The Other Side of Pain

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Killings are painful and shattering for everybody regardless of the politics and profession. On the day of Eid, three cops were killed and two had a providential escape. In the last three decades, it was the fate of more than 1600 cops. Shams Irfan met families of the three slain cops to report the flip side of the tragedy that seems so normal and routine now

Babar’s daughter Asiya and his son with their uncle Manzoor at their house in Gujjar Basil south Kashmir.

On February 6, 2018, as the sun hid behind a ridge in a remote Rampati hamlet near Brariangan village, around 70 km south of Srinagar, two policemen climbed a narrow walkway, crisscrossing all the way atop a hillock, where a lone house sat silently amidst tall pines. It is the belt that was made ‘famous’ by a massacre at Brariangan in 2000.

After crossing three dried-up streams and a few courtyards, when they reached the halfway mark, they stopped for a while to catch their breath.

Posted at newly constructed Shangus police post, the duo was sent to deliver a message to Hafizullah Khan, one of the oldest inhabitants of Gujjar Basti, a cluster of houses in Rampati hamlet.

Out of his six sons and one daughter, Hafizullah’s two sons: Safeer Ahmad Khan, 39, and Babar Ahmad Khan, 32, served as constables in Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) in Srinagar. However, before the official messengers could reach Haifzullah’s house, a phone-call from Safeer, who was in Srinagar that day, had already broken the silence inside the house.

“Babar Na Raha (Babar is no more),” Safeer told his eldest brother Manzoor Ahmad Khan, 58, a farmer who grows maize on family’s six kanals hilly land near their house.

“Don’t tell anybody till I am home,” he instructed Manzoor, who was at a 5 km distance in Shangus.

EARLIER THAT DAY

Babar Ahmad Khan

At 9 am, as per routine, Babar called his wife Shakeela Akhtar, 28, also his first cousin, whom he married in November 2013, almost two years after he got selected in police as constable.

“I am going out for duty,” Babar told his wife before asking her to put their three-year-old daughter Asiya on phone. “If I am back early, I will come home today. Otherwise, I will be home tomorrow for sure.”

But little Asiya refused to talk as she was busy playing outside with other kids. Thinking he would be back by the end of the day, Babar told his wife not to disturb Asiya.

“We talked for over ten minutes before he disconnected the call,” recalls Shakeela. “I was happy he was coming home tonight. He had been away for eight days now.”

After he hung up, Babar, who was posted at police lines in Srinagar, quickly changed into a new pair of uniform and rushed out of his room towards a waiting vehicle.

Along with eighteen other cops, Babar was assigned to accompany prisoners from Srinagar’s Central Jail to SMHS hospital in Karan Nagar. That day six prisoners were supposed to visit the hospital for various health-related issues. As standard practice, all prisoners were in chains; one end of which was tied to a policeman’s belt.

Babar was carrying the other end of the chain tied to Naveed Jatt, a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant, who was arrested from a hideout in Kulgam’s Sharampora village in June 2014.

11:30 AM

As they reached the hospital, Babar, Mushtaq Ahmad and another policeman escorted Naveed towards the causality section. Once inside the spacious hallway, which was at this time packed with people, Babar and Naveed waited while Mushtaq and other policemen went to get an OPD ticket for the prisoners.

Suddenly, two men appeared from the crowd and fired from a pistol at Babar. As Babar fell down, Mushtaq rushed in to save his colleague. Then another round of bullets hit Mushtaq, who too fell down.

Within five minutes, Naveed was running towards his freedom, with prison chain still tied to his right hand. He had managed to get rid of the other end of chain tied to Babar.

Babar’s wife Shakeela Akhter with her daughter.

As Naveed and his two accomplices ran towards a waiting getaway vehicle, stationed outside the hospital’s main entrance, Babar and Mushtaq lay in a pool of blood. Within half-an-hour, both of them were declared dead.

At around 12 noon, Babar’s wife called his number but his phone was switched off. “I didn’t try again as I thought he must be on duty,” recalls Shakeela.

01:30 PM

The first among his family to learn about Babar’s killing was his elder brother Safeer. “When Babar didn’t pick my call, I called Safeer,” said Shakeela. “But despite around ten attempts he didn’t pick my call as well.”

This made Shakeela nervous. But being a policeman’s wife she understood the nature of her husband and brother-in-law’s job. “I tried to get myself busy with household chores but couldn’t concentrate.”

