On July 8, two tents were pitched on the lawns of Muhammad Hussain Khanday and Ali Mohammad Alai, cousins and next-door neighbours in Hawoora village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. The neighbourhood was mourning the death of Khanday’s 21-year-old son, Shakir Khanday, and Alai’s 14-year-old daughter, Andlee Jan.
The two youth were among three killed in the village after soldiers of the Indian Army, who were patrolling the area, opened fire on civilians amid stone pelting on July 7.
A statement put out by the army said that the soldiers warned local residents before opening fire. According to the statement, they were attempting to move out of the area when they were “chased by an aggressive and menacing crowd of 400-500 persons which kept building up and coming dangerously close”, even as the stone pelting continued.
The army claimed that, during this time, “some unidentified terrorists also fired on the column”, which “resulted in some soldiers receiving grievous injuries. In response to this grave provocation and to ensure security of own troops, controlled firing was resorted to by the Army which resulted in unfortunate loss of human lives”.
Residents of Hawoora, however, denied the presence of militants and alleged that soldiers, accompanied by the police’s counterinsurgency unit, had provoked local residents into pelting stones by throwing rocks at the tin-sheets that fence houses in the area.
By 11.30 am on Saturday, residents said, a large number of army personnel arrived in Hawoora on foot. They were accompanied by four jeeps, residents said, that had approached the village in pairs from two directions.
Residents said that the army patrol in the area during the day was unusual. Though soldiers had moved through the area before, residents said, they had avoided this particular stretch of the road, which is the village thoroughfare, because of “heavy stone pelting”. “They mostly come in the nights,” said Abdul Rahil, Jan’s uncle. “It was unusual for them to come during the day.”
This time, Rahil said, the soldiers also pelted stones at residents. “They had rocks in their vehicles,” said Rahil. “They threw rocks and provoked people more.”
Residents alleged that as local boys threw stones at the jeep, more than a dozen soldiers alighted and entered the neighbourhood. The soldiers also entered a government school in the village and thrashed students and teachers, they added.
Local residents also alleged that soldiers opened fire on civilians as soon as they got down from their vehicles, without any warning. “They fired for about 30 minutes. They opened targeted fire at us,” Rahil alleged.
According to local accounts, Shakir Khanday died on the spot. As word of his death spread, Jan, a Class 8 student, ran towards site of the clash, said Rahil. “She was shot in the leg just as she reached the place,” he said. “For 20 minutes, soldiers fired at us, not allowing us to pick her up. She was simply lying on the road.” Rahil said Jan died of blood loss.
Later, residents alleged, soldiers entered and vandalised houses close to the main road. “They broke our belongings and misbehaved with women,” said Junaid Ahmad, Khanday’s cousin. “I was on the second floor of the house. The soldier below was shouting that he would go only if they [Ahmad’s family] gave me to him.” Ahmad said the soldier spoke in Kashmiri.
Multiple residents said soldiers had abused locals and warned, “We have orders to kill you whenever we have to.” Danish Ahmad, another cousin of Khanday, claimed an army officer locally known as “Major Mirchi” was leading the men. “He stopped the ambulance [carrying Khanday] at Mishripora bridge,” he said. “He trained his gun and shouted: ‘Is he dead already or should I shoot him again?’.”
Residents said that the soldiers left after the crowd had dispersed from the spot. Apart from Khanday and Jan, a third youth, 21-year -old Irshad Lone from nearby Lonepora, died in the incident. Lone’s brother, Zahid Lone, received five bullet injuries in both legs and is currently being treated at a hospital in Srinagar.
In Lonepora, the family of Irshad Lone, a daily wager, quietly mourned his death. His elder brother, Rayees Ahmad Lone, said that Zahid Lone was dragged by soldiers for a few hundred metres after being shot. “Some boys in Redwani had pelted stones at the soldiers,” Rayees Lone said. Redwani is a few kilometres away from Hawoora. “And the stonepelting here was not even as intense as it usually is. They [soldiers] came after planning.”
Later on Saturday, Governor NN Vohra convened a high-level meeting at the Raj Bhavan n Srinagar to review the security situation following the incident. According to a government handout, the governor “had especially invited Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, Northern Army Commander, to participate in the discussions”. Vohra expressed “deep anguish” over the deaths.
Politicians from pro-India Kashmiri parties also expressed anguish over the deaths. Meanwhile, the joint separatist leadership put out a statement which said, “It becomes clear that green signal has been given to Indian armed forces to wipe off all Kashmiris without any distinction of being armed or unarmed.”
‘We are not afraid’
Residents of Hawoora believe the soldiers had planned to “scare” the village. “Whether you agree or not, this village is Pakistan’s stronghold,” said a 45-year-old resident of Lonepora. He pointed out that the first sarpanch to be killed in Kashmir was shot in this village.
Hours after the killings on Saturday, residents said, up to a dozen militants arrived in the village. Five offered “gun salutes” at the funeral of the slain civilians. “We are still not afraid,” the 45-year-old said. “In almost a decade, we have never allowed a militant to be killed here. If anywhere, it is here that a militant can safely walk in broad daylight.”
In Lonepora, the lanes are bedecked with flags of Pakistan and banners extolling militants. July 8 is also the second death anniversary of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, whose killing caused widespread unrest in the Kashmir Valley. On the evening of July 8, residents gathered to look at the posters of the several militants that the village has produced since the 1990s. Their pictures are pasted on a large plywood board leaning against a tree opposite the neighbourhood mosque. “Take a picture of this,” one resident shouted. “Show India that we are not afraid. Shake them up.”