By Putting Civilians In Harm’s Way To Get To Militants, Army Violates Laws To Which India Is A Signatory

15 Dec 2021 12 min read  Share

A doctor, a baker and a businessman were used as protection by the Indian Army in recent anti-militancy operations, bringing back the question of using civilians as ‘human shields’ in Kashmir. They were all killed in the crossfire and their bodies were secretly buried far away from their homes, adding fuel to an already raging fire of discontent in the valley. We track five cases where civilians were deliberately put at risk, violating the Geneva Conventions to which India is a signatory.

The grave of Mudasir Gull, a doctor who was killed on 15 November in Hyderpora, Srinagar/PHOTOGRAPHS BY HAZIQ QADRI

Srinagar: It was past midnight on 17 October 2018 when Shakeela Akthar, a resident of Srinagar's old city, heard a knock at the door. It was the police. “They said they had to search the house,” she said. 

They took the male members of the family to a separate room for questioning and asked them if they had “guests", Akhtar told Article 14. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police refer to militants who take refuge in homes as mehmaan or “guest”. 

The Akhtars own two houses, adjacent to each other in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal. The police suspected that the militants were hiding in one of the houses. As the stressful night passed, Akhtar’s husband Habibullah's health deteriorated and was rushed to a hospital. Their elder son, Mudasir Habib accompanied his father, while their younger son, Rayees Habib, stayed back to answer police questions. 

Rayees, then 34, was a postgraduate and was managing a bakery, which was on the ground floor of the house where police suspected the militants to be hiding.

Around 6:15 am, the police asked Rayees to go to the attic alone to check if there were militants, said Akhtar. Armed personnel, who were holding shields, followed a few feet behind him. “But, Rayees was their human shield,” she said.


That night, the police killed Mehraj U Din Bangroo and Faid Mushtaq Waza, militants said to be affiliated with the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, during the firefight at Akhtar’s house. 

The police later said Rayees was killed during the exchange of fire between security forces and militants. “Rayees was tortured as well,” alleged Akhtar. “The last time we saw him that night, he was limping.”

No one in the house knew that the militants were using their house as a hideout, according to Akhtar. 

If the police had information about the presence of militants, why did they use my brother as a human shield, said Habib, who dropped out of a PhD programme to take care of the family business after his brother’s death. 

A firefight in Srinagar’s Hyderpora on 15 November, in which three civilians were allegedly used as ‘human shields’, brought back troubling memories of Akhtar’s dead son to the family. 

The police said four men killed in the Hyderpora shootout were militants but the families of Altaf Ahmad Bhat, doctor-turned businessman Mudasir Gul, and his helper Aamir Lateef Magray, alleged that the gunfight was staged and those killed were civilians. 

In the Hyderpora incident, according to the police version, Bhat and Gul were taken to the encounter site to accompany a police search unit. 

In at least six recent cases documented by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS)—a Srinagar-based advocacy that is barely functional after government raids and the arrest of a key campaigner—families accused the armed forces of involving their kin in anti-militant operations or using them as shields against stone throwers. 

Militants in Kashmir have also been accused of using civilians as a shield during firefights. 

In March 2019, militants were holed up in a house in Bandipora that was the target of the Indian forces. While the family escaped, militants took 12-year-old Atif and his uncle hostage. Atif was killed during the firefight and his charred body was recovered.

What The Law Says

The Geneva Conventions, to which India is a signatory, forbid the use of human shields, specifically to achieve military objectives. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court declares the use of human shields as a “war crime”.

“The deliberate use of a ‘human shield’ is prohibited under humanitarian law and is also a war crime,” Aman, who goes by one name and is an associate professor at the Jindal Global Law School, told Article14. “It's a very unambiguous prohibition.”

The security forces don't adhere to international law, said Sheikh Showkat, PhD, a Srinagar-based scholar of human rights and international law. “They do not even admit to using human shields,” he said. “They just say they were seeking help from civilians.”

“Using human shields during an armed conflict is against Article 21 of the constitution of India that guarantees a person the right to life and Liberty,” said Habeeb Iqbal, a human rights lawyer in Kashmir. 

Legal experts said that Standard Operating Procedures during armed conflict dictate that the evacuation of civilians from areas of violence has to be the top priority. 

