Srinagar: Recalling the last moments of his nephew, Ghulam Hassan Shah broke down. “I was left helpless, as he died in front of my eyes,” said Hassan.
Peer Merajuddin, a 23-year-old, was killed when jawans of the CRPF opened fire at his vehicle at a checkpoint on the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway on Wednesday.
While the CRPF said the civilian had allegedly sped past two checkpoints, prompting the troopers to open fire, Shah, a senior police officer and an eyewitness to the incident, denied their account.
He said his nephew was killed in “cold-blood”.
How the tragedy unfolded
An assistant sub inspector (ASI)-level officer in J&K police, Shah said he was running late to report to duty on Wednesday morning. He called Merajuddin, who agreed to drop him in his car at the police control room in Srinagar, around 25 km from their native village of Makhama in Budgam district.
When they reached Kawoosa, a village around 13 km from Srinagar, Shah said the troopers stationed at a checkpoint signalled them to stop. Merajuddin was in the driver’s seat.
“I showed my ID card to a policeman and he let us pass the first naka, while signalling to a CRPF man ahead on the second naka. As we started to move, the CRPF man aimed his gun at us. We stopped the car, but before we could say anything, he opened fire directly at us,” said Shah. “The car was stationary when the CRPF man opened the fire.”
The next moment, Shah saw his nephew in a pool of blood. Seeing him fade away, he stepped out of the car and started shouting for help.
“Then, I confronted the CRPF man who shot at my nephew. I shouted at him, saying, ‘You have murdered my son,’ and asked him to arrange a vehicle to ferry Meerajuddin to the hospital,” said Shah.
According to him, the tragic incident happened around 10:15 am. Within no time, he said, a group of CRPF men, headed by an official, arrived at the spot and stopped a private car, which ferried Merajuddin to Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
The doctors, however, declared him dead on arrival. “He had a bullet injury in his chest,” said a doctor.
Merajuddin was running a khidmat centre in an adjoining village for the past three years. He was the youngest of seven siblings. One of his brothers is also working in the J&K police, while his father is a retired government employee.
What the CRPF and J&K police said
In a statement, the CRPF said the vehicle in which Merajuddin and his uncle were travelling “broke a checkpoint of J&K police and sped and came across another checkpoint of CRPF, and jumped this checkpoint as well.”
“A convoy of army at that point of time was passing through the adjacent road and fearing sabotage the CRPF jawan, manning this naka, fired warning shots. The civil car was driving in the wrong direction and that was even more alarming. When the car didn’t stop despite repeated warning shots, the jawan fired at the car and in turn the driver was hit on his left shoulder,” the CRPF said.
In a separate statement, the J&K police also said the car “jumped checkpoints.”
However, the police said they have registered a case and have begun an investigation.
Shah, however, disputed the official version of the incident. “Why would we do so (jump the checkpoints). We didn’t jump the checkpoints. It never happened. I’m a police officer,” he said. “I told senior police officers that the statements (issued by the CRPF and police) are wrong.”
He said they entered the opposite side of the road since the “forces themselves diverted the traffic in that direction as an army convoy was moving on the other side.”
Merajuddin’s father Ghulam Nabi Peer termed the official statements as “blatant lies.”
“They are trying to cover up the crime,” he said. “My son didn’t jump the checkpoint. They first stopped him and then shot at him. It is a cold-blooded murder,” he said. “Why did they kill him? He was neither a militant nor anything else.”
Protests and wails at the burial
As the news about Merajuddin’s death spread in his native village, hundreds of men and women came out, chanting anti-India and pro-separatist slogans.
Marching towards the victim’s home, they demanded his body be returned to the family for burial.
Authorities swung into action and rushed security forces to the village to control the situation, and shut down the Internet in the entire district.
Angry youngsters threw stones at the forces, who fired teargas shells and shotgun pellets to quell the protests.
At Merajuddin’s house, wails filled the air as women from the neighbourhood tried to console his mother and sisters.
Merajuddin’s body was handed over to the family in the late evening. He was buried in the family graveyard at his village.
Politicians aghast, demand probe
Local political parties, while condemning the killing, demanded a time-bound probe into the incident.
Former chief minister and National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah described the killing as “very unfortunate” and said that “circumstances surrounding this shooting need to be impartially investigated and findings made known.”
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said the “shooting a civilian dead cannot be how democracy operates”.
“The eagerness of few trigger-happy individuals to replicate the Delhi Police model of destruction and violence in Budgam is detestable. An inquiry should be initiated and guilty taken to task,” said a party spokesman.
CPI(M) leader M.Y. Tarigami demanded that the “reckless killing of an unarmed civilian at the hands of security personnel” must be investigated in a time-bound and impartial manner and responsibility be fixed to punish the guilty.
“Even if the claims of the police are true that the slain civilian jumped a checkpoint, the CRPF men could have fired at the tyres of the vehicle instead of shooting him in the chest,” he said.