Witness to the goriest 1990s, former police officer Israr Khan was part of the set-up that escorted Kashmiri Pandits, out of Kashmir, on Jagmohan’s directions. His clan served the Dogra army for decades but was hit by the division of India to the extent that some of them were devoured by partition massacres and some forced away. Later, the cousins, part of security apparatus of the two countries fought against each other, reports Masood Hussain
Every time he remembers those days of mayhem, Israr Khan gets emotional. “I want to erase those memories,” he said. “But those incidents are indelible on the collective memory of Kashmir?”
Khan remembers April 1990, as if it was yesterday. One afternoon, he was summoned by Raj Bhawan. A junior officer of the rank of Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO), he was invited because he was in charge of the most crucial police territory in Kashmir, the Kothibagh, literally home to the government. Jagmohan, those days, was only talking to police because this force represented the only working shred of a collapsed government that Delhi was running through him.
Jagmohan’s principal secretary and SSP Srinagar, Allah Bakhsh were also there. “Mundiya, Tusi Tayar Rehna” Jagmohan addressed Khan, only to drop a bombshell. He was comfortable in speaking in Punjabi and all of a sudden Punjabi speaking Muslims were in demand. They were better in communicating with various security agencies, being inducted into Kashmir war theatre in hoards, and, at the same time, were able to communicate with the population, predominantly Muslim.
“Loading Shoding Mein Madad Karna Aur Koi Attack Shatak Nahin Hona,” Khan remembers Jagmohan saying.
The governor broke the news that the SRTC fleet was inducted to evacuate tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits to Jammu. “Loading Shoding Mein Madad Karna Aur Koi Attack Shatak Nahin Hona,” Khan remembers Jagmohan saying.
The operation started the same night. Pandits started driving away from their homes with whatever they could, load their baggage’s into the SRTC buses, as Israr Khan and his team were ensuring their safe exit. “Those were grim scenes of horrible evacuation,” Khan said. “I saw families not able to take everything they had somehow brought and I saw people discovering that they forgot to get what they had kept ready.”
In those Pandit crowds at Tourist Reception Centre (TRC), Khan said, he met his many friends, some of whom talked in approval and some in disapproval of what was being done to them. “My friends told me the Raj Bhawan had conveyed them that they will be temporarily displaced and brought back once the situation is stabilized,” Khan said. “They had been told that the security forces were unable to make a distinction between Muslims and Pandits and that was the reason for their temporary shift.”
Khan said he never thought the situation will never permit them to return. “I saw families who lived in huge Havelis in Rainawari somehow surviving in perforated tents in Jammu,” Khan said. “Some of them were my friends. I would visit them and I would cry over their fate.”
Though a small officer, Khan said Jagmohan was either not adequately advised by his officers or he did not listen to them. “We could have protected Pandits at specific spots for some time, something that now we are thinking about, the clusters,” Khan said. “There might have been some more killings but we would have prevented the uprooting of a community.”
Khan, a Kuki Khel Afridi, had done his law (1976) and practised a bit but was unhappy as it did not pay him well. He was passionate about arts and wanted to study at Film Training Institute (FTI) Pune. But his father, Abdul Karim Khan, a senior police officer, refused to fund his filmi studies saying: “Pathan Loug Kanjaroun Ka Kam Nahi Kartay”. But he did not give up his passion. He acted in almost 25 plays for Doordarshan and for years he played Ravan on stage during Dussehra functions in Srinagar.
Finally, came an opening. In 1979, he was appointed as Sub Inspector. Interestingly, his job assurance was in acknowledgement to him being a fighter with a gunda image, who had spent some nights in lock-up too. Soon after, he faced a new crisis. His friend Aijaz Iqbal had qualified KAS and was a tehsildar. This sent Khan thinking of his career. At Budhal (Rajouri) which was his first place of posting, he started studying seriously. ‘An SHO studying?’ became a piece of news in police attracting Gopal Sharma, his SSP, to allow him time for studies, by an order. In 1984, Khan was a DySP.
