Katrasu (Kashmir): Before the day’s first sunrays started reflecting off the neighbourhood’s pale Chinar leaves, Katrasu village was overrun by teams of army, police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.
Many of the villagers had stayed awake through Tuesday night. Some even hadn’t had their dinner. There was an unusual silence during the night in the hamlet, ringed by apple orchards and paddy fields, after what had transpired in the evening.
It was around 7.10pm. The mosque loudspeakers were abuzz with azaan – call for prayers – and the village market was shut. Basheer-ul-Sarkar went to fetch dinner from the house of Ghulam Rasool, in whose apple orchard he and his six colleagues were working during the day. Before Sarkar could leave, there was a sound of gunshots; Rasool’s family asked him to stay in.
Within half an hour, a large number of security personnel spilled into the area. Rasool’s family learnt that five associates of Sarkar had been killed allegedly by terrorists.
“Everyone in the village was shocked,” said Abdul Salam, the lambardar (land revenue head) of the village. “The bodies were in a pool of blood. They had multiple wounds.”
Sarkar and his colleagues who had been coming to Kashmir from West Bengal regularly for around 12 years for work, were staying at a rented accommodation in the small market of the village.
During the day, these labourers, while working, were also collecting apples for home. They had planned to leave for their home state on Wednesday morning.
“The gunmen barged inside the room and took them out forcibly,” a police officer present at the scene during the search operation told News18, wishing not to be identified. “They made them walk around 150 metres along the road and then a few meters inside an alley where they were shot.”
Five among them died on the spot. A sixth was found critically wounded and was taken to hospital.
Sarkar was lucky to remain unhurt.
Tuesday’s incident is the biggest attack allegedly by terrorists on non-locals in the Kashmir valley since August 5 — the day the central government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, and divided the state into two union territories. There have been a clutch of similar attacks since October 14, when gunmen killed a truck driver in Shirmal area of south Kashmir’s Shopian district and set ablaze the apple-laden truck he was driving.
Within 48 hours, suspected jihadis killed a brick-kiln worker, Chhattisgarh native SK Sagar, in a Pulwama village. Hours later, two apple traders were shot at in a Shopian village. One among them, identified as Charanjeet Singh from Punjab, died at the spot and his associate was grievously wounded.
These attacks earlier appeared to be only targeting truckers ferrying apples from Kashmir. Jihadi groups had already issued threats to traders and apple growers, asking them not to do any work as a protest against the Centre’s Article 370 move.
Later on October 24, two truckers were killed and their apple-laden vehicles were set ablaze after gunmen fired on them indiscriminately in Chitargam village of south Kashmir’s Shopian. This incident prompted police to ask the non-local truckers to leave from the area due to the increasing safety concerns.
On Monday evening, another truck driver was killed in a similar manner in Bijbehara area of Anantnag district.
Tuesday’s attack was the sixth, with about a dozen deaths in all.
“It appears that terrorists had tried to kidnap these labourers. Then, maybe their plan changed and they shot them,” said a CRPF personnel who was at the spot. “Otherwise, the gunmen could have shot them in the room and would not have taken risk to move them around.”
The forces also believe that not just a single jihadi group is behind these attacks. “It appears that all these groups are acting in coordination and are behind these killing. These things are happening at the behest of Pakistan,” the CRPF officer told News18.
Before August 5, Kashmir was rife with rumours that “something big was in the offing” due to the additional deployment of forces and communication clampdown that created disquiet among the masses. At that time, Riyaz Naikoo, commander of the largest jihadi group operating in the valley, Hizbul Mujahideen, had warned that in case “something big happens”, his men would start targeting even non-Kashmiri civilians.
“The non-locals who are in Kashmir will become our legitimate targets,” Naikoo had said in an audio message which was spread on the internet.
No jihadi group has yet claimed responsibility for these attacks but officers in the police and army believe that terrorists are behind these killings.
“The primary investigations have revealed that militants are killing the non-locals. We have even identified some local militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen who are doing this with the support of foreign militants,” said a top police officer in Srinagar.
All those killed in Tuesday’s attack were from the same village in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. They were in their early to mid-thirties, said police officers.
“They were working here since many years and we knew them very well. It is unbelievable that they were killed in such a brutal way the night before they were to leave for home,” said local resident Basheer Ahmad.
Those killed had two more colleagues who were supposed to meet them in the morning and then they would have left for Bengal together. But when Sarkar and Abubakar Sheikh came to the village, they were stunned to learn about the attack.
“How will I go to my home? What will I tell them? They will ask me why did they die and I survived,” said Sheikh, his hands and face trembling. With a bag hanging from his shoulder, he wailed in the village tri-junction where forces had gathered and were investigating the incident.
“We always felt safe in the village. We would work here and stay nicely with people. Everyone here used to treat us well,” Sheikh told News18. “We had never thought that someone would be baying for our blood.”
After August 5, when the situation in Kashmir turned tense, most of the non-local labourers left the valley. But some returned. Those gunned down and their colleagues had also gone home, but decided to return 20 days ago.
“We thought things were getting better here. But after working for some days we decided to go back. There wasn’t much work,” said Sheikh.
The dawn for which they were waiting to leave for their home arrived, but it brought with it doom and gloom.
“We would always come as part of the same group but this time only two of us are returning,” Sheikh said.
Security forces have already arrested around eight people from the village in the nocturnal raids and are investigating the killings. Locals also alleged that the personnel took the cellphone numbers of the villagers, including of the womenfolk.
In the morning, the army asked the men of the village to come out. Announcements were made on the mosque loudspeakers, like it used to happen in the 1990s when militancy had erupted on a large scale in Kashmir, said locals. The army would gather people at a particular place and then search for militants.
The locals say they were paraded, and asked to head towards the nearest army camp, but the plan was cancelled later.
“Kashmir situation is taking a new turn. We have been without internet for over 80 days. There is the clampdown and now these attacks have only made the situation worse,” said a local college student. “The days to come, at least for us here in south Kashmir, are unlikely to get better.”