Across Kashmir Valley: Abdul Salam Najar was pouring himself tea at his home at Kheerigund village in Budgam district of central Kashmir on February 19 morning when he heard about his son’s demise. “It was almost as if the sky fell crashing upon me,” he told The Wire.
Four years ago, his son Muhammad Altaf, then 20, had graduated from high school and – intent upon doing something about his family’s economic situation – decided to enlist with the J&K police.
According to Najar, at midnight on February 18, Altaf – accompanied by Manzoor Ahmad, another policeman – embarked on a search operation at Zanigam village in Beerwah over 30 kms away, looking for militants.
Suddenly, attackers sprang out of nowhere and sprayed Altaf and Ahmed with a flurry of bullets before escaping in the dark. While Ahmed survived the attack, Altaf succumbed to the injuries.
On the same day, militants opened fire on two more policemen at Barzulla, an upscale locality in Srinagar, killing both of them. In Shopian, forces shot dead three militants affiliated with al-Badr group during an overnight gun battle that continued intermittently till the morning.
Just two days before Friday’s bloodshed, militants had resurfaced in Srinagar and shot at 22-year-old Aakash Mehra, a restaurant owner’s son in what turned out to be the second such attack this year targeting non-locals residing in or doing business in Kashmir.
With summer around the corner, Kashmir valley is witnessing an escalation of violence, leaving a trail of human suffering and prompting police to amp vigil and the security blanket around the region.
On Saturday, Kashmir’s top police officer Vijay Kumar chaired a meeting with several other high-ranking officials.
In an official statement, J&K police said it will double down with a range of security measures and intensify “close watch on anti-nationals”.
In an interview with reporters, Kumar had recently cautioned mainstream leaders against “instigating people”.
“No matter how big a leader, we have prepared dossiers and are bringing every activity on the record,” he was quoted saying. “If anyone raises anti-India slogans or talks about secession, the Act will be invoked,” he reportedly said, referring to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Worsening security situation
During the last one year, the security situation in Srinagar city has seen significant deterioration. According to Kashmir OSINT, a conflict tracker using open source investigation to map violence in J&K, there have been 10 gunfights and 24 attacks in the city between January 2020 and February 19, 2021. In the same period, almost nine members of armed forces and four civilians were killed while seven youth were recruited into militancy.
Experts, though, have refused to call it a “surge” and insist that it is a blip in the overall trend of declining militancy in J&K. “There were just a few incidents. The overall trend is that of a dwindling militancy,” Ajai Sahni, a terrorism expert and director of Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi, said.
However, data revealed by the Director General of Central Reserve Police Force A.P. Maheshwari, quoting a Ministry of Home Affairs report, shows 2020 was, again, a violence-marred year, with 111 reported incidents of exchange of fire between militants and forces compared. The number was 77 in 2019 and 103 in 2018. There were also more grenade attacks by militants in 2020 (37) than in 2019 (16) or 2018 (27).
Najar told The Wire that on February 21, SSP and SP-level officers visited the family. The station house officer of the local police station had visited earlier. “My son came home dead nearly after a month. He was as white as snow when I took him in my arms. He seemed to have lost all of his blood. I believe that had he been taken to the hospital on time, he would have been saved,” Najar said.
Cries punctuated talk in a room of women mourners. “He was better off as a labourer,” a woman muttered through her tears on her way out.
Over 45 kms away at Shopian’s Chak Sangran village, the family of Mudasir Ahmad Wagay (26) was struck by grief as well. Of the three militants killed in the Shopian gunfight, Wagay had joined ranks only three days ago.
Police have identified the other two as Suhail Sheikh of Turkwangam, Shopian and Shahid Dar of Samboora, Awantipora. “Repeated announcements were again made to hiding terrorists to surrender, but the terrorists fired indiscriminately on security forces which was retaliated resulting in elimination of all the three hiding terrorists,” a police release said.
A school dropout and the youngest among four siblings, Wagay had left home on the evening of February 15 on the pretext of buying groceries. At around 8 pm, his elder brother, Fayaz Ahmad, dialled his number to ask where he was, but his phone was off.
