Since July 2020, India has been grappling with a spate of stories that reveal a disturbing pattern: Indian soldiers staging fake gun battles to kill random Kashmiri men, collect prize money, and then bury the bodies in swelling mass graves. Kashmiri journalists have used this kill-for-cash scandal to compare Kashmir to an ATM machine that delivers money to Indian soldiers.
“I want my son’s body,” the father, Mushtaq wani, howled, standing inside a half-dug grave, without a body to bury. “I ask India to return my son’s dead body to me.”
For most readers reading this line in the Washington Times of Jan. 7, 2021, the story could be from Iraq. Or Syria.
But the world has changed and now such stories come from India too.
Good stories from India are now making way for gory stories from India. It’s India’s story, in a way: the story of India’s transition from an example for developing nations to a cautionary tale; an example of what not to become, and who not to elect.
Several stories have emerged in Kashmiri and Indian media on cases of Indian soldiers staging fake gun battles in exchange for benefits.
This is the latest turn in India’s story of never-ending troubles in Kashmir since 2016, when in July that year Indian army killed Burhan Wani, a charismatic student-turned-militant. His extrajudicial murder after capture (note: India says he was killed in a gun battle) ignited unprecedented turmoil that nearly spun Kashmir out of Indian army’s control. Turmoil lasted five years, and spawned the longest modern-day curfews and lockdowns in modern history, forcing the United Nations and global media to sit up and take notice.
Good stories from India are now making way for gory stories. This is also the story of India’s transition from an example for developing nations to a cautionary tale.
Teenager’s Empty Grave
On Jan. 7, 2021, the Associated Press (AP) ran a story titled, In Kashmir, Empty Grave For Teenager Killed By Indian Forces. Filed by AP’s three reporters on the ground, the story thoughtfully conveyed the angst of the father Mushtaq Ahmad Wani and the mother Rafiqa Banoo over not being able to bury the body of their only son, 16-year-old Athar Ashraf Wani.
Not only was he killed by the Indian Army in shady circumstances, but his body was taken away to be shoveled into one of the more than two-thousand unmarked mass graves that dot Kashmir’s picturesque landscape.
Indian authorities in Kashmir provided this version of the teenager’s death to the AP:
“(G)overnment forces fatally shot Ahmed’s 16-year-old son, Athar Mushtaq, and two other young men (25-year-old Zubair Ahmad Lone and 22-year-old Aijaz Maqbool Ganai) when the men refused to surrender on the outskirts of Srinagar city on Dec. 30. They described the men as “hardcore associates of terrorists” opposed to Indian rule.”
But Athar’s parents say he was not a militant or terrorist, and that he was killed so that Indian army officers could clinch promotions and collect financial rewards. Moreover, there is no evidence if Athar died in a gun battle, as the Indian military says, because his body was not shown to anyone and there is no public record of an autopsy. Athar’s sister, Zarqa, was photographed by the AP showing an 11th grade examination slip for her brother as evidence he was studying and not involved in armed resistance.
But there is a strong reason why the version of events given by Indian authorities in Kashmir cannot be taken as credible without a transparent probe. Just a few weeks before Athar’s killing, embarrassing information emerged about how an Indian army officer staged the murder of three poor Kashmiri laborers in July 2020 and collected a handsome money bounty. Kashmiris have every reason to suspect a similar scenario to have played out with Athar and his two friends.
Meet ‘Captain Kill-For-Cash’
225 armed fighters have been killed in more than a 100 gun-battles in 2020, according to figures released by the Indian administration in Kashmir.
“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,” said a report published in the Daily Beast, in January 2021.
In one incident, an Indian army captain collected over twenty-seven thousand US dollars and some change ($27,000+) for killing three Kashmiri men after staging a gunfight, complete with costumes and props. This was the infamous Rajouri-Shopian case of July 2020 that involved Captain Bhoopendra Singh. He used the alias Major Basheer Khan in Kashmir.
Indian police charged Capt. Singh and his two accomplices of “purposefully projecting false information” in a criminal conspiracy with the motive of receiving Indian rupees 2,000,000 (two million) in prize money “earmarked for genuine information,” according to the Indian Express, a daily newspaper published from Mumbai.
The paper provided a colorful description of how Capt. Singh and his two accomplices executed the plot:
“On July 18 — the day of killing, the two accused “reported at the Army Camp Reshinagri in his (Lone’s) car, an ALTO bearing Registration No. JK22B 3365; from there they accompanied Captain Bhoopendra Singh in another white colour private car.”
The “incriminating material” which the Army initially claimed was found on the person of the three deceased — who were then termed “unidentified militants” — included two pistols with two magazines and four empty pistol cartridges, 15 live cartridges and 15 empty cartridges of an AK series weapon.
The accused planted the “illegally acquired illegal weapons and material on their dead bodies after stripping them off their identities associated with their non-involvement, tagging them as hardcore terrorists, the chargesheet said.
According to the chargesheet, the three accused drove to Chowgam Shopian, where the Rajouri youth lived in a rented room. The place of their residence was less than 100 meters from the 62 RR camp and about 20 meters across the road from the residence of the co-accused Tabish Nazir.
