Militant friends in Ikhwan Town

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Amid a raging debate over how Hajin, the fountainhead of erstwhile ruthless counter-insurgency, became militancy’s posh address, Shams Irfan spent days in the belt and traced the two boys from diverse backgrounds who challenged the Ikhwan might, in a bid to erase its infamous past

On May 12, 2017, after five hours search, when Abdul Hameed Mir, 47, a pharmacist in north Kashmir’s Hajin town, failed to trace his elder son Aabid, a BCom first-year student,  he sat down, wiped his moist eyes and thought: where could he possibly go?

Missing since afternoon, Mir tried to recall every single contact, Aabid, 19, ever had. As he was going through the list of people his son knew, one face stood out: Nasrullah Mir. A known stone-pelter since 2013, Nasrullah’s frequent skirmishes with police are now part of Hajin’s folklore. Nasrullah, 21, lived at the other end of Mir Mohallah, a five minute’s walk from Aabid’s modest two-storey house.

“I had seen Aabid and Nasrullah together first time just a week back,” recalled Mir. “It was an odd and painful sight for me. I had no idea they were friends.”

As Nasrullah’s face kept popping in Mir’s head, all of a sudden everything started making sense. Mir now knew why Aabid talked less in last few days, loved seclusion, lost interest in studies, and started spending long hours in the mosque where people had seen him crying and seeking Allah’s forgiveness. It was all part of a pattern, thought Mir. “He was getting ready for something which I failed to see,” said Mir.

Without wasting time, Mir rushed out of the main gate, his eyes filled with hope, thinking he has found the person who might have a clue about Aabid. Literally running under the dark sky, through small dusty lanes, within minutes, Mir was knocking impatiently at the front door of Nasrullah’s house, made of tin sheets, joined together vertically by iron bars.

 “I thought it was the police again looking for my son,” recalled Nasrullah’s father Nazir Ahmad Mir, 47, a farmer. “Who else could possible knock at 11:30 pm in Kashmir?”

As Nazir opened the gate cautiously, Mir barged in and straightaway asked: “where is Nasrullah? I want to see him immediately”. Mir’s exhausted face, his questioning eyes, and desperation in his voice, alerted Nazir.

“He didn’t come home after Friday prayers,” Nazir told Mir. “Why. Is anything wrong?” he asked Mir.

“Aabid too is missing since morning,” Mir told Nazir amid tears. “I fear…”

Mir’s reply broke Nazir’s heart instantly. “So he is gone,” Nazir said, addressing nobody as if he knew this late-night knock will happen someday.

After a long silence, the two fathers promised to meet again, and bring back their missing sons. They consoled each other, but in their hearts, both knew what disappearing like this means in post-Burhan Kashmir.

Minutes later, Mir took leave from Nasrullah’s family and began a long and thoughtful walk home. Once home, Mir started connecting the dots, trying to understand what was going inside his teenage son’s mind.

“But we hardly talked as he was very reserved with me,” regretted Mir. “So, I had no idea what made him go like this.”

Next morning, after filing a missing report, Mir came to known that Aabid and Nasrullah became close friends two months back. “It was shocking to me. I always believed they had nothing in common,” said Mir. “But I was wrong.”

Mir was also told that Aabid and Nasrullah were often seen together at odd places, at odd hours, always talking in a low tone, as if carrying a secret.

The secret was revealed five days later when Aabid and Nasrullah posed with AK47 rifles, wearing a military uniform, flashing smiles, as Ayub Lone aka Lelhari, Lashkar-e-Toiba’s commander from Pulwama looked on.

The picture confirmed two things: one, they have joined militancy; second, they are in south Kashmir. “My worst fear had come true,” said Mir.

A Profile

Nasrullah(L) and Aabid after joining Lashkar.

On the third day of the two disappearances, Mir and Nazir were called to the Police Station Hajin. There, Station Head Officer (SHO) formally told them that their sons have joined Lashkar-e-Toiba. “It was completely shocking to me,” recalled Mir.

