Hajan, Jammu and Kashmir: We cross a police camp, an Army Goodwill school and then, a little further, a typical Kashmiri graveyard where mazarmonj (irises) are now blooming among the graves. We are entering Hajan, where on April 16, Abdul Rashid Parray alias Rashid Billa, former chief commander of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, was shot dead in his own home. But according to reports presented by the police in the high court, Billa – who was a primary accused in the Saderkoot massacre – had been untraceable and was absconding. Apparently his house too had been “seized”.
The town of Hajan in Bandipora district, some 35 km northeast of Srinagar, did not mourn the killing of Billa. In fact, when the entire Kashmir Valley erupted in widespread student protests on April 17, the town of Hajan remained calm.
“It was deliberate. The people of the town consciously decided not to observe a hartal or hold demonstrations because observing shutdown would have been construed as a protest against Billa’s killing,” a government teacher from Hajan told us.
In Parrey Mohalla in Hajan, neighbours are wary of strangers enquiring about the residence of Billa. An old lady finally escorted us to the alley on the far end of which lies Billa’s house. The lady wouldn’t come into the alley. She directed us from a little distance away.
Billa’s wife Jameela Begum, his son and other family members told us how four men managed to gain entry into their home at around 9:30 pm on April 16. “We heard a knock on the door. On inquiring we learnt that it was a neighbour, whom we considered to be as close as a son. The door was opened for him. He, along with an employee in our cable business and two strangers pushed their way in,” Jameela told The Wire.
The men forced Billa to leave the room where he sat with his children and grandchildren. They went into an adjoining room. Two minutes later, gunshots rang out. Billa was found dead with a bullet wound at the back of his head. All the men managed to escape.
‘No closure for Saderkoot victims’
In the village of Saderkoot Bala, just a few kilometres away, Ghulam Qadir Dar got the news of the killing a few hours later. “I stayed awake the whole night,” he said. His mind went into flashback mode. On the night of October 5, 1996, Billa and his associates barged into Dar’s house in Saderkoot Bala and killed four members of his family – his wife, son, daughter and a nephew. Billa and his gang had then gone on to kill three other people in the village.
For Dar, Billa’s killing doesn’t bring any closure. Dar and other victim’s families had filed a writ petition in 2015 demanding action, since the police had done nothing in the last 20 years – not even produced a chargesheet in court.
Dar says that it is wrong that Billa was killed. “The case was going on. Court had ordered that Billa be arrested, but police was not arresting him,” he added.
The fact that Billa was killed inside his house raises questions on the police’s assertion that he had been absconding. “The police is responsible for shielding him. How could they claim he was absconding when he was killed in his own home?” Dar asked.
The making of an Ikhwan
Who was Billa? How and why did he, as an Ikhwan, enjoy complete impunity? In a status report to the court, the police said, “During course of investigation efforts were made to arrest the said accused persons but they were working with then MLA Mohammed Yusuf Parray alias Kukka Parray, supreme commander of Ikhwan ul Muslimeen and due to abnormal situation in the Valley police face a lot of difficulties to arrest the accused persons.”
The rise of Billa, his life and his death, is a window into the manner in which the state unleashed unaccountable violence and terror under the guise of counter insurgency. It illustrates how this “illegal army” of Ikhwanis, sarkari militants or “friendlies” as they were known, set up in the mid-1990s, were strategically used to break Kashmiri resistance and fracture society. Besides outsourcing killings, it also shows how the state used the group to support Indian government policies and “legitimise” rule through elections at gun point.
Billa’s son told us his father had been employed by the government as a plantation watcher in 1990 and continued to draw a salary right upto April 2015 (the month in which the writ petition by victims of the Saderkoot massacre was presented in court). This is corroborated in a reply to an RTI filed by Dar.
While many Ikhwanis were renegade militants, Billa does not appear to be one of them. His family members said he had joined the ‘Ikhwan jamaat‘ of Parray, a folk singer and former militant, sometime in the 1990s. Parray’s Ikhwan ul Muslimoon, a breakaway of the militant group Ikhwan ul Muslimeen, grew to be one of the most powerful and deadly counter-insurgency outfits operating in Kashmir. Besides receiving a stipend, the renegade militants were allowed to keep their weapons. Hajan was their stronghold and the police camp we had passed on our way was once their feared Ikhwan camp.
The members of Parray’s group killed workers of the Jammat-e-Islami (a politico-social religious group affirming allegiance to Pakistan) and the dominant militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. Members of the National Conference were not spared either.
Billa’s family mentioned how for about a year – from 1996 to 1997 – he had parted ways with Parray because he wanted to show support to his uncle, an National Conference worker, “who was, after all, a blood relation”. During this period, they said, their house was burnt down, after which Billa rejoined Parray.
