Between Two Deaths

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When the counter-insurgency grid finally confirmed that the salt-and-pepper man slain in a dusky Shopian village was Yasin Itoo, they knew it was extra-ordinary. The man spent two decades shuttling between jails, normalcy and militancy; he was a major unifying force in the rebel ranks, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

Huge number of people came to take part in funeral prayers of Muhammad Yasin Itoo on August 14th, 2017.

January 2016

January 9, 2016, Saturday was one of those chilly winter days when the sun shone hot. As the day proceeded, the news from border area came “a militant slipped to death.”

Otherwise a routine in Kashmir, the situation turned grim only when the militant was identified and the confirmation came from Hizb ul Mujahideen’s PaK based boss, Syed Sallahuddin. The slain rebel was identified as Muhammad Yasin Itoo alias Mansoor-ul-Islam.

Yasin, family said had left for Jammu in December 2015, to appear in a court hearing.

With UJC chief praying for the departed soul, pall of gloom enveloped his native village. The shopkeepers downed their shutters, the vehicular movement halted and all roads led to Nagam, a tehsil, 3 kms away from Chadoora.

No hope of body being retrieved, residents started assembling for funeral prayers. Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH) Secretary General Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai led Gaibaana Nimaz-i-Jinazah, funeral prayers in absentia. He addressed mourners and later intense clashes were reported from the area.

The family mourned the death. Visitors thronged their residence and tributes poured in from entire separatist block. This marked end of a militant who had joined Hizb in 1996 and evolved ‘Battalion Commander’.

August 2017

August 13, 2017, 19 months after that small funeral in absentia, the same village witnessed five back to back funerals attended by thousands of people. This time, it was not a funeral in absentia as the body of Mahmud Ghaznavi, the nom de guerre of Itoo, was present in a coffin. The militant had actually skipped death and was alive and had emerged Hizb’s ‘Operational Commander’.

On August 12, a gun battle broke out in Awneera (Shopian) which lasted for around 20-hours. Amid the rattling of guns, there was no specific input about the identities of militants. As police declared culmination of the operation, three bodies of local militants were recovered, identified as; Sheikh Irfan ul Haq, resident of Malldaira Shopian; Umar Majid Sheikh, resident of KathporaYaripora and Adil Ahmad Malik, resident of Malikgund Shopian. Two Rashtriya Rifle soldiers Sepoys Ilayaraja and Gawai Sumedh Waman also lost their lives. Later the killing of two civilians in clashes added to the death toll, taking it to seven.

When families came to identify and seek the bodies, police had to withdraw the statement. Adil was not among the slain, his family confirmed and they swiftly moved to join funeral of Irfan, another local militant of nearby area. The district police said “only two militants identified” and added third is probably ‘Ghaznavi’. By the time Hizb also issued the statement and paid tributes. Confirmation took a bit of time but it was established finally.

Between Two Deaths

The news of death in a border accident was a ‘ploy’, believes a senior police officer.  This, he said was done by him to remain out of “public gaze and security radar”. With this he actually lived a life anonymity for a few months.

Habibullah Itoo, his father, had accepted the fate of losing his eldest son in an ‘accident’. Recuperating from the loss, six months later his another son was picked up by police. When he was asked about his brother Yasin, he was shocked, so was his family later. It was in fact the police in put that Itoos’ learnt Yasin was alive and returned to ranks. Later, frequent questioning became a routine, his father has said.

The killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 became a flashpoint for Yasin. Known as “unifier” and “crisis manager”, Yasin did not let the cadres split, said a former police officer.

Itoo’s first appearance after ‘reincarnation’ was in an online video that his family watched. He was a changed man with “grey hair and beard”, said a Nagam resident. He later appeared in several videos and was believed to address rallies in south Kashmir including the one on August 14, 2016. “He largely kept the flame of unrest going on,” a middle rung police officer said.

Muhammad Yain Itoo (Image: FB)

A Different Militant

Itoo was not an ordinary militant. Fighting at 40 is not an easy task. Probably the oldest among the lot and one of the longest Hizb commander, Yasin had his own way of operating.

He joined militancy at a young age of 20, then a student that time at Amar Singh College.

Once out, his life shuttled between the poles of arrests and detention. Once back to valley, he ‘surrendered because he had fight with non-local militants in Bandipora, his area of operation in November 1998’, according to informed police men.

Few months later, he was released and tried his luck at coaching centre in Chadoora, his family said. The police, however, claims Yasin had joined militancy again in 2002. He landed in jail again for around one year when BSF arrested him in Chadoora market. After his release in 2004, his family said he started readymade garment business in Chadoora that continued till March 2005 when he rejoined Hizb.

Later that year in December, he was caught in an encounter at Gulab Dagi in Tangmarg where four militants were killed along with Yasin’s mentor Muhamamd Yaseen Rather. Yasin escaped and was subsequently made Hizb’s district commander for Budgam.

A year later in 2006, he was arrested when he was travelling from Pampore to Awantipora. After his release in 2009, he started working with his brother on their grocery shop. His relatives believed he had given up militancy as he started giving Friday sermons. A rebel in Yasin, family said was subdued when he opted to be part of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. “His age was nor ripe for being a militant,” a relative said.

During 2010 unrest, he was arrested for ‘fomenting trouble’ by taking part in protests and was released in April 2015.

In December 2015, he left home for Jammu and never came back.

Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai leading “Gaibaana Nimaz-i-Jinazah” of Muhammad Yasin Itoo on January 9th, 2016.

The ‘Trap’

In March 2017, police laid wee hour siege around Durbugh (Chadoora) on basis of a tip-off that Itoo was present along with Tawseef Ahmad Wagay, a young militant of Kanjikulla (Yaripora Kulgam). It was later discovered that Tawseef did not let Yasin to stay and put up fight alone. There were intense protests in which three civilians were killed and many others injured. Finally the house was razed to the ground and Tawseef was killed. Yasin fled.

On the day of his killing, senior police officer said there were many militants present in the area for a ‘possible meeting’. As the input was passed, mixed contingent rushed to the spot. “Few other top commanders of HM were also present,” official said. The militants did not bundle up. They spread to different pockets, instead. As the gun battle started, most of them fled as Yasin and two other militants stayed put. Battle raged as militants failed to break the cordon.

Quoting a police officer, Indian Express reported that “you can imagine how important Ghaznavi was as first time militants put up a strong fight and militants tried to break the cordon.”

Security grid considers the killing of Ghaznavi as “great success” as he was “biggest challenge”. Yasin was not a poster boy but an old hand that has made him difficult to manage, admit police officers privy of the developments in south Kashmir. They see him a “thinking militant” and a “major hindrance as he was anchor of entire activities of HM.”

“In this period of great Fitna, Yasin was a Mujahid commander who stood for unity in the ranks and was looked upto by all rank and file in Mujahideen,” said Dr Qasim Faktoo in a statement from jail. He is believed to have been preventing influence of Zakir Musa. Yasin had countered Musa’s by cautioning people that “those challenging legal and historic nature of Kashmir conflict” are “sowing the seeds of discontent”. A motivator, Yasin, given his ‘networking skills’, police believes was now mainly for ‘recruiting new militants’.

A Krinkov rifle was recovered with wounded body of Yasin, finally after his ‘hide & seek’ for two decades.

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