KULGAM: THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

  • SHABIR IBN YUSUF
  • Publish Date: Oct 29 2018 2:59AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 29 2018 3:10AM
KULGAM: THE UNANSWERED  QUESTIONSPhoto: Mir Waseem/GK

There have been killings due to littered explosives off and on in Kashmir in last three decades. But killing of seven civilians including four students in Laroo village of Kulgam in southern Kashmir on Sunday, October 21, is a glaring case where the locals are posing serious questions that need through investigation and fixing of responsibility. When the magnitude of the incident is gauged, it poses some important questions and so far no answer has come out. There is only a trail of answered questions. 

 

THE ENCOUNTER:

 

Police have said they had specific information about the presence of a group of militants in the Laroo village, located at a walking distance from Kulgam main town. Kulgam district has two villages which are spelt differently but can be mistaken as the same. One is Lirow and another is Laroo. In between the two is Kulgam town. Laroo is barely a kilometer from the main township, in fact at a stone’s throw from the new bus stand. Police said that the operation was planned quickly. By late evening a mixed column of Special Operations Group (SOG), 9-Rashtriya Rifles and 18-CRPF left for the operation. The village was under distant siege soon by late evening. Residents said the militant trio had reported to the village almost an hour after the Isha prayers suggesting they actually were being chased by the counter-insurgency grid.

By around 2 in the night, the residents heard gunshots. Police said this established the contact when one of the three militants came out and was instantly killed. Siege tightened and the real battle started during wee hours. They were hiding in the residence of Sheraz Ahmad Bhat son of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat.

Even the family could come out of their besieged home only by around 7 a.m. The family comprises of the couple and their three kids.

Minutes after the fire exchange stopped, the army and the police quickly collected the three bodies and declared the operation as over. By the time the mixed column moved out of the village, the house was still in flames. That was the reason, according to locals, the civilians jumped in to extinguish the fire and prevent it from escalation.

Locals said that after police left with the bodies, hundreds of youth emerged from all directions. They went to the smouldering house and joined the firefighting. Once they started to douse the fire with water there was huge blast. Even arms of one of the injured fell on the spot.

Barely an hour after the tragedy, there was a 50 second video doing rounds on social media sites. The video and other images on social media were disturbing. The people were seen crying for help amid a number of injured scattered around.

The reports quoting health officials that appeared in media said that all the persons who died in Laroo – other than militants – had splinters of the explosives and none of them carried a bullet. Some of the injured had pellets, but they were fired by police and paramilitary forces on protesters outside the district hospital Anantnag at Janglat Mundi when the injured were rushed in.

To stop the people from protesting during the encounter, police in Kulgam had established four nakas around the encounter site. The nakas were managed by senior officers. “There was minor stone pelting at two nakas,” said one of the middle rung police officers posted in Kulgam.

 

TRAIL OF QUESTIONS:

 

First of all it needs to be seen what was the device that exploded? Second whose device it was? The locals said that the explosion was so powerful whole of Laroo was shaken. There was smoke and dust all around. If the militants were carrying the explosive why it did not explode during over three-hour long gunfight. In case the device would have been carried by the militants, its explosion could have led to several casualties of security forces who were involved in the encounter.

From last about three decades, gunfights is the order of the day in Kashmir. In most of the encounters, the structures where the militants take shelter is razed to ground. However, this is first such instance in which seven civilians lost their lives at the encounter spot - that too after the encounter ended almost without any disruption. There were no clashes at encounter site - which is otherwise a norm in southern Kashmir for last three years. 

The Kashmir Ink posed these questions to Security Advisor to J&K Governor, K Vijay Kumar. “We will be at it,” he responded.

In 2011 the then government had asked the police, army and paramilitary forces to draft a Standard Operating Procedure for “avoiding the loss of human life after IEDs remain undetected owing to non-clearance of debris at encounter sites”. The government had instructed all deputy commissioners and the police to sensitize the people to the risk of “visiting encounter sites before the debris is cleared”.

Police said the gunfight sites are regularly cleared by forces. However when people march towards gunfight sites and attack their men, the security forces in order to avoid civilian casualties leave quickly, therefore the sites are not completely cleared. They claim that they have repeatedly issued advisory for locals especially parents that they should avoid sending their children to gunfight sites.

During the encounters, security forces mostly army uses variety of ammunition for killing the holed up militants. They included grenades, rocket launchers and mines. They also fire mortar shells that subsequently lead to razing of residential structures to the ground.

One of senior army officers who is posted in southern Kashmir told the Kashmir Ink that to dilute the criticism that comes its way in terms of collateral damage to houses and other property, there has been a propensity to avoid the use of the rocket launcher to destroy houses in which the militants are been holed up. “From past some time the procedure of tackling the hideout, without destroying the house is being followed, when there is little or no pressure to complete an operation expeditiously. When resistance and contacts increase resulting in higher figures of casualties there will be demands on the leadership to employ more lethal means.”

Police, one of the important stake holders in counter-militancy operations, blame the non-cooperation of the villagers for these deaths. The police say the villagers compel the army and the police to wind up the clearance operation in a hurry as the youths start throwing stones at the forces after the encounter.

In the past, a senior police official said, they preferred room to room searches. “Today, security forces cannot prolong gunfights as protesting crowds around sites of operations swell the longer they last. Trying to avoid killing militants in such situations would result in civilian killings.”

Another police official who has supervised several counterinsurgency operations in recent years, largely agreed. “Material damage is acceptable to all rather than loss of lives on any side,” he said.

He added that the methods used to expedite operations involve tossing improvised explosive devices inside houses or planting them close to a wall to “stun or kill” the holed up militants. Since 2017, after protestors started disrupting operations with increasing frequency, the army has been using flamethrowers as well. The official, however, claimed using explosives and flamethrowers “is not meant to blow up the house entirely. The damage is collateral.”

 

DESTRUCTION:

 

People across Kashmir say security forces are destroying civilian property with increasing frequency. In recent years, almost every gunfight has led to homes being turned to rubble. According to official data in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district alone, at least 105 homes were destroyed during gunfights between 2015 and March 2018.

Eyewitness accounts and videos shared on social media show the security forces setting the houses on fire shortly after tracking down militants. Security officials, however, claim an announcement is always made after a house where militants are hiding is besieged, giving them a chance to surrender.

 

THE SOP:

 

According to the standard operating procedure (SOP), the forces should clear the encounter area from the explosives within 24 hours of the operation. However, the procedure is not followed leading to the killings of children and civilians due to unexploded shells.

A cursory assessment of the situations emerging at encounter sites in the past about two years reflect that the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) provided by the Bureau of Police Research and Development have no adherence on ground at all, thus taking a heavy toll on civilians in Kashmir, particularly in southern areas of the Valley. The BPR&D has laid down 20 instructions to be followed by security agencies operating in Kashmir on levels of use of force for dispersing crowds.

The SOP states that whenever firing is resorted to, direction and warnings to protesters should be announced through loudspeakers while police vehicles should be equipped with loudspeakers. And, it further states that where such arrangement cannot be made, hand megaphones should be kept ready for the announcement.

Police must use “minimum civil force” to disperse the protestors by resorting to lathicharge, water cannons, tear smoke shells and ‘non-lethal’ weapons, the SOP guidelines state.

They also state that the police should not open fire except by orders of the Magistrate and in case of his non-availability, the in-charge officer should exercise extreme caution and discretion regarding the extent and the line of fire, “and effort has to be to direct it below knees of the target.”