On the 17th anniversary of counter-insurgent Azad Nabi’s killing, Muhammad Younis visited the remote south Kashmir village to understand the logic and the legacy of a terror movement that is already part of the folklore
As the sound of a few bullet shots echoed in their vicinity, Shehlipora residents near Achabal cringed in terror. Clanging the doors and windows of their houses shut, everyone ran indoors for safety. The general instinct was that some Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants might have entered the village. It would happen more often.
Spotted, the men of Muslim Mujahideen (MM), a counter-insurgency group working in the area, would have let loose their ammunition at them. Since the firing stopped abruptly, residents thought that the militants were killed instantly, as would occur generally. They were partially true. Indeed a Hizb militant had barged in, but it was he who had done the killing and not the other way round.
To keep track of the developments, the people, sneaking through the windowpanes, kept a strict vigil of their surroundings. After a while, what they found was an armed boy, hardly in his twenties, running over the rutted lanes that meandered through the hamlet. Holding his weapon up about his head, he was crying out loudly: “Oh you people of Shehlipora, bear witness that today I have given you freedom… that I have killed him today.” By his voice which gradually ebbed away, the people understood that the boy pulled off a safe retreat. But still, the onlookers didn’t come out of their safety nests, until a quarter of an hour later when they were literally dragged out by MM recruits. Now the reality dawned on them: Ghulam Nabi Mir aka Naba Azad, the MM founder, was killed. Running hither and thither, MM men were looking for the killer. They did not find him anywhere.
“We don’t know who the boy was, but whatever he was saying was nothing but truth like a day. He definitely gave us the freedom that day,” said Ahsan (name changed), 14 years later, sitting at ease near a shop front in the village. To carry out his fiat, Azad had unleashed his acolytes on the general population. Boarded in vehicles, his men in civvies, wielding assault rifles, would make rounds in the village. Anybody could be detained on a mere whim or even killed. “To sit like this and talk with your friends was a dream then… we wouldn’t dare to assemble on road… in fact, we didn’t want to be seen,” said Ahsan’s friend, sitting close. Both are white-bearded. In their lives, they have seen terrible times, but that time, they consider, was beyond the limit of endurance. They say they couldn’t be more grateful to anyone than that boy. “He was an angel, sent to end our miseries.”
It was June 16, 2001, when at around 12:30 pm, Azad moved out towards a stream, snaking through the village, to check if his driver had cleaned the vehicle. His security guards were taking lunch and he moved without security. There were a militant waiting who fired upon him from point-blank range. For his security, the government had housed him in Khanabal Housing Colony but he had come to Shehlipora the previous night only.
His guards fired in the air and retrieved the body and drove him to Achabal where he was declared brought dead. He had five bullets on his head and chest.
After the post-mortem was over, the people bathed his body. The whole village attended his funeral prayers before he was buried in his ancestral graveyard. “It was all under pressure, we didn’t want to enter in the bad books of his upcoming successor. From inside, otherwise, our hearts were fluttering with pleasure,” one of these men said.
It was the last of a series of assassination bids on Azad’s life. In earlier attacks, his two brothers and a nephew were killed by militants. At the time of his killing, he was having not more than 24 gunmen working for him.
Shehlipora is about 70 km south of Srinagar in Achabal belt. Like its name Shel which means shade, the village had literally been one, of protection, to the MM for nearly one and a half decade. From the inception of the 1990s till 2001, when Azad was killed, MM worked under his supervision. One and half decade later, Azad is still in currency. You ask people about him, their voice, all of a sudden, drop to whisper. Not in awe though. His fear is so ingrained in their psyche that the moment Azad is mentioned, people lose nerve. They begin to “feel” that he is around with a gun.
With Azad’s murder, though the whole group got dismantled immediately, “but it left a blot on the village for eternity.” People in the immediate neighbourhood call Shehlipora, the village of renegades. According to the villagers, the “grisly crimes Azad committed” hover over the hamlet like dark clouds, “poised to pour down anytime and destroying everything with it.” During 2016 unrest, residents felt isolated in the belt and apprehended trouble. “We don’t know how to make people believe that we weren’t involved in anything Azad did,” one young man said. “We were no different from his other victims.”
The hate that prevails in the region against Azad and his outpost is already part of the local folklore. Go to any village and they have a story to tell.
Eight kilometers away, in Brakpora village, Hajira is stretched out under bed wraps. Her grey coloured fringes hang down the edges of her kerchief. Essaying to sit up, she shivers like anything. To afford relief to her scorching chest, she frequently asks for a cold glass of water. A patient of hypertension she has been like this since the day in 1994, when her son, Nazir Ahmad Sheikh, who had gone to High School Achabal to take his tenth class exams didn’t return.
