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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

HC order puts light on J&K policy of not returning bodies of militants to families

When Athar's father Mushtaq Ahmad Wani demanded the body of his 16-year-old son, a Class 11 student, police booked him under anti-terror laws along with six other persons.

Written by Bashaarat Masood | Srinagar |
May 29, 2022 1:17:08 pm
Having made the quick burial of alleged militants, and denial of their bodies to families, an unsaid policy, the J&K authorities might have to make a retreat in the face of the High Court order. (Representational/ Express Photo: Shuaib Masoodi)

On December 30, 2020, 16-year-old Athar Mushtaq Wani was killed in an alleged gunfight with the Army in Srinagar, along with two other youths. Their families denied claims by the Army and police that all three were militants, and alleged they had been killed in fake encounters. The youth were discreetly buried at Sonamarg, over 100 km from their native villages.

When Athar’s father Mushtaq Ahmad Wani demanded the body of his 16-year-old son, a Class 11 student, police booked him under anti-terror laws along with six other persons.

Friday’s judgment by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court asking the J&K administration to exhume the body of Amir Latief Magrey, a Jammu resident killed during a gunfight in Srinagar in November 2021 and dubbed a militant, to allow his family to bury his body in their native graveyard, in accordance with religious obligations, is significant for many families like Wani’s.

Having made the quick burial of alleged militants, and denial of their bodies to families, an unsaid policy, the J&K authorities might have to make a retreat in the face of the High Court order.

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The court said that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution includes “the right to live with human dignity and decency and would extend to (treating) the dead with respect”. It also questioned police distinction between civilians and militants over handing over of bodies. “It is vehemently contended by the respondents (police) that the decision not to hand over the body of the deceased to the petitioner for performing his last rites, was taken in the larger public interest and to prevent the situation of law and order going out of hand… The respondents have tried to draw distinction by submitting that as per the investigation conducted by the SIT, the deceased son of the petitioner was a confirmed terrorist whereas the other two killed… were only associates of the terrorists. I do not find any logic or sense in the distinction so made by the respondents.”

Amir Magrey, a resident of Gool in Jammu, was killed during a gunfight at Hyderpora along with two civilians and an alleged Pakistani militant. The four slain persons were buried far away from their home in Handwara, till the J&K government, under intense public pressure, exhumed bodies of the two Srinagar residents, Altaf Ahmad Bhat and Dr Mudasir Gul, and handed them to their families for burial in their native graveyards.

It refused to exhume the body of Magrey, saying he was an alleged militant, a claim denied by his family, including his father, a state bravery award winner.

It was during the pandemic that the authorities first started refusing bodies of slain local militants to their families for last rites, saying large public funerals would violate Covid restrictions. The decision was taken after a large crowd assembled for the funeral of a Jaish militant, Sajad Nawab Dar, killed on April 8, 2020, despite Covid curbs.

After that, on several instances, police even refused to hand over bodies of civilians killed during crossfire even as funerals of policemen killed in militant attacks were allowed.

However, adoption of the denial of bodies as a policy, so as to avert large funerals, has been around as an idea for at least seven years.

Police first deployed this in case of killing of foreign militants after an October 2015 incident, when a Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) commander and most wanted militant, Qasim, was killed in a gunfight in south Kashmir. Tens of thousands of people had attended his five back-to-back funeral prayers, with five local boys announcing they were joining militancy during his last rites. After this, the PDP-BJP government led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed decided not to hand over bodies of foreign militants to the local population.

Then, in January 2018, amidst a fresh rise in militancy post the 2016 stone-pelting incidents and police crackdown, the J&K Police’s Criminal Investigation Department wrote a confidential report to then Director General of Police seeking that big funerals of local militants be prevented too.

“The funerals of the killed militants have become a fertile ground for recruitment. The massive gatherings that are being witnessed in funerals of killed local militants post 2016 unrest are a serious concern, which has to be addressed,” read the confidential report. “These gatherings romanticise and give a boost to militancy.”

The confidential report was first reported by The Indian Express.

The proposal that bodies be denied to their families was, however, shot down by then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, heading the PDP-BJP coalition government.

The pandemic, by when J&K was under Central rule as a Union territory, gave the authorities finally a reason to deny the body of local militants to their families. Bodies were not just buried by the forces hastily but also far away from their homes, with only immediate family members allowed to attend their funerals. The government often cited possible law and order problems to deny the bodies. Over the last two years, close to 500 militants have been buried discreetly by police.

On Saturday, Mufti welcomed the court order regarding Magrey’s body, saying: “Unfortunately, our people have to approach courts to get bodies of their children. We get the bodies of our children back because of court directions. What can be more regretful than this? But, still, I am happy that the court has passed the directions for the sake of humanity, and I welcome it.”

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