About 20 km south of Srinagar, on the eastern part of Pulwama district, is the deceptively serene Kakapora tehsil. Vast expanses of swaying paddy fields on both sides of its winding streets give no indication of the turmoil in the region.
Kakapora is considered to be unsafe. Last week, travellers from Srinagar were stopped at almost every big village enroute to Kakapora and discouraged from proceeding ahead.
On the night of June 21, three militants, believed to be operating with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, were killed in an encounter in Kakapora. In the protests that followed, a civilian, 22-year-old Tawseef Hussain Wani, was killed.
Now the area is simmering with anger, both over the civilian killing and because the bodies of the three local militants were charred beyond recognition after security forces set fire to the house the militants were holed up in.
“Tawseef was a good boy,” said Iqbal Ashiq, a resident of Kakapora. “I know the police claims that he is a chronic stone pelter, but show me one young boy here who is not disgruntled. But, if he is a stone pelter he is not supposed to be killed. They should have imprisoned him.”
The Kashmir Valley has been in turmoil for almost a year now after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8 sparked widespread protests and a state crackdown.
Around 9 pm on June 21, about a hundred security personnel discreetly moved towards a two storied house in Kakapora’s New Colony. A joint team of the Army’s 50 Rashtriya Rifles, Special Operations Group and the Central Reserve Police Force were leading the operation, aided by the Jammu and Kashmir police.
New Colony is a densely populated locality in a region otherwise dotted by mansions in the middle of farmland.
A narrow lane, wide enough to only fit one well-built person at a time, leads to the courtyard of the house where the militants were holed up. Neighbours say the house belonged to Abdul Ahmad Bhat and his brother, who runs a pharmaceutical business in Srinagar.
According to tweets by security forces, they received information that three Lashkar-e-Toiba militants were hiding in the house. News agency IANS quoted an unidentified official as saying on Wednesday that security forces came under “heavy automatic gunfire from the hiding militants” and “the gunfire was returned”.
In the encounter that lasted for about six hours, the security forces killed the three militants and announced that three weapons – two AK-47 assault rifles and a pistol – were recovered from them. The militants were identified as Shakir Ahmad Gagjoo, 17, Majid Mir, 20, and Irshad Ahmad.
While it is common practice by security forces to burn down houses where militants are holed up, the fact that the families of the deceased militants were handed over charred bodies has led to heightened emotions in the area.
“My son had guns, the Army had guns,” said Bashir Ahmad Gagjoo, Shakir Ahmad Gagjoo’s father. “While I see that they could have fought, I do not understand the burning of bodies.
He added that this was the most un-Islamic thing one could do to Muslims.
Shakir Ahmad Gagjoo’s cousin has a photo of the charred bodies saved on his phone. He flashed it to every mourner who visited the Gagjoo home. “How come no one makes noise about this in the media?” he asked.
A police official who did not wish to be identified said that the militants were unwilling to come out of the house or surrender, therefore the security forces had to burn down the house, and the militants were burnt inside.
The charred bodies of the three men whipped up emotions not seen after any other militant deaths in recent days. As soon as the bodies were handed to their families, eyewitnesses say thousands of people gathered spontaneously in the area.
Shakir Ahmad Gagjoo’s and Majid Mir’s funeral processions were held together. “Boys from distant villages of the district came to the procession, even though there was no body per se,” said Sameer Mir, Majid Mir’s older brother.
Protests break out
When clashes broke out following the encounter, the police claim they fired to control the crowd. However, many people were injured and had to be taken to hospital.
“I saw more than 25 people being brought into the district hospital,” said a junior doctor, on the condition of anonymity as he fears his job may be at risk if he is quoted in the media. The police, however, claim only five people were injured. Tawseef Hassan Wani from Tungpura, who was injured in the clashes, died in hospital.
“Now they have crossed all limits,” said Irshad Wani, 54, a resident of Kakapora. “Not only did they kill our boys instead of luring them to surrender, they also killed a civilian.”
The entire tehsil was shut down for four days following the encounter. Only some shops tentatively opened on Sunday, a day before Eid.
Sheikh Shahnawaz Ahmad, a lawyer at the Sessions and District Court, Pulwama, questioned the police statement that they neutralised the militants as a last resort.
“Shakir was 17,” said Ahmad. “He was a part of the movement for two months. They are pretty leaderless and receive no training, why was he not made to surrender?”
Pulwama is said to have a large presence of militants and a strong network of “over ground workers”.
According to Ahmad, the forces were brash and insensitive. “If they kill the boys when they could have gotten them to surrender, [and] additionally burn their bodies, they will only encourage more local boys to join the movement,” he said.
Circle of violence
Kashmiri separatist leaders gave a protest call against Tawseef Hassan Wani’s death on June 23, the last Friday of the month of Ramzan, and believed to be the holiest day in the year.
After Friday prayers on June 23, a huge group of men flooded the main bazaar of Kakapora. According to news agency PTI, they tried to unsuccessfully set fire to a guard post. Undeterred, some of them tried to pelt stones at the police guard posted at the Court Complex the same night.
It was during similar protests in Srinagar that a policeman was lynched to death by a mob in front of the Jamia Masjid.
“Not only that, I believe that the two militants who attacked a CRPF truck were also inspired by Shakir and Majid,” said Bashir Gagjoo.
He was referring to an encounter between some Lashkar militants and security forces in Pantha Chowk area of Srinagar on Sunday. A sub-inspector was killed in the gun battle. After the 20-hour-long encounter, the two militants, who had holed up inside Delhi Public School, were killed.
“Our children have sparked many such fires,” said Gagjoo. “And their deaths will continue to do so.”