He continued calling on the number in vain throughout the night. There was no trace of him.
The next morning, a friend of Wagay’s called Ahmad and told him that Wagay had left a message for the family. “My brother had told him to ask us not to search for him,” Ahmed told The Wire.
Sitting inside a semi-dark room filled with mourners from nearby villages, Ahmed said they went to the nearest police station, Imam Sahib Shopian, some three kilometres away, to report his disappearance.
After two days, late in the evening, an unknown number flashed on Ahmed’s phone. First, he thought it might be from an Army officer, asking him for an update on his brother. He had already fielded various calls in the last two days from them. But, when the phone rang the second time, he answered.
It was Wagay on the other side. “Baijan it’s me…Mudasir,” Ahmed recalled hearing.
“For a few seconds I couldn’t understand who it was…because I was so agitated,” said Ahmed. But after a few seconds, he dissolved in tears.
“We were trapped. They have installed lights and cordoned off the area. We have no way to escape,” Wagay told Ahmed.
Like every family in the Valley, Ahmed was stuck in a state of helplessness. He begged Wagay to surrender. But he was not one to listen. “I did not call you to listen to such things from you. I need your prayers and forgiveness,” Wagay said, hanging up.
Authorities said they buried the bodies of three militants in a remote mountainous graveyard, in northern Kashmir’s Sheeri area of Baramulla, around 130 kms away from their slain militants’ native village. This is part of a policy introduced last year – which has since fed further to the anger of Kashmiris – of not handing over the bodies of militants to the families.
J&K authorities say the policy is aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus, but many activists claim that the government ignores such protocols for its own fallen combatants. For instance, the policeman Altaf’s family confirmed they received his body to conduct last rites.
Like scores of families, Wagay’s family too accepted the policy without much resistance. Resigned to the situation, they drove to Police Control Room (PCR) Srinagar for a last glimpse of him.
The relatives and friends of the other two militants trailed police vehicles and reached Sheeri Baramulla to participate in the last rites. “Around 300 people were in their funeral and later, we laid them in unmarked graves. The funeral took place in the courtyard of the police station under their surveillance,” said Ahmed.
Wagay’s story is consistent with that of many other young men in Kashmir, if not all, whose resentment towards the administration is fuelled by heavy-handed policing before becoming a cause for their entry into militancy.
According to Ahmed, Wagay may have been deeply disturbed by the anger he felt over the killing of protesters during the 2016 civil uprising in which he too was a participant. He was booked by the police in a stone pelting case. “He was too young to understand the gravity of the situation. And now we have lost him,” Ahmed said in tears.
Yet another family
Like Wagay’s, the family of 50-year-old Mohammad Yousuf Bajard, a police constable shot dead at Barzulla on February 19, feels devastated.
A small clip of the attack circulating on social media shows a man in a pheran, a Kashmiri tunic worn during the winter, taking out what appears to be an automatic rifle and shooting at the policemen. He then escapes.
Bajard, a resident of Marhama Kupwara in north Kashmir, a small hamlet surrounded by woods – some 100 kms from Srinagar – had just resumed duty after having taken a month-and-a-half long leave to recover from an illness. “At around 1 pm, a cousin who is working in CRPF informed us that he has been killed in Srinagar. It was an absolute shock for the entire family,” said Mohammad Ayoub, his brother-in-law.
Bajard is a father of four. He had been in the police department for the last 20 years and witnessed three attacks while on duty. Each time, he was lucky enough to survive. “He had received no threats from any one since he joined the department and was always respected in his locality for his kind nature,” Ayoub said.
Bajard’s daughter, who he was close to, has fallen unconscious several times since she saw his corpse.
Ayoub said that continued killings in Kashmir have shattered every single family in the region. “It seems that there will be no end to such tragic episodes unless there are any concrete steps to address the core issue here,” he said.
Kaisar Andrabi is an independent journalist from Kashmir and tweets at @KAndrabi. Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.