Moments after, Hardnews found locals were convinced that it was a fake encounter
Akash Bisht / Khalid Akhtar Delhi
The morning of September 19 began as usual for Ashraf Khan (name changed), a doctor residing in a building opposite L-18 at Batla House in Jamia Nagar near the university of Jamia Milia Islamia in south Delhi. He heard gunshots being fired in the neighbourhood. As he went to his balcony to check, he was told by a gun-toting man from L-18 to get inside, as there was a shootout on the fourth floor with a group of "terrorists" responsible for the recent serial blasts in the capital.
Later, Dr Khan sensed something unusual about this encounter, the way the bullets were being fired, the way the bodies of those killed were taken away. He said, "I have seen encounters in Kashmir, this was not even one per cent close to any of those. It looked more like a pre-planned killing." Many others in the neighbourhood raised similar doubts about the encounter and the police version. Most witnesses recalled that the bullets sounded more like that from a pistol than from an AK-47, which the police claim to have recovered from the flat rented by the "terrorists".
Moments after the encounter, the Batla House area was cordoned off by heavy police force while curious onlookers, including media, surrounded the area to have a glimpse. Numerous queries about the exact location of the flat kept the crowds guessing. Meanwhile, some young men waiting for their Friday prayers began to raise questions. "Why weren't they allowed to surrender? Police would have got more vital clues if those who were killed had surrendered. They could have busted the entire terror network but they chose to do otherwise," said one curious onlooker.
The entire area was abuzz with rumours of how this was a fake encounter and innocent young Muslims were being targeted. Despite the drizzle, hundreds of men from the locality had gathered around L-18 discussing the loopholes in the police theory. Some of them tried to raise slogans but were soon shooed away by the heavy armed police personnel and elders in the area. Most of them then resorted to narrating their accounts to media.
Aitesham (name changed), a daily wager, had been working on September 19 since 3am in the cramped lanes of Batla House. He had seen some plain-clothed people entering L-18 and didn't find anything suspicious. Later, he saw gun-toting men on the stairs of L-18 and heard gun shots. He was told there was an encounter on the top floor where terrorists responsible for carrying out the Delhi blasts were holed up. In the next half-an-hour he was told that two terrorists have been killed, one arrested while two others managed to flee. "What puzzled me was the fact that I could see every corner of L-18 while this encounter was going on, but could not see the two terrorists jumping out of L-18. I don't think anyone escaped," he claimed.
For Naim (name changed), a resident of Batla House, it was a normal Friday in the month of Ramzan. He had got up late, as he slept late after having his sehri meal early morning. He was unaware of the situation and as he stepped out of his house he was stopped by policemen. He saw people had gathered on both sides of the lane.
He was chatting up with other residents when he was told by a guard of one of the buildings in the same lane that he saw a policeman dragging a boy down the stairs and his cream kurta had bloodstains all over. The guard told Naim that he saw a policeman fire on another policeman's hand from close range. The gun, according to the guard, was later handed to the boy in the cream kurta, his head was covered with a black cloth and he was taken away in a police van. The Hardnews team tried to locate the guard with Naim, but in vain. He had disappeared. Perhaps he was scared to give a controversial statement like this in public, scared of the harassment later by police or maybe he was "hallucinating". But the catch in the story is that he knew it much before the rest of the media that a policeman had been shot in his hand.
A faculty member in the polytechnic department of Jamia Milia Islamia seemed baffled. He had never noticed anything unusual about the boys in the area. On September 19, after returning from the campus, he heard some gunshots. He thought it was the sound of firecrackers. It took a while to accept the police claim that the boys living in this building were "terrorists". He said, "I know, terrorism is the biggest enemy of any civil society." However, like others, he doubted the transparency of the whole incident and media reports, especially TV channels. He was angry that some TV channels had claimed, without any investigation, that a gun-battle was going on between police and terrorists hiding in a mosque.
The entire area seemed numb with shock. A sense of fear seemed to have set in among hundreds of young people gathered at the spot. Some were vocal while most chose to speak in hushed voices. Many youths from the Jamia Nagar locality were randomly being picked up by police for interrogation while the rest wondered how these young boys preparing for highly competitive exams could have a hand in such heinous acts of terror. "Today it is these children. Tomorrow they could arrest or kill any of us by branding us as terrorists. We are being targeted to create fear among the community so that anyone can be picked or killed and no questions will be asked," said an elderly man.