At 3 pm, Hafizullah told his daughter-in-law Shakeela to call Safeer. “I asked why? Is everything alright?” recalls Shakeela. “He said, ‘you just call’.”

But when Shakeela called Safeer, he didn’t pick her call again. “I told Baba (Hafizullah) that he is not responding.”

Hafizullah went outside, talked to Safeer on phone and then came back and told Shakeela that she could call him now. This time Safeer picked up Shakeela’s call and told her that he was coming home as he had got injured in Srinagar. “But I instantly sensed he is hiding something,” recalls Shakeela.

She told Safeer that it was not him who was hurt, but Babar, as he was not responding to her calls since morning. “He said nothing and hung up instantly,” recalls Shakeela.

Before Shakeela could have reacted she saw a few neighbours running towards their house. They told Shakeela that Babar’s leg was injured and he would be home in a while.

“I asked them, if he is injured then he should be taken to a hospital in Srinagar. Why are they bringing him here?” recalls Shakeela. “But they didn’t say anything.”

6 PM

Shakeela sat in her courtyard, flanked by two dozen neighbours and her two daughters: Asifa and two-year-old Saika; her eyes fixed at the small walkway leading up to her house. Despite the confusion and sinking hope, she eagerly waited for her husband Babar. He did come back, but in a wooden coffin, shouldered by his brother Safeer and his childhood friends. “This was the heaviest coffin I had ever carried,” said one of Babar’s childhood friends, a policeman who refused to be named.

There are around twelve policemen from this village; four from Babar’s extended family alone.

Unable to react, Shakeela watched from a distance as mourners struggled to keep Babar’s coffin steady on a narrow unpaved road. Two years back, when there was no access road to Ramptrai hamlet, housing around 400 Gujjar families, Babar and his friends volunteered to construct one. However, before the road could have been macadamized, Babar got selected as constable in the police.

When Babar’s coffin was finally placed in his spacious courtyard, Shakeela slowly edged closer, and wrapped her arms around it with a question on her lips: why did you break your promise? As Shakeela’s cries pierced mountains surrounding the godforsaken Gujjar Basti, her two daughters played in a corner, not knowing what had befallen them.

Almost an hour later, while preparations were made for Babar’s funeral, a senior police officer took his elder brother Manzoor aside and handed him a packet and said, “Yeh kafan-dafan ke liye hai (This is for the funeral). The packet, when Babar’s family finally opened three weeks after his killing, had Rs 50,000 in cash. “This is beside the ex-gratia policemen killed in the line of duty gets,” said Babar’s childhood friend, also a policeman.

At 8:30 PM, Babar was finally laid to rest. His funeral was attended by over five thousand people.

Four days later, a policeman from Watrasoo police station came to Babar’s house and took his details.

“My husband is gone. Compensation cannot heal our wounds,” said Shakeela, as she takes a thoughtful look at her two daughters. “How can we live without him?”

SEER JAGIR / SOPORE

Mohammad Yousuf Sofi’s wife Afroza Begum at her house in Seer Jagir, Sopore.

On February 9, 2010, Afroza Begum, mother of five: four daughters and one son, was busy in household chores in her newly constructed house in Seer Jagir area of Sopore, when she heard a few gunshots. Instantly, Afroza rushed out of the front door and sought whereabouts of her kids.

After Afroza summoned them inside and put them safely in a corner of her living room, she whispered: ‘who knows whose family has been devastated today’. Khudah Goutch Sarnie Raeham Karun (May Allah protect all).”

Ten minutes later, Afroza moved out of her ‘safe room’ and went outside to check what had happened. “People talked in whispers that a policeman was killed,” recalls Afroza.

Instantly, Afroza called her policeman husband Mohammad Yousuf Sofi, 43, who was posted as a head constable with Counter Intelligence Kashmir (CIK), in Sopore, to know about his safety. “He didn’t pick his phone,” recalls Afroza.

The previous night, at 9 pm, Sofi had called Afroza from office and told her that he would stay at his friend’s house in Amargah for the night. “Whenever he had the night shift, he usually stayed at his friend’s house,” recalls Afroza. “It was part of his routine now.”

