A Neglected Spark

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As people were anxiously waiting for the fate of Article 35(A), dramatic developments in Kashmir’s ‘war-theatre’, down south, overtook everything. Amid a few fires in homes of rebels and quick summons to their families by the police, a series of kidnappings of relatives of cops took place. Shams Irfan reports the 24-hour crisis that was being seen as a stepping stone to a civil war

Two militant houses allegedly set ablaze by Government forces in South Kashmir’s Shopian.

On August 29, 2018, at 1:30 am, almost ten hours after militants mowed down four policemen in Arhama village, around ten heavily armed men, wearing pherans, scaled the small wall of Syed Naveed Mushtaq’s modest house in Nazneenpora, Shopian. Once inside, one of the masked gunmen calculatedly knocked on the front door.

In May 2017, Syed Naveed, then 26, a constable in J&K police, had decamped with four AK47 rifles and joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. His dramatic switchover made headlines across India. Since then, Naveed’s family and his ancestral house had seen many such nocturnal raids.

But as it turned out, this was not a routine or an isolated raid on a militant’s house. It was part of, what family alleged, a “revenge raid” that would soon push Kashmir into a civil war like chaos.

After a few minutes of silence, Naveed’s grandfather Mohammad Yaseen Shah, 75, a farmer, opened the door, with fear visible on his face. Before Shah could have reacted to guns and hooded faces, he got confused by the visitor’s language and attire. “They were all Kashmiris. They wore pherans and spoke perfect Kashmiri,” Shah later told one of his relatives.

They asked Shah about the other occupants of his house: Naveed’s parents and his two brothers. When Shah told them that the family had gone to Chandigarh for Naveed’s father’s treatment, they started looking at each other from behind their masks.

Then they led Shah inside the house, where his wife Fatima, 70, and a female cousin, 45, were shaking with fear.

“They tried to lock us inside the room. But when they couldn’t manage its old latch, they ordered us to go out and wait in the courtyard,” said Shah.

Thinking it was another routine search operation, the inmates came out quickly, leaving the house to the masked men. “We did as we were told to do,” said Shah.

The masked men then went inside the house, and as Shah looked on, after scanning every room they went to the attic. “They spent a few minutes in the attic. Then came running downstairs,” recalls Shah.

Quickly they ordered Shah and others to go back inside the house and sleep without creating a hue-and-cry. “They literally ran out of our house,” said Shah.

One of the Two militant houses allegedly set ablaze by forces in South Kashmir’s Shopian.

The commotion broke a neighbour’s sleep and he calmly watched things. Later, he told Shah that he saw them boarding a private Tavera taxi. “They were in a visible hurry as they left Naveed’s house,” the neighbour said wishing anonymity.

Thinking the worst is over, Shah locked the front door and went back to sleep. “Almost fifteen minutes later my wife said there is something burning nearby,” recalls Shah.

When Shah went out to check he saw huge flames coming out of the attic. “I quickly made hue and cry and called my relatives, who live next-door,” said Shah.

After looking at the intensity of the flames, one of Shah’s quick thinking relatives ran straight towards the mosque, located adjacent to his house and made repeated announcements on the loudspeaker.

Within no time, the entire village was out to assist Shah’s family to douse the flames. “Their intention was clear. They wanted to burn us all alive inside the house,” said a visibly shaken Shah.

It took hundreds of youngsters and a few fire-tenders almost two hours to control the fire. “Had my wife not seen it, we all might have been roasted alive,” said Shah.

The next morning, Shah’s family was told that army vehicles were spotted outside Nazneenpora at that time. “They were backing those guys who set our house on fire,” said Shah. “Instead of fighting the ones who have guns, they are harassing those who are unarmed,” said a relative of Naveed, who wishes not to be named. “We have no control over our loved one’s decision of joining militancy. Then why are we being targeted?”

The same question haunts other militant families across Kashmir, especially after a series of raids and ransacking.

The next morning, as the sun rose behind a line of apple trees in Nazneenpora, the anger against “arsonists” quickly spilt over to other parts of Kashmir.

