On a cold Sunday morning, the streets in Kashmir’s southern district of Shopian were deserted and unmanned roadblocks set up by protesters dotted the roads. In just three days, three civilians lost their lives in two separate but related incidents.

The first incident was an encounter between militants and security forces in Chaigund village on January 24. Three militants and a teenager were killed, while two women received bullet injuries. Among the slain militants was Firdaus Ahmad Lone, a resident of the Ganowpora village.

Three days later, in Ganowpara, clashes between soldiers of the Indian Army and residents of the village left two young civilians, including a relative of Lone, dead. Another young man was critically injured. Villagers say the clashes were triggered by the soldiers’ objection to a black flag with Islamic inscriptions perched across the lane leading to Lone’s house.

The soldiers’ demand to remove the flag, commonly associated with the global jihadist organisation Islamic State, did not go down well with the villagers who took it as an infringement on their religious beliefs. “The flag only had the kalima. Their [the army’s] only motive was to remove this flag and they got angry when we did not do it,” said a young man who stood in the lane outside Lone’s house.

A statement issued by the army acknowledged the killing of two civilians but said that the soldiers opened fire in self-defence when an administrative convoy passing through Ganowpora, around 3pm on January 27, came under “unprovoked and intense stone pelting” by 200-250 people.

“A junior commissioned officer accompanying the convoy got hit on the head and fell unconscious suffering serious injury,” the statement said. “The mob tried to lynch the individual and snatch his weapon.” The soldiers then opened fire “to prevent lynching of the JCO and burning of Government vehicle by the mob” and seven soldiers sustained injuries, it added.

An army vehicle damaged during the clashes on Saturday. Image released by the Indian Army.

‘Planned’ backlash

The residents of Ganowpora said the village, on Saturday, was observing the third day of mourning, when a patrol of the Indian Army’s 44 Rashtriya Rifles reached the village around 11am to demand that the flag be removed. The locals resisted and pelted stones at the soldiers as both sides refused to give in.

The two vehicles that “brought more than two dozen army men”, said an elderly resident of Ganowpora, hurriedly retreated to their camp that is located merely a few hundred meters away in Balapora village. The soldiers, however, soon returned in greater numbers. “By 2pm, they came back in around 30 vehicles and opened fire from within as their vehicles slowly moved through the village,” he said.

He also contested the army’s claim that locals attempted to snatch a soldier’s weapon. “How can someone snatch a weapon from inside their vehicles?” he asked. “They kept firing for two hours and, as people fled from the spot, they got down and started pelting stones at our homes.”

Residences on either sides of the main road bear testimony to the havoc wreaked on the village. Tin sheets cover broken windows and bullet holes scar the walls and ceilings of bedrooms. Younger residents of Ganowpora said that they had not seen such intensity of firing even in encounters, prompting people to flee into the swamps for safety.

Broken windows in Ganowpora village. Image: Rayan Naqash

‘Target killings’

Some residents, however, did not flee. Pouring out in the streets, they pelted stones at the soldiers. One of them was Suhail Lone, a neighbour and relative of the militant Firdaus Lone.

A class 12 student, Suhail was a few metres ahead of his father Javaid Lone who was chasing him to take him back inside. “But within minutes he was shot dead in front of me,” Javaid Lone said, bursting into tears.

On Sunday, sitting inside a tent pitched in front of their single storey house, Javaid Lone said that Suhail had been on a video call with his cousins when he heard the commotion outside. “He never used to be part of such things. Even if someone tried to make him pelt stones, he would stay away,” he said. “He was just seventeen years old.”

Those who had come to mourn Suhail Lone’s death said the villagers had been provoked into pelting stones after the army initially started it. “In between the firing, they got down and started pelting stones that they brought in their vehicles, from a nearby stream,” a villager alleged. The army, he said, “did not even let us pick up the injured, those who were shot”.

In the adjacent village, Balapora, a 20-year-old cricket enthusiast Javaid Ahmad Bhat also fell to the army’s bullets. Local residents claimed that Bhat was shot dead as he peeked, from the gate of his residence, to observe the commotion in the village.

Rayees Ahmad Ganai, a 24-year-old resident of the nearby Nadpora village, was critically injured in Ganowpora. He is currently being treated at the Valley’s premier healthcare institute, the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar.

Residents in both Ganowpora and Balapora villages said that the soldiers “directly fired into the people” and “deliberately targeted to kill people”.

The incident was widely condemned by both mainstream and separatist parties, except for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ravinder Raina, the party’s MLA from Nowshera in Rajouri district of Jammu region, said the “army did the right thing”.

The police said it has registered a First Information Report, charging the army with murder, attempt to murder and endangering lives. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announced yet another magisterial probe into the killings. A press statement issued by the government on Saturday said that the chief minister had spoken to the Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and “expressed anguish” over the loss of lives in the “shoot-out at Ganowpora”.

The chief minister said that every civilian killing “impairs the political process in the State which has been put on track after hard work by all political parties”. The Defence Minister assured the Chief Minister that she would seek a detailed report and take measures to prevent such incidents in the future.

Bullet marks in one of the residential buildings in Ganowpora. Image: Rayan Naqash

Hardened commitment

Saturday’s killings have renewed anger in Shopian district where residents have steadily complained of army high-handedness. Residents allege soldiers regularly damage property during patrolling, seize mobile phones to check for pro-Jihadi content and attempt to coerce support from the civilian population.

Across the Valley, both ordinary people and police officials contend that the only reason more young people have not joined the militancy is the dearth of weapons. In Ganowpora and other villages in the area, residents said, youth draw lots to decide who would join the militancy.

Some younger residents of Ganowpora claimed Firdaus Lone and Sameer Wani, who was also killed in the encounter on January 24, were planning an attack on the army camp and had quit the Hizbul Mujahideen a few days before their deaths. Others in Balapora, however, said that Lone was a former associate of Mugees Mir, a militant who was killed while launching an attack that left a policeman dead on November 17, 2017.

A terror tracker site had reported that the Islamic State had taken responsibility for the attack and claimed Mir was their operative. But several local militant outfits also made similar claims. The police maintained that Mir was part of a militant faction headed by Zakir Musa, who left Hizbul Mujahideen in May 2017 and started a new outfit called Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. The Al Qaeda, an international jihadist organisation, has claimed the outfit is affiliated to it. Militant commanders Abu Dujana and Arif Lelhari of Pulwama district also quit the Lashkar-e-Toiba to join Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.

Although residents see little difference between the various outfits as each had a “different method for the same goal” – freedom from India – some believe the black flag in Ganowpora is an indication of the militants’ hardening stances.

Traditionally, green flags have represented Islam in the Kashmir valley. But in recent years, black flags have become common. Many interpret this change as part of a shift from a Kashmir-centric movement seeking independence to one that aligns itself with the global jihad and denounces nationalism and borders.

At the residence of Javaid Bhat in Balapora, dozens of mourners gathered before an orator who identified himself as Basharat. Speaking about the militancy, he said that the fight was “not for azadi” but for “nizam-e-Mustafa, the prophet’s law or Sharia”. The gathering agreed with him as he denounced “man-made laws” and all forms of nationalism.

Even though the army’s actions have shaken the area, the resolve of the residents has only deepened. The single black flag is now accompanied by at least six new banners and flags. Ghulam Mohammad, a 60-year-old resident of Ganowpora, said that the harassment by the army had readied the people for militancy. “If they [the army] keep doing this [harassing civilians], what options do we have? All boys here are ready to pick up the gun. Even the old.”

Image: Rayan Naqash