The next morning, Sofi left in his car for police station Sopore, where he would handle passport clearance section. After he parked his car outside, he began walking towards the main entrance of the police station. He was in his civvies. Just outside the main gate, he met an old friend and began talking to him. All of a sudden, a young man, who had his face covered, emerged from the crowd, took out a pistol and shot Sofi from close range. “It was quick,” an eyewitness later told Afroza. Before policemen could rush to save Sofi, he had succumbed. “He died on the spot,” said Afroza. The shooter managed to flee from the spot taking advantage of the chaos.

As Sofi’s colleagues were shifting his lifeless body to the nearest hospital, hoping for a miracle, his phone rang desperately. It was his wife Afroza.

“When he didn’t answer, I thought he must be busy,” recalls Afroza. “I had no idea that it was my family which was devastated today.”

Mohammad Yousuf Sofi

The youngest among four brothers, Sofi joined police in 1989, a few months before full-blown armed insurgency broke in Kashmir. With his livelihood secured, in 1993, Sofi’s parents decided to get him married to Afroza, who belonged to a well-off family from Handwara town. After marriage, Sofi was posted at different locations in Kashmir including Srinagar, Baramulla, Sumbul and Sopore. For a few years after marriage, Sofi lived with his parents and brothers in a joint family. But then he eventually started living on his own in a portion of his parental house.

“At the same time, we started constructing a new house,” said Afroza. “He put every saved penny in the making of this house, but couldn’t live in it.”

Ten days before he was killed, Sofi and his wife moved to their new house, along with their kids. “He was excited to finally live in his dream home,” recalls Afroza.

As part of housewarming ceremony, Sofi threw a modest feast for his friends and relatives. “But he could live only for nine days in his dream house,” rues Afroza.

On the tenth day, at 11:30 am, almost two hours after Afroza heard gunshots, Sofi’s body was brought home by his colleagues and friends. “Till they entered the front door with his body, I still hoped that it is not him,” said Afroza.

Within no time Afroza’s small garden, and every inch of space in her new house was filled by mourners.

“I kept asking myself, why would anyone kill him? He had never harmed anyone. His was an office job,” asks Afroza.

As Sofi’s body was prepared for burial, a convoy of cars carrying top police officials arrived in the village. There were moist eyes everywhere. “They stayed till he was buried with full honour,” recalls Afroza. “I asked everyone why he was killed, but nobody had an answer.”

The next day, a person from police station Sopore came to Afroza and gave her Rs 10,000 in cash as immediate help.  A few days later, under SRO, Afrooza was offered a job in the police. But she chose the R&B department instead. “I wanted a peaceful life for myself and my kids,” said Afroza.

In 2013, Afrooza, along with other relatives of policemen, who were killed in the line of duty, was called to Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar and given a colour television set.

For a few years, on every Eid, a person would come from the local police station with a small packet carrying cakes and confectionaries. “But then he stopped coming a few years back,” said Afroza.

Sofi’s son Adnan, now grown up, has never asked about his father or how he died. At times, he gets in a fit of anger and starts breaking things. “Whenever there are protests in our area, he prefers to stay indoors,” said Afroza. “He hardly reacts. But his silence is dangerous.”

For Afroza, raising kids as a single mother is the most challenging task. “You never know what is going inside a youngster’s mind these days,” said Afroza. “I am always concerned for my son’s safety.”

Interestingly, no one ever took responsibility for Sofi’s killing. “I am not aware of any enquiry initiated into his death by the police,” said Afroza. “After all, he was just a constable.”

SHANGUS / ISLAMABAD

Mohammad Asif Nazki

On June 16, 2017, at 6:30 pm, after a hectic day in the field, Mohammad Asif Nazki, 28, a Special Police Officer (SPO) for last 12 years, drove his Station House Officer (SHO), and four other policemen back to Achabal police station from Islamabad.

As they reached near Thajiwara village of Achabal, some six km from Islamabad town, bullets started raining on their vehicle from all sides. Within a few minutes, suspected militants, who had attacked them, managed to flee with their weapons, after they made sure that all six, including Asif and his SHO, was dead. “For next five minutes no one dared to go near their vehicle,” said an eyewitness who refused to be named. “There was fear in the entire belt.”

The attack on Inspector Feroz Ahmad Dar and his party came hours after Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Junaid Mattoo was killed, in an encounter in Arwani, Bijbehara.

