Adherence to SOP: Has Kulgam tragedy made any difference?

  • Abid Bashir
  • Publish Date: Nov 25 2018 10:33AM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Nov 25 2018 10:34AM
Adherence to SOP: Has Kulgam tragedy made any difference?Photo: Mir Waseem/GK

Of late, encounter sites have turned into death traps for people. The Kulgam explosion left a big question mark on the implementation of Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of government forces.

Explosions caused by the littered explosive shells at the encounter sites are nothing new in Kashmir. But the killing of seven civilians at a gun-fight site at Laroo village of Kulgam district on October 21 definitely left some serious lessons to learn for the various security agencies operating in Kashmir.

The Kulgam incident picked up holes in the Standard Operating Procedure being followed by the police, army and the CRPF during the anti-militancy operations and subsequent law and order situation, especially protests at the encounter sites. The protest at the encounter sites pose a challenge for the forces as people, especially youth continue to rush towards the gunfight sites to help the trapped militants. The police claimed that the civilian killings at Kulgam were avoidable. Seven civilians were killed in the blast that occurred in Laroo village after a gunfight in which three Jaish-e-Muhammad militants were killed ended on October 21. Following the civilian killings that drew widespread condemnations, residents of Laroo accused forces of leaving the gunfight site without clearing it of unexploded material.

Locals alleged that the explosion was a deliberate attempt by forces to instil fear among the people who otherwise rush to the encounter sites to help clear the debris of the houses razed to the ground or damaged during the gunfights.

A resident of Laroo village, who identified himself as Abdur Rashid Wani, said that gunfight ended at 10 a.m and they heard a loud blast at 11.30 am. “There is no truth in the forces’ claim that youth entered into the house soon after the encounter. The million dollar question is how can forces violate their SOP that says until the area is sanitized they can’t leave the spot,” Wani said. Abdul Rehman Dar,  a senior citizen from the Laroo village,  also said that they lost seven young boys in the blast while dozens were injured. “Such an explosive material lies with the forces only and not the militants, who only carry a few grenades and a rifle,” said Dar.

Director general of police Dilbag Singh said that forces want to avoid Kulgam-like “incidents.” Singh urged the people to stay away from gunfight sites. “It was an unfortunate incident and we regret it. When an operation is over, there are apprehensions of unexploded explosives at the site and people, especially youth, should avoid going to such places or touch the debris. We have been asking people to avoid such sites,” he said.

Singh said: “We do not want such incidents. We have directed all forces to make sure there is no collateral damage in the operations (against militants) but people should not create such a situation which can lead to loss of innocent lives.”

Talking  exclusively to the Kashmir Ink, additional director general of police (law and order/security), Munir Khan said while commenting on the serious allegations that as to why forces left Laroo gunfight site without sanitising it, said: “There was no violation of SOP in Kulgam.  This has not happened for the first time. But yes, this time, we had a high casualty figure as we lost seven civilians. This all happened because groups of youth entered into the house soon after the bodies of three Jaish militants were retrieved. We have been requesting people time and again not to enter or rush to the encounter sites.”

The ADGP blamed people for not allowing the forces to sanitize the area and the encounter site.  “Frenzied youth entered the house where the encounter had taken place within 30 minutes after forces retrieved the bodies of three Jaish militants,” he said.

A senior police officer, however, said they were “not given a chance by the agitated youth to clear the gunfight site.” He said: “We had just left the spot and the youth entered into the house. This has become their habit in southern Kashmir and yesterday it cost seven lives.”

‘SOP ON PAPERS ONLY’

Chairman International Forum for Justice and Human Rights, Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, has filed a petition before the State Human Rights Commission seeking a thorough investigation into the Kulgam civilian killings and injuries caused to dozens of others.

Earlier in July this year, a copy of SOP followed by the police and other agencies during anti-militancy operations was submitted by the police before the commission.

“There are 11 points which are part of SOP that need to be followed by forces while dealing with crowds. Firstly, no matter how big a protest at a gunfight site is, forces can’t leave the spot without sanitisation,” Untoo said. “While dealing with the protestors, forces have to use persuasion, mediation, negotiation and warning. If that fails, they are supposed to use water cannons, and then the third step is use of tear smoke shells.” Untoo said that if tear-gas shells also fail, forces can resort to cane-charge.

