On Wednesday morning, pictures of a three-year-old child sitting on an aged man’s body went viral on social media. The images were from a shootout at Model Town in North Kashmir’s Sopore area. According to officials, militants had opened fire on a joint patrol of the Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir Police as it deboarded a bus on the highway at around 7.30 am, killing one trooper and a civilian.
Several more pictures and videos flooded social media. One seemed to show the child walking towards a CRPF soldier, who was gesturing at him. A video that appeared to have been shot in a police vehicle showed the sobbing child being consoled by a woman police officer. The Kashmir Zone police’s official Twitter handle featured a picture of the child being carried away by a police officer.
It is not yet clear who took the pictures and videos. But they set off ripples of outrage that gave rise to claims and counterclaims. The CRPF said that militants opened fire on a patrol party from a nearby mosque. Caught in the firing was the 65-year-old Bashir Ahmed Khan, who was driving up from Sopore to North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, accompanied by his three-year-old grandson. Khan stopped his car and tried to move towards a safe spot but was hit by the militants’ bullets, the CRPF said, the child was later rescued by security forces.
But Khan’s family, speaking on camera that same morning, said they had been told by witnesses that security forces made him get out of his car and then shot him. The allegations soon spread like wildfire, spurring the Jammu and Kashmir Police to issue a statement: such claims were false news and anyone circulating it would face legal action. Two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were believed to be involved in the attack, the police said.
Back home, the child was filmed saying the police had shot his grandfather. He mimicked the sound of gunshots – “thak, thak, thak, thak”.
Within hours, the incident and the pictures of it had become the subject of heated political debates. Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra used it to lash out at “jihadists” and photographers who portrayed security forces in a negative light. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah reproached security forces for using the pictures as a “propaganda tool”.
A day after the shooting, Scroll.in visited the spot to talk to residents who had been in the vicinity. No one living nearby admits to having witnessed the actual shooting; apart from the three-year-old, there appears to be no non-police witness. So the actual events of July 1 remain hard to establish, clouded by the battle of narratives.
‘He was not in his car’
The shootout took place at a four-way crossing on the Sopore-Handwara road. The mosque from where militants allegedly fired on security forces is about 100 metres from the spot where Khan’s body is seen in the photos. At 7.30 am, residents say, there were few people on the highway.
“We just heard the firing and we were afraid to come out to see what’s happening,” said Mohammad Shafi, who lives metres away from the spot.
But a local shopkeeper near the spot said he saw some parts the incident. “I saw him walking with the child,” said the shopkeeper, who did not want to be identified. “He was not in his car and I didn’t see any car there. He was probably coming from the ATM and was on foot when he was hit by a bullet. But I am not sure whose bullet it was.”
According to the shopkeeper, the child stayed in the open with his dying grandfather through the exchange of fire. “Until the firing was over, nobody cared about the kid,” he said. “It was ending when a CRPF soldier asked the kid to move towards his side but the kid was unable to understand his instructions.” The child was picked up only after the police closed in after the firing was over, he added.
One of the viral pictures had shown Khan lying dead near his Alto, which had its left door open. In another picture, a huddle of police cars around Khan’s car and his body can be seen near the spot. The picture also shows a policeman standing astride over Khan’s dead body.
‘We didn’t move’
The CRPF soldier who gestured at the child in one of the pictures was crouching against a wall. It was the boundary wall skirting the house where Farhana, a private school teacher, and her family live.
Around 7.30 am on July 1, Farhana was busy baking bread. Her husband and two children were fast asleep. “My husband leaves for work around 8 am-8.30 am and I tried to wake him up – he said he would be up in 10 minutes,” said Farhana, wanted to be identified only by her first name. The couple and their children occupy one room of the single-storeyed house. It is located on the stretch of highway between Sopore in Baramulla district and Handwara, in Kupwara district.
“There was the sound of a single shot first, then there was another,” said Farhana. “I thought some tire had burst.” But then the shooting intensified. “I laid down on the floor over my kids and woke them up. We didn’t move at all. I had put a roti on a pan but the firing was so intense, I could not even move to pick it.”
The shooting continued intermittently for 30-45 minutes, she said, during which the family made no attempt to peek out of the window. “We thought if we got up, we’d be hit by a bullet,” said Farhana. But the gunshots were accompanied by an unusual sound. “All through the firing, there was a child crying. We thought it was someone’s child crying inside his home. It didn’t seem to us that he was crying right outside the wall of our compound on the main road.”
‘Murder of humanity’
In Srinagar, where Khan lived, his family has a different story to tell. The 65-year-old was on his way to Handwara to fetch their domestic worker from her village. “When he left around 6 am, the child, who was always with his grandfather, asked him to accompany him,” said a relative.
No one in the family, apart from the three-year-old, was present at the time. But they are convinced Khan was stopped by security forces and forced to alight from his car. They shot him, the family allege, in “anger after suffering casualties of their men”.
“The video message circulated on social media by the son and daughter of the slain man is totally baseless – they have levelled allegations under militant threat,” said Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s inspector general of police, at a press conference on July 1. “I want to ask them whether they were present at the site of the incident. Did they see themselves who fired?”
But Khan’s family and friends maintain he was killed deliberately and not shot in indiscriminate firing. “It was the murder of humanity,” said Tariq Ahmad Bhat, Khan’s business partner and a family friend. “If he was caught in a cross-fire between militants and forces, why is there not even a scratch on his car? Why were his hands lying backwards when he lay dead?”
He also rejected police claims that militants had pressured them to make allegations against the CRPF. “Khan’s wife is a retired police officer,” he said. “Two other relatives are working in the police in decent positions. Do you think militants would dare to enter the house and threaten us into making false allegations?”
Cleric detained for questioning
Another family was troubled on the afternoon of July 2. They were waiting for Mohammad Rafi Mir, the preacher at the mosque where the militants fired from, to return. “He was detained half an hour after the firing was over,” said Umair Rafi, Mir’s son. “The police came to our room and took him along.”
Mir lives with his wife and four children in a two-room apartment constructed in the backyard of the mosque. Originally from Kupwara district, Mir has led prayers at the Sopore mosque for five years now. “All of us were sleeping at the time of firing, we didn’t know what was happening,” said Umair Mir, a student of Class 9.
According to residents of Model Town, at least three local residents, including the cleric, have been detained by the police for questioning.
Khan’s is the third civilian death in a shootout involving militants and the CRPF since May. On May 3, militants struck at a security check post at Wanzgam village in Handwara, killing three CRPF personnel. While the attackers fled with two rifles that had belonged to the slain CRPF men, the shootout left a 14-year-old boy dead, allegedly hit by a bullet in the crossfire.
Last week, a five-year-old was killed when militants attacked a CRPF party in the Bijbehara area of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district. According to a statement issued by police, the child and a CRPF soldier were injured when “terrorists fired upon the CRPF party.” Both died of their injuries in hospital.