Aman said that barring some areas near the Line of Control, India does not see the situation in J&K as a situation of an armed conflict, where the Geneva Conventions and other rules of humanitarian law could apply—and that it continues to call it a law and order problem. 

“Such framing, while incorrect, is convenient for the State,” said Aman.  

The use of human shields further increases the mistrust and lack of confidence and creates a dynamic that is beyond rules, said Federico Jasrat, an associate professor of public international law at the Jindal Global Law School. 

Since August 2019, when New Delhi brought J&K under direct rule, the already alienated population in Kashmir feels further aggrieved. “I have no doubts this [use of civilians in anti-militancy operations] might be the cause of further mistrust,” said Jasrat. 

Other ‘Human Shields’ In Kashmir

Late at night on 8 November, Shabir (name changed) was watching something on his laptop at his home in a Srinagar suburb when he heard a knock at the gate. 

Before he opened it, he said, police and soldiers jumped over the wall and began searching. “Then they came inside and directed all the female members to stay in one room,” Shabir told Article 14.

Shabir said he was asked to move ahead of the police and army and take them into different rooms of the house. “I was on the stairs when I realised they were taking positions [with their weapons] behind me,” he said.

After they searched the entire house, Shabir said he was asked to accompany them to other houses in the neighbourhood. 

“At first I thought I would just have to wake up the families, but when they asked me to go inside the houses first to check, I realised I was being used as a ‘human shield’,” said Shabir.

He said he was taken to at least four more houses in the neighbourhood, where he was asked to keep ahead of the forces while they took their positions behind him as if they were ready to shoot at the slightest hint.

“It was scary,” said Shabir. He was allowed to go after the search operation ended.

Not all civilians are as fortunate in hostile situations. 

In its 2019 annual report on the Human Rights situation, the JKCCS details how a civilian was killed during an anti-militant operation in a Pulwama village, 27 km south of Srinagar.

On 17 February 2019, security forces cordoned off Pulwama's Pinglina village to conduct a search operation. They had information about hiding militants, they told the villagers. 

A civilian, Mushtaq Ahmad, was taken by the forces to accompany them for search operations. While Mushtaq was with them, a gunfight ensued between the security forces and the militants. In the morning, it was learnt that Mushtaq was killed. 

In April 2017, a shawl weaver named Farooq Ahmad Dar, who had just voted in an election which saw the lowest turnout in electoral history, was beaten, tied to an army jeep and driven through 28 villages. The army tied Dar to the jeep to use him as a shield against stone-throwers in central Kashmir's Budgam district.

A piece of paper pinned to his chest read: “This is the fate that will befall stone-throwers.” 

An investigation was ordered into the incident. But months later, Major Leetul Gogoi, the army officer responsible for using Dar as a human shield, was awarded the chief of army staff’s commendation card.

Six years later, Dar is forced to keep his past a secret from his wife and lives in constant fear. 

Hyderpora Encounter: What Eyewitnesses Saw

In the Hyderpora incident, the police initially claimed they had killed two militants and their two associates. But the families of the victims claim they were civilians and used as human shields. 

Article 14 spoke to at least three eyewitnesses who saw Bhat, Gul and Amir in the location of  the gunfight. All three eyewitnesses said the security forces took Bhat thrice into the building. Gul accompanied him on the third time, but never returned. 

One of the eyewitnesses said around 5 pm on 15 November, he saw the security forces frisking the shopkeepers and other civilians near the building where the gunfight would take place. The police took all the civilians to an adjacent Royal Enfield showroom and kept them there till late in the night, when the operation ended.


The third eyewitness said he saw Bhat and Gul in the Royal Enfield showroom. He corroborated that Bhat was taken to accompany the search party thrice and that Gul accompanied him the last time. 

All the eyewitnesses said they heard shrieks from the building soon after Bhat and Gul were taken inside. “Then there were gunshots,” one of them said.

"If they were over ground workers (OGWs), as the army claims, then they should have been arrested,” a former commanding officer of the army’s Northern Command told Article 14, speaking on condition that he remain anonymous. “Why should you get civilians involved in an encounter with the terrorists, even if they were OGWs?” 

