People gather in front of the house which was damaged by government forces during a gun battle in Srinagar on October 24, 2018. Photo: AFP/Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency
People gather in front of the house which was damaged by government forces during a gun battle in Srinagar on October 24, 2018. Photo: AFP/Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency

The Indian government said it regretted the deaths of seven innocent civilians during a clash with militants in Kashmir on October 21 and announced a Rs 500,000 (US$6,816) compensation payment to the next of kin of each of those killed.

The seven civilians were killed and more than 50 were wounded when a bomb exploded after a gunfight between authorities and militants in Laroo village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, about 70 kilometers from Srinagar. Three militants from the Jaish-e-Muhammad extremist group were also killed.

The civilian deaths triggered massive protests and separatist leaders called for a shutdown. The civilians killed were aged between 15 and 26, two were schoolchildren and two college students. Most of the wounded now undergoing medical treatment in hospitals in the summer capital of Srinagar, were also in the same age group.

Kulgam villagers accused state police of deliberately letting civilians venture into the area where live shells were scattered on the ground “to instill fear.” One group of angry locals told Asia Times that the gunfight finished at 10:00am, but the explosion happened at 11:30am.

Venturing into a ‘minefield’

They said the Indian Army, which was leading the joint operation against the militants with state police, had left immediately after the gunfight, but protests were going on in nearby areas.

“Police left the spot and didn’t stop us from venturing into a ‘minefield’,” said one of the wounded, who was being treated in SMHS Hospital in Srinagar.

“They could restrict our movement during the encounter, so why wasn’t the same done till the site was sanitized. It was deliberate on their part so that the aftermath instills fear among us.”

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who finished a day trip to the valley on Tuesday, expressed his heartfelt condolences to the families of those killed and asked people not to venture close to sites where encounters took place. However, he refrained from calling for a probe into the incident where government forces have been accused by some of what they described as criminal negligence that led to the bloodbath.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police have been accused by some of criminal negligence by not adhering to what’s known as Standard Operating Procedures, or SOP, with many saying people were “deliberately allowed to venture into a minefield.”

The International Forum for Justice and Human Rights, a local rights group, has asked the State Human Rights Commission to launch a probe into the civilian deaths in Kulgam.

Meanwhile, in another gunfight on the outskirts of Srinagar on Wednesday morning, militants Sabzar Sofi, a scholar with a PhD, and Asif Ahmad Gojri, both residents of Anantnag, were killed. Soon after the gunfight, the government issued an advisory asking people not to venture close to the site.

Officials said that according to the SOP, it was the responsibility of the police to keep people away from the three-story house where the gunfight took place. But police say locals forced their way in.

Director General of Police Dilbag Singh said police want to avoid Kulgam-like “incidents,” but added that “people should also avoid creating such situations which may put them in harm’s way.”

Singh told the media: “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.”

Up to 120 dead, and counting

About 120 civilians have been killed near the sites of armed clashes since January last year when the first such incident was reported. According to police records, 106 civilians were killed at sites where there had been armed clashes in the first 18 months, while 78 were killed in 2017.

The army has been accused of opening fire on civilians in most of the cases, but troops enjoy impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which prevents the registration of police cases to probe such allegations.

In 2017, Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat warned of tough action against anyone hampering counter-insurgency operations. Within days, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued an advisory asking the public to stay away from encounter sites.

The government imposed prohibitory orders in a radius of three kilometers around the site of clashes between security forces and militants.

Army Chief General Rawat also said civilians who throw stones during counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir would be treated as anti-national and Islamists and dealt with accordingly. “Those who obstruct our operations during encounters and aren’t supportive will be treated as over-ground workers of terrorists,” General Rawat said.

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