June 1 wasn’t just another Friday at the Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar’s Nowhatta section. Astonishingly, not a single member of the security forces was on duty outside the compound of the mosque that is a site of frequent protests and stone pelting, especially after the weekly prayers.

Since Friday morning, downtown Srinagar had been rife with rumours about an arrangement between the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference who back separatism and the police administration to keep the peace during the holy month of Ramzan. Two days before Ramzan started, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced unilaterally that government forces in the state would halt counterinsurgency operations for the month. In Srinagar, it was being speculated, volunteers of the Hurriyat would work to prevent protests. The absence of security force personnel, it was believed, would be a good way to avoid clashes.

Despite this, hundreds of men gathered in the Nowhatta area in the afternoon. The situation escalated when a solitary vehicle of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force carrying six armed personnel emerged a few hundred meters from the crowd.

In an attempt to escape the mob’s ire, the vehicle mowed down three protesters. One of them, Qaiser Amin Bhat, succumbed to his injuries at a hospital on Friday night. Images of a young man being pinned under the vehicle have caused outrage in the Valley.

This is the second time over the last few weeks that a protester has been crushed to death by a security force vehicle during protests. On May 5, Adil Ahmad Yadoo, a resident of downtown Srinagar, was crushed to death by a police armoured vehicle during clashes that followed the deaths of three militants in a gunfight with security forces.

A deadly chase

On June 1, despite speculation about an arrangement between separatists and the authorities, scores of men gathered on the main road outside the Jamia Masjid compound at around 2pm, soon after prayers were over. In recent years, it has become the norm for young men to gather here, defying the wishes of the separatist leadership. The mob kept swelling and began to march towards the police station. Anticipating trouble, most shopkeepers in the area downed their shutters.

Flags of various militant outfits were unfurled: black flags commonly associated with the Islamic State; white flags inscribed with the Arabic word jihad, the symbol of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, the Pakistan-based militant outfit that operates in the state.

Some young men wore T-shirts bearing images of Zakir Musa, the disgruntled Hizb militant who now heads an Al-Qaeda affiliate militant group. Others had pictures of Burhan Wani, the slain commander militant whose death pushed the Valley into a five-month period unrest in 2016.

The various groups began to shout slogans. “The Islamic State shall remain, shall remain,” some shouted. “Musa, Musa, Zakir Musa,” shouted another group. Yet another group shouted: “What do we want? Freedom!”

The police station is located half a kilometer from the gates of the Jamia Masjid. The crowd began to hurl stones at the small group of security force personnel stationed a hundred or so meters from the station to guard the road and lanes leading towards it. The security forces were restrained, firing only a single tear gas shell at the crowd in more than an hour.

The stone pelting proceeded intermittently for about two hours, with much of the crowd merely acting as spectators. But at around 3.45 pm, the comparative calm was broken by the thunderous sound of stones hitting a metal surface fast approaching the square in front of the Jamia Masjid.

A single armoured paramilitary Gypsy was under attack. The vehicle, said some of the protestors, was attempting to navigate a junction when stones were first pelted at it. With its progress blocked by traffic on one side of the road, the vehicle turned towards the crowd.

Scores of young men rushed towards the white Gypsy, hurling stones, bricks, and even bicycles at it. Moments before the vehicle reached the square, it slowed down and protesters surrounded it. Only the top of the vehicle was visible from the pavement on which I was standing.

Speeding down the road, with the mob on either side of it, the vehicle seemed to jump three times as protesters began pouring in front of it. By the time the vehicle stopped, it had mowed down at least two men, with one still underneath it. Some men attempted to climb on top on the Gypsy, while others pushed the vehicle to the side. At this point, said one protester, the passenger door of the vehicle was opened.

Seconds later, the driver of the vehicle hit the accelerator again. However, it could not speed away since the protester was still underneath it. The sound of the roaring engine and its screeching tyres drowned the mob’s shouting. Another jump later, the vehicle sped towards the police station, still under a heavy rain of stones.

