kulgam gunfight - family of minor arrested
Mohammad Hussain Sheikh, whose younger brother is in police custody after the gunfight at their residence in Manzgam village of Kulgam in South Kashmir. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

On the night of 25 May, 63-year-old Abdul Rashid Sheikh was asleep when the government forces surrounded his house in Manzgam village of Kulgam district, some ninety-eight kilometres from Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar.

The government forces had cordoned off the village to search for militants, who were tracked and eventually killed in a brief gunfight. Mr. Sheikh’s residence was partially damaged in the gunfight.

Shortly after the gunfight, Mr. Sheikh was detained along with his four sons – Momin Rashid, 13, Basit Ahmad, 15, Amir Rashid, 27, Suhail Rashid, 18; and also 11-year-old Yawar Naik, a friend of Momin. According to Mr. Sheikh’s 35-year-old son Mohammad Hussain, all were arrested after the gunfight. 

The Senior Superintendent of Police, Kulgam, Gurinderpal Singh told The Kashmir Walla that he can’t share the investigation details. “The militants were present at the family’s house and it is part of our operation to investigate. [And] it is the matter of the court to decide whether they [detainees] are minors or not.”

Anxious families

kulgam gunfight - damaged house
A wall of Sheikh family house hit by a shell during gunfight in Manzgam village of Kulgam in South Kashmir. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

So far, the police have not revealed reasons for their detention. Mr. Hussain, who is the eldest of Mr. Sheikh’s six sons, was not at his home on the day of the gunfight. A trucker by profession, he claimed, he was on his way from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to Srinagar when he heard the news about the gunfight. He arrived three days after the gunfight to join his grieving family.

According to Mr. Sheikh’s wife Shameema Akhtar, 60, both Rashid and Naik had gone fishing in a nearby stream on the morning of the gunfight. Naik later stayed the night at the Sheikh residence. 

Sitting on the veranda of her partially damaged house, joined by relatives and neighbours only to console her, Ms. Akhtar recalls the night of 24 May, when her daughter woke her up. “Around 1 am, she told me that flashlights are going around our house. She suspected that it was the army,” said Ms. Akhtar, in a low tone.

Taking a brief pause, only to clear her throat, she added, “In a jiffy, someone knocked on the door [and] we saw two local boys standing there. They told us to come outside as the army has cordoned the area.”

Sensing the situation, they ran outside where army personnel kept all the male members of the family in their captivity. Only females were allowed to go. Ms. Akhtar, her daughter-in-law, and Ms. Jan saved their lives in a neighbour’s house.

“We took shelter in a neighbours’ house and at around 8 am, we heard some gunshots,” said Ms. Akhtar. “When the firing was going, I thought they killed all my family members. I was crying and praying for their safety.”

In a brief gunfight, the government forces claimed to gun down, two Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) militants, Aadil Ahmad Wani and Shahid Bashir Thoker, both the residents of Shopian district.

After the gunfight ended, Aamir Majeed Naik, 28, older brother of Naik, said that the government forces bundled the civilians in their vehicle. “When they [government forces] took all their family members to the police station, he [Naik] was taken too,” said Mr. Majeed, who witnessed it himself from a nearby hill.

Minors in custody

DOB certificate of minor arrested after Kulgam gunfight
Date of birth certificate of Yawar Naik obtained by The Kashmir Walla from his school.

Both the friends, Rashid and Naik are the students of eighth standard, but both study at different schools. Naik’s friend, teenager Rashid is the youngest of the Sheikh’s family of eleven members. “He is a student and innocent. He has no idea about any matter,” said his mother Ms. Akhtar, her voice cracking.

Basit is a student of class tenth. Rashid is enrolled at a government middle school in Meerwani while as Naik at Darasgah Islamia School, Manzgam, a private school in the village. Its principal, Dilawar Ahmad, told The Kashmir Walla that Naik is a good student in his class. “As per the school record; his date of birth is 25 July 2008. I am surprised why he was taken into police custody.”

The school also issued a Date of Birth (DOB) certificate of Naik, a copy of which was obtained by The Kashmir Walla. It states that Naik was enrolled at the school under admission number 781, with his DOB registered as 25 July 2008.

The Sheikh family along with Naik’s family and the village’s sarpanch have visited the police station several times in vain attempts at bringing them back, said Mr. Majeed. “We were not even allowed to meet them. We pleaded [with] them to allow only one of us to see their conditions but they refused to listen,” he said. “They are not telling us any reason for their arrest. We have no idea what to do next. We don’t even know where they are [lodged].”

The Sheikh family is particularly worried for one of the brothers, Aamir Rashid, 27, a daily wager by profession. He is currently under treatment for jaundice and is detained without his medicine, said his brother, Mr. Hussain. 

In the courtyard of the house, men and women who were there to console the family of Mr. Sheikh, alleged that “the militants were killed in a small tin shed located a few meters away, in the backside of the house.” “But, after the gunfight was over, army men damaged the house by firing shells,” said 32-year-old, Irshad Ahmad Lone, a local resident. “They did such acts aiming to pass a message that people should not provide shelter to any militant.”

Following Mr. Lone’s words, Ms. Akhtar added that in a place like Kashmir, “what can a common person do before a gun. Any gunman can enter any house whether it is the army or militants. Can anyone stop them?”

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