Photo: Habib Naqash/KI
Why is the toll of civilian deaths by ‘stray bullets’ mounting despite an SOP designed specifically to prevent them?
“It is unfortunate that civilian lives are lost during encounters,” remarks Lt Gen HS Panag, former head of the army’s Northern Command, when asked about the death of an eight-year-old girl during a gunfight between militants and government forces at Hayhama in Kupwara district. “Steps must be taken to avoid this,” the former general maintains.
It is not that “steps” haven’t been taken to prevent “collateral deaths” during encounters. A detailed Standard Operating Procedure is in place to avoid, or at least minimise, civilian deaths during counterinsurgency operations. Yet, killings like the Hayhama girl’s are mounting.
Kanzeena Bano (8) daughter of Kushi Muhammad of Kunnrad, Hayhama, in frontier district of Kupwara fell to stray bullets flying around during the gunfight on March 15 or so the police claim. Her brother, Faisal (7), was critically wounded.
Although such killings have been a feature of anti-militancy operations in Kashmir all along, their incidence has seemingly witnessed an upturn in recent times, more specifically since the trend started of ordinary folk gathering at encounter sites and stoning the military to help the trapped militants escape over a year ago.
Since 2016, there have been six cases in which police claimed that killing was because of stray bullet.
The thronging of people to encounter sites started much before the killing of Hizbul Mujahedeen Commander, Burhan Muzzaffar Wani. Police data reveals that disruption in encounters by the people started in November 2015, when people pelted stones and break the cordon in main Pulwama town and two bodies of local militants from Army and Special Operation Group.
In the past year alone, at least half a dozen incidents have been reported of civilians being killed or wounded by, what the police invariably term as, “stray bullets”. In all these cases, though, the families of the victims have disputed the police’s claims, alleging the deaths and injuries were caused by “indiscriminate firing” by the police and the army “during or after encounters”.
Aamir Nazir Wani, (15) died after being shot in the neck during a gunfight at Padgampora in Pulwama district on March 9. He was killed with a stray bullet to his neck, the police has said.
However, it was not immediately clear whether the civilian was killed during protests.
Taja Begum (53) a resident of Matrigam, a village of Shopian, was killed in “crossfire” between government forces and militants at onFebruary 23.
In December 9 2016, three militants and civilian Arif Ahmad Shah (21) were killed during an encounter at Hassanora in Anantnag district.
Raja Begum was tending to her vegetable garden at Langate in Kupwara district on April when she was felled by a “stray bullet” presumably fired at a group of protesters nearly 2 kilometers away.
Shaista Hamid, 21, and Danish Farooq, 20, were killed during or after a gunbattle at Pulwama’s Lilhar village in February last year. Shaista was caught by a bullet in her kitchen garden, far from the encounter site, and Danish was playing cricket in a neighbour’s courtyard. Danish’s family insists that both he and Shaista were felled by army bullets directed at a group of protesters well after the encounter was over.
Why, one might justifiably ask, do so many such incidents take place despite the existence of an SOP specifically designed to prevent them?
Photo: Habib Naqash/KI
The simple answer is that the SOP is hardly followed, if ever. The military is increasingly resorting to “In Hurry Operation” to tackle militants, particularly in South Kashmir.
A serving army officer, who requested not to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to divulge this information, explains why the SOP isn’t followed. “There has occurred a tactical shift in the modus operandi of the militant outfits operating in Kashmir: they are not focusing on targeting camps or other military installations now, they are attacking convoys and patrol. We have changed our strategy accordingly and there’s hardly any time to realign the cordon for an operation when a patrol or convoy gets hit.”
Chiefly, the SOP, prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, mandates the evacuation of the civilian population within about a km of the encounter site, the limit corresponding to the firing range of the weapons mainly used in gunfights – AK-47, which has a range of 300 meters, LMG and INSAS, both of which shoot up to one km.
The SOP also lays down that protesters must be warned before they are fired at, preferably in the presence of a magistrate, and if live ammunition is used, it should be directed “against the most threatening part of the crowd, the aim being kept low on legs”; the firing “should cease the moment it is no longer necessary”.
Since at least January 2016, when senior army and police officials claim their counterinsurgency tactics underwent a shift following the Narendra Modi government’s decision to launch a massive offensive against the militants, there is no evidence the civilian population at any place was evacuated, or any of the other SOP guidelines were followed.
“Mostly we try to execute the intelligence input at night as chances of disruption in operations are less,” the serving army officer says, while alluding to “In Hurry Operations” as another strategy to outwit the stone-throwing protesters. “The trend of people surrounding encounter sites started a year ago,” the officer says. “At least 14 militants managed to escape from 12 encounter sites because huge crowds pelted stones on our operational parties. Our local commanders are now focusing on a more structured approach to deal with this trend in close coordination with the police and paramilitary forces.”
Initially, the crowds descending on encounter sites were relatively small and the forces managed to control them, another senior official says, but lately the protesters are numbering 3,000-4,000, making it quite difficult for the police and the military to control them without using bullets.
Javid Makdoomi, former Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, doesn’t buy this argument. He says the problem is more fundamental: “the J&K police have forgotten policing”. “They have forgotten how to deal with law and order,” he says, adding that there is no “training capsule” to help them deal with such situations. “Carrying out an operation is a dynamic process, not a static one,” he says, explaining the need to continually upgrade the skills of the police forces.
J&K police chief SP Vaid, however, insists the police and the military are “trying to follow the SOP in letter and spirit”. “It is because of the SOP that there is minimum collateral damage,” he adds.
A former Northern Army commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claims that the military doesn’t shoot civilians on purpose, even violent protesters. “From my long experience, I can tell you that wrong things happen in rare cases, done by black sheep in the uniformed forces,” he maintains, recalling that he had punished a major general and a brigadier for doing “wrong things during encounters”. “I made sure that they weren’t promoted. You have to set an example to stop wrong things.”
Still, “stray bullet killings”, intentional are not, are a matter of concern, the retired general points out. “Whenever an innocent is killed, there is naturally more alienation,” he says, adding that “once an operation is launched, during day or night, population segregation is an important factor to avoid collateral damage.”
But the chances of undertaking “population segregation” or following other SOP guidelines have only slimmed after Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat issued a warning recently that civilians “hampering” counterinsurgency operations would be dealt with harshly.