“It was a celebration, people were happy and emotional,” said a resident of Khudwani. In this village of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, there is grief but also jubilation. Four civilians and an army man were killed on April 11 after stone pelters disrupted a gunfight between security forces and militants holed up in a house.

The security forces had to withdraw amid a shower of stones and a few petrol bombs thrown by the local youth, said a teenaged stone pelter. Among the dead were Bilal Ahmad Tantray, 16, and Faisal Illahi, 14, both schoolboys; Aijaz Ahmed Palla, 30, who was to get married in four days; and Sharjeel Sheikh, whom the police called an overground worker, or a non-combatant who provides logistical support to militant groups. An elderly man, Salam Bhat, who had gone towards the site of the gunfight out of curiosity, was critically injured. The State Human Rights Commission has asked Kulgam’s superintendent of police for a report on the killings.

According to the residents, at least five militants escaped alive. “It did not matter if they killed four or five of us,” said a government school teacher in Khudwani. “We managed to save five. Their sacrifice did not go in vain today.”

Soon enough, despite restrictions on the internet, videos began circulating online showing the militants on motorcycles, speeding past jubilant crowds gathered on either side of the road.

A ‘machinery’ in action

Since around 2008, civilians who once ran away from the sites of such gunfights have rushed towards them to save the militants. But this was perhaps the first time, police officials said, that the civilians actually forced troops of the state police, the Army and the Central Reserve Police Force to retreat and rescued the trapped militants.

Shridhar Patil, senior superintendent of police in Kulgam, denied allegations that three of the four civilians were killed when the security forces opened fire on the agitating crowd. “They were about 300 metres from the encounter site,” he said. “A bullet travels one to two kilometres.”

According to Patil, around 2,500 people gathered near the site of the shooting and they did not disperse despite repeated warnings. The militants did not escape, he added, it was just that the security cordon had to be lifted. “We had to withdraw taking into account the civilians getting bullet injuries in the crossfire,” he said. He also spoke of a “machinery” that mobilises crowds to disrupt counterinsurgency operations, telling people that it was their “duty” to do so.

Patil said they would revise strategies to ensure minimum civilian casualties. “We are analysing what went wrong,” he said.

A statement released by the police earlier had said the militants opened “indiscriminate fire” taking advantage of the crowd assembled near the Veshaw irrigation canal. The four civilians, the statement said, were “consequently injured” and later died. Claiming only two militants had escaped, it said, “Efforts have been intensified to nab the escaped militants.”

Mourners at the house of one of the four civilians killed in Khudwani. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

In alleys of Wani Mohalla

At around 11.45 pm on April 10, security forces cordoned off Wani Mohalla, a neighbourhood in Khudwani with narrow lanes and an irrigation canal cutting through it. According to the residents, two of the five Lashkar-e-Taiba militants hiding there escaped before the cordon closed in. The other three left a house by the canal to disappear into the homes on the other bank. A brief exchange of fire took place as they crossed the canal and one of them was injured. At least one soldier was also wounded and he later succumbed to his injuries. “There was no firing after that,” a resident said. “The militants did not open fire at all. They did a wise thing in not firing. The soldiers had no idea where they went.”

A muezzin in Khudwani said two militants turned up later that day in the mosque where he recites the call to prayer, directing him to use the loudspeakers to ask residents to help the trapped militants escape. But it was not until the next morning that a crowd assembled.

As the soldiers continued to search for the militants early in the morning, Sheikh, who is named as an absconding accused in the 2017 Amarnath Yatra attack case, emerged from the lanes. He was shot dead close to the site of the gunfight, said a resident. It is not clear why Sheikh was outside.

Residents said most houses in the neighbourhood, populated by businessmen, have godowns in their ground floors which could hide militants. At least one militant was hiding in a tin shed just a few metres away from the soldiers. A stone pelter who was present when the security forces withdrew said another militant waved for help from a building on the main road. The security forces stood guard before it, apparently unaware of him.

The militants were constantly in touch with the people outside. According to the teacher, who was close to the site of the gunfight, the father of one of the militants, a local, came to the site in the afternoon, talking to his son on the phone. He told his father “he was safe and needed more boys to come out so the others can leave safely”, the teacher said.

By afternoon, as the stone pelting crowd swelled, the security forces resorted to “indiscriminate firing”, residents alleged. One of the stone pelters, a minor, said the soldiers fired into the ground only a few metres from them. “They were clear, don’t come forward,” he said. “We didn’t dare cross that line.”

The villagers alleged that the security forces also fired at houses they thought the militants were hiding in, but no shots were returned. “When they couldn’t find them, they fired at the buildings before eventually setting them on fire,” a man with greying hair said. Three houses were destroyed thus.

By 4 pm, the security forces had been forced to retreat, the three militants came out of hiding and left with a crowd of supporters. And hour later, they returned to the neighbourhood on motorcycles and then rode away. One of them raised his weapon in the air as the assembled youth shouted slogans, the minor said.

An angry district

The Kulgam incident, security officials in the Valley fear, may give new life to crowds rushing in to disrupt operations. In recent years, Kulgam has been an angry district.

Massive funerals for militants, another trend that has resurfaced after years, can also be traced back to this place. That was in 2015, when Lashkar-e-Taiba militant Abu Qasim was killed. During the mass uprising of 2016, when nearly 100 protestors were killed, this was the district that saw the heaviest civilian casualties. In the last few years, it has also seen a number of local youth take up arms. At least three of the militants who got away on April 11 were from Khudwani and surrounding areas, which is partly why local support for them was so strong. Kulgam is also believed to be the place that saw the first rally of the Ittehad-e-Millat, a coalition of socio-religious organisations formed during the unrest of 2016.

On April 12, the road outside Wani Mohalla still bore marks of the previous day’s pitched battle. Stones had been swept back to the foot paths while black soot, from burning tyres, covered the roads. Elsewhere, mourners gathered at the houses of those killed during the gunfight.

The family of Bilal Tantray, from Kujjar village, about five km from Wani Mohallah, was still in shock. “We were informed of his death but we didn’t believe it at first,” a relative said. “I couldn’t understand how he reached there in a few minutes.”

Women wailed in a tent pitched outside his house. A condolence meeting for men was presided over by a middle-aged man. Sitting on a chair, he invoked religion to eulogise Tantray’s “sacrifice”. “He was on the right path,” he told the assembled mourners. “He could do it at 14-16 years of age, you can’t do it at 45?”