A human rights activist by heart, a scholar by profession and a social worker by conscience, very few people must know that Tahir had been harassed in the past for being vocal on Kashmir issue. With his tragic death, a deceptive peace prevailing in Kashmir valley has also vanished, for the time being, Sameer Yasir reports.
Nothing unusual had happened till afternoon in north Kashmir’s Baramulla on March 5. Despite a call for observing strike, traffic was moving partially in the town and its adjoining areas. The three bridges connecting the old town with the new were open; the police usually close them with concertina wires during unrest to prevent protesters from crossing over to the main market. Shops were closed, police and paramilitary forces were manning the streets and a group of small children were throwing stones at the paramilitary forces deployed on the Azad Gunj Bridge.
As the main market was closed, a narrow lane cutting across the old town had turned in a bustling space with street vendors selling vegetables and daily commodities. At 2:15 pm, around fourteen young boys were playing a friendly match in the middle of a vast graveyard which overlooks the old Baramulla town. The group was among many others who were playing cricket. On Tuesday, the graveyard which usually turns into a cricket ground during curfews and strikes in the town was full to its capacity.
Tahir Rasool Sofi, 27, a tall lean boy with a trimmed beard wearing blue jeans and a grey shirt was batting in the last over of the match when his brother, Junaid Sofi called him to say that the “Army had ransacked the houses and broke the window panes of vehicles parked in the town but they had left their car untouched”
Hearing this, Tahir was frightened. He dropped the bat and ran towards his house in Kakarhamam locality. He took the keys from his mother and drove his Maruti Alto car which was parked outside his home to a house in Suhail Colony where one of friends lived. At 3:30 pm, he returned home and told his father he was going to mosque for prayers. That was the last time his father, Ghulam Rasool Sofi, a baker, saw him alive.
Nearly 400 meters from Tahir’s house on a link road which connects old town with Drangbal village, almost twenty children started protesting against the ‘high-handedness of Army’. Tahir and his three friends were bystanders who were carefully watching the children protesting against the army on the Khanpora Bridge.
“There were four Army vehicles on the bridge. Immediately after breaking cars and window panes, the Army was on the bridge. We were sitting behind a transformer and looking at the small kids, not more than twenty. When Tahir peeped through a small gap between the electric transformer and a shop, he was shot by Army,” says Parveez who was watching the protest with Tahir, “Blood started flowing from his mouth and within two minutes, he was dead.”
The killing brought hundreds of protestors on the ground. While the valley seethed with anger over the death of a Kashmiri scholar in Hyderabad, the situation had remained largely peaceful in the town. Whenever protests would erupt in the valley, the police would close the three bridges with concertina wires to stop the protesters from marching towards the new town.
“It had saved lives and whenever the protesters wanted to protest, they would do it inside the old town. Closing down of three bridges had stopped the direct confrontation between paramilitary forces and protesters and the damage was avoided,” a senior police official told Kashmir Life.
That was till Tahir’s killing. People took to streets demanding justice, chanting anti-India and pro-freedom slogans and they marched all the way with dead body to Deputy Commissioner’s office, demanding the prosecution of the errant soldiers. As no one from the district administration came forward, people tore down the walls and entered the premises of the complex and hurled stones. They left the venue after five minutes. When the dead body reached the old town, thousands of people came on street and offered funeral prayers at Eidgah.
Three hours before his death, Tahir was playing cricket with his friends in the same graveyard where he was buried. A scholar by profession, a human rights activist by heart and a social worker by conscience, he was laid to rest in Baramulla’s ‘Martyrs’ Graveyard’.
Tahir had completed his Masters in Social Work from HIT College in Dehradun in 2010. “During his masters, he did his dissertation on Human rights violation in Kashmir. During those days, the unrest in valley was going on and Tahir and many other students were continuously harassed by the local police in Dehradun,” his brother, Sajad Sofi says. “This was the reason,” says his elder brother, Junaid, “that he did not even purse his PhD, even though he had qualified an entrance test in Sikkim Manipal University last year.”
