Deadly divide

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Separated in birth by a year and in death by 6 kms, sub inspector Feroz Dar and rebel commander Bashir Lashkari belonged to two different backgrounds but operated in the same space, fragmented by crisis, conflict and uncertainty. One orphaned in childhood, another supported by his parents to make a good career, they were killed in two separate incidents, barely a fortnight apart. Umar Mukhtar tells the story of the two young men who were delivered as martyrs to the two sides of Kashmir’s ideological split

June 16, 2017 was not an ordinary day. By last midnight, troops, paramilitary and the cops had laid a siege in Arwani, a major village near Bejbehara, where three Lashkar militants were trapped. Most of the belt had interrupted night sleep as the two sides targeted each other. By forenoon, it was a tense situation in the belt.

Police were shelling from the rare of the siege to prevent restive young men from breaking the cordon. Top cops who were part of the management said the efforts by youth were very serious. Well before noon, the operation was almost over. Police said they killed three militants including Junaid Matoo (Khudwani), Adil Mir (Pampore) and a Pakistani. They also killed two civilians Mohammad Ashraf Ahangar and Ehsan Ahmad, for allegedly attempting militant rescue. This had added to the anger that was already splashing itself on the streets. CRPF even chased fleeing youth some of whom  had jumped into the Jhelum.

As JCBs were removing the debris from the profusely blasted house, the protests had spread far and wide, upto the main Islamabad town. Almost entire police force was out on the streets, including civil administration to ensure there are no casualties. They had already switched off the internet and mobile telephony.

Almost ten kms downstream, at Sangam, where the Arwani side of stream, the ferocious Veshaw, joins Jhelum, Abdul Rahim Dar was facing a new rebellion: his grand-children, both minors, were so keen to see their father. At 3:30 pm, his three year old grand-daughter, Aabiroo insisted she wants to see her father. “Mujhe abu ke paas jaana hai”, Dar remembers, she telling him.

The wish seemed simple but the situation was hugely complex. Her father, Feroz Ahmad Dar, headed the police station at Achabal. Reaching Achabal meant moving an emotional minefield: Bijehara, then Islamabad. But kids are kings and do not understand logic.

“I along with his wife, and two daughters drove to Achabal, somehow,” Abdul Rahim said. “On reaching there, we came to know that he was not there and had gone to law and order duty to Islamabad where clashes were going on due to the encounter at Arwani.”

Caught in a strange situation, Rahim rang up his son. “Keep them in my quarter and come to Islamabad, we can meet here,” Rahim remembers his son saying. “I left his family there to wait for his return and rejoining and reached Islamabad where we had an informal chat for about twenty minutes.”

 Then they left their way: Rahim, a driver with the PHE department in state government and still serving, left for home and Feroz, his son to Achabal to meet his family.

Rahim reached home and was waiting for Iftaar. The tense situation in the region was on the back of his mind. He wanted to watch news. The routine hustle of the kids was not around too. At 7 pm, he turned on his newly bought LED TV. He set the ETV Urdu channel. A ticker in bold letters was flashing: “SHO Achabal samaet paanch police ahlikaar halaaq.”

In utter disbelief, he was about to collapse but controlled his emotions. He did not want to believe the news. In utter haste, he left home, without revealing anything to anybody. Tense, he was driving again. This time his destination was District Police Lines Islamabad. But the news and apprehensions became reality when he saw his son’s bullet-ridden face in his blood soaked uniform lying loosely shrouded in white lenin in the police lines.

Rahim was still with his son, now dead, as the Deputy Commissioner Syed Abid Rashid drove his daughter-in-law and her just-orphaned two daughters to Sangam in his personal car. Within three hours, Rahim’s family had taken a cardboard home turn. It had crashed on him.

Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti consoling family members of Feroz Dar.

As it was later revealed, Feroz was returning with his subordinates mostly his personal security. Once his police van, reached near Thajiwara village, it came under a volley of bullets from all the sides. Within a few minutes when the gun roaring stopped, Feroz along with other cops were lying dead inside the vehicle, a Sumo. It was later revealed, his bosses has delayed his request for a BP vehicle.

The initial photographs, probably clicked by somebody from the CRPF and put on facebook, offered a horrific sight. The SHO had his head hung between his blood spilling arms, loosely dangling, lifeless. Even his ‘two stars’ were drenched in blood. Even the driver was in the same position, in a condition as if Feroz was offering him a cushion. In the rare of the jeep were two bodies, one actually still having his feet on the rare step, drenched in blood. On one side was a cop with his face on ground and almost his head torn apart.

“Did you ever stop for a while and asked yourself, what is going to happen to me the first night in my grave? Think about the moment your body is being washed and prepared to your grave,” Feroz had written on his facebook on January 18, 2013. “Think about the day people will be carrying you to your grave. And your families crying …think about the moment you are put in your grave.” Then he again wrote: “Just imagine…yourself in your grave. Down there in that dark hole…Alone.”

Though investigations can offer details about the modus operandi of the rebels but seemingly the assailants had come very close to the vehicle, probably after pulverising it. They had fired on them from very close range.

A woman kissing feet of body Bashir Lashkari at his funeral.

“The gruesome killings is reflection of the change in the folds, rather break of central command,” a senior police officer, serving the belt told Kashmir Life. “The militants who are carrying out these attacks are doing it out of revenge to the security forces actions.” Insisting the rebels are “responding in dreadful ways” as in Feroz case, “the police party was shot from point blank”.

Feroz had Masters in Zoology from a Maharashtra University. He had completed his MPhil, too. In fact, he had worked as contractual lecturer at state run Degree College for Boys in Anantnag for about one year. Then he applied for a police job and got it.