“Those were the good old days when I became DySP Traffic Kashmir and it was an election year so the Chief Minister would fly me in a chopper to manage his cavalcade,” Khan said. “Soon after allegations about the credibility of the election went wild and talk about Mujahids started making rounds.”A year later, he was deployed in Leh to quell the serious communal agitation that witnessed boycott of the Muslim minority.
Ghulm Rasool went on leave for two days and there was a crackdown. He decided not to be part of the parade and the security forces came and shot him dead. My helplessness led me to loudly and bitterly weep in my office, bitterly,
In 1990 when he was deputed as SDPO Kothibagh, Kashmir had changed forever. A cop’s movement was risky. “My father in law Sofi Ghulam Rasool banned me from visiting him, fearing militants might kill me,” Khan said. “Even my wife would visit him in absolute secrecy,” Khan said he lost two of his bright SHOs and could not even join their funerals. “Ghulam Rasool went on leave for two days and there was a crackdown. He decided not to be part of the parade and the security forces came and shot him dead. My helplessness led me to loudly and bitterly weep in my office, bitterly,” Khan said. “Then SHO Maisuma went to offer his prayers and was killed outside the mosque.”
Family apart, the police officers felt a serious crisis at their workplaces. “Almost every police station had one man who would be conservative or somehow sympathetic to militants,” Khan said. “I faced a strange situation when Allah Tigers enforced a ban on liquor, every day I would get tons of liquor to the police station but one of my cops would not permit me to keep in the station at all. So I stocked it in a heap in a corner in the premises.”
Every day, I would start getting requests from commanders in army and other security forces: 2 bottles, Peter Scotch, please, and I will oblige
As liquor disappeared from the market, Khan said he was literally the only stockiest in Srinagar. “Every day, I would start getting requests from commanders in the army and other security forces: 2 bottles, Peter Scotch, please, and I will oblige,” Khan said. “I had become a bartender literally but it helped a lot, in communicating and making bridges with these officers and reducing civilian losses.”
A good relation with security forces helped to stay connected with people better. One day, Khan said, this better relationship with people helped him save the life of an SRTC driver whom militants had caught carrying liquor and was being hanged. “As I rescued the poor chap, my senior started asking: how come, you managed it? Are you with them?”
Soon after, mass unrest started. Every day, tens of thousands of Azaadi seeking people would descend upon Srinagar to submit a memorandum to the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) whose office also fell under Khan’s territorial jurisdiction. Entire security grid was trying to stop these processions but it was not happening. “And I was in the thick and thin of it because I had to escort the processions and get their leaders to meet the UN observers and it was my daily routine,” Khan said. “Those observers would know me by name.”
This role landed him in a crisis on January 20, 1990, when around 150 thousand strong processions had come from south Kashmir and the army had put a barricade outside the Badami Bagh cantonment. “When I drove to the spot, I started shivering because the procession had 12-16 years old young boys in the first row, wearing white funeral shrouds and on the other side the soldiers had taken their positions.” In such a situation, even a misfire would trigger a crisis.
“I remember a Brigadier on the spot telling me: Mr Khan, we do not want to kill anybody but if they crossed the barrier, we cannot help,” Khan remembers. “And the people were unwilling to go home without submitting their memoranda.” It was a devil and deep sea situation.
Finally, Khan said he talked to the ringleaders and suggested them: “If I get UNO here, will it be all right?” They agreed.
Then, Khan talked to army commanders. A colonel disagreed but the Brigadier supported the idea. “I rushed to UN office and told the Observer that he needs to move a kilometre and if he does not, thousands would be killed,” Khan said. “Initially he disagreed and the soldiers securing them also refused. But eventually, he said he will talk to his headquarters in Geneva. It took them 15 minutes to get the clearance and then I was asked to sign a paper that I am personally reasonable for their security which I gladly did. Then they moved in that white jeep in my escort. When people saw them they became emotional, wept, cried and handed over dozens of papers. Half an hour later, the crisis was over.” Khan said he has a certificate that appreciates his decision-making in evading a Himalayan crisis.
