Serene villages in north Kashmir, nestled in the hills and surrounded by paddy fields, erupted in protests last week. The Indian Army claimed to have killed a militant in the forests of Handwara in Kupwara district late on August 21. The next day, it turned out that the slain militant was actually an unarmed civilian from the Daril village of Tarathpora cluster.
He was identified as 19-year-old college student Shahid Bashir Mir. As soon as his body reached Tarathpora, a large number of people gathered for the funeral, but residents of the village refused to bury Mir until a probe was initiated against the Army. “We did not bury him so that the media and the government would come and accept that he was not a militant,” said Gulzar Bhat, a cousin of Mir’s.
The next morning, protesters set a vehicle of the district administration on fire, and clashed with the police, as the deputy commissioner reached the spot to persuade the villagers to conduct Mir’s last rites. The local police issued a “No Objection Certificate”, putting on record that Mir did not have any prior links to militants. Inspector General of Police Munir Khan had already confirmed the previous day that “he was a civilian”. “However, how he reached Hafrada forests is a matter of investigation,” Khan had added.
A magisterial inquiry was set to begin on August 31. The day before, fitful protests continued in Handwara, especially in the main town, over the unexplained events of August 21.
The night of August 21
Late in the evening on Monday, August 21, the hills had echoed with gunfire. The next day, villagers of Tarathpora heard on the radio that a militant had been killed. Mir’s family panicked as he had gone missing the same evening. He had left home around 5.30 pm to buy juice and soap from a shop, where he sat for sometime, said his father Basir Ahmad. The owner of the shop, a kilometre away from Daril, however, said Mir bought cigarettes and other items around 3 pm and went to another shop in the area. Mir was not seen after that.
Bashir Ahmad said they searched the nearby villages for his son on Tuesday. The next day, the family filed a missing persons complaint at the police station in Vilgam, eight kilometres away. But that evening, Bashir Ahmad said the family was asked by the police to identify a body at the local Army camp. Relatives identified the body, riddled with bullets, as Mir’s. They brought his remains home. “He had bruises and bullets all over his body,” Bashir Ahmad said. “He was a college student. How could he be a mujahid [militant]?”
The family believes Mir was picked up by an Army convoy moving towards the forests. According to local residents, Army men in vehicles had moved towards the Haphruda forest between 5 and 6 pm on August 21. “There was a convoy passing through and he was caught, taken away to the forests and killed,” Bashir Ahmad alleged.
Going by accounts of local residents, however, there were no witnesses to this. “No one saw him being picked up by the Army,” said Bhat. “The Army vehicles were going to the forests for the encounter and we received his body from the Army.” To Mir’s family and the residents of Tarathpora, it all added up.
‘Beyond the last village’
The Army, for its part, insisted that it had launched a “specific intelligence-based operation”. Contacted by Scroll.in, it responded with a press statement issued last week:
“Army launched an operation in the Haphruda forest on the intervening night of August 21-22. The army column was fired upon by the terrorists, which was retaliated. During search operation, the body of an individual was recovered and handed over to the police.”
According to the police, Mir was killed in the crossfire. Police officials said the gunmen managed to escape following the initial exchange of fire. “A dead body was seen lying in a nallah from a distance and they (Army) in their enthusiasm reported that one terrorist has been killed,” they said. “If the Army had any mischievous intentions they would have concocted the story and still proclaimed him to be a terrorist.”
The police added, however, that Mir was deep in the forests, “beyond the last village”. An investigation has been launched into why and how Mir reached there, they said.
They also said that Mir’s family, in their complaint, had raised concerns about his behaviour, saying he was depressed and isolated from others. Residents in his locality also claimed the young man was “troubled”.
Meanwhile, his family described Mir as a religious boy who “never missed a prayer”. He was the eldest of six siblings, and his family had hoped he would soon take over the household’s responsibilities. He had a diploma in Urdu language and would often scribble poetry or doodle on the walls of their wooden home. It was not unusual for him to wander off in the evenings, they said.
Tarathpora is a loose cluster of villages close to the forests that lie between Handwara and Kupwara. The villages have remained calm through the recent years of turmoil and residents said Mir’s killing was the first in recent memory.
With his death, the villages erupted in protest. Bashir Ahmad, a carpenter, blamed “fitna [mischief]” from outside the village for the eruption. “When my son’s body came home, we didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “We were in shock and people were doing things on their own. Someone had also made an announcement that the DC [deputy commissioner] had left, even though he was still here.”
Bhat said the family was “thankful” to the local administration for their support. “When the SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police] heard our son was missing, he immediately went to the Army and demanded to see the body of the militant they had killed. The DC and the SSP were drawn to us by our grief, and in turn some people pelted them with stones,” Bhat said as Ahmad nodded in agreement. “We are very ashamed,” both said.
As protests spread to the main town on Thursday, schools and shops reportedly shut down. As educational institutions reopened on Friday, fresh protests and stone-pelting broke out at the government degree college in Handwara. Protestors alleged that the police manhandled teachers, a charge which the police denied.
Even before mass protests erupted across Kashmir last July after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the usually calm Handwara had been restive. In April 2016, protests had broken out over rumours that a minor girl had been molested by a soldier. In the security crackdown that followed, at least five people were killed.
But in Tarathpora, the villages that erupted on Thursday calmed down just as abruptly. A week later, there were little traces of the protest and residents spoke of the incident with uncertainty. A shopkeeper in Tarathpora said, “What happened is best known to God. But we lost one of our own. We just hope this does not happen again.”
On August 29, residents had gone back to business as usual while Mir’s family quietly mourned the death of their son. Bhat said there was fear. “We are now afraid that something like this will happen again,” he said.
Mir’s family remains convinced that he was killed by the Army. But Bhat added that they could not believe “that the local army unit would do such a thing to a local boy.”
Mir was laid to rest in the shade of walnut trees in a graveyard close to his home. Gulshan Begum, his mother, asked why her son was shot so many times. “My son would have died with a single bullet,” she said. “Why was he killed so brutally? I would not have regretted had he been killed with one bullet. Today it’s my son, tomorrow it may be someone else’s son.”