J&K's Hyderpora Probe: Discontent in Valley Amid Political Churn
The SIT report exonerates the armed forces and pins the blame for the killings on a Pakistani militant.
The gunfight in Hyderpora that took place amid controversial circumstances in November has once again inflamed the fault lines and reignited political contestations in Kashmir valley. And it looks like the standoff is only going to intensify as 2022 unfolds.
This runs contrary to the avowed motives of the Modi government, which wanted to graft a “new Kashmir”, one that would be devoid of any civil strife and political unrest, after stripping away the former state of its long-held autonomous status.
Four people had died during the alleged encounter – one Pakistani militant and three civilians, two of whom are accused of being supportive of militancy.
This charge has been vehemently denied by their families, who have accused the police and security forces of killing Dr Mudasir Gul, a real estate agent, Altaf Ahmad Bhat, owner of the building, and Aamir Magray, who ran errands at the office complex where the gunfight took place, in cold blood.
A Questionable Report
In an attempt to disarm tensions, the government had announced a magisterial inquiry following a political uproar over the killings. However, the administration ignored demands for a judicial probe.
Very little debate has focused on how the setting up of magisterial inquiry does not actually convey any benevolence or affirmation of good faith. Such a step had to be mandatorily undertaken because it is stipulated by 2014 Supreme Court guidelines.
By contrast, the government recently appointed a high-powered committee headed by Principal Secretary (Home), with Divisional Commissioner (Jammu) and Additional Director General of Police as its members, when 12 people died during a stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra, Jammu.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised on why the police decided to go public with the contents of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) when the report of the magisterial probe was still under official secrecy. There are concerns that if the magisterial probe adheres to the same line as the SIT report, it would raise questions of “prejudice”.
Ideally, two separate inquiries are not supposed to be very identical in their observations. In Kashmir, where police already enjoy broad and oversized power and influence, it’s rare that any other arm of government will choose to snub it.
Last week, a press conference was held in Srinagar, where journalists were instructed to stop filming because police were playing encounter-related CCTV footage on a projector.
The SIT report, whose contents were revealed during the conference, effectively exonerates the security agencies and pins the blame for the killings on Pakistani militant Bilal Bhai, who is alleged to have killed Dr Gul and Bhat. The reports also claim that a third man, Aamir Magray, died in a “crossfire”.
'A Charade': Mehbooba Mufti
The findings of the report have since led to a political storm, with all major political parties viewing the police inferences with suspicion and casting doubts over its credibility.
“It doesn’t even slightly give any objective picture of this shocking incident,” the Gupkar Alliance, a group of regional parties who demand the reinstatement of Article 370, said in a statement.
Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called the investigation a “charade to cover up a botched-up operation & absolve those culpable for killing innocent civilians”.
"SIT’s clear chit to armed forces in Hyderpora encounter isn’t surprising ... How can one expect justice when they themselves are judge, jury & executioner?”Mehbooba Mufti, PDP Chief
Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference called the probe “one more case of providing official legitimacy to violence”.
Meanwhile, the father of Amir Magray last week filed a petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking the return of his son's body, maintaining that his son was “innocent”, citing the family's long contribution to the fight against militancy in Kashmir.
In response to the widespread public rejection of its claims, the Jammu & Kashmir police warned critics of legal action. “The SIT (Special Investigation Team) came across several posts in the media from some political leaders and family members wherein they have cast doubts on the evidence obtained by the SIT so far,” police said in a media release.
“These people have tried to call it ‘Concocted Cover-up Story’, ‘Ornamental Probe, ‘Clean Chit to Killers’, ‘Fairy Tale of Police’, etc. Such speculative statements from the political leaders have a tendency to create provocation, rumour, fear and alarm among the general masses or particular section of society. This kind of approach is against the rule of law and may attract appropriate penal provisions as envisaged under law,” it said.
Only Indian Express called out this bluff. In a blistering editorial, the paper demanded that the Jammu & Kashmir Police should be “disabused of the notion that it is above the law”.
More Gunfights, Protests Mark the Beginning of 2022
This is not the first time police have threatened coercive action against dissenting voices. Jammu & Kashmir is already at the top when it comes to the number of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) cases across the country. In 2021, a substantial number of these cases were filed against expressions that were civic in nature, such as supporting a rival cricket team playing against India or shouting “Azadi” slogans during a funeral procession.
The year 2022 has already got off to a rocky start, with many gunfights taking place across Kashmir over the last few days. The killing of Saleem Parray, touted to be the last militant in the restive north Kashmiri town of Hajin, provoked furious demonstrations.
Videos that went viral again showed women demonstrators shouting “Azadi” slogans as they mourned Parray’s death.
Meanwhile, the NIA conducted a raid in Srinagar’s Zaldagar area and searched the residence of 19-year-old Arsalan Feroz, a student who has already had run-ins with security agencies recently. In the last few months, NIA raids have become commonplace in Kashmir.
Protests over his detention have once again brought the fraught nature of the political situation to the fore. His family assembled at Srinagar’s press colony and held demonstrations in pretty much the same way as those of victims of the Hyderpora encounter. Feroz’s 45-year-old father broke down before the media and lost consciousness. Reports indicate that he may have suffered a minor heart attack. Mehbooba Mufti has become the first high-profile politician who has intervened in the matter. She visited Feroz’s home in downtown Srinagar and also penned a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, bringing to his attention the predicament of the family
Delimitation Move Has Further Ignited Tensions
Separately, on 1 January, police put all members of Gupkar Alliance under house arrest and foiled a protest march against the recommendations of the Delimitation Commission. Preliminary reports indicate that the Commission has recommended allocation of six new assembly seats to Jammu and only one to Kashmir, prompting a political controversy, with politicians accusing the Modi government of foul play.
Meanwhile, three Members of Parliament from Kashmir Valley submitted their dissent note to the Delimitation Commission last week over the proposed allocation of Assembly seats in Jammu & Kashmir, marking the first official resistance to the move, whose importance the Central government has been overplaying.
Clearly, a slew of political developments is testing the fragility of the political situation in Kashmir, already aggravated by experimental policies of the Modi government in 2021.
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)
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