But the situation changed so fast that Khan, now says, he should not have been where he was. Jagmohan had assumed office and there had been a decision to break the processions. “Disperse them” was the only direction from DGP G C Saxena. But how, nobody knew.
Next morning, there were processions from all sides. One had come from Rajbagh, another from Karan Nagar, yet another was on way from Nishat. Khan chooses to manage the Nishat event. “What I saw was bone-chilling as the procession had one end in Nishat and another near Cheshma Shahi crossing and I had 10 cops, two jeeps and all were carrying vintage 3.3 rifles and a few sticks,” Khan said.
“First we fired in air and it had no impact,” Khan remembers. “Then some of my cops fired on the ground very close to the procession and it hit the ground, breaking into splinters. I think almost eight people were hit by these splinters and two of them eventually succumbed.” This led to immediate dispersal of the huge procession to the extent that “for a kilometre, there were sandals and shoes scattered around.”
“I rushed to Gaw Kadal and what I saw was a heap of corpses and the entire bridge was red with human blood,” Khan said. “As cops were trying to lift the bodies, I came to know that a BSF man had opened LMG on the procession directly.”
Khan was happy that he dispersed a huge procession with “minimal loss”; his radio went into a tizzy. “I rushed to Gaw Kadal and what I saw was a heap of corpses and the entire bridge was red with human blood,” Khan said. “As cops were trying to lift the bodies, I came to know that a BSF man had opened LMG on the procession directly.” Khan regrets that he had made a wrong choice that day. SSP was not there, he was somewhere in Jawahar Nagar.
Certain incidents, Khan said, are indelible. One of them happened in Lal Chowk when there was a gas cylinder blast and men from 99 Bn BSF mistook it as an attack and opened fire on the same building. “I rushed and saw the bullets raining on the building that was on fire,” Khan said. “I saw a Sikh carrying his bag, coming out of the smouldering hotel and somehow getting on an electric pole and gradually coming down. This was happening while a BSF gunner was continuously targeting him. He fired almost 80 bullets and not a single hit him. Not even the one that he fired when his target was dusting his clothes.”
But the firing had forced people to stay in shops and down the shutters. Two men, a Hindu (Puri) and a Sikh were hit after bullets pierced the shutters. Dr Yousuf Turki’s only son was hit by two bullets – one in the thigh and another in hip – when he had come out to save his car.
“By then, I had made BSF stop firing,” Khan said. “Then I opened shutters and ensured almost 250 civilians walk out of danger and then I took Yousuf’s on in my jeep and moved towards Lala Ded.”
“You people are not ready to work and you are discouraging others from working,” Khan remembers his boss telling him. As he explained his position, pat came as a warning. “I am fighting 40,000 militants and if I have to fight another 40000 of JKP, I would not hesitate.”
For that entire journey, Khan said, the boy did not leave his hand. “He told me I should tell his mother that while he is dying, his sisters will take care of her,” Khan remembers. He sought water and Khan pulled out an orange from his stock and squeezed it into his mouth. Khan was happy that both the wounds are manageable. “But I was shocked when doctors broke the news that the second bullet had hit him when the boy was jumping out so it went deep into his hip and tore apart almost everything.” Though Khan, a universal donor with 0+ gave a pint of blood for his operation, the boy died. “I cried and wept bitterly. I knew the family but they still do not know I gave my blood to the boy.”
The next day, Khan was summoned by Saxena. Hoping a pat for saving lives, he was asked why he filed an open FIR (culpable homicide) against BSF. “You people are not ready to work and you are discouraging others from working,” Khan remembers his boss telling him. As he explained his position, pat came as a warning. “I am fighting 40,000 militants and if I have to fight another 40000 of JKP, I would not hesitate.”
