Srinagar: On May 15, the internet was flooded with reports about the killing of a civilian in Turkwangam, a sun-dappled hamlet of sycamore and walnut trees off the Rambiara river in the South Kashmir district of Shopian.
Visuals shared online showed a crowd carrying the dead body late in the evening as dozens of mourners flashed their mobile phone lights in the dark.
The killing sparked protests in Darazpora, the neighbourhood from which deceased 20-year-old Shoaib Muhammad Ganai hailed.
Shoaib owned a store which sold car accessories on the main road along the river, just 50 metres from the alleged site of his death. Dozens of women rushed to the spot, weeping bitterly as they started a protest against the killing.
The Kashmir Valley has already seen multiple demonstrations by Pandit groups against what they see as the government’s “inability” to control the murders of members of their community as militants escalate a campaign of targeted killings.
Last week, militants in the central Kashmir town of Budgam shot dead Rahul Bhat, a Pandit man working with J&K’s revenue department.
Yet, Shoaib’s death is a stark reminder of a different but persistent dynamic that has always been a hallmark of the conflict in Kashmir – purported actions intended to contain militancy often come at the cost of civilian lives.
A statement issued by the J&K police described the incident that led to the Ganai’s killing as a “chance encounter.”
“At about 1310 hours (1:10 pm), terrorists indiscriminately fired up on a patrolling party of police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at Turkwangam-Litter area,” the police statement read. “During the crossfire, one civilian was seriously wounded.”
The statement added that it was the joint patrolling party of the 182 battalion of the CRPF and the Special Operations Group (SOG) unit of the J&K police that came under assault.
“During the exchange of fire between terrorists and joint team of forces, one civilian, identified as Shoib Ahmad Ganai…received critical gunshot injuries,” the statement read.
“Although the injured civilian was immediately evacuated to the hospital for the treatment of his injuries, he succumbed. The terrorists…managed to slip into nearby orchards.”
The area where the incident took place is situated on the banks of the Rambiara river and is mere metres from the bridge which connects Litter in the Pulwama district to Turkwangam in Shopian.
On a clearing next to the river, there are over half a dozen makeshift tents where members of Kashmir’s nomad community put up.
Eyewitnesses, family contest official narrative
On Tuesday afternoon, scores of mourners gathered inside Shoaib’s small house near Darazpora.
Based on interviews with the family, the nomads, the shopkeepers and other eyewitnesses of the killing, the picture that emerges of the incident is a far cry from what was described in the media release.
Several shopkeepers who work in shops on the road where Ganai’s shop is located allegedly witnessed the incident in which he has killed, as did members of the nomadic community present at the scene as well as 22-year-old Shahid Muhammad Ganai, Ganai’s older brother, who was allegedly with him when the “chance encounter” took place.
“He had been running this shop for the last three months,” said Shahid. “I was with him when he said he was going to urinate near the stream.”
Shahid’s attention was then caught by a black auto-rickshaw from which the three uniformed soldiers disembarked. These men started running in the direction in which Shoaib was headed. Alarmed, Shahid said he sprang to his feet and shouted, loud enough to alert his brother to the movement of the troops.
Several Gujjar nomads were herding their goats at the spot as well. The Wire spoke to Arshia and Shabir Mir who were grazing goats. A young nomad boy, who did not give his name, also spoke to this reporter.
All three of them confirmed that Shoaib was confronted by the uniformed men.
“I saw the soldiers coming in a huff and asking, ‘Bhagne wala kidhar gaya? (Where did the guy who was running away go?)’” Mir said. “The last we saw of him was when he folded both his hands in front of the soldiers. Then we were asked to go inside the tents.”
According to Shahid, the troops trained their weapons at his brother – who raised both hands in a gesture of surrender – and fired. “I saw it happen in front of me,” he said. “The bullet went in his chest.”
Another man who claimed to have witnessed the whole incident was Javid Ahmad Mir, a labourer who was working nearby. “Initially I thought they fired to scare him,” he said. “Then I saw the soldiers carrying the body on their shoulders as they walked to where their vehicles were parked.”
Ghulam Ahmad Ganai, Shoaib’s father who had also reached the spot by then, said that the uniformed men didn’t allow the family to go near the body.
“For 10 minutes, the body was lying there,” he said. “Then they took him. We were aghast. We asked them to return the body but to no avail. They went to the other side of the bridge.”
The other side of the bridge falls under the jurisdiction of the Pulwama police. “They took the body to the Police Control Room in Srinagar where his post-mortem and all other formalities were done,” Ghulam Ahmad said. “It was only in the late evening that we got custody of his body.”
There’s absolutely no indication whatsoever as to what may have prompted the troops to kill him. The police statement, too, describes him as a civilian. “Had he been a militant, would the police return the body to us?” Ghulam Ahmad asked.
To quell the angry protests that Shoaib’s killing had set off, Shopian deputy commissioner Sachin Kumar Vaishya ordered a magisterial inquiry into the episode. The inquiry will be conducted by the additional district magistrate, Shopian.
The Wire spoke to a senior officer of the J&K police from South Kashmir who claimed that Shoaib’s name had figured in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast case.
The blast took place on May 15 last year, near Turkwangam village. “To what extent he was involved, I cannot certainly say,” the officer said. “But he was indeed arrested in that case. Even the local villagers are repeating a Kashmiri idiom, which says ‘the mud doesn’t churn itself in absence of rain’.”
The story of Shoaib’s detention, however, wasn’t withheld by his family. Instead, they spoke about it quite frankly.
“But he wasn’t the only one to be swept up during the raids. Many boys from this village were, and all of them, including my son, were released after two months of detention at the sub-divisional police officer headquarters, Zainapora,” Ghulam Ahmad said. “There’s no FIR against him,” he added.
Latest in a long list of civilian killings
The Turkwangam incident is not the only such episode where the civilians deaths have ended up being embroiled in the endless cycle of claims and counterclaims, muddying the broader picture.
On February 25 this year, a gun battle between security forces and militants affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror outfit resulted in the killing of Shakeel Ahmad Khan, a civilian in whose cow-shed the militants had allegedly taken shelter.
While the police statement attributed the killing to “indiscriminate firing” on the part of the militants while civilians were being “evacuated”, his family, however, told the press that Khan was made to accompany a search party as they were looking for militants.
Similarly, the family of deceased 20-year-old Shahid Ahmad Rather of Arwani village in South Kashmir has contested the police’s claim that Rather died in a crossfire in October last year. Rather was a labourer who picked apples for a living. His brother, Zubair Rather, who was an eyewitness to the incident, described it as a “targeted killing.”
The same month, CRPF troops shot dead 26-year-old Parvez Ahmad Khan, a Kashmiri nomad, who is said to have revved up his SUV before jumping a security checkpoint at Rooh-Monghal village in the Anantnag district.
His family and activists from the nomadic Gujjar community, however, have asked why the CRPF couldn’t fire at the tyres to impede the movement of the vehicle instead of firing the bullet that hit Khan.
Last year, the Kashmir valley was brought to a standstill following the killings of Mudasir Gul, a real estate agent; Altaf Ahmad Bhat, a businessman; and Aamir Magray, an office helper at a building in the affluent Hyderpora neighbourhood in Srinagar, during a purported gunfight.
J&K police constituted a Special Investigation Team to probe the killings.
In January this year, the report came out. It effectively exculpated the security agencies while accusing Pakistani militant Bilal Bhai of perpetrating the killings of Gul and Bhat. The reports also claim that the third casualty, Magray, died in the “crossfire.”