On December 30, Jammu and Kashmir police announced that three “terrorists” had been killed in an overnight “encounter” in the Lawaypora area on the outskirts of Srinagar. The encounter, according to a police statement, had started on the evening of December 29 when the Indian Army’s 02 Rashtriya Rifles unit launched a cordon and search operation in the area on the basis of a “specific input”.
The statement said: “The terrorists hurled grenade on the searching party and fired indiscriminately on troops while laying cordon. Search party of 02 RR was heavily fired upon by the terrorists hiding inside the building which was retaliated.”
When this information was received by the police, teams of Jammu and Kashmir Police and Central Reserve Police Force “rushed to the spot”.
According to the police, the operation was suspended was darkness fell in the night and resumed on the morning of December 30. The “encounter” eventually ended at 11.30 am with “all the three hiding terrorists” being killed.
The dead men were named as Ajaz Maqbool Ganie and Ather Mushtaq from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district and Zubair Ahmad Lone from Shopian. They had been identified on the basis of “recoveries” from them, the police said.
Athar Mushtaq Wani, to give him his full name, was a Class 11 student, aged 16.
“Upon their search, arms (one AK 47 rifle & two pistols) & ammunition and other incriminating material along with some documents were recovered,” the police statement said. However, the statement on December 30 did not specify to which militant group the three men were affiliated.
Immediately after the “encounter”, General Officer Commanding Kilo Force HS Sahi addressed a press conference in Srinagar. Kilo Force is the counter-insurgency unit that operates mostly in North Kashmir and some areas of Srinagar outskirts.
“Militants choose Srinagar outskirts or highways to carry out attacks on security forces to get maximum publicity,” Sahi was quoted saying by a local news agency on December 30. “The nature of ammunition used by the militants in today’s gunfight suggests they were planning a big strike on the highway.”
Hours after the press conference, family members of the slain men began to protest outside the Police Control Room in Srinagar, claiming that the dead men were not militants but regular civilians. The families had rushed to Srinagar from South Kashmir after seeing images of the bodies of the dead men on social media.
Alleging that the men had been murdered in a fake encounter, the families said that their relatives had left home on December 29 and had not returned. All the three men had called their families that evening to say that they would get home late that night or the next morning. But by the evening, their phones had been switched off. Despite repeated attempts to reach them on their phone through the night, the families said they could not get through, they said in interviews to Scroll.in.
The families’ allegations came four days after Jammu and Kashmir police filed the chargesheet against an army captain and two civilians for allegedly abducting and murdering three labourers in a staged gunfight in Amshipora in July. At the time, both the army and the police claimed that the three slain labourers were “unidentified militants”.
Responding to the claims of the families of the men killed on December 30, the police alleged that all three had links to the militancy. Though the men were not listed in the police’s database of active militants, the police said two of them were “hardcore associates of terrorists (OGWs)”. OGW or Over Ground Workers is the term used for non-combatant members of militant groups who are usually given the task of arranging logistical support.
“Reportedly, third [slain terrorist] might have joined very recently,” the statement added.
The police statement claimed that families are often unaware about the activities of their children. “Generally, parents don’t have idea about the activities of their wards,” the statement said. “Several OGWs after committing terror crimes like grenade throwing & pistol shooting etc. stay normally with their family.”
Despite this, the police said that they have registered a case. “Police is investigating the case and after thorough investigation will come to the conclusion soon on merits,” the statement said.
On December 31, Dilbag Singh, Jammu and Kashmir police chief, said although he has no reason to dispute army’s version of the incident, the police will “still investigate the claims made by families of slain trio”.
‘Will be home late’
The same day, Scroll.in interviewed the family of the teenager Athar Mushtaq Wani in Bellow village in Pulwama district.
“If he was alive, he would be appearing in his examination today,” said the boy’s father, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani. “Today was his last paper. How did he become a militant within half a day?”
Wani is puzzled by the sequence of events that unfolded since the afternoon of December 29. “I saw him last at noon when I was leaving for work,” said Wani, 43, a government-contractor-turned apple trader. “He told me he was going to his mother’s family home to get his trouser altered as it was oversized. Since that is in the same village, he had returned home within an hour and had lunch at home.”
After lunch, Athar Wani stepped outside. At around 3.30 pm or 4 pm, the teeanger phoned his sister to say that he had gone to Srinagar, 37 kilometres away, for “some work.” “He had told her that either he would reach home late in the evening or the next morning,” said his father. “He had also told her that his phone might be switched off due to low battery.”
Even though the Wani family did not have any relatives in Srinagar, this sudden trip did not seem unusual to the family, said Mushtaq Wani. “He had a habit that he would never call and inform us about his whereabouts whenever he was out,” Wani said. “It was us who would call him and ask him where he is.”