Almost half-an-hour before the attack, Asif was on phone with his wife Parveena, whom he married in 2012, after years of courtship. Asif, now a father of four-year-old son Sehran, had not seen his wife and child for last nine days.

“As he was SHO’s favourite, he mostly stayed with him in the police station,” said Asif’s father Mohammad Iqbal Nazki, 58, a farmer. “He would come home almost every weekend.”

After promising his wife that he would be home tonight for sure, Asif hung up and dialled his father’s number. Asif informed his father that he was with Sahab (SHO) in Islamabad town, and would be back in Achabal soon. Then before disconnecting the call, Asif asked for his mother. But as fate had it, Asif’s mother Shareefa, who was busy outside, told her husband that she would talk to him face-to-face when he would come home that night. “She never got that chance,” said Nazki.

EARLY LIFE

Mohammad Iqbal Nazki

In 2006, Asif, who dropped out of school in Class 8, got selected as an SPO on the recommendation of Hassan Kadipora, a minister, on a monthly pay of Rs 3000.

He was posted at Khanabal police line, then at Shungus, and finally at Achabal. He was assigned as driver to the Achabal SHO. In 2013, almost a year after he got married, Asif left his parents and started living in a portion of his father’s house. However, being the sole bread earner for his family, he continued to take care of his parents as well.

After the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016, Asif almost quit his job as he stopped going to the police station. “He was struggling to manage his entire family’s expenses from his meagre pay,” said Nazki. “He was looking for alternatives.”

But after a month, Asif joined again as he was told that SPO’s pay had been revised to Rs 6000 now. “He used to save every single penny for sake of his family,” said Nazki.

Eldest among three brothers, Asif would assemble kids from the neighbourhood, along with his brother’s son, and buy sweets for them. Then he would tell kids to call him Baji, as he was obsessed with Bollywood actor Ajay Devgan’s portrayal of a police inspector named Baji Rao Singham in 2011 movie Singham. “After his killing, these kids still ask me when Baji will come home,” said Nazki, with tears in his eyes.

FEAR AND FUNERAL

At 6:20 pm, one of the Asif’s cousins came running to Nazki and told him that there had been an attack on police party near Thajiwara village of Achabal. “Asif bhai has received a bullet in his leg. We have to visit Achabal quickly,” he told Nazki, trying not to reveal the truth.

On way to Achabal, Nazki called his son’s mobile several times but nobody answered. Then Nazki called second son Rameez Ahmad Nazki, 24, who drives a Sumo taxi between Islamabad and Achabal. “He too had heard about the attack, but he was told by people that Asif is safe,” recalls Nazki.

But once Nazki reached Achabal, he could sense fear on every face, as entire police post was wiped out in a jiffy.

Wreath laying ceremony of Babar Ahmad Khan in Srinagar.

At around 11:45 pm, Asif’s bullet-ridden body was finally brought home, where a small gathering of terrified neighbours and relatives bid him farewell. He was buried within an hour of his arrival. “There was a rumour about the presence of militant in the area,” said Nazki. “That is why nobody among his colleagues dared to join his funeral,” said Nazki. “Not even a single police officer came that day.”

Asif’s colleagues from Watrusoo and Achabal police stations, where he was posted, came in civvies the next day.

On the sixth day of his killing, Inspector General (IG) of Police, SHO and other officers from the police came to his house. That day, IG gave Asif’s wife Rs 1.5 lakh and police station Achabal gave her Rs 18,000, as part of immediate relief.

A few days later, on the occasion of Eid-ul-fitr, police station Achabal sent her wife Rs 15000.

On Police Divas, Deputy Superintendent of Police (Dsp) came to Asif’s father and asked him if he needed anything. His wife visited Khanabal police lines where she was given Rs 11000.

For forty days, Asif’s wife stayed at her in-law’s house and then left with her child. During those 40 days, she completed all the paperwork regarding the compensation and SRO, and once it was done, she left. “She took my grandson along. He was my son’s blood,” said Nazki.

There was a complete shutdown in Achabal and Shangus for four days after the attack.

A few days after Asif’s killing, Nazki visited Achabal, where his son was posted and enquired from shopkeepers if his son owed them anything. “He owed a vegetable vendor Rs 2000,” recalls Nazki.

At the police station, Nazki was handed over his son’s belongings, including a small box which had Rs 5000 in cash. “This was from his last month’s salary,” said Nazki.

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