His conservative family belonged to Dagripora – Panzgam in Pulwama. Once Dar wore the Khaki, Rahim knew what it means. His son had survived with some splinter injuries when militants tossed a grenade towards the police station in Sherbagh, Islamabad, last year.

“I know the relation between police and militants is not a cosy one,” Rahim said, after three days of mourning. “So I decided to move out from that area.”

People offering funeral prayers of Feroz Dar.

Knowing that the area deep inside south has consistent militant movement – Hizbul Mujahedeen divisional commander Riyaz Naikoo hails from the same area – Rahim decided a migration. (Locals say this was not the sole reason, however.) They took a bank loan, acquired some land at Sangam, not far away from the highway, and started living in the two-storey home.

Unlike Dagripora, Sangam was accessible and much safer. But cops rarely operate from home. “It had been fifteen days Feroz had met his family,” Rahim said, almost crying in pain. “Now after a fortnight he was meeting his two little daughters and wife, but he missed that date too.”

Survived by his young wife, Mubeena, a home-maker, and two daughters – Aabiroo, 3 and Simran 5, now Rahim will have to manage himself, his wife and a widowed daughter-in-law. When Chief Minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti visited to condole the killings, she did mention some help in managing Feroz’s bank loan. It coincided with a controversy within the police about the support the 100-thousand strong force must extend to the families of its fallen members.

Lashkar staked the claim for the attack, termed most brutal by senior police officers, Kashmir Life talked to. They said the attack avenged the Arwani encounter. Quite quickly came the police response. It said Bashir Lashkari alias abu Ukasa, led a group of Lashkar hit men to kill Feroz. Within hours, the police, even publicly, talked of revenge. A massive manhunt was launched to trace and kill Bashir, perhaps the senior most militant in the belt.

Feroz was 32. Bashir Ahmad Wani alias Lashkari was 33. A resident of Soafshali in Kokernag, he lived almost 40 kms from Sangam. Unlike Feroz, Lashkari has been in public memory for a long time. Lashkari’s evolution into a top assailant, whose head carried a tag of Rs 10 lakh, is a long story.

Circa 1999 is a year that is part of indelible public memory because India and Paksitan, fought a light bloody war, over Kargil heights, just to test if nuclear arsenal was a real deterrent. That year, Feroz was 14. Bashir fled home and crossed over to the other side for arms training. In December 2001, he returned. For about one year he remained active in the Islamabad and then was arrested at Shahgund Masjid in 2002. Lucky, he was not killed. As the state of human rights was dominating the real public discourse, Kashmir’s counter-insurgent grid had changed, for a while, its long term strategy of not taking prisoners. Wani went to jail and walked home from Central Jail Srinagar in February 2005. Those were the ‘healing touch’ years, rather conclusion of it.

People offering funeral prayers of Bashir Lashkari.

After his release, his brother Lateef Ahmad recalls, Bashir was “mentally and physically tortured” by the police, time and again. “Whenever anything odd used to happen in our area police used to call him to police station and kept him as long as they wish,” said Lateef. “He was a hostage to situation.”

After six months, Bashir returned to his ranks and joined Lashkar for the second time. The lone reason, Lateef said, was “the daily abuse”. He soon got arrested in 2006. He was second time lucky as he survived. This time, he was sent to Hira Nagar. He walked home again in 2008.

After releasing from the jail, Lateef said, Bashir decided to live a normal life and not to get involved any sort of activities that hamper his normal life. He dissociated from Lashkar in every way.

Bashir changed but the system did not. “He has to make himself present for two days a week before Joint Interrogation Committee (JIC ) Anantnag and special operation group (SOG ) of police,” Bilal Ahmad, his another brother, said. “He was repeatedly asked questions like, what is the new Lashkar strategy in Kashmir. He was kept there from eight in the morning up to late evening without any food.”

Bashir was on continuous surveillance, both physical and electronic. His brothers said that if he would call anybody, police would arrest him. “Once Bashir rang up a medical store owner and asked for some medicine, the next day both the store owner and Bashir were in police station facing questions and music,” Bilal said.

Finally, he broke his own promise. In October 2015, Bashir, fed up by the enforced routine of abuses and insults at the hands of police, according to his brothers, decided to join Lashkar again, for the third time. In last two years, he was the most senior Lashkar militant operating in the belt.

Bashir has two brothers, the adopted brother Bilal and real brother Mudasir. They have neither of their parents alive. Bashir was eight when he lost his parents. They lived in a double-storey mud house. Bashir never went to school but had started learning basic Urdu while in jail. His only prized possession in his modest room is the set of Tafheem-ul-Quran. His brothers said he had purchased this from his jail earnings (prisoners are entitled to some money for their food and upkeep). Though the village has many people serving the police, Shameem Ahmad, one of his relatives said, Bashir rarely teased anybody.

It was July 1, when Lashkari got trapped in Brenthi, almost ten kilometres from his Soafshali  home and 6 kms from Thajiwara where he with other militants, according to police, ambushed SHO Feroz  and party. When the news broke about his entrapment in the siege, people moved in hoards to rescue him. Risking their lives, people tried entering the house where he was holed up. Like Arwani, two civilians, were killed in the 8-hour long encounter: Tahira, 44, and Shadab Ahmad Chopan, 21. Police said nearly 30 were injured, mostly be pellets.

Main recruiter in the belt, Lashkari was a household name. A phone communication went viral suggesting how Lashkari guided mobs to get in (nobody knows its veracity, though).

Eventually, Lashkari was killed along with his accomplice, Abu Maaz, a Pakistani. A top grade, A++ militant, his head cost a million bucks. “RIP Feroz. Justice delivered,” a police officer tweeted. “Wish good sense prevails, there are no more killings in Kashmir, and we all live in peace.”

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