Nasrullah’s father, however, remained calm as the officer mentioned his son’s name and Lashkar in the same sentence. “He would often say I want to pick up a gun and fight. He always talked about Jihad, so it was not a shock for me,” recalled Nazir. He also remembered his last day, a Friday with the family, when Nasrullah had lunch, took a bath, put on new clothes, applied kohl in his eyes, and then left for prayers, telling his father: “Aaz pateh karey neh cheh police tang. (Police will not harass you now onwards).”

Later, a cop took details about their son’s lives, their friends, foes, acquaintances, phone numbers, near and distant relatives and their addresses. “He wanted to know everything about everybody related to them,” said Mir.

Before they were allowed to go home, the officer took them aside and advised: “Try to bring your sons back before it is too late. I assure you, nobody will harass your family.”

A few days later, Major Thapa, who headed 13 RR’s Hajin Camp, summoned them. He too had a word of caution and advice: “Try to get them back if you can, else you know the consequences.”

The final call was from Cargo in Srinagar where two Deputy SP rank officers grilled them for details. “There, a SOG personnel taunted me for my long hair and beard,” recalls Nazir. “But I was helpless. I was now a militant’s father, else I would have reacted.”

The Search

A day after Aabid and Nasrullah’s picture with AK47 surfaced on the social media, Mir got a call from a distant relative, who said Aabid was spotted in Ajas, a neighbourhood village, some 15 km away.

Within an hour Mir was in Ajas, a village of 13 thousand souls, looking for his son. To Mir’s surprise, nobody had heard about Aabid. Instead, people talked in whispers about a new Lashkar militant, Arhaan.

After spending a few hours in Ajas, Mir’s desperation and hopelessness grew, as he failed to get a clue, or a word, or a sign about his son.

All he could get was sketchy details of Lashkar’s new face Arhaan, whose description failed to match with his introvert son Aabid. As the day ended, Mir called off his search and returned home, hopeless and heartbroken.

“I had no idea that my son’s code name was Arhaan,” said Mir, trying hard not to weep. “If I would have seen him in Ajas, I would have dragged him back.”

Avoiding an encounter with his father, same day Aabid aka Arhaan shifted his base from Ajas to Sopore.

With every passing day, Mir would ask himself only one question: what made a stylish young boy with a promising career pick up a gun?

From Muradabad to Tral

The answer perhaps lay in Aabid’s maiden visit outside Kashmir in May 2013. That year, Aabid and nine other students from Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) Uri, were sent to JNV, Muradabad in Uttar Pradesh, as part of student exchange programme.

A student of Class 9, Aabid and other Kashmiri boys were still living the aftermaths of Afzal Guru’s hanging in February 2013. In Muradabad, they were asked to sing Vande Mataram, India’s national song, which they refused. The next day, local goons and school staff got hold of Aabid and his friends and beat them mercilessly. Instead of helping the injured students, the principal of the school called his counterpart in Uri, Kashmir, and threatened to file an FIR against Aabid and his classmates in Muradabad.

“I was called to JNV, Uri and asked to fax an apology letter on behalf of my son to JNV, Muradabad,” recalls Mir. “They just told me that my son has done some indiscipline. Nobody told me about his injuries.”

Till Aabid came home in February 2014, he didn’t tell anybody about what happened in Muradabad. “He came back a changed person,” recalls Mir. “I have never seen so much hatred for India in him before.”

Despite restictions thousands attended Aabid’s furneral led by his father.

At home, Aabid walked with a limp in his right leg. When Mir tried to ask him about it, Aabid remained quiet; but his hate-filled eyes compelled Mir to reach-out to his friends for answers. “They told me everything that has happened in Muradabad,” said Mir. They also told Mir how Aabid nursed his injuries in silence for almost six months.

In Srinagar, doctors feared Aabid might have Myeloma, a malignant tumour of the bone marrow. “They even suggested amputation of his right leg to stop the infection from spreading,” recalls Mir. Instead,  Mir consulted a doctor friend, who assured him recovery in six-months without amputation. “Thank God, his medication worked and Aabid got better.”

