Indian-administered Kashmir—On the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2021, a narrow lane covered with a huge layer of snow—and the muddy foot imprints of Kashmiri mourners—formed a track leading to the door of Mushtaq Ahmad Wani’s house. Dozens of long boots dotted its entrance.
Inside the house, a young Kashmiri woman held a samovar containing hot pinkish tea—noon-chai—and poured it into white small cups. Two Kashmiri men in their early 20s who wore long dull-colored pheran, a traditional Kashmiri dress, served the tea to the mourners, who had come to express their condolences to Mushtaq over the killing of his only son, 16-year-old Athar Ashraf Wani.
The teen was killed two weeks earlier on the highway that connects Srinagar, the capital city of Indian-administered Kashmir, to the northern and southern parts of the region. The Indian Army had laid a cordon for a search operation in the area, to seek out armed rebel fighters. A gun battle between the army and armed fighters started the night of Dec. 29 and continued into the morning. By the end of it, Athar and his two comrades—25-year-old Zubair Ahmad Lone and 22-year-old Aijaz Maqbool Ganai—were dead. Jammu and Kashmir police said that two of the three were “radically inclined” and belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terror group now called The Resistance Front.
A top officer of the Army, Major General HS Sahi, claimed immediately after the gun battle that the three young rebels had plans to carry out a “big strike,” and that they had turned down repeated surrender offers during the encounter.
The past year has been a deadly one in the mountainous region of Indian-administered Kashmir after Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special autonomous status in mid-2019. Indian armed forces have killed some 225 armed fighters in more than 100 gun battles in 2020, mostly fought in southern parts of the region, according to Jammu and Kashmir police. But several of these gun battles have raised doubts and uncontrolled anger among Kashmiris, who say the Indian authorities are targeting regular citizens under the guise of counter-terrorism operations.
There have been some fatal missteps by the army, which are just now coming to light. On July 18, the Indian army claimed to have killed three unidentified armed fighters in an orchard of southern Kashmir’s Shopian. A few days later, however, when the photographs of the dead fighters went viral on social media, families from Rajouri—located about 200 miles away from the orchard—claimed that the trio killed were their kin, who worked in the area as laborers and not fighters.
Later, the Indian army admitted that “army personnel exceeded powers vested in them under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) during July 18th’s gun battle.”
During the investigation into the trio’s deaths, Jammu and Kashmir police conducted DNA sampling of the slain, which matched to the families in Rajouri. The three bodies were exhumed from Gantamulla village, located about 41 miles from the capital city. The village houses one of the graveyards where armed fighters are now buried after the Indian government presented a new policy in April 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, under which their bodies are not given to families for last rites.
Experts have opposed this practice: “Public health justification is a pretext to deny these dead militants a proper funeral. Authorities likely worry that large funerals will turn into anti-India rallies that inspire future attacks. There’s certainly something to say for the security risks of such events,” says Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia.
A senior army officer was eventually arrested in the trio’s killings, alongside two of his local sources. The police charge sheet claims the accused army officer had hatched a conspiracy to grab a reward of $27,242 for the killings. (The Indian army, by contrast, claims there is no system of cash rewards for its personnel for any acts in combat situations or otherwise in the line of duty.)
Kashmiris and human rights activists have long accused Indian armed forces of targeting innocent civilians and labeling them with the term “terrorists” to claim bounties and to win promotions through the army ranks.
Ever since the Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status, Indian authorities have been trying their best to crush what they claim is “terrorism” in the Muslim-majority region.
The region is no stranger to terror attacks. On Feb. 14, 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a suicide bomber at Lethpora in southern Kashmir. The attack resulted in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and the attacker. Since then, suspected armed fighters have taken to lobbing grenades on Indian armed forces, which have resulted in casualties, including civilian deaths.
Kugelman says that there is a lot of domestic pressure on India now to show its ability to counter terrorism. “By staging acts like these [the killings of the laborers], they can claim credit for counterterrorism successes, even if they're rooted in a lie,” he said.
Athar’s family and the families of Zubair and Aijaz claim their sons’ deaths are also a case of mistaken identity, and that they were not armed fighters but civilians. Their killings have set off more protests in the region against Indian authorities. Meanwhile, the families have demanded a special investigation into the killings and asked authorities to either prove their sons were rebel fighters or return their bodies. Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Kashmir, has also called for an investigation into the deaths, which sparked a massive protest over social media, with #ReturnTheBodies trending on Twitter.
On the morning after his son’s death, Mushtaq—still unaware that his child had died—was driving his Hyundai i20 towards his house in Bellow village, which is located about 27 miles from the capital city.
When he reached his house, Mushtaq saw that neighbors and other villagers had gathered on his lawn. They had learned about Athar’s killing via social media soon after the shootout with the army.
Mushtaq was called by a police official and asked to identify his son’s body at the Police Control Room in Srinagar, where all the bodies of killed armed fighters are kept for identification.
When Mushtaq, along with his relatives, arrived at the Police Control Room to identify his son, an enormous crowd had already assembled, along with the families of Zubair and Aijaz, who claimed their sons were “at home till last evening and [were] innocently killed in a fake gun battle.”
Mushtaq was allowed to enter the Police Control Room, and to see his son lying dead on a trolley. The Jammu and Kashmir police then threw Athar’s dead body in an armored police vehicle with a thud, alongside the two corpses of his comrades, Mushtaq said.
Mushtaq said he couldn’t bear to see his son’s body being treated in such a way and he broke down with emotion as the compound’s gate shut after the armored vehicle, which headed off towards an unknown destination where the three boys would be buried.
He chased after the vehicle. “I didn’t know what they were going to do with my son’s body. They are tyrants; they could have thrown it to animals or in the water or bury him under the snow,” he said.
The journey to the grave was a difficult one; the road was situated in the middle of mountains in central Kashmir’s Sonamarg region, covered with snow and army checkpoints. Mushtaq and his family—his mother, his wife, his elder brother and his little daughter—managed to reach the cemetery after passing through several security checkpoints.
The police had dug three rough graves with a bulldozer for Aijaz, Zubair, and Athar.
As the dead bodies lying on the floor of the armored vehicle were pulled down for burial, Mushtaq thought about how this was the last time he’d see his son. The temperature had plummeted below freezing with the chilly wind wafting. By the time he tried to see Athar’s face at the graveside, daylight had already faded.
Mushtaq and his brother shouldered the dead body from the vehicle towards the grave. They rested and turned on the flashlight of their cell phones to see him. “I took off my pheran and cleaned his face. There were bruises on his wrists and two bullet marks on his chest,” Mushtaq said.
Two years earlier, in December 2018, Athar had participated in the last rites of a fellow villager in Bellow, Suhail Ahmad—a protester who had been shot and killed by the army along with six other protesters during clashes amid a gunfight in southern Kashmir. At Suhail’s last rites, hundreds had gathered—but for Athar’s burial, only a few were able to participate in his last rites.
Mushtaq and the other families whose sons were killed hope to get their bodies back from the army, sooner or later, to rebury them in their ancestral graveyards and perform the proper last rites, at a real funeral. In the meantime, Mushtaq has dug an empty grave in his ancestral graveyard for his son as a mark of protest.
“I will wait till his return and bury his body near me—in our village,” he said. “How can I stay quiet when my half-body is under the snow?”