On Monday night, an encounter between suspected militants in a white Maruti car and security forces in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district left three persons dead. The incident took place at a checkpoint in the Sheikhpora locality of Bulbul Nowgam village – just a few kilometres from the spot where six policemen were ambushed, killed and mutilated by separatist militants in June.

Residents of Bulbul Nowgam said Monday’s encounter began abruptly and was short. “It lasted only about five minutes,” said one villager. He then alleged the security forces erupted in celebratory gunfire, adding, “The encounter occurred around 9 pm but the firing continued till 10.30 pm.”

According to ANI reports, Director General of Police SP Vaid said, “In a chance encounter, three terrorists were killed near Anantnag by a joint team of security forces.” Two of the dead men were identified as militants – Showkat Lohar from Arwani and Mudasir Ahmed Hajam from Kokernag, both areas in Anantnag. The third man was initially called a Pakistani militant and later identified as Rayees Ahmad Bhat from Hakura, also in Anantnag district. His family insists he was an ordinary citizen.

Not a militant, says family

According to his family, Bhat was not involved in militancy but ran a grocery shop in Pehru village, where the family lives. The shop was set up by his father after Bhat failed to clear his Class 12 board exams.

They said Bhat was headed home that night after dropping off his parents and maternal grandfather at Hakura, their native village where they had gone to attend the funeral of his paternal grandfather.

“I spoke to him at about 8.45 pm and he said he was on his way back,” said Bhat’s brother, Arif Ahmad. Ten minutes later, he added, the sound of gunshots reached him in Pehru, which is just 10 minutes away from the encounter site. When they tried calling Bhat again at around 9.13 pm, his phone was switched off. “When he did not return, we set out for the Saddar police station and got there by 10 pm,” said Ahmad, referring to the police station in Anantnag town, a few kilometres away. “We thought, he was returning by the same road [where the encounter took place], maybe he was apprehended there.”

At 11.30 pm, Ahmad said he was asked to identify the bodies. “The police officials took me and my uncle to the SOG [special operations group] office, where we were asked to identify the bodies,” he recounted. “I was shocked. I had gone to file a missing complaint for my brother.”

Bhat’s body lay in the office, where a senior police official called him a “Pakistani-trained militant”, Ahmad said. He added that the police then asked him to “identify the other two”.

Ahmad asked, “If he was a militant, why did they not come to Pehru and arrest him [in the months before the encounter]?”

Bhat’s family believes he had no choice but to ferry the militants that night. “If a person from the STF [special task force] demands a ride to Dialgam, could we refuse?” asked Bhat’s father, Nazir Ahmad. “Militants forced him to stop and told him to drop them off somewhere.”

“STF” was the name given to the counter-insurgency unit of the Jammu and Kashmir Police before it was disbanded and the special operations group was formed. But it has stayed on in local parlance.

“He [Bhat] had no involvement in terrorism or stone-pelting, and he had never been booked under PSA,” said Ahmad, referring to the Public Safety Act that is often used by the police to detain protestors in Kashmir. He added, “There is no militant among our relatives; had there been one we would have said maybe he developed sympathies. How did he become Pakistani-trained?”

He went on to say, “Killing someone without any solid evidence is against human rights.”

The family said that when Bhat’s body was handed over to them, the keys to the shop, his wallet, Rs 2,000 in cash and his watch were missing.

‘Invisible, like god’

The police, however, maintain that Bhat was a militant. “Do you expect any civilian to carry two terrorists?” asked Altaf Khan, who recently took over as the senior superintendent of police in Anantnag. “A pistol, an AK-47 [rifle] and an SLR [self-loading rifle] were recovered. How does the family say he was a civilian?”

In pictures taken by the security forces after the encounter, Bhat is seen lying face down on the ground, a pistol in his hand.

Responding to the family’s assertion that Bhat was a civilian, Khan said they may not have been aware of the reality. “It is not important for a terrorist to be underground,” he said. “He can be living a normal life too. The fundamental quality of a terrorist is that he is invisible, like god.”

Drawing a parallel with stone-pelters, the officer said, “There are so many stone-pelters, yet nobody says their son is a stone-pelter. Basically, nobody is going to say that their son was a terrorist.”

Another police officer in Anantnag said Bhat had joined militant ranks through the “jail nexus”. He said, “Rayees was in jail for two and a half years.” During his time behind bars, he met militant commander Bashir Lashkari, who was also serving a jail term, and “apparently, that is how he got in touch with militants”, the official added. Lashkari, a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander, was killed in an encounter with troops on July 1.

Bhat missed his Class 12 board exams because of he was in prison, the official added.

Ahmad, a lawyer at the district court in Anantnag and the son of a former policeman, said he would take legal action against the police over his brother’s killing. “Labelling is easy, they [police] will have to prove in court that he was a militant,” he said.

He added, “The police in Kashmir are loyal to no one. If every Kashmiri civilian is called a Pakistani, then what do we do? I just want to ask if all Kashmiris are Pakistanis. We are Indians when votes are sought but Pakistanis when bullets are fired.”