I parked my motorcycle by the roadside in Badamibagh, Sopore, and walked towards a soft drinks shop. Less than a hundred metres from the shop, former militant Mehraj-ud-din Dar had been killed a few days ago, one of six mysterious killings in a month in this town of north Jammu and Kashmir.
Two men, the shop-owner and his neighbour, greet me with caution. I promptly show them my ID card to put them at ease.
“When you were parking your bike I told him beware, an unidentified man is coming. Although you don’t look like the one who can kill but who knows?” said the neighbour, a government employee in his mid-forties.
One of two “unidentified” men had shot the former militant-turned-chicken seller thrice with a pistol.
The neighbour then launches into a monologue to describe the atmosphere of fear in the town, which a top police officer said “is and will remain incorrigibly anti-Indian”.
“You see these bulbs hanging from high tension wires? We collected money to buy these and lit up streets during nights...my family has warned me that they will kill themselves if I go out for night prayers during Ramzan,” the man said.
In and around Sopore, there are about a dozen massive military installations and the local headquarters of the Special Operations Group, the police’s special counter-insurgency unit.
Additionally, dozens of policemen from SOG’s infamous Srinagar cell, named Cargo, have been sent to the restive town over the past few days. Since the killings started, soldiers patrol the streets in mine-protected vehicles.
The area – Kashmir Valley’s “apple bowl”, vaingloriously called Chotta London (Little London) for its affluence – is no stranger to killings. It has seen worse.
On January 6, 1993, BSF troopers allegedly set ablaze the town’s main market and massacred 56 civilians. Sopore was at the forefront of the 2008 uprising triggered by the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. This is the place which, in the pre-insurgency past, elected separatist leader Ali Shah Geelani to the state assembly thrice and continues to supply him large doses of support.
Why then is this defiant town cowering in fear and uncertainty? Because of the frightening possibility that this could be the third bout of fratricidal killings in the 26-year-old insurgency.
In the early 1990s, several militants were killed during infighting between groups, while in the middle of the same decade, the home ministry and army propped up Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a militia comprising disgruntled militants, to fight the armed insurgency. The Ikhwan dealt a blow to militants but at the same time, its cadres murdered and committed crimes with impunity.
Since Jamaat-e-Islami members often were the Ikhwan’s prime targets and Sopore is a Jamaat stronghold, fears about the revival of the dreaded militia took no time to resurface.
Home minister Manohar Parrikar’s “terrorists-should-be-used-to-eliminate terrorists” remark is uttered by a majority of people in the town whenever the subject of the killings is broached. That the state could be manipulating the situation to its advantage, or might have nothing to do with it, comes to them only as an afterthought.
But the dilemma remains.
“One word about who has done this and we will be at ease. We won’t spare them, whoever they are,” said Fayaz, a friend of the dead militant from Badamibagh.
The “word”, more or less, is already in circulation but what prevents it from reassuring people is a complex narrative that has grown around it during the past two months.
How it began
In October last year, posters indicting about two dozen people for “collaborating with the state and its agencies” surfaced in a few areas of Sopore. The posters were promptly dismissed by militant and separatist leaderships as the names of a few persons of repute in the list made them suspicious.
A former militant commander, now a Hurriyat activist who lives in Sopore, told me that the leadership “erred” by trashing the posters off hand.
“They feared killing the people named in the hit list would spark a civil war. (Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed) Salahuddin told them that if accusations levelled against the people in the list were any yardstick, then hundreds of people have to be bumped off,” he said.
“In a way he was right. How do you establish the fact that these people are collaborators? And then, the state can take advantage of the situation and it will become difficult to discern who is doing what. All they needed was to reassure these boys about their concerns,” he added.
But a few Hizb militants active in north Kashmir, who are believed to have issued these posters, were not convinced. The transcript of a purported phone conversation between the Hizb chief and a militant, leaked to media by the police and currently in circulation, corroborates the Hurriyat activist’s account.
At that time, the 68-year-old militant commander and former teacher pacified the angry band. But the grudge they harboured throughout the harsh winter months resurfaced in April when a tweaked wireless set fitted onto a cellphone tower went missing.
The set is believed to have been installed by the same group of militants to boost communications among themselves and to avoid detection.
First, posters bearing the stamp of Lashkar-e-Islam, asking telecom outlets to shut down their operations, appeared in Sopore. Then an employee of a cellphone firm in the town was killed, and his employer and two co-workers were injured on May 25.
A day later, former militant Ghulam Hassan Dar, who had rented out his land for a cellphone tower, was killed in his home in Dooru.
A majority of cellphone towers stopped working and communications were badly hit in north Kashmir.
But it was Ghulam Hassan Dar’s killing that alarmed the pro-independence camp, which strongly condemned the attacks and killings. Dismissing Lashkar-e-Islam as the “creation of Indian agencies”, they asked the cellphone companies to resume their operations.
In a strongly-worded riposte, Lashkar-e-Islam asked Geelani to “look hard for the black sheep in his own ranks”. A veteran separatist leader, Shakeel Ahmad Bakshi, reprimanded Geelani for labelling the group as “Ikhwan redux” without carrying out an investigation into the affair.
Between June 9 and June 15, four more people were killed. Prominent among them was Sheikh Altaf-ur-Rehman, a member of the Geelani-led Hurriyat faction. Two were former militants and the fourth a Hurriyat sympathiser.
The killings prompted Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad to warn the “killers” that they would meet same fate as the Ikhwan militia.
However, the frequency of the killings in the midst of a dense, ubiquitous and battle-hardened security apparatus only made shriller the voices that pointed an accusing finger at the state. After all, it is the place where about 40 militants, including a few commanders, were killed in the two years following the 2010 uprising.
Local residents said Sopore, 52 km from Srinagar, was “incident-free” for the past one year.
“The Indian government intends to defame the freedom struggle by unleashing a newer version of Ikhwanis in Sopore which has always remained the fount of azadi sentiment. This is the place which has boycotted so-called polls and has not been bought by state’s largesse,” said Atif, a student of computer engineering at Kashmir University’s north campus in Sopore.
All this while, police maintained that a breakaway faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen was responsible for the killings and attacks on cellphone towers.
When police asked former militants and their kin to remain vigilant and move to other places, the suspicions of a few became stronger.
“A police officer told me your younger son is in danger,” said the father of a militant killed a few years ago by the police.
“I told him police killed my elder son, what makes them so concerned about my son’s well-being? I told him that I want to know who poses danger to my son. When I persisted, he yelled at me and asked me to leave,” he said, adding it took people a year-and-a-half before they realised Ikhwan had been created and funded by the state.