When Mushtaq Wani returned home that evening, he tried to phone his son but couldn’t get through. “I tried many times but his phone was switched off,” he said. “I grew slightly worried but my family told me not to worry. They told me about his call to his sister in the evening.”
The next morning, Mushtaq Wani left early to go to Srinagar airport for work. As he was driving home, he got a call from the Rajpora police station, under which his village falls. “They asked me about Athar and how he was related to me,” Wani said. “I sensed something wrong and rushed home. When I reached home, I saw a lot of people outside my house.” That’s when he was told about his son’s death.
With his flourishing business, Wani said he had ensured that his son got everything he wanted. Athar rewarded his father by being a responsible son. “I was away from home for almost two months during Covid-19,” Wani said. “Despite just being a teenager, he managed everything at home diligently.”
Mohammad Shafi Wani, Athar’s uncle, said his nephew had never had trouble with the police or army. “He had a clean record,” he said. “You can check it at the local police station. He was indifferent to what was happening in terms of violence in South Kashmir.”
Mohammad Wani’s own son Rayees Ahmad Wani was a militant who had been killed in 2017. “Athar must have been only 13-14 that time,” his uncle said. “The police say Athar’s cousin was a militant. Tell me, why didn’t he join militants in all these years?”
The family emphatically rejects police claims that their son was a militant or had any links with them. “If he was a militant, give us proof,” demanded Mohammad Wani, his uncle. “What did he do to India in an hour that he deserved to pay with his life?”
In its statement on December 30, police had said that it had made many appeals during the “encounter” to the three men to surrender. Mushtaq Wani said he wished the police had included the families in these efforts.
“If they had called us during the encounter and asked us to appeal to them to surrender, I promise you, I would have walked into that house despite the firing and brought out my son alive, in my lap,” Mushtaq Wani said.
Last year, for the first time in the recent past, 12 militants surrendered during encounters in Jammu and Kashmir. In many encounters, videos of parents and relatives of militants appealing the men to surrender have gone viral on social media.
In Lawaypora, however, no such effort was made.
Another matter that weighs heavily on the minds of the Wani family is the absence of a final call home. In Kashmir, audio recordings of final phone calls by dying militants to their family members frequently become public after encounters. “All the three had phones,” said Mohammad Wani, Athar’s uncle. “But none of them called home to tell that they became active [become militants] and now they are trapped.”
‘Out to buy books’
In Patrigam village, 2.5 km from the Wani family home in Bellow, the Ganie family recalled the last moments they had seen Ajaz Maqbool Ganie alive. A 20-year-old final-year student in Degree College Pulwama, Ajaz Ganie had left his home that morning for the first time in a month.
After he was diagnosed with a spinal disc problem, Ajaz Ganie had been advised complete bed rest for nearly two months. But with his examinations due to start from January 9, he told his family that he needed to go to Pulwama, 6 km away, to buy some books, said his father, Mohammad Maqbool Ganie, a head constable with the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
At around 4 pm, his family members called him to ask why he was not yet home. “His sister and mother called him,” 43-year-old Mohammed Ganie said. “They were worried about him because it was cold and he had health problems. He told them he was in Pulwama and would be home either in the evening or next morning. He also told them that his phone might shut down due to low battery.”
As it turns out, Ajaz Ganie and Athar Wani knew each other. Ganie’s younger brother Tajamul was in the same class as Wani. Athar Wani used to come to the Ganie home often “and we had good relations with their family”, said Mohammad Ganie.
During his conversation with his family, Ajaz Ganie told his family that he was not alone. “He had told them that Athar was with him,” his father said.
But when Ajaz Ganie did not get home that evening, the family got worried. “We called him throughout the night but his phone was switched off,” Mohammad Ganie said. “The next morning, I got a call from the local Rajpora police station asking about my son. I explained everything to them. They asked me to send Ajaz’s photo to them.”
Minutes after sharing the photo with the police, he was asked by the local police station to go to the Police Control Room in Srinagar. “On reaching Srinagar, a police official asked me to come inside for identification,” Ganie said.” I asked him, what identification. He said some bodies have been brought to the control room. When I entered the room, I saw the bodies of my son and Athar.”
In a second statement on the Lawaypora incident on January 1, the Jammu and Kashmir Police said that it had “verified and cross checked through the modern techniques including records of telecom department” the claims made by the family members of three dead men.
“Contrary to the claims, the verified digital evidence revealed and corroborated that Aijaz and Ather had gone to Hyderpora [Srinagar outskirts] and from there to the place of occurrence [Lawaypora] only,” the statement said.
The statement claimed that both were “radically inclined and had aided terrorists of Lashkar-e-Taiba (now so-called The Resistance Front) outfit”.
The January 1 police statement also said that Ajaz Ganie’s association with the militants had been “corroborated” by an Over Ground Worker. “One of OGW presently under police custody has also corroborated Aijaz’s association with LeT terrorist Faisal Mustaq Baba who was killed in Meej (Pampore) encounter in June last year,” the police said.
