New Delhi: After facing criticism over his decision to use a Kashmiri civilian as a human shield last month, army officer Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi on Tuesday broke his silence for the first time after the April 9 incident.
According to Major Gogoi, who was recently awarded 'Commendation Certificate' by army chief General Bipin Rawat, the "idea" to tie a civilian to the bonnet of a jeep came to him when he was trying to rescue the civil staff and members of security forces from a polling booth in Budgam district's Utligam village, which had come under intense stone-pelting from mobs.
The Major claimed that on the morning of April 9, he received a "distress call" from an ITBP officer who told him that around 1200 people had surrounded the Utligam polling booth and were trying to burn down the polling station by hurling petrol bombs. Rushing "immediately" to the spot, the officer claimed that they came under heavy stone-pelting from locals including women and children.
"At that time, I saw a short person standing 30 meters from my vehicle. I immediately told my boys to catch hold of him. He was instigating the crowd and might have been the ringleader. When he saw us, he started running towards the crowd and got on his bike. Somehow we caught him," Gogoi said.
But the villagers in Utligam not only contest the "1200-figure" as claimed by the army officer, but also offer a different version of how the day unfolded.
"The total population of this village will hardly be 1200. On that day, we started protesting since morning and there weren't more than 60-70 people who pelted stones on the polling booth," Ahmad, a Class 11 student who was one of the protesters that day, told ScoopWhoop News. He refused to give his first name.
As per Ahmad's account, the members of 53 Rashtriya Rifles reached the village at around 10:30 on the morning of April 9 to "crush their protest."
"They resorted to aerial firing and also shot pellets and tear canisters. One of the local youth was hit by a shell on his stomach. He also suffered pellet injuries on his back. The army men unleashed a reign of terror. They damaged properties of the locals and broke glasses of many windows. Army personnel also damaged some vehicles parked in the village," he said.
65-year-old Abdul Rahim Bhat, a former Sarpanch of the village, said the village is home to 300-350 families. On the day of election, Bhat was among the first to walk down to the polling booth - a government school - and cast his vote.
"But I didn't see any tension in the area. After returning from the polling booth, I saw some 5-6 children on the road. They were saying that they'll boycott the polls but there was no stone-pelting. I returned home," Bhat recalled in an interview with ScoopWhoop News.
More than an hour after casting his ballot, Bhat recollected, hearing sound of gunfire and tear-gas shelling.
"Some shells also landed outside my house. I directed all my children to stay home and locked the gate. Soon, there were reports that two youth have been injured in police action. One of them was shifted to a Srinagar hospital," Bhat said.
Asked whether the number of people gathered outside the polling booth was 1200 as claimed by the officer, Bhat said: "Everybody's home on election day and it was a shutdown. While the entire population of the village might be around 1200 but that includes infants, kids, women and elders. Is it plausible that all of these joined protesters to throw stones on a polling booth?"
When contacted, the in-charge of the Utligam polling booth told ScoopWhoop News that it was "not possible" that "1200 people would have gathered outside the booth to pelt stones on it."
"No doubt there was heavy stone-pelting that day. I can't exactly tell what the number of protesters was, but it clearly was not 1200 people. We were sitting inside in order to save our lives. Even the 5-6 security personnel guarding the booth also came inside. In the meantime, we heard gun shots and sound of shells but we had no idea what was happening outside...At around 11:30 in the morning, the army men came and rescued us," the officer told ScoopWhoop News on the condition of anonymity.
"...when the protesters saw army vehicles approaching the polling booth, there was complete silence. The polling booth was located slightly downhill and it's surrounded on three sides by hillocks. First, the army men asked the ITBP personnel guarding us to reach on the road but we were afraid that we'll be targeted again. And then army came down to the polling booth. Once the army approached the polling booth, there was complete silence in the village and no civilian was visible," he added.
The officer, who was accompanied by four other civil staff members at the polling booth, said they had "no idea" about the human shield incident until locals of another village - where army had shifted them - informed them.
He also said only 29 votes out of near about 1000 eligible voters in the village were polled until the army arrived. Asked if there were attempts to burn down the polling station, the officer said a curtain of one of the rooms of the polling station had burnt down.
"We had kept equipment in another room and one of its curtains was burnt. We don't have any idea how did that happen," the officer said.
On the day of elections, the officer recalled that he once tried to reason with the protesters.
"We went to protesters and asked them that we were only doing our duty but they said then we should wind up the voting equipment and leave the village," he added.
Officials at the Budgam district administration termed the stone-pelting on the Utligam polling booth as "one of many" incidents witnessed on the election day.
"Eight civilians were shot dead on that day and only seven per cent came out to vote. If there was so much violence at the village then why didn't the Election Commission order re-polls at the booth when it could give such orders for 38 polling stations," an official associated with the polling exercise in the district on April 9, said.