But, as Aabid’s injuries healed, his soul began bleeding with anger and hatred. Later in 2014, Mir came to know that Aabid was seen pasting posters, which warned people to stay away from Parliamentary Elections.

Around the same time, Nasruallah, enrolled in Darul-uloom Rahimeeya, Bandipora, figured on SOG’s watch list as an Over Ground Worker (OGW) of Abu Qasim. “They (SOG) raided his room in Raheemiya, but he managed to escape,” said Nasrullah’s younger brother Waseem, 19.

Abu Qasim, headed Lashkar-e-Toiba in Kashmir, and carried a bounty of Rs 20 lakh on his head. Once Nasrullah’s name figured with Qasim, search for him intensified. “Army twice raided our house,” said Waseem. “They wanted to see Nasrullah.”

A dare-devil of sorts, one fine morning Nasrullah walked into Hajin’s 13 RR garrison with a relative. There he met Major Thapa, who came looking for him, twice. An hour later, Nasrullah walked out of the garrison gates, without a scratch, but with a smile.

“Major advised him not to get involved in militancy as it is a dangerous game,” recalls Waseem.

For a while, after his meeting with Major Thapa, Nasrullah kept a low profile, to avoid attention. He would spend most of his time in a local mosque praying.

But on July 8, 2016, as the news of Burhan Wani’s killing reached Hajin, both Nasrullah and Aabid confined themselves to their respective rooms. They wanted to mourn in silence.

The next morning, at 7:30 am, while Burhan’s father was preparing for his son’s funeral, Aabid sneaked out of the house, jumped on a friend’s bike, and drove all the way to Tral in south Kashmir, to meet his ‘hero’.

As the news of killings in south Kashmir reached Mir, he began looking for his son Aabid. “I was really nervous as situation across Kashmir was tense. There had been 12 killings by police and CRPF already,” recalled Mir.

All day long Mir kept looking for his son but there was no trace of him. “Even his phone was switched off,” recalls Mir.

Then at 4 pm, Mir’s phone began to ring, flashing an unknown BSNL number. As he picked up the call, a stranger greeted him and said: Your son is safe. He is in Tral. He will be back soon. Don’t worry. “Before I could have asked anything, he hanged up,” said Mir.

What happened in Tral on Burhan’s funeral is still a mystery for Mir, but once back, Aabid was never the same person.

At 11:30 pm, when Aabid came back from Burhan’s funeral, he didn’t go inside his house. Instead, Mir found him sitting on the roadside, with his head buried in his lap. When Mir asked him where he was all day, Aabid didn’t reply.

“He carried too much of pain in his young and youthful heart. I didn’t ask anything else then,” said Mir.

That day onwards Aabid showed no interest in studies. “I want to fight forces,” he told his mother and grandmother one day. “I want to die a martyr.”

Changing the Tag

Nasrullah’s body was taken around Hajin before burial.

After Aabid was gone his mother would sit on a prayer mat and ask Allah for just one meeting with her son.

One day Mir asked his wife, ‘What you will do if you get to see him.’ Then without waiting for a reply he added, ‘You cannot bring him back as he is always surrounded by other militants’.

“I don’t want to bring him back. He has chosen his path. I just want to give him proper permission,” she told him plainly. “I want to forgive him for leaving his mother.”

Her answer shocked Mir who was still “desperate to drag his son out of the militancy and send him away for studies”.

“I realized, one can draw such strength only from religion,” feels Mir.

A few days after this conversation a person came to Aabid’s father, with a hope of meeting. “But that never happened,” said Mir.

The previous evening, Nasrullah’s brother Waseem, while returning from his fields, came across two lonely souls, walking cautiously in the distance. They were Aabid and Nasrullah. Excited, Waseem tried to get close and meet them, but Nasrullah avoided him and started to walk off. Before he did so Nasrullah asked Waseem about everybody in the family. “He didn’t stop for a second. He kept walking in the distance while talking,” remembers Waseem.

It was Aabid who asked Waseem about his family in detail. He enquired about his father, his mother, and brother Zakir.

Next day entire Hajin was buzzing with news of Aabid and Nasrullah’s return to the town. Apparently, Waseem was not the only person who had seen the armed duo.

