Kashmir tensions high after deaths of men ‘used as human shields’

Nov 26, 2021 | Brutality by Occupying Forces

Indian police say four men killed in shootout were militants but families say gunfight was staged and they were innocent civilians.

Tensions in the Indian state of Kashmir remain on a knife edge after a shootout by the Indian authorities this week left four people dead, with families alleging the gunfight was staged and that police used innocent civilians as a “human shield”.

Police initially described the incident, which took place on Monday when officers raided a shopping complex, as a counter-insurgency operation in which two militants and their associates had been killed in a shootout.

The families of three of the men, however, have accused Indian forces of cold-blooded murder and the case has sent ripples of outrage across Kashmir, a region scarred by familiar allegations of extrajudicial killings. India’s top regional official has called an inquiry into the deaths and the region imposed a shutdown strike in protest on Friday.

An armed insurgency with allegiance to Pakistan has been ongoing since the 1990s in Indian-administered Kashmir, a region claimed in its entirety by both countries. The Indian authorities have heavily militarised the state in response and aggressively pursued those it casts as Pakistan militants.

Thousands of people, including civilians, have been killed in the violence. Human rights groups have accused Indian forces, which operate with legal impunity, of abuses including rape, torture and staging gunfights.

Citizens and rights activists have also decried an increasing denial of civil liberties in Kashmir since the region was stripped of its semi-autonomous status in August 2019, taken under the full control of the central government and divided into federally controlled territories of India.

The controversy this week began hours after Monday’s operation, when the niece of one of the men killed, Mohammad Altaf Bhat, challenged the allegations. She said a tweet that her businessman uncle had not been associated with any militancy and instead had been used as a “human shield” in a staged gunfight.

Families of two of the other men killed subsequently made similar allegations. They rejected police claims that their kin had any connection with insurgents and alleged that police had killed civilians and passed them off as militants.

The other two men killed were identified as Mudasir Gul, a dentist who was working as an estate agent, and his office assistant, Aamir Magray. Police said the fourth person killed in the raids was a Pakistani militant using the alias Haider.

To the further anguish of the families, police clandestinely buried all four killed in the raid under the cover of darkness, in a forest more than 50 miles north of the capital, Srinagar, where the killings took place.

As outrage grew over the course of the week, police made varying statements. They initially said Bhat and Gul were militant associates but later that they may have been civilians killed in indeterminate crossfire. Police maintain Magray was a militant, but his family say he was a local labourer.

According to witnesses present during the raid, police had received a “tip-off” about a militant in the shopping complex. They had allegedly seized Gul, Bhat and Magray, who all worked in the vicinity, and made them search the building. Gunshots were later heard from the spot. Police said militants fired on them, resulting in a gun battle, but they families allege the officers murdered three innocent civilians.

The families held a sit-in protest in Srinagar’s press enclave on Thursday to demand the bodies of their kin. They were later forcibly removed, but the bodies of Bhat and Gul were exhumed the next dau and handed over.

Family members of Bhat and Gul told the Guardian there were torture marks on the bodies of the two men, and that it appeared they had been beaten first and then shot.

Rubbishing the police claims that he was associated with militancy, Gul’s wife, Humaira Mudasir, said “forces killed him to fetch cash rewards”. Officers in Kashmir are often rewarded for killing militants with cash incentives or promotions.

“He was doing well in his business, taking care of his parents, and living with his family. How is it possible that such a person is a militant?” Mudasir said while cradling their one-year-old daughter.

A funeral for Bhat was finally held on Thursday night. His body was carried on the shoulders of angry and emotional mourners chanting “shuahada kai waris zinda hai” or “the heirs of martyrs are alive” as dozens of masked and armed police stood nearby.

“The police had put conditions that we bury him without any delay with a limited gathering of people present,” said Bhat’s niece, Saima Bhat. “The police also threatened dire consequences if any protests take place or if journalists attend it.”

The family of Magray, 32,continue to demand the return of his body. “They killed an innocent person and also stole his body,” said his cousin Nadeem.

Indian forces have repeatedly been blamed for killing civilians and passing them off as militants. In an incident in December 2020, the bodies of men killed by Indian forces were exhumed and buried in family graveyards after an investigation found they had been Kashmiri labourers with no militant affiliation.

Authorities have begun an investigation into the incident, but mistrust is rife and the families of the dead men are not hopeful of justice being served. “We want an independent investigation,” said Saima Bhat. “We will fight until the culprits are punished.”

Aakash Hassan and Hannah Ellis-Petersen | The Guardian