Over and over again, the family asserted that the only politics that Billa actually subscribed to was the pronouncement: “I am a Hindustani. Both inside and outside”. At one point, a relative even interchanged the name of the Ikhwan outfit that Rashid worked for with the words “Indian army”. This use of a synonym reveals the perfect understanding that Kashmiris have of the way the Ikhwanis were nursed by the army and officially consecrated. Some were even accommodated into paramilitary battalions.
A report (titled ‘The Pro Government Militants’) by a fact-finding team of activists from the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, People’s Union for Democratic Rights and Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, who visited Kashmir in 1997, noted that Farooq Abdullah, in one of his very first press conferences on October 19, 1996, “admitted officially what everybody all along knew to be true, and the army for its part, has never even bothered to deny. He admitted that the pro government militants were working under the different wings of the security forces, the army, the BSF and the CRPF.”
Billa’s family added that the afsos (sorrow) on his death, which is an inevitable fact of life, was not as much as the afsos at the manner in which he died. They felt betrayed that a neighbour, a person treated as a son, had been responsible for bringing in the gunmen.
Ironically, it is that very same thread of betrayal that runs through the narratives of Kashmiris when they talk about Ikhwanis. During their reign, anyone seen as dissenting or belonging to another group was targeted. Victims ranged from cadres of opposing organisations, human rights activists, media personnel and common people. Communities were fragmented and families ripped apart.
One of the crueller examples of this is that Billa’s second wife, Jameela, is Dar’s niece.
Dar told us that he was an National Conference worker who personally witnessed the reign of terror let loose by Parray and his outfit. Besides killings, there were robberies, a flourishing illegal trade in timber, abductions and extortion.
Dar came under severe pressure to join Parray’s group and was abducted in September 1994 by armed gunmen. His family was forced to pay a ransom for his release.
In the late 1990s, the state began regularising the Ikhwanis by appointing them as special police officers or recruiting them into the Special Operation Group. It also facilitated the entry of Ikhwanis into the political mainstream. Parray went on to form a political party, the Awami League, and even won elections and became the MLA from the Sonawari constituency in October 1996, thereby gaining legitimacy and political leverage. The National Conference candidate for this constituency, Abdul Majid, was critically injured in an incident of firing. Thus the bellwether of democracy – the elections – was reinforced through coercion and at gun point.
A close elderly relative of Billa lamented to us that no one from the bureaucracy or the state came for this Ikhwan’s funeral, even though he had been responsible for ensuring that elections take place and people exercise their choice.
It was against this backdrop that the Saderkoot massacre took place. The FIR was filed under fear and intimidation. No investigations took place, which even the police admit. Dar, who was a transporter and had a flourishing business, was reduced to penury even as he continued to struggle for justice, sometimes holding protests near the Press Colony in Srinagar.
Even after the writ petition was filed years later demanding action, the threats from Billa did not stop. In a letter to the Sumbal police dated March 14, 2017, Dar sought police protection stating that according to a person named Bitta, who had met Billa in Amritsar, a threat had been issued to him. Billa had reportedly said that unless the case against him was withdrawn, Dar would be wiped out.
For Dar, the killing of Billa does not mean the end of a struggle for accountability. “There are two other accused in this case who are still roaming free,” he said. One of them, Mohammed Ayoub Dar, was working with the 161 BN Territorial Army. The police in their status report claim that several communications were made through senior officers, asking army authorities to hand him over. The concerned army officials are now claiming that he longer works for them.
Dar points out that the progress in his case was hindered by roadblocks created by the police. He had sent letters pointing to irregularities in the “seizure” of Billa’s property. The front door had been locked but the back entrance was open. People gained access through that and were still living there. No action was taken.
The police’s failure to arrest Billa points to deeper malefaction within the state’s use of Ikhwan people as a counter-insurgent force to eliminate militancy. Most of the Ikhwan commanders, like Parrey and Javaid Shah, contested elections but were later killed. Their families now are fighting social ostracism and neglect from the state.
The killing of Billa, which evinced almost no sympathy from people in his home town, can hardly be construed as revenge, explains one government teacher from Saderkoot Bala. “The relief people have expressed points more to the failure of state institutions to deliver justice. Billa was a known offender but yet he was protected by the state, only to be killed later by unidentified men,” said the teacher, asking not be named.
Billa’s family talked of wanting justice. Whilst they kept eulogising his contribution to the cause of Hindustan, they also let slip the feeling that it was this support that was the cause of his death. They felt let down by the state. Once extremely powerful and feared, Billa’s family now lives in isolation.
After Billa’s killing, a contempt petition was filed stating that the police had been misleading the court. It raised questions on how Billa had continued to live there if the property had indeed been ‘seized’ and he was absconding.
No militant groups have as yet claimed responsibility for Billa’s death. The mystery around his killing raises many pertinent questions. Had he been arrested, would there have been revelations about his accomplices and their role in the death of many others?