Sopore Suspense

Decimated by strife, post-1996 Sopore started looking forward to get back to the routine. But it was really never out of the crisis. As a series of killings took place in last few weeks, the town was again the newspaper front page material. Bilal Handoo spends a day in the deserted town to feel the renewed tensions


On early morning of June 16, taxi drivers at the Batamaloo bus stand shouted their signature passenger calls, a repetition of destinations across north Kashmir, “Pattan! Baramulla! Kupwara!” The name missing from their hoarse calls was the restive north Kashmir town of Sopore. A sole taxi driver, with two passengers, wavered between his fear of the journey to Sopore and taking a chance to begin making a day’s living. “I have been waiting for around 45 minutes, but hardly any Sopore passengers are turning up,” said Gulzar Ahmad, the driver in his early twenties.

Two more Sopore bound passengers showed up. Eventually, Ahmad, the driver, gathered his courage and set out on the road to Sopore. We drove in a fear-filled silence for several kilometres. At a certain point, one of the passengers said, “Is everything fine in Sopore today?” The driver answered bluntly, “Who knows, brother! I am going there after four days.” Another passenger said, “I tried to call my family in Sopore, but couldn’t reach them.”

Silence returned. The driver played some mournful songs from the nineties on the car audio. It did not help. Fifty five kilometres and an hour and a half later, the reasons for anguish inside the taxi made perfect sense. As it turned right at Sangrama towards Sopore, we passed by a group of policemen frisking passersby. The closer we got to Sopore, the more scared the people on the streets seemed.


Sopore was tense. Police and paramilitary men were standing edgily on the streets. Several armoured vehicles of the Army rumbled down the roads. Small groups of civilians sat by the shuttered down shop fronts, reading newspapers, speaking in whispers. The town seemed to have shrunk in fear after six men were killed by unidentified gunmen within a month, four of them assassinated within a week. The killings have returned the ghosts of the nineties, when death was a constant visitor to Sopore.

In the desolated Noorbagh bazaar, the Army had parked a Casper armoured vehicle in the middle of the road. Tense soldiers had cordoned off a vast area, blocked entrances to alleys, climbed atop shopping complexes, their guns pointed towards the streets. “We don’t fear death for it is certain,” said an elderly man with a long, grey beard. “But this bloody cycle of death has instilled a strange fear in us.”

An elderly lady cautioned him, “Be careful with your words. You never know…” The deaths were silencing the living. Sopore was stunned by unknown gunmen appearing out of nowhere, killing their selected targets with precision and vanishing mysteriously.

Sheikh Mohammad Yousuf, father of Sheikh Altaf. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
Sheikh Mohammad Yousuf, father of Sheikh Altaf.
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Around 9.00 in the morning on June 9, a short distance from the Noorbagh market, unknown assassins murdered Tehreek-i-Hurriyat activist Sheikh Altaf, a few hundred metres from his home in Iqbal Nagar, New Colony. Altaf, who worked as a senior pharmacist in the Jammu and Kashmir government, lived in a comfortable two-storied house with his aged parents, his wife, and three children. Townspeople continued arriving to console his blank-faced children and shocked wife.

“We knew that Altaf was a target,” said his father, Sheikh Mohammad Yousuf, who worked as a teacher for a school run by the Falah-i-Aam Trust, affiliated with the Jama’at-e-Islami, for 16 years. Altaf had been on the radar of the security forces for a while because of his work with the Hurriyat. His father alleged that the senior police officers had conveyed death threats for Altaf.

It was a terrible atrocity fifteen years ago that had pushed Sheikh Altaf on the path of separatist activism. In the winter of 2000, Altaf had been working quietly as a pharmacist in Sopore. His younger brother Sheikh Rauf was a doctorate in Arabic from Aligarh Muslim University.

On December 25, 2000 Rauf was returning home from Aligarh on the eve of Eid. Rauf took a taxi from Jammu to Srinagar and Altaf left Sopore to receive his brother in Srinagar. It was Ramazan; they were fasting. Suddenly a 24-year old Bilal Mohammed blew himself up outside the Badami Bagh army cantonment in Srinagar. Bilal was a British citizen of Pakistani descent from Manchester, England. He had joined Harkat-ul-Ansar in 1994, and later Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) as a suicide bomber. The suicide attack left four army men dead. Already that year, a shy teenager Afaq Shah from Khanyar, Srinagar, had exploded a Maruti car filled with explosives outside the Badami Bagh cantonment. It was the first suicide bombing by a Kashmiri. JeM militant group led by Maulana Masood Azhar claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.