Soon after, Khan was shifted out of Kothibagh and made DySP Hq. “There was no thana responsibility so all of a sudden I started going from place to place for the routine daily mar-dhaad everywhere there was a law and order problem,” Khan said. Allah Bakhsh, whom Khan terms as a Danda man and Tearsmoke man, had created two vehicles with the dreadful exterior. Apparently, they were LMG fitted but the fact was they were fake, just to keep stone-throwers at bay. These were not even bulletproof and the LMG was actually an opening to throw a tear smoke or a bullet. These vehicles were known as Columns. Khan headed the Column 2 with 12 vehicles and 100 cops.
But Khan says he did not take ill of what was happening to him. The situation was overwhelming and there were no visible clues to anybody. JKP was not trained to fight militancy and situation did not permit it routine policing. Even if it wanted it would not be able to do with vintage weapons.
Khan knew ups and downs of the game. By blood, he is a soldier, a sixth generation soldier.
Originally from Tirah valley near Afghanistan border, he belongs to the clan of Samad Khan Afridi, who along with his cousin (forefathers of Rafiq Shah MLC), led a 1000-strong fighting force on the borders of Kashmir in 1880. Why they came is a dispute. One theory is that they came fortune-hunting from drought prone mountains to a green valley. Another theory is that the Maharaja of Kashmir had sought their help in reining certain tribes within J&K who were rebelling. Gilgit apart, there were tensions with Charak Rajputs, Chenani Chandels and even with Mankote Raja. Ranbir Singh, the ruler was tense because East India Company had started squeezing him.
Instead of permitting them in, Khan said, they were directed towards Gilgit, Hunza and Askardu to suppress recurrent rebellions. “Durbar thought, if they are killed it is Ok and if they return after winning with booty, they will be decorated and that exactly happened. One of them came with a wife from Askardu,” Khan said.
As the winners returned to a grand welcome, dubar bestowed upon them huge jageers: Samad Khan became a General; as their soldiers settled in Gutlibagh, the clan leaders got estates in Haihama (Kupwara), Achabal, Khour, and Battal Ballian in Udhampur. Since then, the Afridis became part of the Dogra army. “We still have those Jageer papers in carrying in red ink – Bila Mauza wa Bila Lagaan,” Khan said.
Samad had four sons, all were in Dogra army. The man who, according to Aatish-e-Chinar, took Sheikh Abdullah to the Maharaja and got him appointed as a school teacher, was his eldest one: Samandar Khan, a General in Dogra army, in whose name is Jammu’s famous Kocha Samanader Khan.
For most of the Dogra era, our dynasty was supposed to pass the matriculation and join army, no tests, no questions asked
Another was Major Abdullah, Khan’s great-grandfather, who died young. The third one was Colonel Afzal Khan and the fourth one Brigadier Rehmatuallah Khan, who actually dominated history.
Fortune hunting Afridis settled in Kashmir were affected by the situation that emerged in wake of India’s partition and Kashmir’s and coinciding freedom struggle. “For most of the Dogra era, our dynasty was supposed to pass the matriculation and join the army, no tests, no questions asked,” Khan said. “But the new situation saw premature retirement of Samandar Khan because he was accused of being sympathetic to the Kashmir leaders.”
Brigadier Rehmatullah was politically active and supporter of Muslim League. “He is credited for creating the first armed struggle as the Dogra soldiers recovered arms and ammunition from his employees in Chanpora,” Khan said. “As Pakistan was born, his sons Asgar Khan and Aslam Khan joined Pak army.”
When the tribal’s attacked Kashmir, one of the active faces was Aslam Khan, then a Major. When the raid led to the fall of the Kashmir dubar, Rehmatullah assembled his family, hired a dounga and took the Jhelum route to Achabal. As fighting stopped, Asgar Khan, who had become the youngest air marshal in Pakistan’s history at 32, talked to his pre-partition classmate Arjun Singh in 1948, who arranged a Dakota for his father and family. It landed in Jammu and took Rehmatullah, his entire family and Israr Khan’s two uncles Aleem Khan and Majid Khan to Pakistan.