Moments after the vehicle had fled, protesters huddled in small groups. One such group was engaged in an argument. One of the members angrily shouted at another for not being able to drag the paramilitary soldier out of the vehicle.

Two of the youth hit by the vehicle were identified as Qaiser Bhat and Younis Ahmad, both of whom lived in downtown Srinagar. Bhat, 21, succumbed to his injuries at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences that night.

According to Sanjay Sharma, a CRPF spokesperson in Srinagar, a senior officer was seated in the vehicle. “The mob tried to open the back door of the vehicle that was closed from inside and lynch the CRPF men. They broke the window glasses of the vehicle,” Sharma told Greater Kashmir, adding that the driver of the vehicle “slowed down his speed and didn’t run over the youth”.

‘Death is certain’

According to relatives, Bhat had been a regular at the stone-pelting protests in Nowhatta since 2010. “He used to be clever enough to defend himself,” one of Bhat’s cousin said. “I don’t know what happened this time around.”

Even before he was a teenager, in April 2008, Bhat lost his mother to illness. In November that year, his father died from a heart attack. Bhat and his two younger sisters who lived in the Fatehkadal area of downtown Srinagar moved in with their aunt to Srinagar’s Dalgate area. But Bhat never lost touch with his friends downtown.

Though Bhat had stopped attending protests after the unrest of 2016, he returned to the streets after a militant from Srinagar’s Fatehkadal area was killed in a gunfight on May 5. That was the same day that a security forces vehicle crushed the protester to death in Srinagar. Bhat spent three days in Fatehkadal attending the slain militants funeral. Last Friday, pictures of him cleaning blood inside the mosque after clashes between protesters and security forces did the rounds on social media.

According to the cousin, though Bhat had lost his parents early, he had no financial difficulties. Their house in Fatehkadal had been rented to tenants and the three siblings were taken care of by their uncle and aunt. Like many youth of downtown Srinagar, Bhat had turned against the Hurriyat. “He had his own conviction for Islam and freedom,” the cousin said. “He didn’t follow any Hurriyat nor had any association with any of its leaders.”

His cousin added: “He used to tell us that death is certain and that it is better to die a martyr’s death.” Bhat was buried in the “martyrs graveyard” at Eidgah in Srinagar.

Protestors in downtown Srinagar on Friday. Credit: Rayan Naqash

Resentment against the Hurriyat

On Thursday, May 31, local media was abuzz with the talk of the truce between the district police and the Auqaf (wakf) committee, of which separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is the chairman. Altaf Shah, general secretary of the committee, was quoted by the Greater Kashmir newspaper as saying that that volunteers would be deployed to prevent protests inside the mosque compound. “As soon as they are done with their prayers they will reach the gates and stand guard till all the worshippers leave,” the newspaper quoted Ahmed having said.

However, following this Friday’s incident, Ahmed has retracted his comments. In a statement issued to the press, Shah termed newspaper reports of a “truce plan” with police officials as baseless. The volunteers, it said, were to “ensure smooth and peaceful conduct of prayers”.

Following this death, resentment against the Hurriyat has brewed once again. “The idea that Hurriyat is playing politics over bodies of martyrs,” another relative of Bhat said.

At Bhat’s funeral on the morning of June 2, according to the cousin, a leader of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Bashir Ahmad Qureshi faced a stream of criticisism from the mournders. “Fearing a backlash, the Hurriyat changed its tone there,” Bhat’s relative said. “Instead of telling us that youth are making sacrifice for right to self determination, he [Qureshi] said they were giving sacrifices for khilafat.”

On Monday, the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat condemned the incident and blamed the security forces for use of brute force. “It is because of the unbridle powers given to forces and the lack of accountability that every day innocent civilians are brutally killed, which is condemnable in all forms,” a statement by the outfit read. “The brutal use of force and the reign of terror unleashed on the mourners who were carrying the body off Qaiser Ahmad reflects that we are not even allowed to mourn the death of our dear ones.”

This article was updated at 3.10 pm to include a statement from the Hurriyat.