Man Behind the Mask

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Only an investigation will reveal if the Bandipora shootout that killed Altaf Dar, J&K Police’s larger than life investigator, was a chase or a trap. But the mourning in police encouraged top militant leader to announce a reward for the kill. Bilal Handoo shuttles between Altaf’s distraught poor parents in a remote village to his bosses’ chambers in ivory towers and pieces together fragments of details to recreate Kashmir police’s legendry detective, posthumously

SI Altaf Ahmad Dar

SI Altaf Ahmad Dar

When a class III student fabricated bulldozer by piecing together wood planks, sleepy Zanglipora hamlet in down south Kulgam was caught in awe and admiration. They called him child prodigy and betted that one day the genius would create a big name for himself. Three decades later, when the boy-turned-cop Altaf A Dar was brought home dead, the village went into tearful mourning, almost akin to 100 thousand strong J&K police.

Making of Altaf, the sleuth, is an art film script that picks up in the latter half and ends in a whiff. After having stints with private teaching job and medical coaching in Jammu, the athlete queued up for police. He was on top of the list. But then rot surfaced in the process and the list was cancelled. By the time fresh trails began, Altaf was in line, missed the top slot but grabbed the second spot in entire Kashmir. Then, his teacher visited him with an important message…

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Late October 2010, Masrat Alam, the man spearheading the ‘Quit Kashmir’ from underground was caught. After the operation was over, the then Kashmir police chief, SM Sahai visited a “relieved” Omar Abdullah at his Gupkar residence.

“Sir, the boys should get something for their commendable feat,” Sahai told Omar.

“Sure, yes! What do you suggest?” Omar shot back.

“Cash award is fine, but promotion would have been a morale booster, no?”

“Yes, absolutely fine. Let’s give it to the boys.”

Shortly Omar along with then DGP Kuldeep Khoda was seen decorating stars on Altaf’s shoulders. He was promoted for his extensive data mining ability that helped track Alam from his maternal uncle’s home in Srinagar’s Wagund (Telbal area) on October 18, 2010.

That summer, Alam evaded police manhunt for over 120 days, making mockery of state’s surveillance methods. “To keep police at bay,” says Rafiq Ganie, Alam’s close confidante, “we kept changing places frequently, and avoided using phones.” As Alam issued protest calendars, Omar government was in tight spot. Even a bounty of Rs 10 lakh didn’t help.

Inside Rajbagh’s SIT office, Altaf was silently and sleeplessly tracking mobile numbers without much success at outset. He finally detected a call that Alam made to his mother from a particular number. It was triumphing tip-off for police that eventually sent Alam to prison. “Altaf didn’t arrest Alam,” says Sahai, now ADGP Armed J&K. “Like an astute investigator, he only traced his whereabouts and the rest was done by cops on ground.” Catching Alam was Altaf’s biggest achievements, Sahai believes, “as it drew curtains down over the four-month long protests across Kashmir”.

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But 12 years before he could get Alam ‘in’, the young Altaf was a Muharir (assistant Munshi) at Batamaloo Police Station, courtesy his impressive Urdu handwriting. Then, a ruffian, sobriquet as Fayaz Cobra was lodged there. Cobra, an ex-cop, was facing prison over sodomy charges. One fine day, he fled. Being the most junior, Altaf became the scapegoat. As a punishment, he was attached with SP South’s office, headed by Uttam Chand. But it proved blessing in disguise.

Police had then barely started using mobile intercepts. The technology lured Altaf, who loved physics at school. One day, he stepped into his boss’s office with a request: “Sir, may I also hear mobile intercepts?” As Chand nodded in affirmation, Altaf’s career took a quantum jump.

Once his trysts with mobile intercepts began, his investigative knack got noticed. Within a short span of time, says his former colleague at SP South’s office, Altaf learned all tricks of the trade. “Initially he would write those intercepts, but later on, he bought a Nokia’s 1100 mobile phone for recording and interpreting call intercepts.” This went on till he developed burning desire to have his own laptop. With only Rs 1800 in pocket, he couldn’t afford one. A DySP rank officer Farooq passed word to Sahai, who helped him buy his prized possession.

What he did with that laptop soon earned him fans. One among them was Syed Afadul Mujtaba, the now SSG head.

Then SSP Srinagar, Afad met Altaf during the Parihar case investigation. Watching a class 12 qualified cop keenly taking interest in a high profile investigation amazed Afad. “I found his sense of investigation and legal knowledge marvellous,” the SSG boss says. “Normally, we policemen are poor in Evidence Act knowledge. But this is where, Altaf’s forte lied.”