As destiny had it, the taxi in which Rauf was travelling to Srinagar from Jammu, reached Badami Bagh cantonment area, soon after the suicide attack. Irate soldiers intercepted the car. “The soldiers dragged out an old man from the taxi and started beating him up,” recalled Yusuf, the father. “My son, Sheikh Rauf who was hardly 24 was sitting on the front seat. I was told by eye-witnesses that he stepped out of the vehicle and objected to the beating of the old man. The army grabbed him and three other passengers and dragged them inside the cantonment. Army shot the other three passengers but they beheaded Rauf.” Altaf returned to Sopore with his brother’s beheaded body.

In the coming years Altaf actively took part in Hurriyat activities besides working as a pharmacist. The security forces began tracking him down. Altaf was routinely summoned to the police station and arrested several times under the PSA. “Many SP rank officers called me many times to their offices and warned me, ‘Let your son choose between employment and leadership,’ ” said his father, Yusuf.

The fears turned real when Altaf left home for night duty on June 4 this year. “On his way to office, he was stopped by SHO and a Major rank officer. They detained him and took him to Ganjoo House, where he was tortured,” Yusuf said. A day later, Altaf was shifted to Sopore police station where he was detained till June 7 before police called his father and asked him to give in writing that he secured his son’s custody.

Funeral of of Aijaz Ahmad Reshi
Funeral of of Aijaz Ahmad Reshi

On June 9, around 9.00 am, as Altaf walked back home from his night shift, two young men intercepted him. One of them, who had a pistol, shot him but Altaf fought back, according to a local woman, who watched from her house. As he tried to run away, he was again shot. “One of the bullets had hit his tiffin box,” the father said.

After Altaf’s killing, Sheikh Yusuf has lost both his sons and at 74, he has prepared himself to look after his three grandchildren till life permits. “Sopore suffered earlier and we have survived,” he said. “If they think it can bend us, they are mistaken.”

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Sopore represented Kashmir’s development, prosperity and a conservative politics. Barring few breaches during the post-partition era, it always formed an anti-establishment vote-bank. As militancy started in Kashmir during nineties, Sopore became its “pride”.

But for its shift from an apple town to a rebel town, Sopore paid heavily. The town’s three major Mazar-e-Shouhda (martyrs graveyards) house the ‘collateral damage’ of last 25 years. The graves in their stony epitaphs give vivid details of mayhem, which the town witnessed so far.

Locals while recalling the nightmarish nineties said, “A bullet was always Indian forces’ prescription to silence, shriek or secessionist slogan in Sopore.” BSF shot dead two ladies, one of them pregnant on October 18, 1992, who protested over the “murder” of three boatmen, the locals said. “And six students were killed in cold blood on April 19, 1993, when they were holding a demonstration to demand the halt in the telecast of blasphemous serial- Bible Ki Kahaniyan.”

When it was all happening, said the locals, “the killing soldiers were patted by their higher ups for unleashing murderous assault on Sopore”. Besides death, Sopore suffered a massive destruction. It was set ablaze eight times since nineties. Shortly after the then Governor Jagmohan’s rule saw enormous powers being given to counter insurgent agencies by promulgating “Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1990”, Shaheed Bazar was set ablaze on June 2, 1990. Then again in July 1990, Iqbal Market was set ablaze followed by September 19, Arampora blaze that followed the murder of three brothers by the BSF. This blaze destroyed 38 houses and 40 shops and the area was smouldering for three days.

The worst was in January 1993. A militant took away unmanned Light Machine Gun belonging to a 94 Bn BSF personnel, who was basking in the sun. To avenge the act, the BSF personnel ran amuck. In the mayhem that followed, 45 civilians were killed, mostly roasted alive, 16 civilians were injured and 37 residential and 352 commercial structures were razed to ashes. Again the town was subjected to fire in May, October and November 1993.

Following the international condemnation of the January 6 massacre, the state constituted one man judicial commission led by Justice Amarjeet Singh Choudhary of Haryana High Court. He visited Jammu once but never to Srinagar despite the state extended the life of the Commission twice by six months each.

