Tensions have mounted in Kashmir again after the killing of two militants and four civilians in an alleged encounter between militants and security forces. The incident took place around 8 pm on Sunday in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

According to an initial statement by the army, it was “retaliatory firing” that killed one militant and three “OGW/accomplices”. It was referring to the civilians as “OGWs”, or “overground workers”, a term commonly used in Kashmir for non-combatants who provide logistical support for militant groups. The death toll rose to six with another militant and a local civilian’s body being discovered nearby on Monday morning.

The killings have led to anger as the families of the slain civilians contested the army’s allegation that they were accomplices. “It is unfortunate how they [the army] have termed him an OGW without an inquiry,” said Manzoor Ahmad, the uncle of Suhail Khalil Wagay, one of the civilians killed. “He has no links with any group or militant organisations. The other boy killed with him, Shahnawaz [Wagay] of Trenz, is also not an OGW. He used to work for us as a labourer.”

The National Conference, the main opposition party in the state, also weighed in, demanding a probe. “The Shopian killings cannot be justified with an arbitrary, unproven pronouncement of the youth being OGWs,” a party spokesperson said.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti took to social media to express her sympathy with the families of the slain civilians. She also contradicted the army’s claim that they were accomplices to militants. “Deeply distressed by more deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire in Shopian,” she tweeted.

On Monday, schools that were supposed to reopen after the winter break remained closed and various examinations have been postponed. The authorities imposed restrictions on movement in parts of Srinagar. The internet was snapped in the southern district of Shopian and Pulwama while speeds were reduced all over the Valley. Most parts of Kashmir shut down in protest against the killings.

In the evening, the army held a press briefing at Balapora camp in Shopian, where officials softened their claims. This time, they did not call the slain civilians overground workers. Apart from the two militants, “three additional people” were killed, said Harbir Singh, commander of the army’s Sector-12. “They were definitely civilians,” he said. “To what extent they were involved in supporting terrorists is a matter of investigation.”

‘Retaliatory firing’

Differing versions of what happened on Sunday night now circulate in the Valley. According to army officials speaking off the record on Monday, a brief gunfight, lasting just a few minutes, broke out in Shopian’s Pahnoo village. Soldiers at a mobile vehicle check post station near Pahnoo village had signalled to a passing vehicle to stop, according to the army. That was when militants in the vehicle opened fire and a gunfight ensued.

In a statement issued shortly after the encounter, the army said it had killed one Lashkar-e-Taiba militant and recovered a weapon. The three “accomplices” in the vehicle, it said, “were found to be dead”.

The next morning, the death toll rose to six. A second vehicle was discovered, with the body of another local civilian inside. Another militant, also with the Lashkar, was found dead in an orchard, some 12 kilometre from the site of the encounter in Pahnoo village. On Monday, police officials said a third militant, possibly injured, escaped in the dark and there were investigations to ascertain his identity.

The army’s statement on Sunday did not mention two vehicles. A fresh statement issued on Monday evening claimed that “heavy firing came from both the vehicles” that were moving from Trenz village, some four kilometers away, towards Pahnoo, and that soldiers responded in “self defence”.

Monday’s army statement further said that “in the ensuing gun fight, one terrorist firing from one of the vehicles was hit and he fell off the vehicle and the vehicle veered off the road towards the nalla and the second vehicle sped off”. Apart from three bodies, the army said, it recovered one AK-74 rifle, three magazines and 88 rounds of ammunition from the vehicle that had skidded into the drain.

According to a police statement on Sunday, this vehicle had been identified as a Swift. It belonged to Suhail Khalil Wagay, whose body was brought home on Sunday night. According to local residents, the Swift was not found in a drain. On Monday morning, a WagonR, the vehicle which had sped off, according to the army statement, was found by local residents. It had landed in a drain, they said, some 200 metres from the site of the gunfight. A single dead body was found in the WagonR, that of Gowhar Ahmad Lone, the owner.

