On the evening of September 13, a photograph of security personnel dragging a body with rope tied to its feet went viral in the Kashmir Valley.

Earlier that day, two gunfights had broken out in the state, one in the Sopore area of North Kashmir and the other in the forests of Kakriyal in Jammu region. A total of five foreign militants were killed. The picture in question was taken at around 5 pm at the site of the gunfight near the Kakriyal forests, said a journalist from Jammu who was at the spot.

Security forces had been tracking the militants since they fled a checkpoint the previous day. According to the police, the militants had been attempting to enter Kashmir in a truck. Several security forces personnel, including officials of the police, were injured in the gunfight.

According to the journalist, one militant was killed after mounting a surprise attack on the security forces from a maize field. It was suspected that the militant had explosives strapped to his body, which could possibly kill anyone who touched him, the journalist said. Police officials say this practice is frequently seen among militants caught in gunfights across the state.

Working on the assumpting that the body was booby trapped, the security personnel tied ropes to the dead militant’s legs and dragged him out of the field. The body was deposited in an ambulance about 10 to 15 metres away from the spot the militant had been killed. Police officials in the Jammu region confirmed that bomb squads had been dispatched to the site because of suspicions of a booby trap. However, army officials were unavailable for comment on the need to drag the body to the ambulance.

‘A precaution’

The army followed two methods to retrieve the bodies of slain militants, said a retired general of the Indian Army who has served as a commander in the state. One way is to leave the body for some time, hoping that the booby trap goes off on its own, he said. The other way was to “tie a rope and pull the body from a safe distance of 30-40 feet so that the grenades under the body go off. And that generally happens.”

However, in this case, the body was dragged all the way to the ambulance, even though no explosives had gone off after it was retrieved from the field.

The former general said that the army “normally issued instructions from time to time, that the dead bodies should be treated with respect”. This incident was “avoidable”, he said, but did not believe that it warranted outrage.

The rules of battle, the former general said, were not strict and soldiers tended to act in the “heat of the moment”. He added that the situation may have arisen due to the “limitation of manpower” and the lack of equipment to conduct operations properly. “The body should have been put in a wrap, plastic or body bag, and carried on a stretcher,” the former general admitted. “But a stretcher is not always available.”

Outrage in the Valley

Whatever the army’s explanations, the picture has generated outrage in the Valley. This is not the first time militant bodies have been cause for public anger. In 2017, the charred bodies of three militants recovered from the site of a gunfight in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district sparked outrage. Pictures of soldiers posing with dead militants have also appeared on social media occasionally.

The dragging of the militant’s body was condemned by several activists, journalists and social media users from the Valley. Some said the action was a deliberate provocation to further inflame passions in the Valley.

Khurram Parvez, coordinator for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society human rights group, shared the picture on Twitter with the comment: “Barbaric. This explains Indian army’s human rights conduct.” Arif Amin, a member of the People’s Democratic Party, wrote: “Here the deceased hasn’t lost, but you! Such acts further enrage the youth and create a gap with the homeland.”

Hasnain Masoodi, who retired as a judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, said that the incident could “not be tolerated in any civilised society” and that it was “a vestige of barbarism”. “Once somebody is dead, he loses his identity as an enemy or a friend, whatever role that is ascribed to him,” he said.

Another picture

Meanwhile, in the Jammu region, the rare gunfight also drew Hindutva activists to the spot to pose for pictures. One such picture circulated on WhatsApp showed Rakesh Sharma, the vice president of the Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal in Jammu, close to a dead body at the site of the gunfight. The photo seems to have been taken by Sharma himself.

Bajrang Dal vice president, Rakesh Sharma, at the site of gunfight in Kakriyal.

Against international law

Masoodi said the act of dragging a dead body was against international law and treaties to which India is a signatory. International law mandates that the remains of those killed be respected. “The spirit of the treaties is incorporated in the Constitution of India,” said Masoodi. “The actions [of the army] are against the mandate of the Constitution.”

The Geneva Convention, to which India is a signatory, says that states taking part in a conflict must not only provide medical care to the wounded but also “search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled”. The convention requires repatriation of the bodies to their families. However, Pakistan has long dissociated itself from alleged Pakistani nationals killed while fighting the Indian state in Indian territory.