By then, Rehmatullah was declared enemy agent and his properties were seized. It included the agriculture estate at Achabal, land at Boulevard, SIDCO complex, Magarmal Bagh (where Samad Khan and his wife are buried) and Kralsangri. Most of his six of the eight sons served Pakistan army. Though they lost everything in Kashmir, Asgar still faced an allegation that he had ordered against bombing Jammu in 1965 war because he did not want his relatives to die!
Unlike Rehmatullah, his younger brother Colonel Rehman Khan retired peacefully from the army. He had fought for British in Burma, was jailed and returned home. They had estates in Baran Pather (Batamaloo) and Dal Patian (Jammu) but he settled in family’s Udhampur estate.
By the summer of 1947, tensions emerged as gangs of rioters started triggering tensions. By early October, it was a serious crisis for the Muslims in Udhampur and Reasi. “There were 30 Pathan families settled in the area now called Chauniyan (garrisons),” Khan said. “The insecurity brought most of the Muslims to the Sailan Talaab.”
Col Rehman Khan died at the age of 103, almost 20 years back. But Khan says he has given him a detailed account of what happened in the frenzy that followed the fall of Dogra rule.
“Col Rehman was my father’s Taya (uncle). He and his sons were well-built fighters and marksmen. They had set up a bunker on the roof of their Haveli and when rioting attackers were coming close by, they would target them,” Khan said, referring to Khan Sr’s account. “The stand-off continued for many weeks and then, one day, the news broke that Maharaja had fled Kashmir and would come to Tara Niwas in Udhampur.” A palace, Tara Niwas is a state guest house, now.
Unlike Maharaja, Rani came out, saw him tied and returned back. Within seconds after that he was attacked and then a wild wind broke out. He was a marathon athlete. Taking advantage of it, he unshackled himself and jumped into a grove. In order to prevent the rioters from chasing him, his four sons came in between and were killed.
It was during that stay that the rioters, according to Khan’s account, approached him. “He told me that Maharaja sent a word for a meeting. Pathans being loyal to the family for generations obliged despite some voices against the idea. His five sons accompanied him. He told me that when they reached the courtyard of the palace, the rioters disarmed them, tied them with ropes. Unlike Maharaja, Rani came out, saw him tied and returned back. Within seconds after that, he was attacked and then a wild wind broke out. He was a marathon athlete. Taking advantage of it, he unshackled himself and jumped into a grove. In order to prevent the rioters from chasing him, his four sons came in between and were killed.”
Soon, the Haveli fell. Those sheltered there were massacred and thrown into a well. “Women were herded away and it included two from our family of whom one was recovered later but not the bride of Abdul Hamid Khan, a DC, who had married a Haihama beauty with blonde hair only two months back,” Khan said. “Col Rehman Khan ran way for a long distance and took refuge with the Chandel’s of Gangerah and Bounta who protected him for many weeks till Sheikh Abdullah’s government restored some order.” These Chandels are an interesting community. They have changed their faith many times in last one century. After 1947, they became Muslims. Much later, Col Khan, reclaimed his properties, married a Chandel woman and raised his family again. He had two daughters and a son.
But in the mayhem in which an unknown number of Muslims were butchered, a story described humanity. Rehman Khan had kept his youngest son Obaidullah at the Haveli. He was only eight. “As the rioters managed to fill all open spaces with corpses, they took the remaining to Tawi so that dumping them becomes easy,” Khan said. “In this flock was Obaidullah. He was hit by an axe on his head but the intelligent boy was injured and hid under the corpses. Once the killers left a Pujari came and saw him breathing. He took him home, treated him and once he recovered, he gave him a Brahman look and one day took his wife and Obaidullah to Jammu where he put him in a Pakistan bound train.”
As the train stopped at Lahore, the boy mentioned Asgar Khan and quickly he was driven to Abbotabad. Brigadier Rehmatuallh Khan brought him up and he eventually became Pakistan Navy’s Vice Admiral and later headed Shipping Corporation of Pakistan. His elder brother Amirllah and sister Gul Jan were already in Pakistan.
