Tral: “His BTech degree did not impress me. I suggested that he do the MTech. He smiled, but said nothing,” said Ghulam Muhammad Shah, recalling his last moments with his son, Muhammad Qasim Shah.
On March 3, 2017, 26-year-old Qasim left his home in Midoora, Tral, without telling his parents, to join the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit of militants. According to the police, Qasim was the last commander of Hizb in Tral – an area in south Kashmir known to be a hotbed of militancy – before the outfit was wiped out completely.
The son of a member of Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s separatist Hurriyat group, Qasim had received a BTech in civil engineering from a private college in Chandigarh before he took up arms as a militant.
“The evening aazaan (call for prayers) was underway when I asked my wife about Jugnu (the family’s nickname for Qasim). He had been missing for hours. We phoned him all night, leaving repeated missed calls on his mobile phone, but he never called back,” said Shah.
Three years and three months later, on June 26, 2020, Qasim was killed in a gun-fight with security forces in Chewa Ullar hamlet in Tral. Two of his associates died with him. His Midoora home was just 8 km away. He left behind his parents, three brothers and a sister. His older brother is a doctor.
Hard to identify without selfies
Inside a jam-packed room in Qasim’s house, a burqa-clad woman who identified herself as a sister of the slain militant commander Zakir Musa patted Qasim’s mother Rafeeqa’s shoulders soothingly. “Zakir and Qasim were friends and they have finally met in heaven,” Zakir’s sister told Rafeeqa.
Zakir and Qasim were good friends, according to the police. Both studied engineering in Chandigarh. “Zakir recruited Qasim into the militancy,” said a police source on condition of anonymity. “However, in 2017, when Zakir left the Hizb and formed the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind militant outfit, Qasim remained with Hizb.”
In the 1990s, Qasim’s father, Shah, had been jailed several times due to his association with senior separatist leader Geelani. He was ultimately charged under the Public Safety Act and was forced to migrate to Srinagar with his family. The Shahs returned to their native village in 2004.
“The troubles and pain we have seen might have stayed in his memory,” said Shah, trying to understand why Qasim joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. “He was never a show-off. Even when he was an active militant, he did not use social media or pose for the camera.”
The police told The Wire it had been difficult to identify Qasim as a militant because, unlike Burhan Wani, Zakir Musa and Riyaz Naikoo, he had not uploaded a single photo of himself on social media.
“It was only when his close aide, Hamaad Khan, was killed on January 12 this year that he became vulnerable,” said a police officer. “That was when he showed up on the radar of the security establishment.”
Militancy down since 2019
The last commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) outfit in Tral, Qasim had just two newly-recruited militants under his command. When the three of them were shot on June 26, the whole Hizb outfit was eliminated from Tral, an area that once was a major centre of militancy.
Tral was the home of top Hizb commanders Burhan Wani, Sabzar Bhat and Zakir Musa. When Wani was killed in 2016, the town became an epicentre of civil unrest. However, there has been a considerable decline in local militant recruitment over the past year, a police officer in Pulwama district said.
In fact, according to Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police in Kashmir, this is the first time since 1989 that no Hizb militant is active in the area. Fewer than half a dozen local militants are still active in Tral, but not one of them is from HM.
Police sources maintained that Qasim had been the only Hizb militant active in Tral in the last six months before he recruited Basit Parray and Harris Manzoor. All three were killed in the Chewa Ullar gunfight.
The Hizb outfit had been set up in 1989. Most of its members were from the families of Jamaat-e-Islami members. It advocated Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan.
“According to our records, there are five local militants currently active in the Tral area,” said a police source. “Among them, three are with Jaish-e-Mohammed, one with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and one with Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.”
Militant outfits have been facing numerous problems since August 2019, said the police source, and thus the area has seen a decline in militancy. There is a shortage of weapons, over ground workers are being continually arrested and the security establishment has intensified its anti-militancy operations since Article 370 of the constitution was read down last year.
The Hizb had been losing recruits to other outfits since June 2017, when the Zakir Musa-led Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind began recruiting in Tral for the first time. Before that date, the Al Qaeda-affiliated outfit had mostly been confined to the police district of Awantipora. A month later, in July 2017, another Tral militant, the four-foot-tall Noor Mohammad Tantray of Darganaie Gund village, joined the Jaish-e-Mohammed as a recruiter of militants from Tral.
In August 2018, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba recruited its first militant from Tral – Shabir Ahmad Malik of Nagbal hamlet. In October 2018, another militant outfit, Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, attempted to revive its base in Tral, but did not last long.
By 2019-20, militant outfits in Tral were weakening, as their top commanders fell one by one to bullets from the security forces.
A senior journalist who has been covering Pulwama district since 2002 told The Wire that this is the first time the Hizb has no active militant in Tral. In the 18 years of his career, he said, he recalls one occasion when only one Hizb militant operated in Tral – Shabir Ahmad Bhat of Nazneenpora hamlet, who was the lone active militant in the area between 2007 and 2009.
On July 1, 2013, Shabir was killed in a gunfight at Mandoora, another Tral village, but not before he had recruited a dozen local youths including Burhan Wani.
Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @irfanaminmalik.