How one gunfight revealed the extent of militant support in Kashmir

How one gunfight revealed the extent of militant support in Kashmir
6 min read
24 April, 2018
In-depth: A battle in Kashmir turned out markedly different to usual, reports Umar Lateef Misgar.
Textbooks containing chapters on human rights strewn in the rubble [Saqib Mir]
Early spring in Indian-administered Kashmir brings a riot of new life and colours. Signaling the end of another harsh winter, this spring was no exception. 

However, for the Wani-Mohalla neighbourhood of south Kashmir's Khudwani village, the season only brought ferocious destruction. On the night of April 10, Indian army personnel, making their way through the narrow alleys of this old locality, came in hunt for the armed rebels of Lashkar-e-Taiba - a group designated as a terrorist organisation by India, the United States, UK, Russia, the European Union, and, officially at least, by Pakistan.

The army failed to apprehend a single militant, but left a trail of death behind them. Four civilians, including two children were killed during the 16-hour gunfight, all shot in either chest or the head. One army trooper was also killed.

In almost all the previous gunfights, Indian forces were able to either detain or kill those they hunted. However, the result of this gunfight turned out to be markedly different. Owing to stiff resistance from the local population, the fighters evaded a likely death. 
Read more: Kashmir: The democracy that never was

Wani-Mohalla is separated from the rest of the village by a narrow stream. On the day of the gunfight, jeering crowds stood on the opposite bank of the river, trying to disrupt the whole operation.

"People of all ages tried to march to the site of gunfight and save the rebels," Mohammad Abdullah, an elderly local, told The New Arab. "We are all ready to die for their sake."

Abdullah added that, without the intervention of local people, the possibility of the LeT fighters making an escape was almost negligible. 

Lashkar-e-Taiba is a jihadist militant group operating across south Asia, though mainly in the Kashmir valley, where it is committed to ending India's rule over the part of Kashmir it controls, and to build an "Islamic state".

A group of young men playing Carrom on the roadside agreed. "Hundreds of people from surrounding villages, including women, assembled here to create disruptions," one of the men shouted. "Many of us had even arranged food and water for them."

However, some of the residents took an opposite view, pointing to the heavy presence of military in the village during the gunfight. "The area was under a pervasive military cordon. It was impossible to create any disruptions," a resident, refusing to be identified, said. "The rebels were only saved by some divine intervention."

The interference of locals during these gun battles has been described as a constant nightmare by the Indian military. In a recent press release, local police forces advised people within two kilometres of a gunfight to stay indoors. 

In another statement, the Indian Army Chief asserted that civilians trying to disrupt the operations of Indian troops would be treated as accomplices of the militants.

Amit Kumar, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police in South Kashmir, however, said the recent failure to capture or kill members of the armed group could be attributed to both "operational impediments" in the form of a dense residential area as well as disruptions by the locals.

"The militants kept moving from one house to another throughout the operation. Therefore, it was hard to intercept them," Kumar told The New Arab.

Kumar declined to comment on whether the militants enjoy popular support in the region. 

The groom

While the police, in an official press release, said the four civilians were killed in crossfire during the gunfight, locals had a different story to tell.

Sharjeel Ahmad, a 22-year-old lorry driver from Wani-Mohalla, had gone over to his friend's house to finalise the shopping list for his upcoming marriage in two weeks. Ahmad stayed overnight.

In the morning, unaware Indian troops were watching from a nearby house, the soon-to-be groom walked into the compound of his friend's home to get to the bathroom. 

Two gunshots hit him immediately, one in the chest, the second in the leg. Ahmad died on the way to hospital.

"We had arranged everything and even sent out invitations for his wedding," said Abdul Hameed, Ahmad's father, surrounded by mourning relatives.      

Sharjeel Ahmad’s fiancee (r) mourns his death [Saqib Mir] 

When The New Arab tried to talk to Ahmad's young fiancée, unable to come to terms with her loss, she fainted.

"They killed an innocent and destroyed many lives," one of her friends said.

The cricketer

Fourteen kilometres north of Khudwani, Tulkhan village is mourning one of its star cricketers. Aijaz Ahmad Paula, 28, was the second civilian to be killed near the gunfight in Khudwani. A carpenter by profession, Aijaz was shot in the forehead. 

"We had moved to this new house only a month ago," sighed Firdous Bano, Aijaz's wife. "In the morning, Aijaz told me he was leaving for work."

The schoolchildren

Outside Bilal Ahmad Tantray's home, his teenage friends welcome the incoming mourners with glasses of fruit juice. The 17-year-old was shot in the chest while standing on the bank of the stream that separates Wani-Mohalla from the rest of village. 

"Bilal was deliberately targeted," Ali Mohammad Lone, Tantray's grandfather, said. "He was seeking admission for the upcoming semester in school and only a few days back had bought a new uniform."

He was shot dead while wearing his uniform clothes

Another teenager, Fazil Alai, was killed nearby when bullets tore through his neck and abdomen. Fazil, along with his friends, was also watching the battle across the stream in Khudwani.

"The school was off because of the gunfight nearby so he came back home - but as soon as the rumour spread that a rebel had been martyred, Fazil insisted on attending his funeral," Hanifa Bano, Fazil's mother, told The New Arab. "My son didn't even change. He was shot dead while wearing his uniform clothes," she added. 

"While on our way to the site of the gunfight, he insisted that today he was going to get martyred," said one of Fazil's friends who accompanied him.

Homes destroyed

In the Wani-Mohalla neighbourhood, two houses have been turned into rubble. Schoolbooks containing chapters on human rights lay scattered in the wreckage while butterflies hover over.

Several houses were destroyed during the gunfight in Wani-Mohalla [Saqib Mir] 

The expansive house belonging to Ghulam Mohammad Wani, where the militants were thought to be hiding, was set ablaze while his family of 10 remained huddled in one of the rooms. All were evacuated only in the morning. Wani still remains distressed, unable to talk to anyone. 

"The Indian forces didn't even let us evacuate the two handicapped children of our family," Wani's brother said. 

Bilal Ahmad Dar's home was also burned down while he and his family were locked inside a room by Indian troops. "They bolted the door from the outside and didn't let my wife or the two daughters escape until morning," Dar said. "Despite searching our house from top to the bottom and finding no rebels, they used gunpowder and petrol to burn it down."

At least one resident accused Indian troops of using him as a human shield.

"They strapped a wireless camera onto my head and sent me in the direction of the rebels," said the villager, asking to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. 

Kumar, of the South Kashmir police, denied all allegations of civilians being subject to any abuse.

Umar Lateef Misgar is a political analyst focusing on Kashmir and the Middle East. His work has appeared in The Independent,, London School of Economics Human Rights Centre blog, and elsewhere.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur