How the killings of three Kashmiri youths, who were first killed by the Indian security forces and then declared militants, were tied to the dark reality of 'fake encounters' in Kashmir.
"Why are you scared of returning the dead to their kin?" asked a young Sikh protester to a group of journalists who on Monday morning had gathered to cover a protest in India-administered Kashmir's capital city Srinagar.
The protest was led by a 42-year-old fruit merchant named Mushtaq Ahmad Wani. For the past five days, he has been making desperate appeals to the government of India for his son Ather's body to be returned to him for a proper burial.
Ather was gunned down by Indian security forces in what the government called an "encounter" along with two of his "associates" in the outskirts of Srinagar on December 30 2020.
The incident quickly triggered suspicion of a "fake encounter". A senior Kashmiri politician cast doubts over the government's version of the killings, asking "the authorities to come clean on this" since the Indian army was recently found guilty of abducting three labourers and orchestrating a fake gunfight in which all the three victims were shot dead and named as terrorists in official press statements.
Soon after killing 16-year-old Ather and two other men, Aijaz Ahmad Ganai and Zubair Ahmad Lone, both of whom were in their early 20s, the Indian police called in their families to identify the bodies before they were whisked away to far off mountains for discreet burials.
Refusing the bodies of militants to their kin has been the Indian government's policy since early May 2020. Until that point, Kashmiri militants were buried by their family members either in "martyr graveyards" or their ancestral cemeteries.
The Indian government defends this policy, citing coronavirus restrictions. But it's not just the fear of the pandemic that's behind the secret burials of militants. It's also the prospect of a militant funeral attracting large crowds.
"Their (militants') priority in funerals was to emotionally blackmail people and to motivate them so that they could recruit more people in the terrorists ranks," said Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dil Bag Singh.
Ather's village, Below, a tiny hamlet rimmed with apple orchards in south Kashmir, has turned sombre after hearing the news of his killing. Ever since, flocks of mourners continue to show up at his house. The family has erected a tent on the lawns of their house to host them.
Addressing visitors on December 31, a day after the killing, Ather's uncle Mohammad Shafi described his nephew’s last moments at his house.
December 29 was just a normal day for the family. Shafi, who runs a grocery shop in the village, said that Ather brought him morning tea in a thermos, a normal habit for them. About an hour later, he said, Ather told him that he was going to get his trousers altered at his maternal grandparents home, which was a few minutes walk from his house.
By 1 pm, he was back home and had lunch with the family. Around 2pm, he left again. Since there was nothing odd about Ather's demeanour that day, the family didn't bother asking him where he was going, nor did he inform them about it.
Ather had had a normal childhood, although like every other Kashmiri child, he grew up amid the uncertainties of the Kashmir conflict. He was punctual for school every day and liked to drive his father's car and fiddle with his iPhone. Like any impressionable teenager, he liked to workout in the gym and often shared photographs on social media, flaunting his trendy clothes and muscular physique.
“He was a pampered child. We would give him anything he asked for,” his father Wani told TRT World.
By 5.30 pm on December 29, the news of a gunbattle between the Indian army and three militants broke in Kashmir. The fighting, according to the police, took place in the outskirts of Srinagar, about 40 kilometres away from Wani's home in Pulwama.
The following morning at around 11 am, Wani received a phone call from the local police, asking him to send them a photograph of Ather via WhatsApp. As he did that, he was asked to reach the police headquarters in Srinagar city.
A couple of hours later, Wani arrived and was taken to a room. Almost immediately, he was asked to identify a body on a stretcher. His world turned upside down. It was Ather, lying dead, manifesting several gaping bullet holes.
The police told him that Ather and his two associates were militants associated with an anti-India rebel group named The Resistance Front (TRF). The three bodies were taken around 80 kilometres away to a mountainous terrain for the burial.