Aman said that the principle of distinction under humanitarian law mandates that when “you're shooting at a civilian, that person should be someone directly participating in hostility. For example, you cannot be shooting someone alleged to be providing logistical support to combatants.”

“While there have been misguided attempts to expand who is directly participating in hostilities in cases of terrorism—you still cannot shoot civilians left, right and centre," said Aman.


Families Seek Justice

Gul’s brother, Reyan Muzammil, told Article 14 that his brother was “a hardworking person” who was trying to establish his business. "The police branded him a militant’s associate, but we want them to admit he was innocent,” he said. 

Bhat’s family members said they want a judicial enquiry into the case and want the perpetrators to be booked. “We want justice,” said a sibling of Bhat. “We want the police officials involved in the murder of Bhat and Dr Gul punished.” 

Bhat's family rubbished the police claim that Bhat had ties with militants.

In Fateh Kadal, Rayees' family said they resonated with the feelings of families of Bhat and Gul. “Kashmir is the only place where such a crime by India goes unnoticed,” asked Habib. “International bodies and human rights watchdogs should interfere and ask India why civilians are used as human shields in Kashmir." 

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Article 14 that security forces have to take care to always protect people from harm. “There are concerns, instead, that civilians may have been put in harm’s way during security operations,” Ganguly said.

Indian Army’s Response

In February this year, the army met Kashmiri youth at the Town Hall in Pulwama. A young man asked Major General Rashim Bali why the Indian army used civilians as ‘human shields’ during military operations.

Maj Gen Bali said the army did not use civilians as a human shield but as “cover”. 

“When we enter the house, the presence of this civilian is a cover so that no one can accuse us of stealing anything or misbehaving with mothers and sisters,” said Maj Gen Bali. Placing the blame on the militants, he added that “if he (militant) is a good person, he should come out and not cause any collateral damage”.

While there is no absolute rule that says you cannot carry out military operations in civilian areas, the army should take precautions to separate civilians and military targets, said Aman. 

“One should respect the principle of proportionality, which prohibits launching attacks that would result in excessive loss and injury to the ‘collateral,’” said Aman. 

Denying Mortal Remains

After the gunfight in Hyderpora ended, the police took all the dead bodies to a graveyard in north Kashmir’s Handwara, 71 km north of Srinagar, denying the families burial rights. The denial of mortal remains was in line with the police strategy to curb mass funerals of militants and civilians killed in police firing.

However, the families of Bhat, Gul and Magray staged a sit-in at Press Enclave in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, demanding the mortal remains and the right to perform the last rites as per Islamic rituals. 

According to the Geneva Conventions, the bodies of those killed in combat must be returned to their families. The denial of bodies to the families of civilians or suspected militants or their alleged associates amounts to further violation of international law. 

The funerals of militants or the civilians killed in security forces’ firing would attract huge crowds and would sometimes turn into protests. 

“Militants earlier used to gather large crowds and their priority in funerals was to emotionally blackmail people and to motivate them so that they could recruit more men in militant ranks,” said J&K director general of police Dilbag Singh on 1 November 2020. 

Citing similar reasons, the police initially denied the bodies of Bhat and Mudasir to their families. After much criticism and protests, the police exhumed the bodies on 18 November and handed them over to the families. 

“We were asked to bury them quietly and warned against any law and order situation,” said Gul’s brother. “We buried my brother quietly in the dead of the night.”

Bhat’s family also said they were asked to bury his mortal remains quickly and without attracting a crowd. The police did not hand over Magray’s body to his family because they accused him of being associated with militants. 

Probing Civilian Deaths
After the politicians and human rights groups raised questions over the Hyderpora encounter and the civilian killings, lieutenant-governor (L-G) Manoj Sinha-led administration ordered a “time-bound” magisterial probe by an additional district magistrate (ADM) in the Hyderpora shootout. 

“The authorities know everything,” a close relative of Bhat told Article 14. “This magisterial probe is just hogwash. It is an open and shut case. It is a fake encounter.” 

Since 2008, 108 magisterial probes have been ordered in Kashmir in the aftermath of violent incidents, The Wire reported on 27 November. “However, none of those reports have been made public, and not a single person has been convicted,” said the report. 

(Haziq Qadri is an independent multimedia journalist whose work focuses on politics, human rights and health. Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist whose work focuses on politics and human rights.)