Conflict

The militant who wasn’t: ‘I was waiting for him for Iftar, but he never came back’

When a battery of tipped counterinsurgents arrived in a Shopian village to pursue militants this past Thursday, one young villager was working in his orchard, who soon ended up in the mortuary. He initially figured among the “three militants killed in Shopian”, before his family identified him and countered the cop claim.

As loud bangs announced another gunfight in southern Kashmir—this time, in Shopian’s Hendew village on May 16, a young wife was repeatedly trying her husband’s number. An hour before gunshots shook her, he had left home to attend some work at his family orchard. With each passing moment and machine rattle, her heart was skipping a beat. As her calls were repeatedly being dropped, it further added to her agony.

Ever since they married, a few years ago, she knew him as someone who made sure to respond—no matter what. But now, as Hendew had become a new confrontational zone, his unresponsiveness only took toll on her nerves.

After some time, his phone went dead.

“It was unlike what my husband would do,” she said, sitting among mourners. “Somebody was cutting those calls, before putting his phone on switched off mode. And that happened after the encounter began. I don’t see a reason why my husband would ignore my calls?”

Widow of Ishtiyaq Bhat being consoled by her relatives. (FPK Photo/Muneeb ul Islam)

What happened to him in the orchard that day where he had gone for routine work remains a mystery of sorts. Kashmir was observing its 11th day of Ramzan fasting. Earlier, Hendew had woken up to usual news—by now becoming a disturbing reality—about a gunfight. The locals were talking about a standoff in Pulwama, in which three militants, including a foreigner, was killed.

Soon, as a joint team of Indian Army, J&K Police’s Special Operations Group and Indian paramilitary CRPF cordoned off Hendew, the mood at once changed. The village was about to become another battleground in southern Kashmir for the day.

Tipped on the presence of militants in the village, the joint forces cordoned off the spot—where from the first fire soon shattered the uneasy silence. It came from the hiding militants. And with that, a gunfight between the forces and insurgents broke out.

Soon as the news reached the family of Ishtiyaq Bhat of Hendew, they didn’t read much into it. But later that day, as the son came home—dead—they were left crestfallen.

Mourners at slain Ishtiyaq’s house. (FPK Photo/Muneeb ul Islam)

But why was he killed, nobody knows.

Ishtiyaq’s father, Dawood Ahmad Bhat, had earlier retreated to his room amid explosions and gunshots. The gunfight site was just 900 meters away from his house. The firing had frightened him.

“Something didn’t feel right,” Bhat recalled, sitting with mourners in his home. “My heart sank. I wasn’t new to gunfights, but something was wrong.”

In his restive state, he repeatedly asked his wife about Ishtiyaq, their obedient son, who was their hope.

At around 11 am that day, Ishtiyaq’s father had received a call from a local police station. The caller had summoned Ishtiyaq with a passport size photograph. “I still remember the last moment when I conveyed him to go to the police station,” Dawood sobbed.

“He would be regularly summoned to the camps and harassed for no reason. This past winter, army picked him up and handed him over to the police. He was released after a gap of one month.”

When the family tried to seek answers for their son’s regular summons and arrests, Dawood said, cops would often tell them: Your son is a conspirator of organizing stone pelting at several places.

But after returning from police station that day, Ishtiyaq had gone to his family orchard.

An hour later, when gunshots rang up, the terrified father tried his son’s number. His repeated calls were dropped, before Ishtiyaq’s phone suddenly went dead. “I had no idea what had happen to my son,” the father said.

Dawood Ahmad Bhat, father of slain Ishtiyaq. (FPK Photo/Muneeb ul Islam)

Soon, he recalled, his neighbours began arriving in his home, wearing sad faces. They had arrived with the news—the news about Ishtiyaq’s killing.

“My heart knew it that something untoward would happen to us that day,” the helpless father said, with tears rolling down his cheeks.

With some of those neighbours trying to console him, Dawood raised a helpless cry: They took my son, like they have taken my soul.

Shortly after the gunfight, the police in a statement claimed to have killed three militants. But it soon surfaced that one of them was Dawood’s son, a civilian last spotted in his orchard.

Killed along with two Hizb-ul-Mujahideen insurgents, Ishtiyaq was mistakenly labelled as a militant. In ensuing protests, at least one dozen protestors were injured in clashes between armed forces and civilians.

“From police station Imam Sahib, I went to DPL Shopian to identity him. There, on a stretcher, he was lying lifeless,” Dawood said.

“When I asked police officers present there about the belongings of my son, they told me that they’re in army’s possession, including his phone. But how is it possible that my son’s belongings would be in army’s possession when he was away from the encounter site? It’s evident that they wanted to show Ishtiyaq as a militant so that they can justify his killing.”

Slain Ishtiyaq’s final resting place. (FPK Photo/Muneeb ul Islam)

Back in a packed room, Ishtiyaq’s widow was still raising heartbreaking wails. Her painful state turned everyone numb. Every other women present there tried to console her—but to no avail.

“Who’ll tell us how my husband’s phone landed in army’s possession?” she asked, before raising the familiar pitch: “Armaan tere khoon sa… inkilab aayega.

She would call her husband as Armaan, which means hope. Her wailing state only suggested that her hope has been brutally snatched from her. And the very realisation is now driving her insane.

“I was waiting for him for iftar, but he never came back,” she wailed. “How will India justify his cold-blooded murder?”

 

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