As time passed, Afad saw Altaf’s computer inclination mounting. His software knowledge and mobile network understanding were equally tremendous, he says. “His surveillance and call analysis technique were of international standard. But what amazed me most was his genius to develop call analysis software. He used that software to track down location of mobile phones, even if put on switched off mode.” The same technological exploits later proved instrumental in cracking 2007 Ganderbal fake encounter.

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To probe the case, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was constituted by the government. Altaf, as part of SIT, was “tirelessly recording, collecting and analysing” evidence. It was mainly his meticulous investigation that revealed: a carpenter Abdul Rehman Padroo from Kokernag was passed off as Lashkar militant Abu Zahid and killed in a fake encounter. Among the seven accused was the former SSP Hans Raj Parihar, presently lodged at Central Jail Srinagar.

Padroo had gone missing from Batamaloo bus stand on December 8, 2006 and was taken to Ganderbal’s Waskoora, where he was killed in a fake encounter by the Special Operation Group (SOG) men from Ganderbal and Sumbal.

SIT exhumed Padroo’s body in Sumbal. And later DNA taken from the body matched with that of Padroo’s relatives in Larnoo Kokernag, thus confirming that the slain carpenter wasn’t a “Pakistani militant”. The SIT chief, Uttam Chand, later prayed for the punishment of the accused in the case he termed “the rarest of the rare cases”.

For Altaf, the Parihar case was a dream debut to handle high profile cases. He later went on to solve mystery around assassination bid attempt on separatist Fazl Haq Qureshi. But it was his investigative role in arresting Hizbul Mujahideen militants that cut a counterinsurgent image for him. To his credit are the prized catches, including Hizb’s top guns – Gazi Misbah, Muzaffar A Dar, Pervez Musharraf, Hanif Khan and others.

Interestingly, his modus operandi to crack the Hanif Khan case is now a case study in police training.

It was 2007-08 and Tral’s Noorpora was the black-hole of information for police where Khan was evidently hiding. Once Altaf took up the case, he used technical expertise and cultivated human intelligence to locate Khan’s den. “When the police party raided the house, they could find nothing there,” says Sahai. “But while stepping out, one policeman saw a double slab over bathroom. It caught his attention. As he moved closer, Khan was caught.” The manner Altaf cultivated contacts in “pro-resistance bastion” to catch Khan continues to be a confidential yet important method for police to crack such cases.

It was because of this investigative acumen that made many police officers to compare Altaf with Father Brown, a fictional sleuth character penned down by GK Chesterton. Like Brown, Altaf was an amusing companion with smiling face, says Rayees Mohammad Bhat, SP Hazratbal. “His wit, hardwork and dedication bestowed him an uncommon gift for solving crimes.” He gave one gift to Rayees by solving a blind acid attack amid public outcry.

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When a 21-year-old girl student was sprinkled with acid by a Maruti 800 borne youth in Srinagar’s Nowshera on December 11, 2014, Rayees realised he was staring at public storm. It was second such crime for passion in Kashmir where police’s initial efforts had failed. Five days after the incident, Altaf along with then IGP Kashmir, Abdul Gani Mir and Rayees was chairing a high-level meeting to review the investigation.

It was then Altaf began using extensive data-mining and tower-tracking, SP Bhat says. Some 4000 numbers were put under surveillance. Altaf zeroed in on four of them he found in regular contact with the victim. But all those four numbers were switched off on the day of attack, hinting the meticulous crime planning involved.

But finally two business partners who were also partners in crime were caught in Altaf’s investigation net. Irshad Wani alias Sunny of Wazir Bagh was the mastermind; his friend, Omar Noor of Bemina, an accomplice. Before arresting the duo, Altaf learned about Irshad’s frequent Ajmer visits. To get closer to him, he disguised some of his SIT members as devotees and sent them to visit some local faith-healers. “Altaf believed that Irshad might be in touch with faith-healers to lure the girl,” Rayees says.

Later, Altaf tracked Irshad’s movements in Jammu, where he was finally caught. Once questioning began, Irshad vomited out that he had been stalking the victim for some time and that his repeated advances were rejected by the college girl. This left him in a vengeful huff, making him to obtain 40 litres of distilled water and two litres of concentrated Sulphuric Acid from a shop in Batamaloo to settle the scores. “Altaf brilliantly cracked the case despite suffering from chronic back problem and having no access to the victim being treated in Chennai,” Rayees says. “The case only proved his meticulous eye for detail and dedication for follow up. He was the man of dogged perseverance.”