Colonel Khan’s brother Abdul Rahim was also a colonel. His son Abdul Karim Khan was studying in the tenth standard when his uncle fought his battle for life. He eventually joined police but he also had to contribute his bit in managing the division of the place the Afridis’ once called their home. The division divided them too.
It was much later revealed that the Pakistani army that attacked the sector was led by my uncle, my father’s younger cousin Colonel Aleem Khan Afridi.”
In 1971 war, Karim Khan was Jammu’s SSP. As Pakistan mounted an attack from Chamb Jorian, the police station was deserted as cops fled to safety. The challenge was to rescue the arms and ammunition from the police station and the necessary records. “The shells were landing and my father drove in a jeep and got the arms, the ammunition and the vital records,” Khan, his son, who retired as DIG JKP, said. “It was much later revealed that the Pakistani army that attacked the sector was led by my uncle, my father’s younger cousin Colonel Aleem Khan Afridi.” His two cousins Aleem and Majid were actually in the news after they were used to depose Yehya Khan at Bhuttoo’s behest. They were later prematurely retired.
“We Pathans’ have a problem, we are loyal to the soil we live on and get respect from,” Khan said. “Though most of my family is in Pakistan, I am an Indian to the core.”
In 1990, when Raj Bhawan decided to crack down on media, Israr Khan was tasked to execute the plan. “I trapped all in the hotel but Mark Tully fled,” Khan remembers. “For the few days, I was doing everything possible to avoid offending them or creating a scene that will fetch them a photograph: I would sing Mohammad Rafi for them, become a clown and do a lot of theatres to ensure they do not move out and stay engaged. Then the Deputy Commissioner issued an order declaring them persona non-grata and I escorted them to the airport and deported them.” Khan said it was much later revealed that the US embassy’s first political secretary was also reporting to her mission from the same hotel.
Khan’s real test, however, came when B S Bedi, Kashmir’s new police chief, deputed him to Kulgam in 1991 for the revival of the police department. Militants had set afire a police station and later kidnapped a DySP along with the vehicle and his driver, a relative of CPI (M) leader Yousuf Tarigami, Khan remembers. “All police stations had been closed and the sub-divisional police office was operating from District Police Lines in Anantnag,” Khan said. “I was the first officer who reported from Kulgam where the office had already been shifted.”
After hectic negotiations, earlier, the militants had set free DySP and the jeep. Much later, the daughter of the police officer had married the militant, who eventually became a singer and still sings.
Reaching Kulgam was not easy as all the bridges had been destroyed. My SSP got me dropped on the right bank of Jhelum in Khudwani in a baktarbundh. “As I came down, everybody was looking at me,” Khan said. “Then I went to a shop and bought a carton of cigarettes and that encouraged him to talk to me. When I told him I am a DySP, he suggested me to leave. Instead, I got on a boat to cross the river. Then came the shock: the boatman knew I was a police officer and still sought Re 1 from me!”
As he reached the other bank, Khan said two developments took place almost instantly: a police jeep appeared to ferry him to his place of duty and a young man told him “DSP Sahab, Commander Sahab wants to see you in the tea stall”.
After hectic negotiations, earlier, the militants had set free DySP and the jeep. Much later, the daughter of the police officer had married the militant, who eventually became a singer and still sings.
Khan asked his guards to accompany him, they refused. “So I went into the tea stall where three militants were sitting and I lit a cigarette,” Khan said. “Then they started saying that they will not touch the police as long they did not intervene in their affairs.” In the group of three, Khan said, there was a foreigner and “I took the risk of talking to him in Punjabi”. It was responded with so much of enthusiasm that the course of the meeting changed. “He said from Kupwara to Kulgam he was desperate to talk to somebody but finally the moment came,” Khan remembers the militants saying. “The meeting ended in a good note and I left only to be stopped by BSF before reaching my new place of posting. It was a Sikh and my Punjabi helped me again.”
Khan said he reopened all the police stations in the area, managed a good relation with the people and the paramilitary forces by not using vintage guns against AK47 but by keeping “my eyes and ears open”.