PINGLAN (India-held Kashmir): Hundreds of Indian soldiers descended on the picturesque village of Pinglan, which is surrounded by apple and apricot orchards, just before midnight on February 17.
By the time they left 18 hours later, one civilian, three fighters and five members of the Indian security forces were dead, a row of houses was reduced to rubble, an unexploded missile had been planted in a rice field, and more than 120 villagers had sought treatment for exposure to tear gas, alleged beatings, and in some cases mental trauma.
Reuters spent two days in Pinglan, a village in India-held Kashmir that has a population of about 6,400, about a month after the crackdown to piece together what happened during those hours.
Interviews with more than 60 eyewitnesses indicate that soldiers forced at least four villagers to act as human shields. That meant sending them first into a building where local fighters might be hiding.
Human rights lawyers say such tactics which are meant to deter fighters from firing on soldiers carrying out the raids are highly questionable and could even be a war crime under international law. But they would not be illegal under Indian law.
“[The] Indian army has never used civilians as human shields,” claimed military spokesman Lt Col Mohit Vaishnava, in response to requests for comment.
However, he said that during encounters, local people were sometimes asked to mediate between the army and fighters.
A suicide attack on Indian troops, which had left over 40 of them dead in February, sparked a huge crackdown in the disputed region as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave troops a “free hand” to respond.
Since the attack, hundreds of Kashmiris have been arrested, and dozens of fighters and civilians martyred in what the authorities term “encounters”.
On February 17, from about 11:30pm, three days after the suicide attack, security forces cordoned off all the roads leading into Pinglan and began going house-to-house. An army informant in the village had heard of the presence of fighters, according to an army officer who is familiar with some operational details of the encounter.
Residents interviewed in Pinglan were almost all openly hostile to India and its soldiers. Many people said the village had not seen armed confrontation between local fighters and troops for decades.
A resident’s account of a villager being taken by the army to search a building was consistent with testimony of three other people, all of whom told Reuters they were forced to perform similar tasks.