Singh added there were no specific inputs of militant activity in the area before the shooting on Sunday night but there were general inputs of “increased terrorist movement” in the district. He also issued an advisory for local residents: “Whenever a terrorist is moving, they should avoid travelling with the terrorists in the same vehicle.”

The ‘ambush’

On Monday morning, the roads leading to Pahnoo village were quiet. Inquisitive residents gathered at the checkpoint in the village as a helicopter circled above. All the deceased belong to villages within a few kilometres of Pahnoo. On Sunday night, residents said, protests erupted at several places and continued till midnight.

They said they did not witness the shooting as the checkpoint was placed on a road that slopes up above their houses. Further up, it cuts through higher ground. Around 7.30 pm on Sunday, residents said, soldiers took position on this road as well as the higher ground near the checkpost. A school and few nomad shelters lie on this elevated patch of land.

A resident of one of the shelters, who did not wish to be identified, said that soldiers had taken positions close by and directed them to lie on the floor before the shooting broke out. Another local resident said they only heard the sounds of the gunfight and did not witness it. “The soldiers shouted something and then we heard someone shout Allahu Akbar,” he said, adding that it was immediately followed by the sound of gunfire. Within moments, he said, the sound multiplied, indicating that both sides had opened fire.

Locals gather near the encounter spot in Pahnoo.
Locals gather near the encounter spot in Pahnoo.

‘One sided firing’

In Moolu village, a few kilometres from Pahnoo, residents believe 24-year-old Gowhar Ahmad Lone was killed deliberately. Flowers cover his grave and a Pakistani flag is placed in a temporary shed over it.

A postgraduate in physical education, Lone studied in Nagpur for five years before returning to set up a business selling pesticides. Abdul Rasheed, his father, said that Lone was alone in the car and had spoken to him on the phone saying he was on his way back home. “We spoke at around 7 pm. The firing took place a little after that,” he said, adding that Lone “did not have bullets on the front [of his body]. The bullet had hit him just below his neck, from behind”. Others gathered in the room pointed out that there was no blood in the vehicle.

Gowhar Ahmad Lone's grave in Moolu village.
Gowhar Ahmad Lone's grave in Moolu village.

Pinjura village, some six kilometers away, too, was in mourning. Suhail Khalil Wagay, who had driven the vehicle that was found on Sunday, had lived here. The bodies of Wagay and two other civilians were found on Sunday evening.

Manzoor Ahmad, his uncle, said that Wagay was on his way to Pahali Pora village to pick up his mother. “We spoke to him at 7.24 pm. He said he would take another six to ten minutes. Shortly after that, we heard firing,” Ahmad said. “It was one-sided firing.”

Soon after news of the gunfight spread on Sunday night, protests broke out. Ahmad said that the police used tear gas on them twice, once close to the hospital in Shopian town and another time on the highway near their village, as they tried to recover Wagay’s body from the hospital and take it back home in an ambulance.

The killings have deepened resentment and anger against the army in the Shopian district which, last year, witnesses several instances of soldiers raiding neighbourhoods, beating residents and damaging property. On Monday, despite curbs on the internet, fresh videos emerged. They showed militants offering a gun salute at the funeral of the slain militants.

It was also in Shopian’s Ganowpora village that three civilians were killed in army firing this January. Pointing out the recent killings at Ganowpora, and those before it, Ahmad said the family neither expected nor wanted justice. “We just want an inquiry into whether he was an OGW or not so our family is not wrongly blamed. In our village, we think today it’s someone’s turn [to be killed], tomorrow it will be ours,” he said.

The same day the Supreme Court stayed further investigations in the January firing incident till April 24. Earlier, it had restrained “coercive proceedings” against army officers, including Major Aditya Kumar, who was reportedly named as an accused in the case initially.

“These dead bodies are strengthening the fort of azadi,” Ahmad said. “Each body is a brick and inshallah the fort will not fall till we achieve freedom.”