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J&K Killings: In ‘Naya’ Kashmir, No Hope for Justice for Civilian Deaths

The deaths of Altaf Ahmad and Mudasir Gull raise questions about the value of human life in the Valley.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Srinagar: Family members of Altaf Ahmad Bhat and Dr Mudasir Gul shout slogans and hold placards during a protest demanding a probe and return of the dead bodies, in Srinagar, Wednesday, 17 November.</p></div>
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This week, Srinagar recorded what likely counts as the eleventh gunfight in the city in 2021. There’s no knowing when was the last time militants and forces engaged as frequently in the city as they did this year. In 2020, there were nine gunfights, the highest in many years.

The gradual ebbing of the violence in the countryside is coinciding with the spurt in urban warfare. But Monday’s gun battle at Hyderpora, which is located on the intensely patrolled stretch of the Srinagar highway, is not just mystifying but also premonitory.

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Daughter Demands 'Proof of Guilt'

According to police, they closed in around the commercial building at Hyderpora on Monday evening following inputs about the presence of militants at an “illegal call centre”.

“In order to show the suspect call centre in the building, the owner of the building, namely Altaf Ahmad, as well as the tenant, namely Mudasir Ahmad, were also called to accompany the search party,” police said.

As the search party accompanied by the two civilians approached the room where the militants were believed to be hiding, the door was bolted open from the inside and a barrage of gunfire rang out, killing both civilians. The forces are then said to have engaged with the militants briefly before shooting them dead.

The militants have been identified as Haider, a Pakistani national and 22-year-old Amir Ahmad Magray from Banihal, whom the police have termed a “hybrid terrorist.” The peculiar appellation attempts to convey the recent trend where non-combatant civilian supporters who are – at least in theory – supposed to help militants only with logistics are now wielding the gun themselves and perpetrating attacks.

On Tuesday, social media across Kashmir was brimming with the video footage of the grief-stricken family members of Mudasir, who left his job as a dentist to venture into the real estate business, and Altaf, who retailed in construction material.

The videos show the eight-year-old daughter of Altaf weeping bitterly as she demands proof of her father’s “guilt”. She is nervous, agonised, confused and scared.

In other viral clips, Abdul Majeed Bhat, Altaf’s brother, buries his face into his palm and cries hopelessly.

'Kill us Once and For All': How Despair Pervades the Valley

On Tuesday evening, the family of Mudasir staged a demonstration at the Press Colony in Srinagar. His relatives were inconsolable and demanded the return of his body, which the authorities had initially announced would be buried 100 kilometres away in Handwara, north Kashmir, citing “law and order” issues. Later, after much outrage, the J&K administration returned the bodies of the two civilians. It also ordered a magisterial inquiry into the deaths.

The fresh pangs of grief have spun sorrow and despair around life in Kashmir, with users sharing angry social media posts, people muttering words of anguish under their breath, and social debates at homes and out on the streets loaded with lamentations about “lack of respect” for human life in the Valley.

“Kill us once and for all but stop murdering us in ones and twos each day,” cried Altaf’s brother-in-law at his house in Baghat, an upscale neighbourhood in Srinagar. “We want his body to be returned to us. When we are born, it is the Azaan that is first voiced into our ears and when we die, it is the namaz. The denial of bodies is an unpardonable infringement of our religious obligations," he had said before the J&K administration's decision.

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'Learnt About the Killing on Social Media'

Altaf’s brother also spoke to The Quint and appeared to be washed out by the grief. “The cordon started at around 5 pm and they asked my brother to pull down the shutters,” he said.

Later, all business owners in that area were assembled and relocated to a separate commercial facility nearby. “As they were emptying the area of people, Aamir, a young man who served tea and ran errands at the site, came down running. He was caught and thrashed. He later went away from the site to the Classic Hospital building nearby but returned to us because he had nowhere else to go,” Abdul Majeed said.

Then they asked all people who the owner of this building was. My brother raised his hands and they took him away. He was made to accompany them and search the building twice. Both times he returned. On the third occasion, when he was taken there along with Aamir and Mudasir, there was gunfire
Abdul Majeed Bhat, Altaf's brother

Majeed was watching all this drama unfold at least 100 meters away outside the ring of the cordon. He was alerted by his nephew about the cordon and he had left his work midway through and rushed to the site of the gunfight. He could not break into the cordon but saw things at a distance. All he could see was a herd of army personnel and a drone flying above the building. “It was on social media that I learnt about my brother’s killing,” he said.

Civil Authorities Reject Family's Pleas

The J&K Police in a tweet on Monday called the “house owner” a “terror associate” who succumbed to the militant fire. The family of Altaf, who owned the building, denied this claim. His niece, a senior Kashmiri journalist, posted on Twitter: “You killed my innocent uncle Mohammad Altaf Bhat in a cold-blooded murder … you used him as a human shield and now saying he was ‘OGW’.”