“Fifth option is use of rubber bullets or plastic bullets. If that too fails, forces can use Pump Action Gun which should be fitted with deflectors. The last stage is use of live ammunition. This is what the SOP for forces mentions,” he said.  Untoo said that in Kashmir, “reverse is the case.” The members of the Group of Concerned Citizens (Jammu and Kashmir), which comprises academics, senior civil servants, jurists, journalists and trade union leaders, expressed deep shock over civilian killings at Kulgam district, saying they are aghast at the tragedy. The tragedy raises grave concerns about the “mode and manner of the security forces operation that left seven civilians dead and scores injured”. “The SOPs have been apparently violated, with impunity,” the GCC said in a statement. As per GCC, Kulgam killings raise many questions that remain unanswered and would be unrevealed if a thorough probe into the “brutal and dastardly incident is conducted.”

“We strongly condemn the loss of innocent lives and call for an impartial and time-bound probe into the painful incident at the highest level through credible persons so that those responsible for it are unmasked and dealt with under law. We express our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families.”

Children most vulnerable to unexploded shells:  

The accidents involving unexploded ordnance have always had devastating consequences. In Maloora area on Srinagar outskirts on February 14, 2011, a 14-year-old scrap dealer picked up a live grenade and started hammering it at his home.  Within no time the shell exploded killing the boy identified as Noor Muhammad Bhat and his 11-year-old sister Bisma while inflicting grave injuries to their four-year-old sibling Muskaan, who later succumbed at the hospital.

The unexploded grenade was perhaps left behind five months earlier when two militants were killed barely a few yards from Bhat’s house.  This was perhaps the first incident wherein unexploded shell claimed three lives of the same family, a police officer said. Since then at least 15 incidents took place in which many people, especially children got killed due to littered explosives left behind near sites of gun battles. Such incidents took place in Kulgam, Shopian, Bandipora, Kupwara, Srinagar and Barmulla districts of Kashmir,” a police officer admitted. “Five such incidents were reported from northern Baramulla and Bandipora districts alone.” 

Activists attribute the deadly incidents to “callous sanitisation” of the sites of gun battles that are thronged by people as soon as government forces withdraw at the end of the encounter.

The same has been the case with the now vacated firing range of the army in the vast meadow of Tosmaidan. “Despite the fact that army vacated in 2015, dozens of unexploded shells continue to lie in the upper reaches of the Tosmaidan which continue to pose serious threat to lives,” said Raja Muzafar Bhat, a prominent Right to Information (RTI) activist. A police officer admitted over the past five or six years unexploded shells have taken a toll on little children who rush to encounter sites and find live grenades and play with mistaking it as toys. “The fault lies with the sanitisation. Forces don’t clean up the area where encounter takes place, with the result children or the house owner whose house gets damaged becomes the primary target,” said Bhat.

In its 2015 report, Kashmir’s independent rights group, Coalition of Civil Society (CCS) states that the armed forces and police were not paying any heed to the concerns expressed by the people and human rights group time and again over the littered explosions, which are turning playing fields into death traps.

“Mostly children died in the explosives scattered, unchecked,” the report reads. Police officers admit that sanitising the house or the area where a gun fight takes place is its responsibility, but say “the problem is that we don’t get time to clear the gun fight site in southern Kashmir.” “In Srinagar, we erected banners after the encounters were over that displayed message—don’t come closer, area under sanitization,” a police officer said. “The problem lies in south Kashmir, where people rush towards encounter sites soon after gunfight is over.”

Officials say police also repeatedly appealed the people of south Kashmir to allow forces to clean up the sites of encounters.

Defence spokesman in Srinagar, Colonel Rajesh Kalia said that the endeavour of army always remains to properly sanitise the encounter sites after firing stops.  “However, due to law and order situations, which sometimes take place in south Kashmir areas, some pockets of the encounter sites may remain un-cleaned,” he admitted. “We appeal to the people whenever they find any suspicious thing near the gun fight site or while clearing the debris of the house where encounter takes place, they should not touch it and instead mark the area and immediately inform the closest army unit so that the live shell is diffused without any loss of life or the loss of limb.”

A LESSON LEARNT: 

Soon after the recent gunfight ended at Soothu-Kothair on Nowgam outskirts in Srinagar on October 24 with the killing of two Hizbul Mujahideen militants including the research scholar-turned militant Sabzar Ahmed Sofi, the police and the CRPF didn’t leave the encounter spot without clearing the site. Additional director general of police, law and order/security Munir Khan said a banner was also erected displaying a message—‘don’t come closer, area being sanitized’. “We don’t want Kulgam like unfortunate incidents to repeat. The loss of seven civilians at Kulgam encounter site was very unfortunate. But people should also cooperate with us and not risk their lives,” Khan told the Kashmir Ink.