Six-year-old Kaneeza was killed on Wednesday as armed forces and militants were locked in a gun battle in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Her brother, seven-year-old Faizal, was also injured, but is reported to be stable now.
The cause of Kaneeza’s death, according to the police, was a stray bullet. “She was sitting in her house, about 300 metres from the encounter site,” said Shamsher Hussain, superintendent of police, Kupwara district.
The encounter took place in Jugtiyal, a remote village with poor connectivity, not far from the Line of Control and surrounded by dense forests. It was a joint operation, conducted by units of the Rashtriya Rifles, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. According to reports, militants opened fire as the forces closed in on the house where they were holed up. Three Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were killed and a policeman injured in the gunfight that reportedly lasted eight hours.
After news of Kaneeza’s death had spread, residents of the area came out in protest and clashes ensued, local journalists said. Hussain, however, claimed there had been no protests, before or after the encounter.
Journalists in Kupwara also said that local residents had accused security personnel of using disproportionate force. Had they acted with more restraint, they alleged, civilian deaths could have been avoided. The police contradicted this version. “This was really a stray bullet, I was there on the spot,” said Hussain.
He went on to add that the intended target of the bullet was a house adjoining the encounter site, where armed forces were stationed. A first information report against the militants had been filed, Hussain said, and an investigation would follow.
‘Stray bullets’ and ‘indiscriminate firing’
A week ago, Aamir Wani was shot in the neck during an encounter in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Last month, Taja Begum, an elderly lady in Shopian district died, reportedly, in the crossfire between forces and militants. Before that, in December 2016, a civilian was killed during an encounter in Anantnag district. Before that still, Raja Begum was reportedly tending her vegetable patch in Langate, also in Kupwara district, when she was shot. Protests were raging a distance away, and security forces had opened fire.
In each case, security forces claimed they were killed by stray bullets flying around the encounter site. It has pitted police versions against the accounts of residents living in the area, who allege the use of disproportionate force or indiscriminate firing by security personnel.
Two students, 22-year-old Shaista Hamid and 20-year-old Danish Farooq, were killed during or after an encounter in Pulwama’s Lilhar village in February last year. Once again, the police said they were killed in the crossfire between forces and militants.
Yet, according to local accounts, Hamid had been sitting in her kitchen garden, far from the encounter site. And Farooq had been playing cricket at a neighbour’s house instead of joining the crowds that rushed in to protest against the security action. Hamid’s family insisted both deaths were caused by army bullets, directed at civilian protesters after the encounter itself was over.
‘Only one party is indiscriminate’
Army officials, like the police, seem to believe that stray bullets come from militants, not security forces. The term “stray bullet” is used only because an unintended target is hit, explained an army officer based in Srinagar who did not want to be identified. “Only one party is indiscriminate,” he said. “We don’t fire indiscriminately because we don’t have to. We know where the target it.”
In the Kupwara incident that took place on Wednesday, he said, the militants were “boxed into a house” and surrounded by security forces. While they became a clear target for the forces, the militants would have to fire in all directions.
Yet, the trend of protests at encounter sites has led to a rise in civilian casualties, where protesters have fallen to bullets, not just injured by pellets and tear gas shells. “When the army is thrown into that situation, we are not good with pellets or tear gas,” said the officer. “The SOP [standard operating procedure] says to fire below the waist. Mostly, we open fire when there is firing within the crowd or the lives of security personnel are threatened.”
He admitted, however, that bullets fired in the air could land far away, killing unintended targets. Taja Begum, working on her vegetable patch a kilometre away from where civilian protesters were clashing against the army and the police, became one target.