Week after encounter in J&K's Pulwama, death of civilians continues to evoke rage; no clarity on whether SOPs were followed

Shots rang out early in the morning in Sirnoo. That was the clarion call for villagers to descend on the apple orchard as security men — according to local residents, mostly army personnel — found themselves stuck on a narrow road, their huge armoured vehicles unable to turn around.

Residents of various villages in the Pulwama district, some from as far as 10 kilometers, kept pouring in the entire morning. Inevitably, chaos erupted as the stuck soldiers came under stone-pelting from three sides. When the chaos subsided in the nondescript village, seven civilians, an army soldier, and three jihadists lay dead.

It was the death of seven civilians, the highest in a single gunfight in recent years, that triggered widespread anger and was condemned widely, with both sides following the same drill. The separatists called a strike and a symbolic protest march to the army cantonment in Srinagar while the administration resorted to blocking internet in the Valley and restricting people’s movement in Srinagar. Elsewhere, there was talk of “following the SOPs”.

A week after the gunfight, there is little clarity on what happened on the ground and whether standard operating procedures were followed. The account of the events of the police and locals of 15 December is at variance. The army, which according to local accounts, had largely handled the operation, has said little after its first statement.

 Week after encounter in J&Ks Pulwama, death of civilians continues to evoke rage; no clarity on whether SOPs were followed

Indian army personnel at the site of the encounter in Sirnoo village of Pulwama. Image sourced by Sameer Yasir.

A tale of two cordons

That Saturday, 15 December, according to security sources, two cordons were laid out simultaneously in the vicinity of Sirnoo. One of the cordons that ended inconclusively was jointly conducted by the army and the police. The other cordon was conducted in the orchards of Sirnoo.

In the wee hours of 15 December, between 1 am and 4 am, residents of Monghama village, half a kilometre from the site of the gunfight, said that they noticed the movement of troops towards Sirnoo where the narrow metalled road ends. Local residents say the movement was largely that of soldiers of the Indian Army and spotted one white rakshak. According to police records, the army unit was the local 55 Rashtriya Rifles.

The narrow road passing through Monghama ends in an orchard from where a beaten path leads to the poultry farm. According to local residents, the soldiers first searched the poultry farm and upon their return stumbled upon the militant hideout, a pit dug in the earth.

At 7.45 am, the sounds of gunfire were heard from the orchard that continued for barely 15 minutes. “The [three] mujahids were martyred that very moment,” said Yusuf Najar, a resident of Monghama, whose son was among the seven slain civilians. According to the police, one army soldier is also believed to have been killed in this brief exchange of fire.

As word of the gunfight spread in the district, youth began moving towards Sirnoo. According to police records, contact with the jihadists was reported to the district police by 8 am, following which district police officials reached the site of gunfight at around 8:40 am. In the meanwhile reinforcements of police, including those from the other cordon, and paramilitary CRPF also rushed to Sirnoo.

According to police officials, the operation at Sirnoo continued further as visual contact could not be made with the body of the third jihadist and the firing continued under the presumption that he was still alive. Explosives was also used to push anyone alive out of the hideout.

The security forces in the armored vehicles, estimated to be more than 30, that had lined up at the site of the gunfight found themselves stuck on the narrow road with no scope to retreat, and under attack by a mob of civilians carrying sticks and stones. Had police vehicles been able to reach the site, some police officials observed, they could have "absorbed" most of the stone pelting and "possibly without casualties".

According to local residents, the firing continued till 11.30 am, by when most the security personnel had evacuated from the area. According to police records, 17-year-old Liyaquat Dar — who was among the seven civilians who were killed — was in Parigam village, some ten kilometers away, at 9.12 am. Dar reached Monghama village by 9.36 am.

According to the police, Dar regularly participated in stone-pelting mobs attempting to resist security forces’s operations against jihadists. The same, police officials claimed, was the case for most of the seven slain civilians. Only one among them was a local resident.

‘Generations will remember’

Three videos showing civilians running amok near the site of the gunfight have gone viral in Kashmir since the gunfight. One of the videos, 35 seconds long, showed dozens of pheran-clad youth attacking two white bulletproof security forces’ vehicles – called Rakshaks, mainly used by the police and paramilitary CRPF – with sticks and stones at close range.

Towards the end of the video, a gunshot is heard and a young man who had approached the vehicle from its side is seen falling to the ground. The time when the video was recorded, however, could not be verified.

“While the operation was going on, a crowd which came dangerously close from different parts to the encounter site got injured,” the police said in a statement on 15 December. “The injured were evacuated to hospital where, unfortunately, seven persons succumbed to their injuries.”

Despite a video of the killing of one civilian, senior police officials refused to comment on whether the civilians were killed in crossfire or security forces' action. The army condoled the deaths in its statement, offering no explanation of the circumstances under which they were killed, except that it happened during the gunfight.

In the Monghama village, four days after the incident, the tin sheet fence of Yusuf Najar’s modest house in the Monghama village was adorned with a new plaque, written on an A4 sized sheet, announced it to be the house of “Shaheed (martyr)" Shahbaz Yusuf Najar.

18-year-old Owais Najar was known as Shahbaz. He was shot in the head, according to his father, Yusuf Najar. Owais had ventured out with a glass of water after Suhail Ahmad was shot just outside his house just moments before and had cried for help. “Is there no Muslim here?,” Yusuf Najar remembers hearing.

Local residents in Moghamma said the soldiers, who were on foot, were visibly panicked and opened “indiscriminate fire” as soon as they saw civilians gathered in the village. “Anyone who stood up or raised his head was shot at,” said a neighbour of the Najar’s, requesting anonymity. “There were bullets flying all around us. They fired at anyone who was standing.”

According to Najar, the soldiers chased youth and opened fire at them from inside civilian properties. Amir Paul was five hundred meters away when, according to Najar, he was shot from his courtyard. “They were paranoid that people will attack them,” said Najar. Local residents rued that security forces could have instead used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

After the incident, various statements of the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, equating stone-pelting civilians with “terrorists” and justifying their killing repeated on loop on certain national television channels have again sparked anger among Kashmiris. “They hate Kashmiri Muslims,” a mourner at Najar’s residence said, referring to the Indian Army. “This pain will be remembered by generations, we won’t forget.”

Updated Date: Dec 23, 2018 17:23:00 IST