Almost same time, when the armed men set fire to Naveed’s house, half-a-dozen army men, entered active militant Shahjahan Mir’s house in Amshipora, also in Shopian. Once inside the courtyard, the army men ordered everyone to come out of the house.

“They (army men) went inside the house and collected floor mats and other household items in the corridor,” said a family relative on condition of anonymity. “Then they sprinkled some sort of powder on everything and set it on fire.”

As flames engulfed Abdul Hameed Mir’s house, his wife and children were made to watch from a distance. “They were surrounded by army men while their house burned,” said a neighbour.

After the flames became wild and almost uncontrollable, the army men, who were between 30 and 40, left the place. “They had taken gas cylinder from the kitchen and hidden that in one of the rooms,” said the neighbour. “It was probably done to cause maximum damage.”

After the army men left, villagers quickly came out and helped in containing the flames. “But the fire was intense and we couldn’t save much,” said a relative.

Mir’s house was a single-storey four-room structure, which is now just a skeleton left. “Everything inside was burned,” said a relative.

By next morning, all that was left of Mir’s house was smouldering household goods, and angry faces trying to scavenge the remains. “If it was a revenge attack for Shopian killings, then why did they vandalise Waris’ house?” asks a relative angrily. “His house was ransacked two days before the Shopian killings happened.”

On August 27, at around 4:30 am, just before the Muzzein started calling faithful for morning prayers, there was a loud knock on Bashir Ahmad Malik’s front door in Rakh-e-Moman village of Bijbehara. Malik’s third among five sons and one daughter, Waris Malik, 23, is an active militant of Lashkar-e-Toiba. The knocking followed an authoritative voice ordering: darwaza kholo…hum fauj hain (open the door, we are army).

Used to such raids since Waris joined militant ranks, his father Malik opened the door cautiously. “There were four army men outside. Two of them spoke in Kashmiri and other two were non-locals,” recalls one of the family members.

As it was still dark, the army men ordered everyone to get dressed and come outside. “They had baseball bat like sticks and iron rods in their hands,” recalls Malik.

A militants house ransaked by “army”.

When Malik’s entire family, including his wife, married daughter and his two sons, assembled in their courtyard, the army men entered inside the house. “Without saying a word, they started breaking everything that came in their way,” said Malik. Within five minutes, they were out of the house, leaving behind a trail of destruction. “We were watching helplessly as they destroyed everything inside,” said Malik.

As the sound of destruction became loud, Malik, a heart patient, felt pain in his chest and collapsed. “We didn’t care about our house as priority was to save our father,” said one of Malik’s sons.

After the army men left, Malik’s family raised an alarm to alert people in the neighbourhood. “The timing of the raid was chosen carefully as most of the village was still asleep,” said Malik. “It makes no sense to target a militant’s family.”

Hours after the raid on Malik’s house, his militant son Wasif released a video, where he is seen warning police and army. “We never take revenge from police families like they do with our families,” said Wasif in his video message. “What they do to our families, we can also do the same with theirs.”

Two days earlier, army barged into the house of Azad Malik alias Dada, in Arwani village of Anantnag (Islamabad), and allegedly beat up his family members and ransacked the premises. Azad is a Lashkar-e-Toiba commander. Azad’s name figured in the killing of senior journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari, along with two other militants. Since then he is on police’s most wanted list.

A day after the incident, Azad’s father told media that, “If the fight is between militants and the forces, why to bring families into this?”

But three days later, on August 30, in a nocturnal raid, police arrested Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naiko’s father Assadullah Naikoo from his home in Beighpora village in Awantipora, Pulwama. Though police maintained that Naiko Sr was not arrested but called for questioning only, his detention added fuel to the already divided society. The same night, police rounded up six other family members of active militants in south Kashmir.

These arrests and the alleged burning of militant houses triggered a reaction from Hizb and other militant outfits.

During the intervening night of August 30 and 31, suspected militants kidnapped eleven people, all relatives of policemen, including a deputy superintendent’s brother from Kulgam.