On Tuesday morning, news came in that one more civilian had died. Reports identified him as Dr Mudasir Gull. In the press conference later, police said Gull was the “militant associate” who ran an unauthorised call centre with “six cabins”, one of which was being used to shelter militants.

“Investigations also revealed that the killed foreign terrorist, Haider, was involved in the recent brief shoot-out at Jamalatta area of Srinagar and terrorist associate Mudasir Ahmad facilitated his escape from the said spot to this rented location in an Alto 800 car,” a police release said.

At a small house in Kanipora, on Srinagar’s outskirts, Mudasir Gull’s family was distraught. They described the life of the former dentist who had switched to the real estate business.

“He was earning very well. Why would he take such a step?” asked his friend who did not want to be named.
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Sit-In Disrupted by Police at Press Colony

The killings have triggered a fresh political controversy in Kashmir, which has been reeling under a sudden militant escalation. The last month was the bloodiest in 2021 with more than 44 killings. Politicians across the spectrum have weighed in to condemn the incident. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah called for an impartial inquiry, while Mehbooba Mufti denounced “using civilians as human shields, getting them killed in cross-firing & then conveniently labelling them as OGWs”.

A protest sit-in at Srinagar’s Press Club by the family members of slain civilians continued through Wednesday evening but at 11.30 pm, just before midnight, masked policemen reached the sit-in site, switched off electricity, doused the candles and hauled the protesters into police vehicles.

The dramatic visuals were recorded on camera and shared on social media.

In one video, Majeed Bhat, Altaf’s brother, was seen grabbing the rifle of one policeman and heaving the firearm to his chest, instructing the forces to shoot him. For a moment, Majeed became an ideogram of the larger prevailing reality of Kashmir, embodying the desperation and anger that appears to be germinating underneath the surface but only rarely makes itself manifest.

Srinagar city this year has been rattled by a spate of killings. Militants have killed gold jeweller Satpal Nischal, J&K Police inspector Parvaiz Ahmad Dar, Umer Nazir Bhat, a mobile store proprietor, Javaid Ahmad Tambi, a J&K police constable, Rameez Raja, a duty sentry, Arshid Mir, J&K Police sub-inspector, and many more. Separately, three CRPF personnel were killed during an audacious attack at Lawaypora on the outskirts of Srinagar city in March.

Why Has Militancy Gripped Urban Areas Suddenly?

In October, around 11 such targeted killings took place. In the majority of these cases, the victims were either migrant workers from states such as Bihar or members of minority communities. The deaths of chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo, a Pandit, school Principal Satinder Kour, a Sikh, and teacher Deepak Chand, a Hindu, from Jammu sent members of the Pandit community packing off to Jammu in fear. Many Pandits who could not leave were relocated to safe spaces on police’s instructions.

Recently, militants shot dead 45-year-old Ibrahim Khan who was a salesperson at the shop of Sandeep Mawa, a Pandit grocer. Militants in a media release were point-blank in admitting that their target was actually Mawa and that Khan died on account of “mistaken identity”.

The sudden surge of violence around the city, which until 2017 was considered militancy-free, has left a lot of experts befuddled. Most observers said that since parts of north and south Kashmir have seen intense gunfights this year, inflicting significant damage to militancy, armed gunmen have changed their strategy and crept into city precincts in search of easy targets.

Further, a new trend appears to be materialising, where young men with no prior involvement with militancy are killed at the gunfight sites. The killing of 16-year-old Athar Mushtaq of Shopian in December last year, 19-year-old Zakir Bashir of Kulgam in June, 28-year-old Imran Qayoom of Anantnag, and recently, Anayat Ashraf Dar, a resident of Chitragam, Shopian, are typical of cases where families are strongly contesting police’s claims that their kin were involved in terrorism. Mudasir Gull and Aamir Magray’s is the latest case.

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Srinagar Now Resembles a Garrison City

Two years ago, the Narendra Modi government spoke of such grander aims as easing political uncertainty in the Valley, blunting militancy, and speeding up the region’s development. It was on these grounds that Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated. Since then, the former state is experiencing a structural remake of sorts that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says will undo the “mismanagement” of the last seven decades.

Today, Kashmir is like an overwrought palimpsest, a withering corpse over which new appendages are being grafted via a barrage of executive decrees.

Srinagar resembles a garrison city with bunkers popping up here and there, frisking becoming common, seizure of two-wheelers more frequent, and raids being reported every now and then.

Additionally, the creation of State Investigating Agency, which would have jurisdiction to investigate cases registered under terrorism offences, the arrival of paramilitary reinforcements, and the ubiquitous presence of blast-hardened military vehicles, gives an impression of not a region hurtling into a fast-paced era of economic prosperity but of a state of social, political and civic foundering aggravated by strong-arm policing tactics.

Kashmir is gripped by a sense of despondency, and its people, aware of the consequences their words will have, speak in a hushed manner, often obliquely, reflecting both anticipation and foreboding.

Tze wech yeman kya gassi!” (see what will happen to them) – the refrain was heard repeatedly at the homes of Mudasir and Altaf.

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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