The chargesheet stated they “abducted three persons” — Abrar Khan, Abrar Ahmed and Imtiaz, all belonging to Rajouri — “from their rented accommodation in a residential house using the same car and transported them to the scene of occurrence at Amshipora while also travelling a distance on foot.”
A Captain in the Indian army killed three Kashmiri laborers, staged a gun battle, and collected $27,000 in prize money. His case led to separate police and military investigations.
Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan, who has reported for Qatar’s Aljazeera, the US-based The Intercept, and the UK-based The Guardian, traveled to the site of the crime, filmed a video, and uploaded it to his Twitter handle @aakashhassan. [Here is the link to a Pakistani OSINT expert’s take into the incident before the additional information surfaced].
Gabrielle Reyes, writing for the US-based Breitbart News Network, painted a chilling picture of where the army buried the bodies and how the families identified them:
“The army buried the men’s bodies in a remote border area following the alleged skirmish. The incident occurred in the village of Amshipora in southern Kashmir, administered by India and claimed by Pakistan.
The men’s families later identified them after photos of their bodies reportedly circulated on social media. The families, from the remote mountain area of Rajouri, said the three men had been looking for work in Kashmir’s apple orchards when they disappeared. Police exhumed the men’s bodies in September and matched DNA samples to the men’s reported identities, confirming them as Ibrar Ahmed, 16, Imtiyaz Ahmed, 25, and Ibrar Ahmed, 20, according to the Print. The police then returned the men’s bodies to their families.”
But where do the bodies from these staged gunfights go? The answer to this question is another brewing scandal for the Indian Army and government. A key reason for why this story is one that is common to tinpot dictatorships but unexpected from a sizeable democracy.
India’s Unmarked Mass Graves
The responsibility for mass graves in Indian-administered Kashmir rests with India, according to the overall message from the June 2018 report released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is one of two landmark reports by OHCHR that make a case for an international investigation into Indian human rights violations in Kashmir, including historic and recent cases. There is little doubt inside and outside Kashmir that officers of the Indian Army and accomplices in the civilian administration are behind these unmarked graves and that they mostly contain bodies of Kashmiri men.
Both the United Nations and the European Parliament have confirmed the existence of thousands of unmarked mass graves in Kashmir.
In 2008, the European Parliament passed its “resolution of 10 July 2008 on allegations of mass graves in Indian-administered Kashmir,” and asked India to ensure independent and impartial investigation into mass graves in the disputed region.
In 2011, the Jammu & Kashmir State Human Rights Commission announced that 2,730 unidentified bodies were buried in 38 sites across northern Kashmir. It directed the Indian authorities to investigate the mass graves and initiate legal proceedings within six months. [At the time, Indian officials described the Commission as an independent state body with some judicial powers. But in 2019, India permanently dissolved the Commission along with ending Kashmir’s status as a legal entity].
In 2011, the state-run human rights commission asked Indian authorities in Kashmir to investigate at least 2,080 unmarked mass graves, a figure way below the 3,844 unmarked graves that the independent Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) said existed, according to a report by Aljazeera. [The following is the breakup of the 3,844 unmarked graves — 2,717 in Poonch and 1,127 in Rajouri, twin districts in the region that lie along Line of Control (LoC) that divides the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, according to the same report].
The OHCHR reports of 2018 and 2019 provided a factual and detailed documentation into the question of unmarked graves in Kashmir. It also was the first time that the narrative on Kashmir mass graves was endorsed and accepted internationally and made part of the UN record.
“If India will not take any genuine and immediate steps to resolve the situation … then the international community should step up.” — 18 UN-appointed experts in a letter to the Government of India, August 2020.
In April 2020, the Indian administration in Kashmir came up with a novel idea: to bury the bodies of Kashmiris killed by the Indian army — like the teenaged Athar — in unmarked mass graves. The pretext used to justify this measure was that the killed individuals were were militants and that their funerals would attract crowds and accelerate the pandemic. To be fair, India denies there is such an order but some Indian media outlets have reported the story. No solace for Athar’s father, who has dug a grave for his son in the hope Indian authorities will return his son’s body someday for proper burial.
In July 2020, in a letter addressed to the Indian government, at least nine UN experts asked New Delhi to reconsider the closure of Kashmir’s State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), and raised concerns on unmarked graves.
“We urge [India]…and local authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to undertake prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all alleged enforced disappearances…and take measures to identify the remains in each of the thousands of unmarked graves,” said the letter, which was posted to the government on July 1, 2020, but only made public by the UN two months later.
In August 2020, sixteen UN-appointed experts jointly signed a letter to the Government of India, describing the human rights situation in Kashmir as “alarming,” and hinting at an international intervention if India fails to act: “If India will not take any genuine and immediate steps to resolve the situation, meet their obligations to investigate historic and recent cases of human rights violations and prevent future violations, then the international community should step up.”
The author is a journalist who covers national security and human rights. He tweets @_AhmedQuraishi