Instantly, the era of silence that had engulfed Hajin town during Ikhwan era and stayed even after Kuka Parry’s killing, was broken by these two local boys.

“Their combination: one studious and other daring stone-pelter who gave police sleepless nights, instantly appealed the new generation,” said Parray, an Ikhwan era victim who now runs a shop in the main market, Hajin. “These new generation boys wanted to get rid of their Ikhwani tag. They wanted their own heroes like Burhan and Zakir. In Aabid and Nasrullah they saw both their heroes and hope.”

Perhaps that is why since Burhan’s killing Hajin saw 48 unsuccessful cordon and search operations. In most of the cases, stone-pelters like Nasrullah interrupted these operations. “These boys want to prove a point that unlike their elders in 90s, they are not collaborators,” feels Mir.

That is why Aabid and Nasrullah’s entry into Hajin town with AK47s was nothing less than a statement that Ikhwan oppression is over. “Not a single former Ikhwani or their relatives dare to walk with his head high now,” said Waseem. “Aabid and Nasrullah’s presence in town helped people overcome Ikhwan fears. This Hajin is pro-Azadi now.”

Before the duo’s joining of militancy, despite being a transit route for foreign militants, Hajin and its adjoining areas failed to see a mass level involvement with militancy. “Even big names like Abu Qasim, Abu Abdullah and Lakhvi’s nephew’s presence didn’t matter much for locals,” said Parray. “But that changed, first after Burhan’s killing, and then after Aabid and Nasrullah joined Lashkar. Hajin is now completely transformed.”

On the other hand, Aabid and Nasrullah lived up to the reputation and aura people had created around them.

On August 13, 2017, people saw Nasrullah fighting in open after two of his colleagues were trapped in a cordon by army and SOG near Kochak Mohallah in Hajin. “He didn’t run away till he saved his friends,” said Waseem, who also saw his brother in action near main market Hajin. “He was wearing a face-mask, but everybody knew it was Nasrullah.”

Nasrullah would openly roam around Hajin with his men. “Such fearlessness was not seen in Hajin for a long time,” said Nazir, his father. “People were still under the threat of Ikhwan, which by the way is not dead. But Nasrullah broke that fear.”

The Goodbye

On August 5, 2017, at 4 am, when Aabid and his two associates were surrounded by army and SOG in a house in Amargarh (Sopore), he dialled his father’s phone in Hajin. But he couldn’t get through because of network issues. Then he called his father’s cousin, who works in Srinagar. Without a hint of fear or remorse, Aabid told him: “Please tell my father to lead my funeral prayers.”

Nawabad to Mirabad

After a nightlong encounter Aabid, Javiad and Danish, all from Lashkar-e-Toiba were killed.

As his body reached Hajin, entire town came out to get a glimpse of Aabid’s face. Aabid was the first militant from Hajin to get killed in an encounter in last 12 years. The last one was Abdul Qayoom Parray, who was killed in Bandipora in 2005. Despite restrictions, thousands managed to reach Hajin where a father led his son’s funeral prayers. After the killing of Aabid, his friend in combat Nasrullah, stayed in the town entirely.

“Till Nasrullah was in town army and SOG avoided coming here,” claims Nazir.

On October 11, 2017, almost two months after his friend’s death, Nasrullah, too, was surrounded by army and SOG personnel in Rakh Paribal area of Hajin.

That night, at around 4 am, Waseem heard a few gunshots, but didn’t bother much as they were far-off. But, after a while, an alert on his smart-phone revealed a CASO  in Hajin.

“Till 10 am, I had no idea who was trapped in that cordon,” recalls Waseem. Soon internet services were blocked too.

At 11 am, it became clear that Nasrullah was killed in an encounter. He had killed two Garud commandos of the Indian Air Force. Soon, the sketchy descriptions of the encounter started making rounds among youngsters in town.

Eleven days later, Mohammad Saleem Parray, 20, an automobile mechanic, followed Aabid and Nasrullah’s footsteps and joined Lashkar-e-Toiba.

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