SRINAGAR, Kashmir — The gun battle between three militants, believed to be members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Indian security forces lasted for seven hours, but most of the fatalities and injuries occurred in a massive explosion after the shooting had ended.
The cause of this explosion has triggered a fresh round of allegations, accusations and recriminations between security forces and Kashmiri youth on social media.
Hours after the explosion, social media sites were buzzing with a photoshopped image of the Jammu & Kashmir police Twitter handle claiming that the police had found a "simple way to keep the agitated youth away from encounter sites".
The J&K police has since issued a press release, stating that the image was from a fake twitter account.
Security forces have been nonplussed by civilians spontaneously streaming onto the sites of live encounters as a form of protest against the deployment of forces in the valley.
"Police has registered a case in this regard and investigation has begun," said Inspector General of Kashmir, Swayam Prakash Pani. "We will not tolerate any rumour mongering."
The fake tweet was a reference to a worrying trend in which security forces have been nonplussed by civilians spontaneously streaming onto the sites of live encounters as a form of protest against the deployment of forces in the valley.
A day later, HuffPost India spoke to witnesses and victims to find many willing to believe the rumour that the Indian Army was somehow responsible for the explosion.
Eight people, including a middle-aged mother of one of those injured, told HuffPost India that they believed the security forces were involved in the explosion—illustrative of the ever-deepening gulf of mistrust between Indian security forces and Kashmir's civilian populace.
The following account of the explosion, and its aftermath, encapsulates Kashmir's enduring tragedy. As winter closes in, and state and central elections beckon, many in the Valley fear an ever escalating spiral of violence, with no end in sight.
Around 11 am on Sunday, about an hour after the encounter between the police and militants ended, Javaid Ahmed went looking for his younger brother so that the two could go to their apple orchard located in the Laroo area of Kulgam district.
Around the same time, 16-year-old Aqib Mir was on his way to the encounter site to which throngs of people were making their way to douse the fire at a house that was the main site of the gun battle.
Thirty-year-old Waseem was also in the crowd along with his friend, perhaps not far from where Aqib stood.
Suddenly a massive explosion ripped through the crowd, showering civilian bystanders with deadly shrapnel and debris.
"We are being told that government forces had planted the land mine in the area to inflict casualties," a family member of an injured local, told HuffPost India. The claim has been refuted by the police.
"All I saw was a massive ball of fire coming right at my face. There was a solid mass inside the fire. It knocked me right off my feet. The next thing I remember was waking up with blood oozing out of my nose. My friend's lifeless body was besides me. I stood on my feet and tried to move back towards the main street,where locals caught hold of me and put me in an ambulance," said Waseem, whose picture was splashed all over social media and local newspapers. His nose has been operated upon once at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital and he is currently awaiting doctors' recommendation for a possible eye surgery.
Waseem's bed in the hospital's Ward No. 8 is not far from that of Javaid, who has received pellet injuries in his left eye. "I was at least 2 km away from the encounter site when we heard the explosion. I assumed that the area was safe but suddenly security forces emerged from behind a wall and shot pellets among the crowd. I was hit in my eye. My younger brother is safe though," Javaid said.
While Waseem and Javaid seemed to have had a narrow escape, Aqib, a student of Class X, wasn't that lucky. From what his family told HuffPost India, the 16-year-old seemed to be the closest to the encounter site.
The teenager suffered grievous injuries on his head and abdomen and, according to hospital staff, had wounds similar to that made by bullets. After an eight-hour-surgery, Aqib's condition, doctors said was, stable.
"Aqib went to the site an hour after the encounter. He was not alone. Many others in the village went to see what had happened in the area," said his mother Daisy, who was waiting outside the intensive care unit.
What exactly transpired at the encounter site?
Several eyewitnesses who spoke to HuffPost India said on condition of anonymity that the government forces had left the area after the encounter, prompting them to believe the site had been sanitised.
The police's version of events isn't very different.
According to Harmeet Singh, Senior Superintendent of Police, Kulgam, a cordon was laid in the area at around 1 am on Sunday after receiving information about the presence of three militants. The gunfight broke out at around 3 am and by 10 am, the militants were gunned down
"After the encounter we recovered the bodies of the three militants. During the night, the militants had hurled multiple grenades at us, resulting in some injuries, so we knew there must be a lot of ammunition. We recovered the arms and ammunition," Singh told HuffPost India.
The senior officer claimed that soon after the encounter, protesting crowds gathered in the area.
"The house in which the encounter took place was on fire, which we had partly doused. The temperature was extremely high and is was impossible for us to sanitise the site. To avoid civilian casualties, we pulled out from the area and requested the people not to go near the encounter site. That is when the explosion took place," Singh said.
The claim, however, was countered by locals who were present in the area. They told this correspondent that no such warning was given by the police.
"We did warn them," Singh said. While police claimed that it isn't aware of where or what the explosive device was, locals seem to have made up their mind that the device was put there on purpose.
"We will find out what the device was. An investigation has been initiated,"said SSP Singh.
Many deaths, and ambiguity
Just like there isn't much clarity on the nature of the explosive device, ambiguity also shadows how over 40 people were injured within minutes.
Seven people were killed—some died on the spot and others succumbed on the way to hospitals in south and central Kashmir.
"There were people lying around in their own blood. Sharp steel and wooden objects pierced into the bodies of those around the site. Some had ripped abdomens and others had missing fingers. It was hell," said Nadeem, another resident of the area.
Bilal, an ambulance driver, made at least three trips carrying the injured."The ambulance was covered with blood. One individual that I got had part of his brain hanging out of his head," he said.
Late Sunday evening, Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), also questioned the sequence of events in Kulgam.
"It is mandatory for security forces to sanitise the area where encounter happens to safeguard the lives of the civilians. It seems that the security forces take these basic things casually, which resulted in today's incident...," Tickoo said on Sunday, soon after the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), a conglomerate of separatist leaders, called for a shutdown on Monday. KPSS supported the shutdown call given by the JRL members.
On Sunday, after the encounter, local police issued a statement requesting locals not to visit any encounter site until it had been sanitised by the bomb disposal team.
A senior police officer, however, claimed that stone-pelting had started during the encounter, in which some civilians were injured.
"Why are people going to the encounter site? It can take hours for the authorities to sanitise the area. What was the need for the people to go there?" the officer said. He added that bomb disposal units from the J&K police, CRPF and the Rashtriya Rifles, all of whom were involved in the encounter, were planning to send their bomb disposal units back to the encounter site.
Meanwhile, while the Valley on Monday witnessed multiple violent clashes between government forces and civilians, the situation at least in central and north Kashmir had stabilised by the evening. South Kashmir, however, remains tense, officials said, adding that restrictions might be put in place on Tuesday as well.