According to locals, Baba lived in a neighbouring village. While they acknowledge that the two knew each other, they were not “close”. “Show me one person in South Kashmir who doesn’t know someone who was affiliated with militants or was martyred?” asked a boy in Ganie’s Patrigam village who asked to remain anonymous.
Ganie’s family is aghast at the claims of the police. “If he was a militant, would he stay home normally for 35 days?” asked Mohammad Ganie. “If somebody is an OGW, how can he stay at home. The police has to say something. In Amshipora fake encounter, didn’t they place guns on them and then it was proven to be a fake encounter? For us, it’s a fake encounter. Our kids left home in the morning and were killed. They were innocent. We need justice, nothing else.”
‘Always busy with work’
Justice is also the demand of the family of 23-year-old Zubair Ahmad Lone in Turkwangam village of Shopian district.
Zubair Lone’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Lone, said that his son left home on the afternoon of December 29. He was in the construction business. “In the evening, he called his brother saying that he would be late and would either return late in the evening or next morning,” recalled Ghulam Lone.
That was the last time the family would hear from Lone. While the family tried desperately to phone him that night, his phone was switched off. The next time they had information about Zubair Lone, it came through an unusual channel. “An army officer of a local army camp called my son and told him that his brother had been killed in an encounter,” said Ghulam Lone.
Zubair Lone was the youngest of five sons. His father said his son was too occupied with work to have been engaged in any militant activities. “Everyone in the village knows how much his work meant to him,” Ghulam Lone said. “The police can say anything but I know my son was innocent.”
Unlike Athar Mushtaq and Ajaz Ganie, the police did not elaborate on Zubair Lone’s alleged affiliation with militants or his activities. According to police’s statement on January 1, he had travelled through at least three districts of south Kashmir on December 29 before finally arriving in Lawaypora.
“Zubair had gone first to Pulwama, then Anantnag, then Shopian to Pulwama and finally came to place of occurrence [Lawaypora],” the police statement said.
His family does not buy the police theory. According to them, Lone had no business to attend to in Srinagar nor relatives to visit. He spent most of his time within Shopian, they said. The furthest he would travel was to the neighbouring district of Pulwama.
Turkwangam, in which the Lone family lives, is one of the most volatile villages in Shopian district. Despite this, his family says that Zubair Lone had never run into trouble with security forces and did not have any cases against him.
“Stone-pelting and protests were common here and many boys from this area became militants and were martyred,” said Abdul Khaliq Lone, Zubair Lone’s uncle. “But he never showed any inclination towards these things
The fact that two of Lone’s brothers in the Jammu and Kashmir Police also helped. “Many families were indeed harassed by security forces here but they never entered this house,” said Abdul Lone. “They too had a good impression of this family.”
The “encounter” in Lawaypora on December 29 took place in a private building on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway. “The building has been abandoned for a long time,” said a local resident who asked to remain anonymous. “There was a snooker point inside the building and young boys used to play there. It also served as a hostel for a paramedical college a year ago.”
While local residents said they did not have a clear idea of what actually occurred at the start of the “encounter” on the evening of December 29, they claimed that the security forces did not evacuate people in the neighbouring houses to safety.
“There was no announcement or any effort by the forces to evacuate us safely,” said a person from the neighbourhood. “They didn’t even ask us to leave the house. We did not know what would happen next. They said we would not do anything to you as long as you follow our instructions.”
The residents also contested the claims of the police and army that the three men had been given several opportunities to surrender. “We did not hear any announcements of surrender to militants or something like that,” said one person. “Also, the gunfight was not suspended for the night. The firing continued throughout the night. There was only a brief lull in firing after 2 in the morning but the firing resumed at around 3.30 am with loud bangs.”
In retrospect, several residents recalled that they had witnessed unusual measures by the army on this stretch of the highway a month ago. A shopkeeper near the spot recalled how a group of army personnel had asked him and his employees to show their identity cards.
“The army came to check our identification and made our videos while we were holding our cards,” he said. “It was strange.”
The exercise may have been triggered by a militant attack on the army in November in which two army soldiers were killed. The attack had taken place in Aban Shah Chowk area of HMT on Srinagar’s outskirts, some 5 km from the site of the Lawaypora “encounter.”
Following the shootout, the residents of Aban Shah had accused army’s 02 Rashtriya Rifles unit of carrying out mass beatings of civilians. The army had denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, another resident of the area, who was unable to get home that night due to the encounter, wondered why the authorities failed to shut down the internet in Srinagar when the “firefight” broke out, as is their standard procedure.
“I was calling my family throughout the night to see if they are alright,” he said. “I was worried what if they shut down the internet and cell phone services like they usually do during encounters. But they didn’t. It was unusual.”