SHRINAGAR, Kashmir – Tensions in Kashmir rise just days after four people were killed in a raid by Indian security forces, fueling outraged protests over impunity and raising fears that the conflict-torn region could slide into yet another particularly deadly phase.
Indian police said two militants and two businessmen, whom they called “terrorist supporters”, were killed in a police raid on a shopping complex on Monday.
The police initially stated that they were shot by militants, who also killed two businessmen. They later amended this report, stating that the businessmen could have been caught in the crossfire and that it is unclear whose bullets killed them.
Family members of the three victims disputed both versions of events, accusing the police of organizing the shootout. Demanding that the bodies of their relatives be returned to them for proper burial, they joined a demonstration with about two dozen people, which ended violently on Wednesday, when the protesters were taken away by the police, the images were filmed and broadcast over the Internet. across the Kashmir Valley.
“Shoot me terrorists,” shouted Abdul Majid Bhat, the older brother of 45-year-old Mohammad Altaf Bhat, who was identified by police as one of the dead, at one policeman, pointing a pistol at his chest during the protest that was taking place. next to the offices of the largest regional newspapers. “God is watching.”
India’s top official in the Manoj Sinha region said Thursday that his administration had ordered magistrates to investigate the episode. “This will ensure that there is no injustice,” said Mr Sinha. said in tweet, without further details.
Both India and Pakistan have laid claim to Kashmir for decades, and Indian security forces have long fought pro-independence militants in the valley. Tensions rose sharply in 2019 after India, outraged by continued militant attacks, withdrew Kashmir’s partial autonomy and flooded the region with additional forces. Indian security forces have also suppressed dissent and imprisoned many opponents and even some moderates.
When India abolished the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, one of the steps required to suppress the separatists was to refuse permission to bury dead militants or those deemed accomplices in their family cemeteries. Instead, authorities are now burying them further away, close to the controversial line of control separating India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
Police say the decision not to return the bodies is intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus and prevent the funeral from turning into mass gatherings of angry militant supporters. This measure sparked widespread anger and accusations of violating the religious rights of the families of the victims.
During Monday’s clash, police said they had received information about the presence of two militants in the mall and that when they approached the room where the men were hiding, the militants opened fire on them “indiscriminately”.
Police said one of the victims was a Pakistani citizen; India has long accused Pakistan of supporting militant groups in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. While Pakistan has long supported militant groups in the region, Western terrorism experts say support has dwindled in recent years. The insurgents are now largely the work of local Kashmiri militants.
When the clash became known, the relatives of the three victims said it was a staged firefight and demanded that the authorities return the bodies for the final rituals. Senior Kashmiri police officer Vijay Kumar told a news conference that the two businessmen killed in the clash, Mr. Bhat and Dr. Mudasir Gul, were “terrorists’ accomplices.”
Activists and rights groups have long accused Indian forces of killing civilians with impunity because of Indian laws protecting them from prosecution. They said there were sometimes gunfights so that soldiers could earn awards and promotions.
In just the past two years, family members have interrogated at least three shootings, accusing security forces of killing their relatives in staged firefights. Indian officials have denied these allegations.
Militant violence has skyrocketed in recent months, including against Hindu and Sikh civilians. In response, the Indian government said last week that it had sent an additional 2,500 paramilitary soldiers to the region. Kashmir has been one of the most militarized zones in the world for decades, hosting about half a million troops.
Saima Bhat, Mr Bhat’s niece, told the New York Times that her uncle, who owned the mall and was also one of those killed there, was an innocent civilian who was being used as a human shield.
“We do not expect justice,” Ms Bhat said Thursday. “We want the authorities to return his corpse so that the children can see his face for the last time.”