Minutes before the killing took place on June 7, Halima Bano was rattled by the sound of a gunshot close to her home in J&K’s Sopore town. Her panic was sparked partly by the memory of two men who had surreptitiously been doing rounds of the locality since morning and also due to the incidents of violence in the town where four people had been killed by unknown gunmen in less than two weeks.
Oblivious to any consequences of her decision, Halima scampered towards the main road where Mehraj-ud-Din Dar, her brother who worked as a chicken seller, was smoking a cigarette. Halima felt relieved. “I told him, ‘Brother, come inside. Its not safe here’,” Halima recalled at their home in Sopore’s Badam Bagh locality, “but he didn’t listen. Instead, he scolded me for venturing out.”
Before Halima could return to her daily errands, two more shots rang out and for the second time in less than five minutes, driven by concern and fear, she found herself on the road where the blood-soaked body of her brother lay motionless. Two precision shots were fired at him from behind; one exited through his left eye socket while the other was buried in his chest.
Six Killings in Three Weeks
The anarchy that took six lives in Sopore within three weeks flared up on May 25 when a hitherto unknown outfit, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed to have shot dead a BSNL franchise owner in the locality of Noorbagh and followed it up with the killing of another telecom trader in Dooru the next day, crippling mobile services across the Valley. Jolted by the attacks, the Union Home Ministry dispatched a team to assess the situation in Kashmir. Within a week, mobile telephony was limping towards normalcy and it seemed like the worst was over.
But the events got mystified on the morning of June 9, when a Hurriyat activist, Sheikh Altaf-ur-Rehman, was shot dead while returning home from the Sopore sub-district hospital where he worked as a senior pharmacist. While Lashkar-e-Islam had wasted no time in claiming the attacks in Noorbagh and Dooru, the group’s silence on the killing of a government employee with known Hurriyat ties lent an air of mystery to the events and led to many raised eyebrows in the state.
Is there a pattern to the killings, no one knows. But what is happening in Sopore reflects the abnormal and uncertain conditions in Kashmir which can’t be understood or explained. There are state as well as non-state actors operating in Kashmir and one can never be sure who is behind the attacks.
– Noor Mohammad Baba, Prof of Political Science, Central University of Kashmir
Reading Between Parrikar’s Lines
Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah as well as Hurriyat parties linked the killing to Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s “terrorists-for-terrorists” remarks, refreshing memories of a state-backed militia called Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon (IM), which carried out some of the worst human rights abuses in Kashmir, especially against the leaders of Jama’at-e-Islami, at the peak of insurgency in the early nineties.
The J&K police, however, blamed Lashkar-e-Islam for killing Altaf. But, unlike on previous occasions, no reasons were given for why Altaf, a staunch pro-freedom activist, would be killed, supposedly by his own men. According to the Director General of J&K Police, K Rajendra, Lashkar-e-Islam is a “splinter group of Hizbul Mujahideen” led by Qayoom Najar, a resident of Sopore, which broke away from its parent organisation last year and started acting independently. But there is no clarity on why the ties were snapped. The Hizb, too, has denied any association with the new group.
Interestingly, the J&K Police released posters of suspects involved in the Sopore killings last week but it has turned out that the photo of “most wanted militant” Qayoom Najar is actually of a businessman from Kupwara, Irfan Ahmad Shah, who alleged that the photo was taken by him at a park in Baramulla.
The killers named by the police used to study in our (Jama’at’s) seminary. Both of them have been students of Altaf. Do you think they will kill their teacher? I have also taught their fathers. I am a respected man in Sopore but I was always a target.
– Sheikh Mohammad Yusuf, Altaf’s father
In his seventies now, Sheikh Yusuf has been working with Jama’at-e-Islami, which favours the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, for 51 years. His younger son, a doctorate student at Aligarh Muslim University, was killed by security forces in Srinagar in 2000 when he was returning home to be with his family on Eid. In one of the rarest instances, the State acknowledged the wrong committed and offered cash and a job to the family, which they refused.
Read Part II of this two-part story here.