SM Sahai speaking during a press briefing in Srinagar. (Photo: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

SM Sahai and IGP SJM Gillani briefing press.

It was because of this investigative expertise that made Altaf a teacher to many KPS / IPS officers, schooled in his SIT. Even NIA officers would seek his advice every time they were on a case. Some of them posted outside took the first flight to Srinagar once the news of his death spread. “The overwhelming reaction triggered by his death was only realistic,” says Afad, “because Altaf made many careers and was behind many success stories.” Besides, JK police’s recent feats in counterinsurgency were backed by his investigations, he says. “But primarily, his role was of an investigator than a counterinsurgent. I don’t think we will ever have another Altaf.”

Behind state police’s stimulating sentiment is also Altaf’s “one man police force” image. Like a textbook police investigator, recalls his SIT colleague, Altaf was calm, collected and cool while dealing with case – even under high-stress situations. “He was too good in researching and analyzing evidence to reach conclusions,” says the SIT member. Like a qualified investigator, Altaf had hold over criminology, criminal justice, psychology and human service, he says. “He was total package and cut from different fabric.” Not many people know it, he says, that for investigations, Altaf would extensively use security census – “the data mapping exercise done in Kashmir for surveillance purposes during Sahai’s tenure as IGP Kashmir”.

Throughout his career, says a counterinsurgent officer posted in Srinagar’s Cargo, Altaf maintained a “clean criminal record”. “Unlike a regular taski (counterinsurgent), he was free from bad habits and abusive body language,” he says. “All he ever cared was his job.”

And to raise the bar of his job, he had developed a network of sources, even in separatist camps, the officer says. “He used to motivate people to work for him. He would pay them from his own pocket and often take them for having biryani in different restaurants. It was his way to keep them in a good sense.” This helped him to create a huge data bank, he says. “He was an asset for police, who being an SI was protected under Z-category, not by rank, but by name. He could do many things and was the most dependable.” Even a nodal head of a telecom company would give him CDR at midnight, the officer says, “such was the level of his contacts.”

And the same fact about him would flock politicians around him.

For last three years, PDP’s youth president, Waheed Parra would buzz Altaf frequently to enquire about the detained youth landing in Rajbagh police lockup.

Jinab, any chances of his release,” Parra would enquire from Altaf about the detained youth, mainly from Pulwama, Parra’s hometown.

“Yes. The guy is not that much involved.”

“So, how long you are keeping him there?”

“Till the questioning lasts.”

“So, shall I send his parents to have a meeting?”

“Yes, bring them in.”

Every once or twice in a month, such conversation would take place between the two men linked by different roles. “He was always helpful,” says Parra, a political analyst in CM Office. “Unlike Cargo, which is a ‘hate symbol’, Altaf ran SIT in a rational manner.” This, Parra believes, created a different niche for him in an entire police force. “Therefore the tearful reaction from police force over his demise is self-explanatory,” he says.

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Back in 1998, the message his teacher Mohammad Akram had brought home was cautionary than congratulatory after the news of his police selection spread in Zanglipora.

“Somebody stop him from joining police,” the teacher told his father, Bashir Dar.

“But, why?”

“He is meant for something else.”

“What do you mean?”

“He is a genius. Groom him and one day he will be a scientist.”

“Let it be now. Let fate decide his destiny,” a distraught father remembers saying.

Among the mourners who had turned up in the village for his funeral in the evening of October 7 was Mohammad Akram. Standing among the crowd and struggling to get a last glimpse of his slain student, the teacher was only grieving at the ‘radical’ fate shift Altaf’s destiny had taken. “He was too good a student,” Akram says, “who could have easily become a top scientist, if not a sleuth…”

Inside his windowless house in Zanglipora, “raised on bank loans”, his brothers’ say, Altaf could have also become a top cricketer. “He was selected as wicketkeeper batsman to play for Under-19 Ranji for state,” says Ashraf, his elder brother, a teacher. “Though poverty back home ruined his luck, but he never ceased to be a cricket buff.” In his village, looking withered under the grip of fall, he continues to be a “true Samaritan”, who was “down to earth” and master in concealing his real status. But in Srinagar and closer to power circles, Altaf was no mystery man.

Posthumously some of his colleagues, who uploaded his mug-shot as their Facebook profile pictures, compare him with the legendary inspector of San Francisco Police Department, Dave Toschi, for the similarity in their crime investigation.