Although she is aware of the killing of her son, what people haven’t told her precisely is that on that day, from the school to a Chinar garden in Shelpora, a distance of three kilometers, her son was dragged along a gravel road by Azad’s jeep. The whole village bears witness to the horrific scene of Nazir’s flesh shedding from his body, until towards the end when the jeep came to halt Nazir had breathed his last. Nazir was accused of having ties with Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, which his family denies.“He was only a tenth class student.”
A little distance away from Brakpora lives Zaeba at Bulbul Nowgam. Aisha, her daughter-in-law, who doesn’t live with her anymore, pays occasional visits to her. A long time ago, she had returned to live with her parents. The only connection of her with the family snapped when her husband Khurshid Ahmad Dar fell prey to the bullets of Azad. A bride of fewer than 24 months is now a widow for 25 years. She resisted re-marriage suggestions from her mother-in-law and her own parents. She wanted to take care of her one-year-old son.
Hardly had she known that she would also lose the “only ray of hope of her life”. A couple of years after, near a hillock in her village where she was quarrying soil, a lump fell on her son and buried him for eternity.
Khurshid, her husband, was killed at the peak of mayhem. One day, Azad’s brother was killed by Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen. To avenge the killing, Azad sent out his men to look for anyone connected with the outfit. It was mere coincidence that Riyaz Ahmad, Khurshid’s younger brother, an erstwhile Hizb militant, had laid down his arms. When MM came, the family didn’t handover Riyaz to them. They had him hidden away somewhere. MM took Khurshid from his ready-made clothes shop at the main market of Bulbul Nowgam. He was shot dead the same night at middle school Shehlipora. Later, a matador drove everything that Khurshid’s shop contained to Azad’s camp. In the follow-up, their house was set afire.
“I still remember that day when I couldn’t flee away with the rest of my family members… watching helplessly my house in flames before me, I was holed up in the cowshed for many hours,” said Khurshid’s nephew, Asif, then only five-year-old boy. Left with nothing at home, the family had to depend on the handouts of their neighbours for months together. “We could have gladly lived with poverty, given my son was left with me, and his little family,” Zaeba lets out a gale of grief.
Almost 30 kilometers away from Shehlipora, I accidentally met a truck driver, who lives in a Pulwama village. During that crisis, he was posted in the police station Achabal as a cop, a job, he left later. He knew Azad.
Azad, according to the driver, was basically a police driver who initially joined Hizb and finally emerged as one of the top renegade leaders from south Kashmir. It was just a verbal spat with his senior that Azad left police service. Along with half a dozen of his colleagues, he left for Pakistan to return as a trained Hizb militant, and eventually relinquished his relation with the outfit to create his separate entity of anti-insurgent in collaboration with the army. “Azad was actually for money and power; neither the job of police gave him that nor Hizb provided him with that sort of advantage,” said the policeman turned truck driver.
In 1994, Azad disassociated himself from Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and joined another militant group, the Muslim Mujahideen. The MM had been floated by the Hizb founder Master Ahsan Dar after he fell away from the powerful militant group in wake of serious differences with Syed Salahuddin, a process that was going on since 1992. However, when Dar was arrested, Azad converted MM into a full-fledged counter-insurgent group. After Ahsan Dar was out of the jail, he remained inert, crossed over to PaK and founder Ansar-ul-Islam, an outfit that does not exist on the ground now.
People who know Azad said his group surrendered before P S Gill, the then IGP Kashmir, in District Police Lines Baramulla. On their surrender, police registered their names along with the weapons they gave. Shortly after, their weapons were returned and they became counter-insurgents and were deployed in South Kashmir. They established an encampment at Shehlipora village because the group already had a stronghold in the village. There were bunkers erected on all sides in Shelipora those days. “It was like an army cantonment, a garrison state, where from Azad issued dictates,” a resident who witnessed it happening said.
Comprising of more than 300 households, a considerable populace of the village, more particularly his relatives, were Azad’s supporters. Residents said their clan was immensely benefited as Azad literally ruled the belt. They got jobs. At certain occasions, MM would abduct officers and bring them to the village, and get developmental works allocated among his adherents. Most of them became contractors. “The advantage was that their works were never verified,” one resident said. “Who had had the milk of his mother to question them?”
On the other hand, the entire village suffered. During his tenure, he killed half a dozen residents. Every evening, he would send dozens of his men to people for dinner. The owner in whose house they would land into had to do anything to feed them, even if that meant to keep his own family starving. A resident recalled that because of poverty when he couldn’t serve his unasked guests with chickens and beef one evening, he was threatened with abduction for many months.
