Hajin (Bandipora): Early on Wednesday morning, the state police force and the army launched a massive joint search operation in North Kashmir’s Hajin after receiving information about the alleged presence of militants in the town.
The operation – one of over a dozen such military exercises in recent months – was conducted a week after a group of militants killed BSF constable Muhammad Ramzaan, who was on leave, outside his home in the Hajin, where, according to locals, militants move freely deep inside the villages and men in uniform don’t venture, except during searches.
According to the constable’s brother, Muzaffar Ahmad, 31-year-old Ramzaan, who had joined the BSF seven years ago, was returning home from his aunt’s house around 9 pm on September 27, when he was confronted by five masked gunmen.
Ramzaan was asked to prove his identity. He objected and this led to an argument, following which the gunmen took away his mobile phone and let him go home.
“Around 20 minutes later, the gunmen barged into our house and tried to kidnap my brother. We raised hue and cry and my cousins and some neighbours rushed to our house. My father and my aunt pleaded with them (the gunmen) to let our brother go. But they didn’t listen. Sensing their intentions, we tried to resist and that was when two of them first took out knives and attacked everyone who came in their way. Then one of them fired his gun at my brother, killing him on the spot,” Ramzaan’s younger brother, Javaid Ahmad, told The Wire, at his house in Parray Mohalla.
Both Muzaffar and Javaid, their 71-year old father Ghulam Ahmad Parray and their aunt were injured in the attack. While their father is still undergoing treatment in a Srinagar hospital, the three others have been discharged and are recuperating at home.
“Our father still doesn’t know that Ramzaan is no more,” said Javaid, his right hand and abdomen bandaged.
According to family members, Ramzaan served for six years in Tripura, Assam and Jharkhand before he was posted at Singhpora, Baramulla, less than a year ago. He was scheduled rejoin duty on October 4.
Fear and anger in the neighbourhood
Most people in Hajin, which comprises around 10 villages, are engaged in sand extraction work from the Jhelum river, which flows at the back of the town.
In the interiors of the town, small tracts of apple orchards and paddy fields provide a breathing space to the small market town about 50 kilometres from Srinagar.
“He (Ramzaan) was a nice boy; I know him personally. They shouldn’t have killed him. It has led to anger among people,” said Nazir Ahmad, a local resident.
Nazir’s views are shared by a group of youth sitting at a shop front outside the slain BSF soldier’s house. “He grew up with us, playing in these alleys. Everybody knew he was a soldier,” said one of them, who didn’t want to be named.
Ramzaan’s killing has also led to fear among his family as three cousins from the family are in the force – two serve in the J&K light infantry, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army, and the third is in the BSF, posted in Jammu, said their relative Bashir Ahmad.
Town with a bloody past
When militancy broke out in Kashmir in the 1990s, Hajin was a transit zone between the north and other parts of Kashmir, and a stronghold of militants. But that changed in some years when the township became a base for counter-insurgency militia Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, which enjoyed official patronage to stop the surge of militancy in North Kashmir.
The brute militia was led by its slain commander Kuka Parray – a name that evoked fear in the minds of the people. His fortified house in the Parray Mohalla became the headquarters of the counter-insurgency force. In 1996, when elections were held, Parray entered the state assembly as an independent MLA. He was shot dead in 2003.
When Parray was in power, people from outside wouldn’t venture into Hajin. “They had a license to kill. They were a gang of extortionists who would resort to kidnapping and torture; they inflicted all kind of atrocities in the area,” said a local journalist. He said such was the fear created by Ikhwanis that people would not dare to visit their relatives in Hajin and due to the ‘Ikhwan’ tag, outsiders wouldn’t marry their kin in the town – a chequered past that the town has now left behind.
For many years after Parray’s killing, Hajin, which had become the Valley’s counter-insurgency capital, struggled to move on.
But post the emergence of Burhan Wani in 2010, the town started witnessing a change as the security establishment focused its attention on South Kashmir.
According to Nazir, it was after Wani’s killing that the pro-freedom sentiment swept the town. Speaking about the presence of militants in the area, he said, “People have seen pheran-clad militants moving around across the stream. The youngsters and school-going children talk about it.”
A local police officer, however, said a group of nine Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) militants have made Hajin their basin for almost two years. This group is led by Mehmood bhai who took over when Musaib (a relative of top LeT commander Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi) was killed by the forces in Hajin in January this year, the police official said.
What has brought the change?
It was almost 22 years after militancy was wiped out of Hajin that two local youth, Abid Mir and Nasrullah, joined the LeT in May this year.
Mir was killed in an encounter in Sopore and Nasrullah, alias Ana, is still part of the LeT, which, according to a police official, has a strong network in Hajin.
A retired government employee offered an explanation for the growing support for militants.
“People want to get rid of this Ikhwaan tag which is still haunting Hajin. Besides, there is a renewed pro-militancy discourse across Kashmir which has penetrated in the area particularly among the younger generation,” he said.
Also, he said, the successive governments have ignored Hajin on the development front for decades. “We have seen the worst in the last 20 years but the government continues its step-motherly treatment towards us,” said the former government official. “We have become part of today’s Kashmir,” his son added.
On the ground
Most locals in the interiors of the town retire early these days and the streets look deserted. Ramzaan’s house, less than 150 metres away from Parray’s, is still heavily guarded by the CRPF. Hajin police station is less than two kilometres away.
When the incident happened, Javaid says, no one from the forces came to save his brother.
When Ramzaan’s body was being transported back home from the police station where he was offered a gun salute, no one from the police, the BSF or other security agencies, accompanied his coffin.
“So far, no one from the police or BSF has visited our house,” said Javaid, an indication of the volatile situation in Hajin.
“We don’t move out unnecessarily but as and when required, search operations are being conducted. The situation is sensitive so why take a chance,” said another police official.
“Look at this (pro-freedom) graffiti. You wouln’t have found it anywhere in Hajin a few years ago. Today such graffiti are painted on the walls of many houses. It is because of the change that the town is witnessing,” a youth said, smiling.