Perhaps having the foresight about the fate of enquiry in a war-like situation, the Soporites had refused to co-operate with the Commission at the outset. They called it an “eyewash”. Later an Institute of Kashmir Studies survey reportedly revealed that 60 per cent respondents in the township said the enquiry was “useless”, 28 per cent called it a “cover-up” while 12 per cent said, “When criminals are judges, justice is a farce!”

Following the mayhem of January 6, the ‘rebel town’ was reportedly under the direct ‘remote rule’ of the Prime Minister’s Office. Over the years, locals said, the authorities miscalculated the decline in militant attacks and changing mood in Sopore as the “peace”.

After government claimed to have re-established its control over Sopore by December 1994, the town became the emblem of the smouldering Valley, symbolising shattered economy, hostile authority and above all, the costs of revolt and counter insurgency in Kashmir.

Two elders  busy conversing on a shop front in Sopore town.
Two elders busy conversing on a shop front in Sopore town.

It was this situation from which the town was trying to come out of – to rebuild homes, lives and business. But that is not happening. The town was always simmering though that barely became the front page.

Right now, across Sopore, police have put up black and white posters of two men—Abdul Qayoom Najar and Imtiyaz Ahmad Kandoo—and announced a bounty of Rs 10 lakh for each of them. Police claim that Kandoo and Najar are the militants responsible for the killings taking place in the town.

Amid scare, there was a simmer in Sopore. About half a kilometre from Altaf’s house, near a shopping complex, once the site of town’s famed Samad Talkies, a few dozen young men were battling the police with stones. The air reeked of tear gas smoke. Every now and then a stone would bang against the metallic gate of the Sopore police station.

Behind the police station, sub-district magistrate (SDM) of Sopore, Dr Nasir Ahmad operates from a good office. He said he is trying to be “pro-people”. The moment he was posted in Sopore in February this year, he realised the gravity on the ground when he received a “warm” reception in public where some irked locals hurled kangri at him. “And since then I am only trying to strike a balance with people here,” he said. As an administrator, he tried to act tough against makeshift stall owners but ended up facing men charging down to his office wearing funeral shrouds one day.

After gauging the mood, Nasir deputed 20 people from municipality and gave them civil affairs charge in the town. “This helped me to reduce the footprint of police who otherwise were manning traffic and other civil affairs in the town,” he said. “That way, I could alter public perception a bit.”

Family of Aijaz Ahmad Reshi. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
Family of Aijaz Ahmad Reshi.
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

But following the killings, frisking and identity checks have increased in Sopore, so have started mid-night knocks instilling a sense of nightmare in townspeople. “For the last few days, not many are turning up in mosques,” said Abdul Hamid, a local resident. “Those who step out during early mornings or late evenings face security checking.”

As we spoke, news came that unidentified gunmen had unsuccessfully tried to kill two former militants. Rumours that assassins come wearing burqa to kill the selected targets had added to the fear forcing former militants and separatist activists to go into hiding.

Already on June 12, unidentified gunmen killed a shopkeeper and Hurriyat (g) activist Khurshid Ahmed Bhat in Bomai village. On June 14 they killed former militant, Mehrajuddin Dar at Badambagh Sopore. A day later, yet another former militant Ajaz Ahmed Reshi was murdered at Mundji Sopore. In all these killings, a “similar pattern” was followed by the assassins, who showed up in twos and hit their selected targets with professional precision between waist and head.

For all these killings, cops blame Hizb ul Mujahideen’s “splinter group” active in Sopore. But Hizb said civilian killings are the plot of Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s “terrorist killing terrorist” strategy. Even unionists like Omar Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke on similar lines, blaming Parrikar’s remarks for Sopore trouble. “A week after Parrikar’s statement, killing of innocent people started in Sopore,” said Azad. It is for the first time in history of Kashmir that no militant organisation has claimed responsibility for the attacks, Azad said. “The state government is ignorant and police doesn’t know who is doing it. This is something that is unheard of.”

Wife and two daughters of Mehraj-ud-din. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
Wife and two daughters of Mehraj-ud-din.
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

With Sopore sliding back to the brink, the state claims peace and change in mood. But the fact is militancy in the valley has never been a “problem”. The “problem” was always places like Sopore, continue to be unchanged and defiant. And this defiance would appear every time the Governor and the Union Ministers visited Sopore only to be hooted down!

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