From 1994, MM recruits were provided wages also: routine ranks Rs1500, a month and their handlers Rs 4500. Ali Muhammad Shah, a retired Honorary Captain with JAKLI, one day, on his turn to host dinner, when suggested MM men that since they were on payrolls of the government now, they should stop bothering people. Within less than 24 hours, Shah had to flee away along with his family members.
“Opening the outer gate, a mad dash of Azad’s men barged in with roaring guns,” remembers Shah’s grandson. “Through the rear windows, we lopped and ran away as far as we could. They couldn’t catch hold of us. God forbid, if they had, I dread to imagine what could have happened.”
It was after two months when Shahs’ apologised through the village Auqaf Committee, the family was allowed to return home that had smashed panes, broken windows and doors, and almost everything stolen away.
Azad’s power gradually grew to heights. Because he was already working in collaboration with the army, it had become impossible for police to try him for his ruthlessness. Even they weren’t able to work on FIR’s lodged against him. Muhammad Ashraf Shah, a Jammat-e-Islami patron was abducted by Azad’s men before the eyes of the relatives gathered during a marriage ceremony at his in-laws. Next day, the family got his dead body. They lodged an FIR against Azad at Police Station Achabal. Going from every pillar to post to arraign Azad for a charge of murder, the family received a police report suggestion Ashraf was killed by militants.
At Sandhoo village, a couple of kilometers away from Shehlipora, Muhammad Akram Ganie is still trying to pretend that he is all right. But he no longer can mislead his family to live by himself. They are aware of everything: because of the lonely long stays in his room, he lost vision in his one eye. Trying to be strong before his family, Akram had in solitary confinement in his personal room wept his sight out, all in the separation of his son. Preventing his other eye from going blind, doctors have suggested he should be put on constant care.
After Akram’s marriage, the couple was childless for eight years. A product of a lot of supplications, when Shabir Ahmad Ganie was finally born, he turned to be the apple of eyes in his family. His father was overly protective of him but who knew that all was of no benefit. In 1997, during the night time, Azad’s men kidnapped Shabir in front of his father. At that time, Shabir was a twelfth class student at Islamabad higher secondary school. Even at the cost of his own life, his father would have wrenched him out of their grip, but they threatened to kill Shabir if the family made any fuss, so Akram let them go. Next day, Shabir’s singed body was found near the brick kiln of Dialgam. Although the neighbours tried not to let the family look at his body by draping it all over, but around his skull, which had gotten the burned marks of a heater coil couldn’t be helped.
Neither the family is aware of the guilt of their son nor did they pursue the case. Reason? One day, the house of Shabir’s uncle, Muhammad Yusuf Mir, a policeman was raided by militants. Finding him not there, they beat his abnormal son to pulp. To preserve his own life, Yousuf shifted to Shelipora, the only safe haven he considered. He didn’t know that same was going to be the place of his disappearance. The family learned that it was because of a brawl between the duos. An FIR was lodged at the police station. First, the family was only threatened to back off. But when they didn’t, Muhammad Altaf, Shabir’s cousin was shot dead by Azad’s men. “We didn’t want the same to occur again, so we didn’t pursue Shabir’s case,” said Akram’s another son, born after Shabir.
With this terror, Azad created a profile in black and it was hugely in demand. But it did not help him get to power. So he shook hands with the political top-notchs. In 1996, when National Conference wanted to organize an election campaigning activities for the state assembly elections, Azad offered protection to it and with his help, only a big rally was held at Bijbehara. On another occasion, Azad’s 200 men, provided a super-security blanket when Inder Kumar Gujral, the then Prime Minister of India, and Rajesh Pilot visited the Qazigund belt. Azad visited Delhi quite frequently, later.
However, the most controversial crime attributed to Azad was that he took over the control of the five Western hostages, kidnapped by al-Faran, and killed them. The revelation was part of the sensational book The Meadow, Kashmir 1995 – Where The Terror Began that Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark authored about the most sensational kidnappings of the 1990s. Desperate to move out of the mountains, the al-Faran “sold” the hostages to pro-government militant Azad Nabi who finally mowed them down in Mati-Gawran, the last in-habitations on way to the Margan Top that separates Kashmir Valley from Wadwan valley. The massacre took place on December 29, 1995 according to the book.
Because of the political backing, Azad’s men reaped the benefits even after his death when MM evaporated. Some of his men were accommodated in Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and some in Territorial Army (TR). Before his death, Azad had braced enough to join politics. He actually formed a political organisation Peoples Patriotic Front and unsuccessfully contested Lok Sabha and assembly elections. In one of the elections, he supported the National Conference candidate in south Kashmir for Lok Sabha.
Barely few weeks before his killing, he had even planted banners with his picture in his village with an aeroplane as his symbol. But the aircraft was couldn’t take off.