A deadly Change


After witnessing the killing of a teenager who was part of post Handwara molestation protests, Azhar Khan, a promising school teacher took to guns to vent his ire. Zafar Aafaq tells his story

One fine April morning in 2016, when Azhar Khan left his home in Kupwara’s Teris village, he told his family that he was going to Srinagar for some work at Kashmir University.

He promised to come back in a couple of days. He did, but nearly after ten months as a “martyr”.

Nearly a week before his departure Azhar witnessed a killing of a young boy named Arif Hussain Dar by army outside a small camp on Srinagar-Kupwara road at Nutnusa, a picturesque village situated on the foot of hilly forests.

Arif was part of protests on April 15 (Friday) against the killings of two youth and a middle aged lady in Handwara town three days ago after protests broke out against alleged molestation of a school girl— ingloriously known as ‘Handwara Girl’— outside a public toilet allegedly by an army man.

In Teris village a makeshift tin gate opens into a cluster of homes with a common yard. ‘We want Freedom’ written in faint green colour is spotted on the gate.  Azhar’s modest house based on four rooms stands at the end of the yard.

Before he left Azhar told his brother Shamshad Khan that even after bullets hit Arif and he fell on the ground, forces did not allow anyone to come closer till he died.

“The forces personnel trampled Arif’s bruised body,” Shamshad recalls Azhar telling him.

Azhar was at the forefront of the events of last rites of Arif. “He dressed the bruises of Arif’s mortal remains and led his funeral prayers,” Shamshad says.

The death had a profound effect on Azhar. His relatives say Azhar showed signs of grief and anger.

The day Azhar left his home his father tried to contact him on his phone in the evening to know how he was doing. “But he did not attend the call and I thought he might be busy with Namaz,” Azhar aging father Nazir Ahmad Khan says.

However when his family did not hear from him for next two days, they started worrying. They contacted Azhar’s friends, distant relatives, acquaintances, but no one confirmed his whereabouts. Eventually, a few days later Azhar’s father went to the local police post in nearby Drugmulla village and lodged a missing report.

However, a couple of weeks later the police told them that they could not trace Azhar. “After the police response we speculated that the agencies might have picked him,” says his father. And then they gave up their pursuit and settled down with the hope that one day their son will return home.

A few weeks later police men arrived at Azhar’s house asking his father that he should visit the police post. “They told me they have reports that my son has joined militancy but I did not believe them,” says Nazir. He did not visit the police post out of “fear of torture”.  They would often hear rumours from villagers about Azhar’s militant link. “Many told us that he has joined militancy but no one confirmed that they have spotted him anywhere,” Nazir says.

Despite police reports and rumours flying thick Azhar’s family was never fully convinced that he has joined militancy.

Then on February 04, 2017, police claimed to have killed two militants at Amargarh village near Sopore in district Baramulla. “Our doubts were cleared only when we heard the reports that Azhar has been martyred in Amargarh Sopore,” says Nazir.

Before joining militancy Azhar was a contractual lecturer at higher secondary school, Handwara where the ‘Handwara girl’ studied. He taught Kashmiri language. He had joined the school only a month before the incident. Azhar had a master’s degree in Kashmiri language which he had pursued from Kishtiwar campus of Jammu University during 2014-15. Before joining Jammu University he underwent a bridge course to be eligible for masters at Kashmir University in 2012.

His classmate at Kashmir University Adil Ahmad describes Azhar as amiable. “He always carried a smile on his face and would often crack impromptu jokes.”

Azhar and Adil shared many nights together during that year. He was a brilliant cook whenever he would come to my room he would cook for me different dishes, says Adil.

After earning masters he joined the higher secondary school despite having qualified entrance for PHD. Azhar wanted to earn for his family. “He told us that he can’t wait for five years with PHD,” says Shamshad, another friend.

Azhar’s village friends say he was humble, pious with inclination for religious education. “He never indulged in bad habits like smoking or wasting time in useless deeds,” says his cousin Bilal Ahmad Magray. He would lead the prayers in the village mosque in the absence of regular Imam.

In the aftermath of 2014 floods that devastated Srinagar and its adjacent areas, Azhar volunteered with Tehreek-e-Hurriyat to help in the relief and rehabilitation work.

In early 2015, Azhar was engaged to a girl of his own choice.  But in autumn that year Azhar chose to snap the tie up. His family said that they don’t know the reasons behind breakup.

During his college years Azhar ran a study circle in his village where he taught Quran and Islamic teachings to the village kids.  It earned him respect in the village and ire of the army. “The army would invite him to participate in their ‘cultural’ programmes but after declining the invitation they started questioning him,” says his cousin Javed Ahmad. “He would often tell me his conscience doesn’t allow him to attend army functions.” This is perhaps why his family initially speculated the role of agencies in his ‘disappearance’.

Weeks after Azhar was gone police approached his family asking his parents to convince him to give up militancy. Azhar’s mother Hanifa Begum asks, “How can you convince an educated person to change his path when he is clear and determined about what he is doing?”

In the same breath she quickly adds, “Azhar was on right path. He played his role in getting us out from the slavery in the best way he thought he could.”

The decision of Azhar to pick up the gun might have come as a shock to many but for his university friend Adil it was just a culmination of his longing to fight “oppression, slavery, and militarization.”

According to police reports Azhar had crossed the line of control for arms training – a feat distinguishing him from the rest of the current crop of militants in Kashmir.

On the day when the duo were killed large number of people from Sopore-Handwara belt marched to Amrgarh village to retrieve Azhar and Altaf’s body from the custody of forces.  Initially police did not tell them where the bodies have been kept. The people protested and clashed with the police.

Police nabbed nearly 30 youth and placed them in lockup for a couple of days. “They beat us inside the lock up,” says Magray, who was also detained due to which he missed Azhar’s funeral prayers and he still has regrets.

“The police in Spore first told us the bodies have been placed in Baramulla police station but later we learnt that the bodies are in the custody of army at Delina camp,” Shamshad says.

The bodies were handed over to the village head accompanied by couple of elders including Azhar’s father. The bodies were driven to their respective villages accompanied by mourners amidst pro-freedom slogans.

According to witnesses thousands of persons attended Azhar’s funeral who braved heavy snowfall and cold. He was buried near the graves of three militants of nineties in a vast field which serves as Eid Gah and sports field. The field inhabits a high school where village children study. The graves are situated just in front of porch of the high school building. They are fenced with simple wooden railings and Azhar’s grave has separate fence.

People from different areas of the valley poured in Teris to pay homage to Azhar. People as far as Islamabad came to visit them, Javed says. “A group of mourners from Islamabad told us that they were amazed to find that a boy from this far off village chose to pick up the gun and fight”.

Azhar’s family would hand over a satchel of dates to the visitors. Hanifa says that Azhar wanted them to perform his marriage with austerity where instead of Wazwaan, dates and tea had to be served to guests. The marriage was not in his fate but the gift of dates was symbolic way to fulfil his desire and uphold his ideals posthumously.

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