“Used as human shield,” accuse family of Kashmiri killed in police gunfight

House of Altaf Ahmad Bhat: Ishfaq Reshi

In a newly constructed house situated along the banks of rivulet Doodganga in Srinagar, a young woman is spoon-feeding a girl with a handful of womenfolk encircling her.

“Mujsai khaya nahi jata, mujai baba ko dakhna ha. I can’t eat, I want to see baba,” the girl replied inconsolably.

On Monday, security forces killed two suspected militants, and two civilians including her father – Altaf Ahmad Bhat – a businessman, and a doctor claiming they were “militant sympathizers” but their families saying they were innocent and were murdered in a “staged gunfight”.

“My father was innocent. He was not a militant. He was a civilian…He was afraid of security forces. Wherever there used to be any untoward incident outside, he would stay indoors and ask chachu [uncle] to check what is happening outside,” daughter of Altaf, who is in her 8th grades at IMI, said in a murmuring voice.

“I want to ask the army, how did my father become a militant within hours? Where did he get weapons and join militancy? Where did he get himself trained in hours?” she told Maktoob at her home.

While the gunfight has left a trial of questions behind, the eyewitness accused police of putting their lives at risk by using the duo as “human shields”.

The J&K Police have set up a Special Investigations Team (SIT) to probe the shootout after it raised a hue and cry on social media.

The SIT will be headed by a Deputy Inspector General of Police and it will probe the events that led to the encounter, Kumar said.

Earlier, reports said that a shootout took place in Srinagar’s Hyderpora locality on Monday, at around 6:30 pm, when a joint team of police, Army and paramilitary forces laid a cordon around a shopping complex following inputs on the presence of militants there.

Relatives of Altaf breaks down while narrating the incident. Photo: Ishfaq Reshi

In the ensuing firing, two suspected militants including a foreigner were killed – identified as Haider, a Pakistani national, while another reportedly hails from Jammu’s Banihal area. Two civilians – Mohammad Altaf Bhat, the owner of the shopping complex, where the shootout took place, a resident of Barzulla and Dr Mudasir Gul, a trained dental surgeon whose laptop repairing shop was housed in the complex – were also killed in the firing.

The bodies were buried miles away from their homes in Sonmarag, their families said.

Kumar in a statement said that Altaf was killed in “cross-fire” while Dr Mudasir, a resident of Kanipora Nowgam was working as an associate of militants, a charge denied by his family who staged a protest demonstration at Srinagar’s Press Enclave on Tuesday morning and accused the security forces of killing him in “cold blood”.

“He was a doctor by profession, not a terrorist. What crime had he committed? Why was he murdered like this?” said a relative of Dr Mudasir – who is survived by parents, wife and 10-year-old daughter.

Kumar, however, claimed that Dr Mudasir had provided his rented space to the foreign militant, Haider, who was using it as a “hi-tech hideout.” The IG also claimed to have recovered some arms, mobile phones and several computers from the hideout.“He [Mudasir] was harbouring militants and helped them in moving from one place to another. He also helped Haider escape from the site of a recent attack in Srinagar in which a policeman was injured,” the IGP said.

‘Staged encounter’

An eyewitness while talking to Maktoob said at around 5 pm in the evening, a group of policemen had arrived at the spot and began to probe about Amir Ahmad – who was also killed during the firing.

“Everyone told them that he used to work at Mudasir Gul’s office, located inside the shopping complex owned by Altaf Ahmad Bhat,” he said.

Another eyewitness, wishing not to be named said, “I saw cops calling Amir back while he was approaching towards hospital some 30 meters away”.

Shopping complex where the encounter took place. Photo: Ishfaq Reshi

Assembled inside a motorcycle showroom, we were kept caged and let go home after the encounter ended late in the evening, he said adding we were asked to hand over our mobile phones immediately. The police said they would pump bullets inside us if we failed to comply,” a relative of Altaf told Maktoob.

“Both Altaf and Gul were with us but police later asked Altaf and Mudasir to assist them to carry out searches in the building,” he further said adding that they returned back later normally. “Then they were called again. They [forces] asked them to accompany them again. That is when some gunshots were heard from inside the complex,” he said.

“Had there been militants hiding inside the shopping complex would security forces have assembled right outside. They would have taken their positions instead,” Abdul Majid Bhat, brother of Altaf asked adding they knew there were no militants hiding inside. This was all staged drama…a film in making”. 

“This was a fake encounter. We want the world to talk about it because they will kill more people in fake encounters in the future,” Majeed said.

Bhat’s and Gul’s family has requested the governor to return their bodies for last rites.

“We want justice and fair investigation. If the police can prove that he had connections with militants, I am ready to face the gallows as well. He was handicapped….unable to move as a normal person does. How will I face his orphans and widow now,”? asked Bhat.

‘Who will provide justice’?

Altaf, who lives on the banks of rivulet Doodganga in Barzulla, merely a kilometre away from the spot is survived by wife and three children, including two daughters.

“I talked to Papa an hour before he was shot dead. I told him to bring a pair of gloves for me. He nodded to my request. I was waiting till late evening but he didn’t return anymore,” the younger daughter of Altaf, who is in her 7th standard told Maktoob.

“My brother is in Class 2. He was very attached to our father. What will we tell him? My mother is unable to stand on her feet. What was my father’s crime?” she said, accusing the police of using Altaf as a “human shield” during the search operation.

“We do hope for justice but then the question is who will do them justice? If they [Police] would provide CCTV footage of the encounter and put the sequence of events before the public, we would believe – otherwise these probes become mock trials,” Majid said.

Widespread outrage

Both the Hurriyat as well as regional parties such as Peoples Democratic Party, CPI(M) and Peoples Conference have demanded an “independent probe” into the circumstances that led to the killing of two civilians.

Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said the encounter underscores the “silence of international community and civil society in India in the face of acute violation of human rights by the state, has made the life of people living in Kashmir hell.”

“What makes this tragedy of impunity provided to the forces in J&K all the more heart wrenching, is that the family has since yesterday been pleading and protesting on the roads that at least the dead body of their loved one be returned to them for burial, which the authorities have ceased (sic),” he said in a statement.

CPI(M) general secretary M.Y. Tarigami said that the families of the civilians have been claiming that they are innocent and they have no connections with unlawful organisations.

“Under the garb of upholding the law, it seems the administration is abusing the law. A judicial inquiry must be ordered so that these families get answers to what happened to their loved ones,” he said.

“Using innocent civilians as human shields, getting them killed in cross-firing and then conveniently labelling them as OGWs is part of GOIs rulebook now. Imperative that a credible judicial enquiry is done to bring out the truth & put an end to this rampant culture of impunity,” PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said in a tweet.

National Conference’s Omar Abdullah tweeted, “An impartial & credible inquiry into the recent encounter in #Hyderpora is an absolute necessity. There are far too many questions being raised about the encounter & about the people killed. There have been numerous instances of fake encounters in the past and the questions raised about this #hyderporaencounter need to be answered swiftly & in a credible manner.”

Peoples Conference president Sajad Lone tweeted: “In the midst of conflicting claims in the Hyderpora encounter the least we deserve is a transparent description of what happened by a neutral institution. This is neither the first time nor the last time. Manoj Sinha- you have the opportunity to assert that human lives matter.”