“Whatever is happening right now is not a good sign. I hope both sides will show restrain,” said Engineer Rasheed, an independent lawmaker from Langate. “The primary job of a policeman is to maintain law and order. They should not take part in encounters.”

Within hours of the series of kidnapping of the relatives of policemen by militants, Riyaz Naiko’s father was released by the police. But that didn’t seem to end the deadlock that Kashmir is entangled into right now. In a series of tweets attributed to Riyaz Naikoo, he asks Jammu and Kashmir policemen to pick sides or stay on the sidelines.

By Friday evening, two days after four policemen were killed in Shopian attack, Kashmir is on the edge of a civil war like situation, where both militants and policemen families feel vulnerable. “If anyone thinks that by harassing people they can bring peace, they are highly mistaken,” feels Mohammad Yousuf Tairigami, CPI (M) lawmaker from Kulgam.

Riyaz Naikoo

Tarigami recalls the early 1990s era when National Conference and erstwhile undivided Hurriyat activists took their ideological differences to the next level by targeting each other’s families, mostly in south Kashmir. After visiting the affected families, Tarigami wrote a letter to Farooq Abdullah, then CM, and Syed Ali Geelani, who headed Hurriyat, asking them to use their influence to bring order and peace. “In no way unarmed and uninvolved people should be made to suffer. They should be kept out of the conflict,” said Tarigami. “The present situation is highly unacceptable and should be condemned by one and all.”

Tarigami feels that involving militant or policeman families will only add to the chaos in the already volatile situation. “The best reply to law-breaks is the implementation of the law, not otherwise,” said Tarigami.

“Militants and forces victimising each other’s families is highly condemnable and marks a new low in our situation,” former Chief Minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti wrote on her twitter. “Families shouldn’t become casualties and made to suffer for something they have little control over.”

By the end of the Friday, Hizb’s Riyaz Naikoo released another audio asking policemen to decide if they are serving police for job’s sake or otherwise.

Also, a number of videos of abducted relatives of policemen were circulated on social networking sites where they are seen appealing Director General of Police S P Vaid not to harass militant families. In one such video, nephew of Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Syed Shah, who is posted at Police Head Quarters (PHQ) Srinagar, is seen making an appeal to police higher-ups. “If you harm their (militant) families, they will harm us (police families),” said DySp’s nephew Adnan Ashraf Shah, who is yet to be released.

So far, twelve such videos stand released by the militants where relatives of policemen, including a Sub Inspector from Pulwama, are seen making appeals to police higher-ups to stop harassing militant and civilian families.

“We are not pushing the situation to a civil war,” a police officer, talking off the record, currently serving a militancy impacted district, said. “I do not have issues if I am killed because I am a combatant but why should the non-combatants from either side face the crisis.” He said the fire to a house of a militant must be probed and the law should take its own course.

Syed Naveed

Asked why the militant families are being harassed, the officer said that militants have stopped trusting the commoners and “they rely more on their families” and police have a right to investigate them. “If they have no involvement, they should not face any tension and if they work as over ground workers, the law must take care of them.”

The officer accused the militants of taking the situation towards the civil war. “What had those cops done who were killed on Eid or even before?” he asked. The officer said that policemen are performing a normal policing job as a banker or a teacher does. “Is not the uncle of a top militant posted in Pampore?” he asked.

“We are part of the same society, they belong to, so society will feel our hurt the way they feel theirs,” the officer insisted. “It is better to respect rules of engagement.”

Happy that this phase of tensions – action and retaliation, is over as both sides have released them all, a former State Police Chief said its recurrence cannot be ruled out. “The problem lies in not giving a policeman the basic requirement that he needs to perform duties,” the ex-DGP said. “Jammu and Kashmir have the lowest percentage of housing units’ for the cops and, as far as I know, there is a waiting list of more than 500.”

The former officer said that the state being abnormal should have more dwelling units than a normal state but “we have a lesser percentage in comparison to all other states.” He said creating more space for the families of the cops is the only better way to restore the confidence of their families.

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