SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Tensions in Kashmir are rising days after four people were killed in a raid by Indian security forces, fueling outraged protests over impunity and stirring fears that the conflict-torn region could be sliding into another especially deadly phase.
The Indian police said that two militants and two businessmen whom they described as “terrorist supporters” had been killed when the police raided a shopping complex on Monday.
The police initially said they were fired on by the militants, who had also killed the two businessmen in the process. They later amended that account, saying the businessmen may have been caught in the crossfire and that it was unclear whose bullets had killed them.
Family members of three of the dead disputed both those versions of events, accusing the police of having staged the gunfight. Demanding that the bodies of their relatives be returned to them for a proper burial, they joined a demonstration of about two dozen people that ended brutally on Wednesday when the protesters were hauled away by the police, in images captured on video and broadcast via the internet across the Kashmir Valley.
“Shoot me, terrorists,” Abdul Majid Bhat, the elder brother of Mohammad Altaf Bhat, 45, whom the police had identified as one of those killed, shouted at one police officer pointing a gun to his chest during the protest, which took place near the offices of the region’s major newspapers. “God is watching.”
On Thursday, India’s top appointed official in the region, Manoj Sinha, said that his administration had ordered an inquiry into the episode by magistrates. “It will ensure there is no injustice,” Mr. Sinha said in a tweet, without providing further details.
Kashmir has for decades been claimed by both India and Pakistan, and Indian security forces have long battled pro-independence militants in the valley. Tension surged in 2019 after India, angered by persistent militant attacks, revoked Kashmir’s partial autonomy and flooded the region with additional forces. Indian security forces have also cracked down on dissent and thrown many opponents and even some moderates in jail.
When India revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status, one step it took to clamp down on separatists was to refuse to allow dead militants or those deemed associates to be buried in their family graveyards. Instead, the authorities now bury them far away, near the disputed Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
The police say the decision not to return bodies is aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus and at preventing funerals from turning into mass gatherings of angry supporters of militants. The measure has led to widespread anger and accusations of violating the religious rights of the families of the dead.
In the Monday clash, the police said that they had received a tipoff about two militants’ presence in a shopping complex, and that when they approached the room where the men were hiding, the militants fired at them “indiscriminately.”
The police said that one of the dead was a Pakistani national; India has long accused Pakistan of supporting militant groups inside the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Though Pakistan does have a history of supporting militant groups in the region, Western terrorism experts say that support has dwindled in recent years. The insurgency is largely now the work of homegrown Kashmiri militants.
As the news of the clash spread, relatives of three of the dead said it was a staged firefight, and demanded that authorities return the bodies for the last rites. Kashmir’s top police official, Vijay Kumar, said in a news conference that the two businessmen killed in the clash, Mr. Bhat and Dr. Mudasir Gul, were “terrorist supporters.”
Activists and rights groups have long accused the Indian forces of killing civilians with impunity, because of Indian laws that protect them from prosecution. They have said that gunfights are sometimes staged so that soldiers can earn rewards and promotions.
In just the past two years, family members have questioned at least three gunfights, accusing the security forces of killing their relatives in staged gunfights. Indian officials deny those allegations.
Violence by militants has jumped in recent months, including against Hindu and Sikh civilians. In response, last week the Indian government said it had deployed an additional 2,500 paramilitary soldiers to the region. Kashmir for decades has been one of the world’s most militarized zones, with around half a million troops stationed there.
Saima Bhat, a niece of Mr. Bhat, told The New York Times that her uncle, who was the owner of the shopping center as well as one of those killed there, was an innocent civilian who had been used as a human shield.
“We don’t expect any justice,” Ms. Bhat said on Thursday. “We want authorities to return his dead body, so that his children can see his face one last time.”