gets washed off under the garb of “national security in India” and how “the relationship between the citizen and state is falling apart in a supposedly democratic set-up.”

The book makes one question the state’s monopoly over violence. It reveals how the innocent Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, mostly hapless labourers, and Muslims from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are trapped, detained, arrested, made to pose as ‘surrendered militants’, and promised jobs by the army and police, and when the need is urgent they are made victims of extra-judicial killings/staged encounters.

For starters, the author talks about a young army captain who approaches a police officer to lend him “some amount”. Shockingly, this cryptic conversation between a senior police officer and a young army captain in the eastern Indian state of Assam, near the Bhutan border, is not about borrowing money. The young army officer has already killed two persons and dubbed them as militants in his official record, but inadvertently passed the telegraphic message to his seniors that three persons have been killed. So, to make up for a typographical error, the army officer makes a request to the police officer to lend him a live victim!

The author notes that “those in the northeast and the Kashmir valley appear to have become acclimatised to an environment where extra-judicial killings are a routine occurrence.” In Kashmir context, the army officer reveals to the author that the army had to have hard information, and it was INR one million (10 lank rupees) for one person.

In the third chapter ‘Confessions of an Army Officer’, there are ghastly details of “Military Intelligence” (MI) funds that are unaccounted for. “This is called the hidden budgetary allowance,” the anonymous army officer tells the author. He also tells Bhattacharjee that the intelligence fund is divided into two categories: “payment of source” and “entertainment of source”.

In chapter seven, the book divulges that “in Jammu and Kashmir the battalions facing the international border buy weapons from Pakistani intelligence agencies. Muslim men from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are abducted from Jammu, kept in the post for two or three months, and once these weapons are purchased, they are killed and shown as militants trying to infiltrate with weapons. The CO [Commanding Officer] gets a thumping report and the unit gets a citation. It is easy to identify the victim. Their looks and dress are not like those of the militants from Pakistan. But who gives a flying fuck for all these details?”

The book also indicts the ‘obedient press’ which seldom gathers courage to question the official versions and statements issued by the PROs of the army and police at the time of a staged encounter. The army’s word is taken as the gospel truth. If the army’s press statement says the victim was a “dreaded terrorist”, he remains so for the complicit press. If the police’s statement dubs a civilian as a “foreign mercenary”, he remains so for the submissive press.

The author through his analytical sweep tells us how even the cold-blooded murders are being legitimised by the government record. This dirty business of staged encounters is about impunity granted to soldiers. It tells us about the systematic and organised attempts from powers that be to obfuscate truth and deny justice. The author notes that “…unless death is at our doors, a stifled scream from afar barely registers.”

Concluding, the families of three slain boys from south Kashmir deserve to know the truth. But can the media in Kashmir ever summon courage to ask how and why or continue to remain an obedient stenographer?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Gowhar Geelani

Gowhar Geelani is a journalist-author who served Deutsche Welle as editor. He is author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason

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