Known for his dressing sense, meticulous mapping of case and eye for details, Toschi is famous for his role in Zodiac Killer case that had terrorised San Francisco with a string of killings from December 1968 to October 1969. After tormenting public and taunting police, it was Toschi who finally identified the main suspect in the entire case, Arthur Leigh Allen.

Akin to Zodiac Killer case, Srinagar shook under 13 attacks from February 2010 to August 2012. The series of events included killing of a former DSP, an inspector, an NC block president and two constables, attacks on Ali Muhammad Sagar, army, civil secretariat, and on Sufi religious scholar and on CRPF battalion. One such event was a grenade attack on Batamaloo Police Station.

Minutes after the attack, a newly-inducted IPS officer Rayees saw Altaf the first person reaching the spot and stuck to task. “He soon pieced the different puzzles together and joined the unrelated dots by zeroing in on the house of a constable, Abdul Rashid Shigan, the disguised mastermind,” says Rayees. “It was his thumping feat that stopped the bloodbath.”

On the basis of Altaf’s inputs, police arrested Shigan alias Omar Mukhtar of Lachamanpora Batmaloo and Imtiyaz Gojri of Nawakadal. Police believe both were running a module of Kashmir Islamic Movement, a part of Hizbul Mujahideen. “I don’t remember any case solved in last decade without having Altaf’s footprints,” says AG Mir, now state’s intelligence chief. “Altaf was a blend of excellence of human mind and technological wonder with highest order of intellectual integrity.” Like Toschi, Altaf was also involved in investigating a series of sectarian assaults, one in which Moulana Showkat, president Jamiet Ahl-e-Hadith Kashmir, was killed in an IED blast at Maisuma Srinagar on April 8, 2011. “He solved Moulana Showkat case from a single bullet casing,” Mir says.

Based on his investigations, police cracked the case within eight days by establishing involvement of a “radical religious-political” outfit ‘Sout-ul-Haq’. The outfit had “hatched conspiracy to eliminate the cleric for his supposed government ties”. It was Altaf who established Javaid Munshi alias Bill Papa as a kingpin in the case “who had received material assistance from the slain Lashkar Commander, Abdullah Uni”. For cracking such high-profile cases, IGP SJM Gillani rues police have lost a repository of knowledge on militancy. “None understood militancy like Altaf,” he stresses.

Top cops carrying SI Altaf's coffin.

Top cops carrying SI Altaf’s coffin.

Amid silent mourning in police’s rank and file, the ex-counterinsurgent officer currently posted as SP Awantipora recalls his former colleague Altaf as a thorough investigator, who had authority over his profession. “There are many tech-savvy cops in police, much better than him,” says SP Irshad Ahmad. “But nobody will have application and personal involvement of the level Altaf had.” His capability to involve with masses was enormous, he says. “Actually he taught us that there is an alternative to third degree by sticking to investigation. That’s what made him really great.”

For instance, the Awantipora police chief says, to solve 2009 Asrar Mushtaq murder case, Altaf simply talked to the perpetrators for full night, touched their weak points, gave them confidence to speak truth. “That amazed me,” he says. Altaf solved the love-tangle case with ease and expertise. And by unmasking the killers, Irshad says, Altaf calmed down Srinagar that went up in rage for three days against the killing, initially thought as a handiwork of government forces. “I also remember a kidnapping case of a girl, happily married now. It was Altaf who got her back home, displaying highest degree of policing and human tenderness.”

It was because of this involvement that secured him four promotions within his 15-year career. To honour the same spirit posthumously, the police are donating a day salary to his family, comprising his widow (a casual NHRM worker) and two minor orphans.

Former CM, Omar Abdullah, paying floral tributes to Altaf Dar.

Former CM, Omar Abdullah, paying floral tributes to Altaf Dar.

But hours before state’s top cop K Rajendra Kumar described him as “exemplary police officer with heart of lion and intelligence of exceptional nature”, Altaf was in plainclothes examining movement of his catch on Bandipora tracks. For the day, he was the part of the hunt league on ground than sitting with his laptop.

Inside that white car, he was repeatedly running fingers on his cellphone, exchanging Whatsapp messages with his brothers back home. The chat was about the donor who could donate B-Negative blood to their pregnant cousin. It was then, he typed, “I am B-Negative, will donate the blood myself.” His elder brother texted back: “How come you are B-Negative, when all of us (his brothers) are B-Positive?” Just then guns rattled and all replies ceased.

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2 Comments

  1. A truly remarkable officer. Such individuals and their stories hardly reach other parts of India. God give his family strength to cope with his loss.

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