Never seen a more heartbreaking graffiti from #Kashmir. #ReturnTheBodies pic.twitter.com/gFp1NfqGG3— Irfan Mehraj (@IrfanMeraj) January 4, 2021
Two hours before news of the encounter broke, Ather rang his sister Zarka at 3.30 in the afternoon. He told her he was in Pulwama town, about 10 kilometres from his village, and that he might spend the night at a friend's house and may not be able to call again since his phone was low on battery.
How did he end up 40 kilometres away with two other men, one of whom was a total stranger to him, according to the family? And why couldn't he charge his phone if he really was at his friend's place? Was he forced to call his sister under duress and say those words to her? These are some of the questions the family has been asking since Ather was declared dead and identified as a militant by the police.
#Kashmiris are politically despised, dehumanized, their pain mocked over and over again. Here is a father seeking the body of his dead teenage son. Refusing to release dead bodies after a fake encounter is an age old tactic in #Kashmir. This is heartbreaking. https://t.co/3nZj2wTqWE— Ashwaq Masoodi (@ashwaqM) January 4, 2021
Aijaz Ahmed Ganai was one of the two men killed alongside Ather. The duo knew each other because Ather was a classmate of Aijaz's brother Tajamul, who lived in a nearby village. Both Ather and Aijaz's families say they have never heard of the third person named Zubair Ahmed Lone, who was killed with them. Lone lived about 15 kilometres away from Ather's house.
Aijaz, according to his family, called his mother at about the same time Ather made the call to his sister, and told her he would return home the next morning.
Aijaz's father, Mohammad Maqbool Ganai, has repeatedly told reporters that his son left home on the morning of December 29 to "submit an examination form" at a college in Srinagar city.
Ganai, who serves as a constable in the police, says Aijaz had been incapactiated for a month recovering from a lower back injury.
“How can he become a militant when he was bed ridden for over a month?” Ganai told journalists.
The family of the third youth, Zubair, say they also called him on December 29 to learn his whereabouts.
“We called his phone in the evening but it was switched off,” said Zubair's father, Ghulam Mohammad Lone. “It was unusual of him to stay out for a night and switch his phone off. We were worried the entire night and kept calling him.”
Zubair was the youngest of five siblings, all male. He was a construction worker. Two of his brothers work in the local police.
Although none of the three youths were listed in the police's record for active militants in the region, the police maintained that a government-run counterinsurgency unit, along with the Indian army, had received a "tip off" from their informers that Ather, Aijaz and Zubair were hiding in a house in the suburbs of Srinagar.
The regional police head, Dilbagh Singh, said he has no reason to suspect the army's stance on the killings but still the police have decided to investigate the incident.
Without specifying names, another police statement said two of them were “hardcore associates of terrorists” and that the third one “might have joined [militant ranks] very recently.”
"Pertinently, one of the two is relative of top HM commander Rayees Kachroo who was killed in 2017," the statement said, adding that the security forces gave "ample opportunity" to the three youths to "surrender" but they refused to do so and "instead fired and lobbed grenades on search party".
The police also claimed that Kashmiri families are often unaware about the choices their children make.
In the past three decades, human rights organisations have repeatedly urged the Indian government to allow independent authorities to investigate the cases of extrajudicial killings and fake encounters, but India has almost always rebuffed such demands saying the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir is an "internal matter" for the country and its institutions are well-equipped to probe allegations of human rights abuse in an impartial manner.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Indian security forces have "long operated with impunity in Kashmir" as they are shielded by a law named Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows an Indian soldier to shoot anyone on mere suspicion.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, has slammed the Indian government on several occasions for not doing enough to end the culture of impunity and lack of accountability. She recently called an investigation into the killing of three labourers in a staged gunfight "a meaningless" exercise.
As the families of Ather, Aijaz and Zubair seek justice from the same system, the valley of Kashmir has been subdued by heavy snowfall. All the roads of Srinagar are cut off, so is the main highway that connects Kashmir with the rest of India. The snow has forced the aggrieved families to stay indoors, suspending their quest to bury their kin in their ancestral graveyards.