The narrow street in Srinagar’s Panth Chowk is mostly lined with large houses in gated compounds. But Mohammad Ashraf Baba, a 48-year-old painter, and his family live in a single-storeyed house with no gate or high concrete wall separating it from the road.

Around 6.30 pm on December 30, three gun-wielding militants burst into Baba’s house and demanded shelter.

“They told us that they would spend the night here and leave early in the morning,” said Shafeeqa, Baba’s wife. “I pleaded with them to leave. I told them we are poor and don’t have much space to house them.”

But they were forced to relent – they could not argue with men with guns. Given the family’s obvious reluctance to shelter them, the militants were taking no chances: they seized all the phones in the house and held Shafeeqa son, a Class 10 student, in the room they had occupied.

“It was just to ensure that we didn’t tell anyone about their presence,” she recounted.

Almost five hours later, the house was surrounded by security forces. As the soldiers asked Baba to open the door, he went to the room where the militants were staying and dragged his son out. “He had fainted as he had some heart problems,” said Shafeeqa.

The family huddled together in the kitchen. The militants, realising they were trapped, locked them into the kitchen and tried to escape. Soon, the family heard the sound of gunfire.

According to Shafeeqa, they did not move out of the kitchen until 7am next morning, when they heard some neighbours calling for them.

“We did not know what happened to militants but we know that none of them was killed in our house,” she said. “Except for one windowpane, there was no damage to the house.”

The compound walls of the other houses on the street are pockmarked with bullet holes. Residents say all three militants, including two Pakistani nationals, were killed in the open as they tried to escape.

While Baba and his family escaped unhurt, their troubles were far from over. Three days after the gunfight, Baba was detained by the police for a day and then released in the evening. About a week after that, he was formally arrested and booked under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Arms Act.

“During questioning the accused reveals that he has leanings with terrorism and has confessed that he has hidden three terrorists who were neutralized by security forces/police [sic],” read the detailed report submitted by the Pantha Chowk police to a local court in Srinagar and seen by

Baba, the family’s only breadwinner, is currently locked up in Srinagar central jail. Shafeeqa and her son depend on her parents and other family members to get by.

Mohammad Ashraf Baba's unwalled house at Pantha Chowk, Srinagar. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Not a petty crime’

Over three decades of conflict in Kashmir, militants have often depended on local households for food and shelter. When security forces tracked the militants down, gunfights often broke out in these homes, leaving them badly damaged.

Over the last decade, security forces often blew up the houses, claiming it was necessary to force the militants out. The gutted houses were collateral damage but also, local residents say, punishment for housing militants. After the fight, the homeowners would be allowed to return to the ruins and piece together a new life. Sometimes, they would be booked under sections of the penal code.

In the last two and a half years, however, homeowners have faced more targeted action from law enforcement agencies. In several cases, they have been charged under the UAPA, a stringent anti-terror law for allegedly providing shelter and logistical support to militants. Lawyers in Kashmir say this has been a growing trend since 2019, when the region lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370.

“Earlier, the house owners/family members would usually be booked under Section 212 of the Ranbir Penal Code. The accused would then apply for bail at magisterial level and would get it,” said Mir Urfi, a lawyer in Srinagar. The Ranbir Penal Code was the criminal code applicable to Jammu and Kashmir before it was repealed in the sweeping legislative changes of 2019. Section 212 dealt with charges of harbouring an offender.

Under the UAPA, investigating agencies get 180 days to probe a case, compared to 60-90 days under ordinary criminal law. The provisions of the law also make bail virtually impossible. “Therefore, there are high chances of the accused house owners or family members remaining in jail for a prolonged period of time,” said Urfi, who represents several people arrested in such cases.

A senior police officer in Srinagar, speaking off the record, conceded there had been a change in the police approach over the last couple of years.

“Sheltering or aiding a terrorist is not a petty crime,” he said. “Therefore, that individual cannot be booked under ordinary law.” According to him, all investigating officers have been directed to invoke the anti-terror law in militancy-related cases. “We aren’t doing anything illegal,” he said. “The law is there and it has been enacted to deal with such activities and punish the guilty.”

On March 24, the Srinagar police announced that it had started the process of attaching immovable properties that have been “used for purpose of terrorism” under sections of the UAPA. Those who sheltered militants would face further legal action, not just the attachment of property, the police warned. The announcement seemed to formalise this change in policy.

Along with UAPA cases, however, there has been another worrying development. In at least three incidents in the last five months, people who owned houses where militants were taking shelter have been killed in gunfights.

On November 15, four men were killed in a gunfight between militants and security forces in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality. The families of three of the men contested police claims that they were militants. Among the four killed was Altaf Ahmad Bhat, who owned the building in which the shootout took place.

After initially claiming that he was a “terror associate”, the police said Bhat had been used as a “human shield” by militants and killed in the crossfire.

According to eyewitness accounts, security forces had taken Bhat inside the building where the militants were hiding to conduct search operations. That was when he came in the line of fire.

