Relatives of Suhail Ahmad Wagay, a 'civilian', who local media say died in a gunbattle between suspected militants and Indian security forces, mourn during his funeral procession at Pinjoora in Kashmir's Shopian district on March 5, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The death of four “civilians” – claimed to be working with militant outfits – has put the spotlight on the 28-year-old conflict in Kashmir. The deaths come at a time when the Supreme Court of India has suspended a police probe into the killing of three other people, in which an Indian Army officer was named as a suspect.

The conflict in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has claimed thousands of lives over the past three decades. The fact that Pakistan-based militant groups continue to operate in the Kashmir Valley has also been globally accepted and led to several militant leaders being designated as “terrorists”.

The four civilians were killed by soldiers from 44 Rashtriya Rifles in the same district where another army unit was accused of killing three others a month ago. An inquiry into the earlier case has been suspended by the Supreme Court, because it named an officer who was not present at the site when the civilians were killed.

The latest killings in the apple-growing region triggered a fresh wave of Valley-wide protests at the onset of spring. But the reaction was muted, unlike after previous incidents.

Privately, residents from the area admit the men killed were connected to armed militant outfits. In fact, one resident noted that the four were traveling in a vehicle with armed militants, and opened fire at a military checkpoint, which set off the encounter. Soldiers retaliated and the four “civilians” were killed.

Multiple official sources confirmed to Asia Times that the military post had been fired upon.

A culture of impunity?

In the last two months, 10 civilians – including two women also claimed to be workers – have been killed in a region known as a hotbed of the new-age militancy in the Pir Panjal ranges. However, the ‘mild’ protests suggest many people knew about the four men’s ties to the militants.

On the evening of March 4, militant Shaid Ahmed Dar and three “civilians” were killed after a brief encounter in Pahloo, about 80km from the summer capital of Srinagar, when insurgents opened fire on an Army Mobile Vehicle Check Post.

In an initial media briefing, Defence spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia said that Dar, a member of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was killed in retaliatory fire, while three ‘workers’ accompanying him were also killed.

However, two more bodies were recovered from nearby areas early next day taking the toll to six dead. They included that of a militant found at an apple orchard 10km from the encounter, indicating he had been wounded and had tried to escape. Bodies of the three civilians were found just 300 meters away.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed concern over the incident and civilians being killed in crossfire. “Deeply distressed by more deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire in Shopian. My heartfelt condolences to the deceased’s families,” she tweeted. She heads a state coalition government with the BJP, which also rules in New Delhi. Mufti has come under flak from constituents for not doing enough to end the spate of killings.

Interestingly, a few hours after her official tweet, the Army at a press conference echoed Mufti’s version that the slain youths were civilians and not workers. “Police are investigating the role of four civilians killed during the exchange of fire between militants and army on Sunday evening at Pahloo. No doubt they were civilians but police are investigating their role with militants,” army officials told reporters.

Communal anger about “civilians” being killed, and calls for a shutdown by separatist leaders, prompted the government to enforce restrictions – shutting down trains, plus mobile and internet services in “volatile areas.” And state Education Minister Altaf Bukhari announced a three-day extension of school vacations for educational institutions that were scheduled to reopen on March 5, after a three-month winter break.

The Army and central government say soldiers at Pahloo fired in self-defense, but the apex court on March 5 put proceedings on hold till a further hearing scheduled for mid-April.

Army chief General Bipin Rawat has said several times he considers Kashmiri protesters as ‘over ground workers’. On February 15 last year, he warned that civilians obstructing military operations would be dealt with as workers employed by “terrorists”. This raised fears of a culture of impunity among security forces, given the Indian justice system has repeatedly failed to address legitimate concerns in Kashmir.

The northern state has been often seen soldiers justify the killing of civilians by labeling them as hired workers. In April 2015, when Muhammad Khalid, brother of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed, the Army defended their action by claiming that he was a “listed worker and not a civilian”. However, there is no law that covers or defines what an “over-ground worker” is.

20 ‘civilians’ killed near clashes last year

At least 20 civilians were killed in Kashmir last year near sites where there were clashes had occurred with officials, when they tried to aid besieged militants.

Among the deceased from last week’s encounter, was Shahid Ahmad Khan, a class 12 student killed on the eve of his 18th birthday. The bereaved family says he left his home to play cricket, only to return dead with bullet wounds in his neck and abdomen. Another deceased was Suhail Khaleel Wagay, 19, a student who used to help his family in their fruit business. A third victim was Gowhar Ahmed, a post-graduate from Nagpur who villagers believe was the only witness of a shootout. He was found dead in a car near the scene of the shooting.

Shopian has borne the brunt of violence during the spike in counter-insurgency operations over the last two months. On January 23, Jana Begum was killed during an encounter in Chittargam. The next day, a gunfight at Chaigund claimed the lives of Shakir Ahmad Mir, a boy, and Saima Wani a woman, who were killed in mysterious circumstances.

Prominent human rights lawyer and social activist Advocate Irfan Hafiz Lone, who visited the bereaved in Shopian, says the Army shouldn’t shy away from a fair trial. “When a First Information Report has been filed, let the probe be allowed to progress to its logical conclusion. If the Army is not guilty, the findings will reflect that accordingly. But revoking a [report] midway in a murder case is essentially against the honorable Supreme Court rulings for places where the Armed Forces Special Power Act is in place, where registration of such cases must be done,” Lone said.

Local civil society groups are also worried by the spate of killings. Muhammad Yasin Khan, a prominent business leader, who heads the Kashmir Economic Alliance, said the government must explain the meaning of ‘over-ground worker’ or it will become an excuse to “massacre all Kashmiris under the garb of this lame plea.”

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