Mushtaq Ahmad with relatives and neighbours of the two youths, in Srinagar on Monday. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)
On December 30 evening, in a grave far away from his home in Pulwama, Mushtaq Ahmad buried his 16-year-old son. He had dug up another grave in his native village, but the government refused to hand over the body, as part of its policy regarding alleged militants. On Monday, a crying Mushtaq demanded that Athar’s body be given to him. “I have already died… Give me my child or bury me there (with him),” he said.
Athar was among the three youths killed in an alleged encounter in Srinagar in the intervening night of December 29 and 30, in an operation based on Army inputs and later joined by the police and CRPF. The Army said they were responding to information regarding a planned attack. The forces said the three were overground militant workers, though they didn’t figure in any official list of terrorists, and that they were repeatedly given a chance to surrender, but kept firing. All the three were buried together.
However, the families have claimed the youths, including the son of a Head Constable and the brother of two police officials, were innocent and killed in a staged gunfight. The police have assured a probe in the matter. While Athar and Ajaz Ahmad, the son of a Head Constable, were both from Pulwama and knew each other, it is not known if they were acquainted with the third youth killed, Zubair Ahmad, belonging to Shopian. Ajaz’s father Mohammad Maqbool said, “We can’t trust them (the security forces).”
On Monday, the J&K Police released two videos on Twitter, in which forces can be seen making announcements during the “encounter”, asking the three youths to surrender. However, there is no response or any sound of firing from the other side. The police tweet said, “On 29/12/20 evening after the cordon at Hokersar, troops are repeatedly appealing the trapped terrorists to come out and surrender with assurances that they will not be harmed… At Hokersar on 30/12/2020 in the morning hours, troops are once again appealing the trapped terrorists to come out… and surrender.”
In a statement after the encounter, General Officer Commanding of the Army’s Kilo Force H S Shahi had said that when told to surrender, the militants had opened fire. The police did not respond to queries about the video.
At a protest held in Srinagar on Monday, by families, relatives and neighbours of the youths who demanded a probe into the killings, Mushtaq said, “I want justice. I don’t need money. I only want the body of my son. To whom do I express (my feelings)? Do the people of India not listen? I want my son. He was only 16.”
A Class 11 student, Athar was the youngest of the three killed. All had been at home hours earlier, a fact the families repeated to contest the claim that they were militants.
Constable Mohammad Shafi Lone, whose younger brother Zubair, 20, was killed in the shootout, said, “Zubair was home that day till 2 pm. How could he have become a militant within two hours?” Zubair was in the construction business and ran a shuttering company in partnership. Both Lone and another brother are Constables in the J&K Police’s Armed Wing.
Lone added that no security agency had any records on Zubair, and said their killing was similar to the Shopian encounter in which three Rajouri labourers had been labelled militant and killed. An Army officer and two civilians have been named in the chargesheet filed by the J&K Police in the Shopian case.
Ajaz’s father Mohammad Maqbool is posted in Ganderbal. Ajaz, 22, was a graduate student. Speaking to The Indian Express, the Head Constable said, “We can’t trust them. We saw that in Amshipora (Shopian). They were all innocent. I contacted several officials to get the body of my son but I was told that there are orders from the top not to hand over the bodies. Now I appeal to the Lieutenant Governor that we should get justice.”
Talking about the video released by the J&K Police on Monday, a relative asked why nobody could be heard from inside the house where the three youths were allegedly hiding. “Whom were they asking to surrender in that video? If you see closely, there is no gunshot from inside, so how can you say if there was anyone alive inside or not?”
The relative also asked why the police had released the video and not the Army. “The police are trying hard to protect the Army.”
Former Chief Minister and Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti has demanded that the bodies of the youths be handed over to their families. Backing this, ex-CM and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah asked LG Manoj Sinha to hold a probe.