After he finished his masters, he returned to Kashmir and did a project with an NGO, Anhad, for forty days. “He had worked extensively on the killing of a local youth in 2009 and prepared a presentation on the subject for an NGO. With their help, Tanveer Ahmad Sheikh’s family, who was killed by CRPF in Qadeem IdGah in Baramulla during the last assembly elections in valley, had been granted SRO and compensation by the government,” Sajad, his younger brother says.
Politically conscious, Tahir wanted to do a PhD in human rights from a good university. “He would always discuss the human rights violations in Kashmir and situation in which Kashmiri people were trapped,” his friend, Arshad, told Kashmir Life.
In 2010, Tahir cleared an entrance test in Himachal Pradesh for his PhD in Human Rights but he told his family that he was not ready to go there because of the continuous harassment faced by Kashmir students outside the valley. He remained in his house to help his father at his baker’s shop. During this time last year, he completed his BEd from University of Kashmir.
These days, the three-storied house of Sofis is full of walling men and women. A few meters away from the house, a small tent has been erected where mourners come to share the grief of his brothers and father.
Tahir’s father, Ghulam Rasool Sofi raised his three children in difficult conditions. He earned by running a baker’s shop in the locality. His three children were among the few educated boys in the area and he made sure they got good education, despite hardships.
“My son was a keen learner and an obedient child. He would manage the household. He would never miss a news bulletin saying it was important to keep updated with the situation,” his father told Kashmir life.
The representatives of Mohalla Committee Ganai Hamam and the father of Tahir had approached Baramulla police station with a plea that Tahir had been killed by the soldiers of 46 RR and asked them to file a case against the accused. Deputy Commissioner Baramulla Ghulam Ahmad Khoja directed Baramulla police to register a case against Army.
At the same time the Army also moved an application in the police station saying “a mob equipped with lathis and iron rods surrounded them and there were apprehensions of being attacked by the mob because of which the forces fired one fire in air and another on ground.”
In Jammu, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah responded with an emotional speech telling the lawmakers that it was frustrating as “no action could be taken” against the soldiers involved in the student’s death due to emergency powers (read AFSPA) in Kashmir which allows the Army the right to shoot-to kill.
To prevent the situation from further worsening, Omar Abdullah dispatched a team of ministers led by Congress politician Taj Mohi-ud-Din to review the situation in the town, “The government won’t spare anyone involved in the killing of Tahir. Manzoor Ahmad Qadri, the additional district magistrate has been appointed to head the inquiry and asked to present his report in one month,” he told Kashmir Life.
But a meeting between a select group of “civil society” and the ministers resulted in nothing with one of the residents, Bashir Ahmad Kanroo, vehemently opposing the Army intervention in the law and order situation in the town which, according to him, ‘was the job of police.’
Kanroo asked the ministers what the reason was for the Army to ransack the houses in the area. “The Army men had gone berserk and damaged vehicles and smashed doors and windows of residential houses in old town area,” he told the visiting ministers.
GoC 19 infantry division Major General V G Khandare was joined by GoC 15 Corps Lt Gen Om Prakash in the meeting where Khandare later told reporters that Army was collecting facts and evidence about the incident from their investigating agencies. “There is a system in place and truth will prevail without any lapses,” he said.
Later, the Army began a Court of Inquiry (CoI) into the killing and asked the police to identify civilian witnesses in the case who could depose before the CoI. The inquiry is headed by a Brigadier ‘who is supposed to probe the circumstances in which Tahir was killed.’ The CoI will be examining the personnel and officers of 46 Rashtriya Rifles battalion of Army, besides the police and paramilitary personnel present at the spot when the incident had taken place.
Whatever the finding of the inquiries, the truth is already known to the residents of old town, “It is time buying process, nothing else,” a grieving relative of Tahir told Kashmir Life.
For the moment, uncertainty looms large in town. There is grief in the air. Tahir’s last update on his Facebook page was about the arrival of Syed Ali Geelani in Kashmir. He was wrong. Geelani arrived later, but he telephonically addressed his funeral prayers at Baramulla.