Kakapora: An examination of the ‘encounter’ that took place in Astan Mohalla in Kakapora area (around 20-odd km from Srinagar) of Pulwama on Thursday, and how it was reported in the media, highlights how easily misinformation about what actually happened and how it was splayed across pages and TV screens can pass off as facts.
What was reported, on the whole, was that there was a prolonged ‘fierce’ encounter following inputs about the presence of militants in the area; that while one militant was killed, some others were still holed up inside a house; then the news that Indian forces had blasted the house and another dead militant was perhaps buried under the rubble. Then, of course, came the news that no body was found under the debris and perhaps some militants had managed to escape.
The three overwhelming facts, attested to by every local — and the family members of the killed militant, Talib Ahmad Shah, who was a local boy — these reporters spoke to, are that there was actually no encounter; that houses were blasted by Indian forces without any real information on militants hiding inside, and that family members quoted in reports had simply not spoken to the media.
According to locals, Talib was killed right at the start, by some of the very first bullets that were fired by Indian forces after they laid a cordon around the area. There was, they attest, no real exchange of gunfire, certainly not a ‘fierce’ encounter, like when militants and Indian forces often engage each other for hours. Talib, they say, was gunned down near a mobile tower quite close to his family home, while he was probably trying to escape.
The cordon began at around 2:30pm on Thursday, the shots were fired soon thereafter and, say locals, the houses were blasted at around 6:30 pm. And inmates aver they were given no warning whatsoever prior to the blasts. Neither the Indian forces nor the locals had any knowledge if there were any militants hiding in the primary target of the blasts – a bakery unit cum residence. Locals even on Friday, after Talib’s funeral was over, confessed they just didn’t know if any militants were hiding in the structure and had managed to escape. Indian forces, thus, seem to have blasted the houses on mere suspicion and sans any warning to residents.
Later, while speaking to these reporters, Talib’s family stressed that accounts from his mother, quoted in the press, on why he joined militant ranks were wrong, and that she had not spoken to the media. The story, in fact, they provided on Talib illustrates other emergent trends in Kashmir.
A journey from protest to gun
“Talib,” says a close family member, while the killed LeT militant’s father Shamsuddin Shah, 56, puffs on a hookah almost absentmindedly, sitting on the small patch of rough grass just inside the front gate of the family home, “was passionate about Kashmir’s freedom. But he wanted to achieve that freedom through peaceful means. Yes, he was part of protests, was often booked for stone-pelting, had around 16 FIRs registered against him and was also detained under the PSA. He was also the person who hoisted the green flag at Lal Chowk during the huge rally in 2008. He was arrested under the PSA in 2008 and then again in 2010.”
“He was someone deeply involved in reading and writing,” continues the close relative, around 27 years of age, as the women wailed inside the house, “he has an unpublished book on the Gaw Kadal massacre, and apart from completing an MPEd degree from an institute of physical education in Chennai in 2010, also finished an MA in history from IGNOU, as well as going through ITI training.”
“But he was harassed by the police. A lot. There were FIRs lodged against him when he was not even in the state! Being arrested, interrogated, and the general milieu began to make Talib feel freedom could not be gained through his preferred, peaceful, means. So, he picked up the gun around a year and a half ago.”
“I haven’t seen him since,” interjects his father, “but since he joined militant ranks, the army would frequently come to our home – maybe around 10-15 times since then. His brother too was detained many times, and taken to Cargo (the largest and infamous interrogation centre of the Kashmir Police’s dreaded counter-insurgency wing, the SOG). His cousin too has been under arrest for four months now, and was lodged in the Central jail, but without a challan – since the police have no case or proof against him and merely accuse him of aiding militants. The cousin has also, in contravention of rules, now been custodially shifted to Laripora, Pulwama.”
“Talib met me around 2-3 days ago,” continues the close relative, “just for a few minutes, and asked for some honey. I didn’t know where he was, or if he was still around in the area. The forces say he was coming to meet his family when they killed him; would he do so during the day?” he asks. “I would say he was a good Islamic scholar,” he continues, “had the jazba (passion), but was not allowed to struggle for freedom peacefully. And, yes, there are too many mukhbirs (forces’ informants) around.”
In the melee and chaos that ensued during the ‘encounter’ and blasting of a building in Astan Mohalla, an old lady, Fazi wife of Lasse Sofi, spent the night alone in a dilapidated house, right behind the building that was blown up. Seemingly frail and lost in thoughts, she awakens to a sharp sense of humour and courage. “Am just a year younger than you,” she replied to this reporter when asked her age.
Her daughter-in-law, Rashida, had stepped out on hearing the first shots, “An army man told me to go inside or I would be shot,” she says. With three children aged 8, and 10 and a 17-year old daughter, Rashida says the safety of the latter was what drove her to rush out of the house, leaving Fazi behind.
Fazi, however, seems unfazed by the whole incident. “Yes, the army men were all around, but I am not afraid. My heart is with me, what else do I need? she says, with a toothless grin.