J&K: 6 Years After Ummer Fayaz, Family Still Restless Over an 'Elusive’ Justice

Ummer was the first off-duty security personnel who was killed by the militants while on leave.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Set amidst the long sweep of undulating hills dividing the Kulgam and Shopian districts of South Kashmir, Sursona is a cluster of traditional households where children play cricket on the open grounds in the afternoon, and where villagers stroll around idly. Nearly everyone in the village knows each other.

It’s so sparsely populated, and at such a far end of South Kashmir that hardly anyone would be familiar with its name after one has left these two districts.

Yet the village was catapulted to widespread national attention six years ago when a big tragedy struck.

LeT Militant’s Murder Link

In May 2017, three militants visited the maternal home of Ummer Fayaz, a freshly commissioned lieutenant with the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) unit of the Indian Army.

The assailants dragged the 22-year-old officer out of the house, huddled him in their vehicle, and sped away. He was found dead the following day, his lifeless body abandoned next to a bus stand. 

Nearly seven years later, the J&K Police say the perpetrators involved in the gruesome execution have been brought to justice during a gunfight in Chotigam village of Shopian district on 5 January. Police said the militant gunned down in the encounter has been identified as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT's) Bilal Ahmed Bhat, a resident of Kulgam.

Ummer grew up in the Sursona village where The Quint travelled earlier this week. His relatives and the villagers describe him as an 'affable person gifted with a precocious mind' – qualities that made him endearing.


The Contrasting Paradigm of Politics 

In Kashmir, where the history of insurgency and the stories of excesses by the security forces have been a backdrop of the political conversation for decades, the commissioning of Ummer in the Army had allowed the Indian government to project its own narratives about peace and reconciliation, especially in the aftermath of the militant leader Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016 that had reinvigorated the militancy in South Kashmir.

If the three-decade-old insurgency starting in the 1990s is taken to be a non-linear trajectory of tumultuous events, then young men like Ummer appear to dot the period of transition.

His father’s uncle Muhammad Ayyub Parray was a militant too. In fact, he was the only one in Sursona and was reportedly killed in the 1990s on the Line of Control.

On the night of 9 May, Ummer was with her bride-to-be cousin at her place in Batpora village in Shopian when the militants stormed inside the house. They escorted Ummer out, to the protests of his family members, and decamped. For the entire night, his whereabouts were unknown. In the morning, the villagers spotted a dead body at a bus stop in the village of Hermain in Shopian. It had bullet injuries on the head and in the stomach.

The villagers rushed to the hospital with the body where the doctors recognised Ummer and pronounced him dead. The incident left the entire village stunned, for they hadn’t expected anything like that. “It was a big tragedy for us all,” said Muhammad Ashraf, a local villager.

Ummer’s Boyish Charm and His Commitment to Service

It was also a brutal shock for the rest of the country. Ummer’s pictures show him as a young smiling man of a boyish visage.

The killing triggered a country-wide outrage as news channels played in loop the segments narrating the details of his life, extolling his commitment to national security in a sharp contrast to the militancy-inclined section of the young population in the valley.

The journalists, defence experts, and former Army veterans all wrote several newspaper columns; appeared on TV; and posted social media updates, hammering home the perceived severity of the wrongdoing, laced with political overtones.

Author Bhaavna Arora wrote a book titled Undaunted: Lt Ummer Fayaz of Kashmir while the Army renamed its local school in Kulgam as 'Lt Ummer Fayaz Goodwill School.’


A Turning Point in the Attitude Towards Militants

The episode also led to a shift in the discourse, with the security forces becoming less defensive about the criticism over the previous year’s killing, and turning more recriminatory. 

Calling the incident a "watershed moment”, Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, the then Army Commander South Western Command, questioned how the killing of Ummer, a local man, “squared with the alleged freedom struggle they claim to be waging,” he said, adding that, "This only proves once again that they are just a bunch of criminals.”

For the security forces, his killing also signalled a turning point, where the atmosphere of that of general support for militants appeared to be shifting towards the feeling of revulsion at the arbitrary acts of violence, manifesting in an increasing supply of human intelligence against the militant groups.

But there was no immediate trace of his killers believed to be associated with the militant group LeT. The police said that the 22-year-old Lt was killed by a rifle that had been snatched away from a policeman during an attack on a court complex in Shopian some weeks before. The rifle-snatching became vogue among militant groups in 2017.

Before the 5 January gunfight, the security forces in J&K had twice announced previously that they had gunned down militants allegedly involved in Ummer's killing.

In September 2017, the forces said they killed one Ishfaq Ahmad Paddar and in April 2018, the J&K police said that two of the 12 militants killed across three big gunfights in South Kashmir, Ishfaq Malik and Reyaz Thokar were part of the conspirators in Ummer's abduction and killing case. 


An Elusive Sense of 'Justice’

But one can't help but feel curious if these killings have changed anything for the family.

The Parrays live in their modest 3-story house in Sursona. Ummer was survived by his parents, a grandmother, and two sisters. The year after his death, his mother gave birth to a second son whom they affectionately named Ummer. "But later we decided not to call him by that name as it reminded us of our slain son,” Fayaz Parray, Ummer’s 54-year-old father, said. "We renamed him Musadiq.” 

It is only natural perhaps that Ummer’s killing has made his family members more reclusive. Their reserved conversations were a mark that they may be unwilling to divulge more than necessary. When asked if the killing of the militant involved with their late son's death meant justice for them, they remained rather pursed.

"How will that change things for us?” asked Fayaz. “I have lost my son and nothing will compensate for that.”

The fear of the unknown rings in their words. Six years after Ummer’s killing, his younger sister Asmat Fayaz was perturbed at the renewed media interest in her deceased brother’s life.

“We are still scared about things. You know how they are here. We don’t want to say anything that can be interpreted in a different way,” she said cryptically, before adding bluntly, "We don’t want to lose any other member of our family.”

Asmat is also sullen over the government employment she was offered under SRO-43. She had just finished high school at the time of the offer which was commensurate with that qualification.

Even though she did acquire a post-graduate degree in the English language later, she still works as a 'Lab Bearer’ in J&K’s Department of Education.


Cops & Security Personnel: A Frequent Target

Ummer was the first off-duty security personnel who was killed by the militants while on leave – a trend that became frequent in the years later. In 2021, the Army said at least seven of its off-duty men were killed in J&K since 2017. 

Two years after the revocation of Article 370, the Kashmir Valley also saw an uptick of hit-and-run assassinations, targets of which were predominantly cops and members of minority communities. The Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a community welfare group estimates that at least 22 Hindu civilians have been killed by various militant groups in Kashmir since 2020. 

The Quint has tracked most of these killings including that of Sunil Bhat, a Pandit orchardist from Shopian. Sunil was shot dead in August 2022 during an attack that also left his brother Pritambar Nath injured. It was the second attack on the same family. In April, militants had shot at Bal Krishnan, a local chemist in Chotigam in Shopian. Krishnan is Sunil’s cousin.

But while Krishnan survived the attack, Sunil did not. His killing prompted the entire family to move to Jammu, and register themselves as 'migrants’. 

Last week, the J&K Police said that the militant slain during the 5 January gunfight was also one of the conspirators in Sunil’s killing, and the attack on his cousin Bal Krishnan earlier that year.

The Quint rang Anil Bhat, Krishnan’s younger brother. He refused to speak on the issue and hung up, suggesting the level of fear in which these families continue to live despite the government’s assurances that militancy had been all but wiped out in Kashmir. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Article 370   J&K   Indian Army 

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