(The Indian Army on Friday, 18 September, found ‘prima facie’ evidence indicating that troops violated the powers vested under AFSPA in connection with an alleged encounter in Jammu and Kashmir's Shopian in July, in which three men were killed. The Army has initiated disciplinary proceedings under the Army Act.
The alleged 'militants', all cousins, are believed to be sons of three families from Rajouri. The families had accused the army of killing them in a staged gun battle.
The following ground report by Jehangir Ali – first published on 12 August – details the versions, claims and allegations of the families and the Army, and is being republished in light of the latest developments.)
Twenty-two-year-old shepherd, Rashid Khatana’s sleep was cut short by a barrage of gunshots at around 2 am on 18 July. But an eerie calm soon returned to this south Kashmir village, the guns fell silent, and Khatana was back in bed.
At around 5 am, the gunfire resumed, this time with greater intensity. Now, Khatana could not sleep.
“There were two blasts. Then a lull followed and it was all over. As time passed, people began moving towards the building from where the sound of blasts had emanated,” Khatana said at his home in Amshipora village of Shopian district.
At sunrise, rumours started doing the rounds about what had transpired during the night. Later in the day, the army issued a statement, claiming it has killed three suspected militants in an encounter in the village.
Who Were the ‘Militants’?
The ‘militants’, all cousins, are believed to be sons of three families from Rajouri who have identified them from a ‘post-encounter’ photograph showing the trio in a bloodied state. The families have accused the army of killing them in a staged gun battle.
The deceased have been identified as Ibrar Ahmad, 17, a Class 12 student at Government Higher Secondary School, Peeri; his brother-in-law, Ibrar Ahmad, 25; and another cousin, Imtiyaz Ahmad, 19, who had passed Class 12 and was planning to get admission in a local government college.
In a statement on Tuesday, J&K Police said the claims of their families will be examined. “We will carry out DNA sampling for matching purpose. Besides identification, Police will also investigate all other aspects as per the law in due course of time,” police spokesperson said in a statement.
Salim, a cousin of Ibrar, said the trio had gone to Shopian in search of work. “We belong to poor families and they went with the hope of earning some money,” he said.
Guftar Ahmad, spokesperson of J&K Gujjar Bakkerwal Youth Welfare Conference, said that due to COVID restrictions, the trio trekked along the mountains from Rajouri to reach Shopian.
“They were in touch with a lumbardar (revenue official) named Mohammad Yusuf who had promised to provide them accommodation,” said Guftar, a political activist.
Killing Staged by Army, Says Family
According to sources, the trio had rented a room for Rs 1,600 a month in Shopian’s Chowgam village, close to the army’s 62 RR camp which is believed to have carried out the encounter.
The 62 RR unit has previously faced accusations of torturing civilians.
The room is built on top of a row of shops barely 100 metres from the camp. “Their blankets and clothes are lying as they were. The door was locked from inside but a window was open when we looked for them in the morning. They had got essentials like spices and oil. Some left over rice is still lying in the cooker,” the owner of the room told reporters.
The sudden disappearance of the three young men didn’t lead to any suspicion until their families claimed that they were killed in a staged gun battle by the army.
“I came to know at 7 am on the fateful day when the army called me to the orchard,” said Mohammad Yusuf Bhat, 67, an apple farmer, who owns the building where the encounter took place.
When Bhat reached, the building was on fire. “Even the apple and walnut trees around it were engulfed by the blaze,” he said.
Amshipora, an agricultural village comprising of around 100 families, is flanked by Chowgam and Reshipora where two big army garrisons are based.
A majority of the villagers here earn their livelihood by working in apple orchards and farms. The closest residence to the building, where the encounter took place, is around 200-300 metres away.
“They (army) were bundling some bloodied bodies into an army truck. I could see the face of one of them. He was very young. Even his beard had not sprouted,” Bhat said, pointing to the road where a cavalcade of army trucks were halted on the day of the encounter.
The red-bricked building, located in the middle of sprawling apple orchards, used to be a three-storied complex. The charred remains of the two upper floors, made of tin sheets nailed to wooden planks, are scattered around the building.
In recent years, heavy explosives are planted by security forces around the houses where militants are believed to be hiding, blasting them into smithereens. However, the bare walls of the building in Amshipora have taken nothing more than few gunshots.
“After the encounter was over, the army asked civilians to come closer and have a look at the bodies of militants, just in case they might identify them. However, no one in the village knew who they were,” a villager, who requested anonymity, said.
Locals, who spoke anonymously with The Quint, said the army also procured water from some households of the village, “They said we have to douse the fire which was very strange but we gave them bucketfuls of water,” a female villager said.
The makeshift building was used by Bhat for storing farming equipment, fertilisers and charcoal, he said. On Tuesday, 11 August, Bhat, who lives in the adjoining Jamnagri village, had returned to the orchard for the first time since the encounter took place.
Since the encounter took place last month, Bhat has been unable to spray pesticides on apple trees. The delay has ruined the crop. Two massive walnut trees around the ruined building have also been charred in the blaze.
Now, he has been asked by the army to come to Reshipora camp. An officer has also told him to come to the police station in connection with the killings in his orchard.
“We are helpless. Our lives have become hell. I have three sons and four daughters. This orchard sustains us. But the fruits have got ruined because we couldn’t spray pesticides in time. I don’t know how we are going to sustain this year,” Bhat said.