The building where the Hyderpora gunfight broke out last November, killing Altaf Ahmad Bhat, among others. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

A cowshed in Amshipora

Three months later, a similar incident took place in Amshipora village of South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

An island cluster of unwalled houses lies on a steep slope in Amshipora. Surrounded by orchards on three sides and the village main road on one side, it is cut off from the rest of the village.

On the night of February 24-25, a joint team of the army, the police and the Central Reserve Police Force surrounded these houses and launched a search operation. In the morning, a gunfight broke out between the police and militants.

An army statement released later that day said:

“During the search, two terrorists were discovered taking shelter in the adjoining cowshed of a house at around 11:00 am on 25 Feb. The terrorists attempted to break the cordon by opening indiscriminate fire towards the troops and civilians being evacuated, during which the owner of the house, where they were hiding, got shot.” 

He was provided first aid and there were “earnest attempts to resuscitate him”, the statement added, but he did not survive.

The owner of the cowshed was Shakeel Ahmad Khan. Hours after the guns fell silent in Amshipora, Khan’s family had no idea that he had been killed.

Mohammad Hussain Khan remembers seeing his brother for the last time on the morning of February 25. The two brothers lived in neighbouring houses.

“I think it was around 6:45 in the morning when I saw him outside my house, accompanying security forces during the search,” said Mohammad Khan. “I asked him whether they had searched his house to which he replied yes. I couldn’t talk to him much because there were security forces all around. I started walking away to a safe distance and he started to follow me but was stopped by the forces. They took him along [on the continuing search].”

According to Mohammad Khan and other residents of Amshipora, the security forces had allegedly taken several civilians along with them as they combed the area for hiding militants. That included Shakeel Khan and a third Khan brother.

“Around 10:30 in the morning, the first shots were fired,” said Mohammad Khan. “Several local residents who had been taken for searches by the forces told us that when the forces discovered the shots had come from a particular building, they asked for its owner.”

That was when Shakeel Khan was separated from the others, according to local accounts. “They took him to the building while other civilians, including our other brother, were kept at a distance,” said Mohammad Khan.

Nobody in Amshipora knows what happened after that. Shakeel Khan’s family wants to know why he was taken into the cowshed after gunfire seemed to be emerging from it. “After the searches, we were kept around half a kilometre away from the spot for our safety,” said Mohammad Khan. Shakeel Khan’s wife and three children had also been evacuated to a nearby house.

One of the militants killed in the gunfight that ensued was Shakir Wagay, who belonged to Amshipora village. The police said he was a recent recruit to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the furore around Wagay’s death, few people noticed Shakeel Khan was missing.

The Khans only found out about his death when Wagay’s family went to the district police lines in Shopian to claim his body. There, they found Shakeel Khan was also among the dead.

According to Mohammad Khan, the police later showed the family a photograph of his brother’s body as they had found it. “From the surroundings, we could make out that it was his cowshed,” said Mohammad Khan. “We believe he was killed in the cowshed as his cow was also killed in the encounter.”

Khan’s sister, Nafeeza Bano, said her brother, who worked as a carpenter, was ailing and due for back surgery in a few months. “Encounters would take place before as well but this didn’t happen,” she said. “What does a civilian have to do with it in the first place?”

When asked whether civilians were made to accompany security forces for the search operation, the army replied they were only being evacuated before the search started. “The residents of the houses are only required to confirm that there are no terrorists hiding in their houses to the joint SF [security forces] teams,” said the army in a written response.

In response to whether Shakeel Khan had been separated from other civilians and taken to the site of the gunfight, the army statement said, “The houses inside the cordon were being searched systematically from one direction. The civilians were being evacuated before the search of their respective houses. Mr Shakeel Ahmed’s house being at one end of the cordon was the last to be searched along with a cowshed. The balance of the target area had already been cleared by then.”

At this point, the army statement said, “the terrorists realized that they were cornered and resorted to indiscriminate and heavy firing targeting the civilians and the troops which resulted in injury to the house owner, Mr Shakeel Ahmad Khan.”*

The cowshed owned by Shakeel Khan. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

Chaos in Pulwama

Ghulam Qadir Mir and Mogli Begum of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district lost their 17-year-old son in a gunfight outside their house on January 30. Their elder son has been arrested and booked under the UAPA.

On the afternoon of January 29, a joint contingent of police, army and CRPF personnel launched a search operation in Naira village, where the Mirs live. Most members of the family were out at the time – they had gone to Trichal village, about a kilometre away, where Mogli Begum’s mother had just died.

“Only my two daughters were home,” said Mogli Begum. “One of them had recently delivered a baby and my other daughter was looking after her.”

When they heard about the search operation, Ghulam Mir and Mogli Begum started walking back home to make sure their daughters were fine. “When we reached the main road, it was all sealed and there were dozens of army and police personnel,” said Mogli Begum. “They didn’t let my husband move towards the house but I pleaded with them repeatedly.”

