Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have exhumed the bodies of two civilians and returned them to their families who claim Indian troops used them as human shields and executed them “in cold blood” during a gunfight earlier this week.
Police earlier said the two men – Altaf Ahmad Bhat, 48, and Mudasir Gul, 40 – died in the crossfire when government forces on Monday attacked suspected rebels at a shopping complex in Srinagar, the disputed region’s main city.
Witnesses and families of the civilians and one suspected rebel have denied the police’s version of events, saying they were deliberately killed by Indian troops while being used as human shields amid a standoff.
Police said the rebels included a Pakistani citizen, but offered no evidence. They also described one of the civilians as an “overground worker,” a term Indian authorities use for rebel sympathisers and their civilian supporters.
Authorities later secretly buried all of the victims without their relatives in attendance in a remote northwestern village in Kupwara district, 80km (50 miles) away from Srinagar.
Following widespread public outrage, the bodies of Bhat, a trader, and Gul, a dental surgeon and real estate dealer, were exhumed on Thursday in the presence of government officials and a team of doctors and handed over to the families for burial.
Family members said authorities asked them to bury the two late on Thursday with only close relatives and immediate neighbours watching, fearing the funerals could turn into anti-India protests.
Kashmir’s separatists are organising a shutdown of businesses and public transportation on Friday in the region to protest the killings.
‘Five children orphaned in two families’
On Thursday night, emotional scenes were witnessed at the funeral of the two civilians.
“The situation is such that we do not ask for justice anymore,” Bhat’s neighbour Wani, who participated in the funeral, told Al Jazeera.
“We just ask for our dead bodies to be returned so that we can fulfil their last rites with dignity,” said Wani, who did not want to be identified by his full name.
“They kill civilians and label them anything they want because they enjoy impunity. Five children have been orphaned in the two families. Where else do you see such oppression?”
At the house of Gul, who police claimed was a “top-rank terror associate”, his family expressed shock and grief.
“We don’t know how to comprehend our loss and all the labels that have been given to our doctor son,” one of his relatives told Al Jazeera.
“We want the police to apologise to us, for our loss and for the links they have associated our son to. We don’t want his children to live with it. Tomorrow, his wife, his children should not suffer for the tag that was given to him falsely.”
A photo of Gul’s seven-year-old son, Kabir, carrying a banner that read: “Return my baba dead body,” was widely shared on social media.
The authorities have not yet given any clarification on the body of a third person, Amir Magray, who police accused of being a rebel. Magray’s family has rejected the police’s claims, explaining he worked as an office assistant at Gul’s office.
The exhumation of bodies came after police detained and later released more than a dozen relatives of the civilians who were killed during a day-long sit-in on Wednesday in Srinagar. The families had been demanding that authorities return the bodies so they could be buried in local graveyards.
As outrage intensified, the government ordered an investigation into the police raid on Thursday.
Manoj Sinha, New Delhi’s top administrator in the region, said the investigation into the killings will be led by a senior civilian officer and the “government will take suitable action as soon as the report is submitted in a time-bound manner”.
He added that his administration “will ensure there is no injustice”.
Over the last two years, authorities have buried the bodies of hundreds of suspected rebels and their alleged associates, including civilians, in unmarked graves in remote areas, denying their families proper funerals.
Authorities have said the policy is aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus and avoiding unrest during funerals.
The policy has added to widespread anti-India anger and some human rights groups have fiercely criticised it as a violation of religious rights. Rights groups also have said that investigations into the killings rarely result in prosecutions and are often aimed at calming public anger.
“These probes in the past have never resulted in providing justice to the aggrieved. It helps the state in buying time and tiring the families,” said Parvez Imroz, a prominent rights lawyer who heads the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
Kashmiris have for years accused Indian troops of attacking civilians and committing abuses with impunity.
Such allegations include staging gunfights and then saying the innocent victims were rebels so that Indian troops can later claim rewards and promotions.
Indian officials acknowledge the problem but deny abuses are part of a strategy. They have also said the allegations are mostly separatist propaganda meant to demonise troops.
“The probes, if done honestly, may only help to know the truth but not establish justice,” said Imroz.
Both India and Pakistan claim the Himalayan territory of Kashmir in its entirety. Rebels in the Indian-administered portion of the region have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989.
India insists the Kashmir rebellion is Pakistan-sponsored “terrorism”. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.