By the time she managed to enter her home, it was evening. She found her two daughters huddled together, shivering with fear. While she worried about her daughters, she was calm in the belief that her sons, at least, were out of harm’s way in Trichal.

But they were not. Naveed Hussain Mir had also returned to Naira village that afternoon. His sister, Roohi Jan, recalls that he was one of the few civilians who had entered the security cordon to help with the search.

Mogli Begum had seen her other son, 17-year-old Inayat Ahmad Mir, when she left Trichal village at 2pm on the afternoon of January 29. Nobody recalls seeing him after that. His relatives in Trichal assumed he had gone home with his parents.

By the early hours of January 30, a gunfight had broken out in front of the Mirs’ house in Naira village. “Around midnight on 30 January 2022, security forces commenced probing actions to draw fire and ascertain the exact location of hiding terrorists,” said an army statement issued later. “The terrorists retaliated with heavy automatic fire from two different locations and three terrorists were effectively engaged and eliminated in exchange of fire by own troops.”

One of the locations was the Mirs’ house. Inayat Ahmad Mir was one of the four killed.

According to Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, Mir was a “hybrid militant”. This is a term the security establishment has lately used to describe undercover militants in Kashmir. According to the police, such militants do not leave home or go underground once they take up arms, as was the established practice in Kashmir. Hybrid militants allegedly went about their daily lives even after joining banned groups. Inayat Ahmad Mir, said a police statement issued on January 30, had “joined terror folds recently”.

Two videos

Mogli Begum is adamant her son had nothing to do with militancy. “He was just 17 years old,” she said. “He would tend to his sheep most of the time. Sometimes, he would work as a daily labourer to make some money.”

Two videos went viral in the aftermath of Inayat Mir’s death. One features members of his family protesting against the killing and demanding his body. The other video features his elder sister, Shabnam Bano, who said he had accompanied militants who had visited their home on January 27. When the search operation started on January 29, she seemed to suggest, he was hiding with militants in the house and refused to give himself up. “He said he would die with them (militants),” she says.

Bano now says the statement in the video, recorded by security forces, was made under duress. According to her, it was shot soon after they had been told Inayat Mir had been killed. “We had been evacuated to a nearby relative’s house in the middle of night,” she said. “I don’t remember the time but the security forces came and asked me to narrate what happened. They took me to a room upstairs where it was completely dark. I was all alone and surrounded by policemen and army personnel.”

Not only had they just received news of Inayat Mir’s death, Bano said she could hear Naveed Mir crying in pain as he was interrogated in another room. “I gave that statement under duress because they threatened that they would kill my other brother as well,” she said.

The story she told in the video was not true, she said.

Broken windows in 17-year-old Inayat Mir's home are reminders of the gunfight in which he was killed. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘A clean operation’

A senior police official in South Kashmir denied allegations that the statement was coerced. “It was a clean operation,” he said. “The statement she made in the video was recorded in front of her relatives. We have evidence of everything that happened during the encounter.”

The officer, who did not wish to be identified, added that the Mirs had been given ample time to make their son surrender. “All he had to do was to drop the weapon and come out,” he said. “We saved dozens of boys from dying and gave them a chance to live. The entire village knows about the efforts security forces made to convince him to surrender.”

Three others, including a Pakistani militant, were killed in the gunfight. One of them was Jaish-e-Mohammad commander Zahid Ahmad Wani, who had been an active militant since 2017. According to the police, he was responsible for several attacks on civilians and security personnel.

“Zahid was a top militant commander,” said the senior officer. “It’s impossible that he would stay at an ordinary person’s house. The house was a safe shelter for him.”

Naveed Mir is now named in a first information report and faces UAPA charges for allegedly giving shelter and support to militants. He remains in jail.

The afterlife of the Naira gunfight

Mogli Begum claimed it was impossible for her family to shelter militants – after all, they had suffered in the hands of militants in the past. Her husband, Ghulam Qadir Mir is a government employee – after decades of working on contract as a sweeper, he was made permanent in 2010.

In 1996, when elections were held after six years of governor’s rule in strife-torn Kashmir, he had been among the few government workers to openly perform election duties.

For that, he was abducted by militants for 11 days. “I begged militants to spare his life,’ recounted a sobbing Mogli Begum. “I told them I have young daughters and he’s our only source of livelihood.”

The Naira gunfight has had a bitter afterlife. As the two family videos went viral, they led to a fresh controversy. The Pulwama police registered a case against “Facebook users and portals” for uploading “anti-national content including photographs, videos and posts with criminal intention to create fear among the public.” That included the video of the family denying that Inayat Mir was a militant.

A day after the gunfight, at least four journalists were summoned by the Pulwama police and questioned for “incorrect reporting.” On February 4, the police arrested Fahad Shah, the editor of the local news portal, The Kashmir Walla. Shah, currently in jail, was booked for various offences, including those under the UAPA. The police statement identified Shah as a “Facebook user”, not a journalist.

*This article was updated on April 19 to include the army’s response to questions on the Amshipora gunfight.