On June 30, 19-year-old Zakir Bashir Naik was spraying pesticides in his orchard in Chimmer, a village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. At noon, he went home to shower and eat lunch. Later, he would take a break from his duties to go play a cricket match.

But that was the afternoon security forces arrived at their village. A joint team of the police, army and the Central Reserve Police Force cordoned off Chimmer. Before Naik could bathe or eat, they barged into his house and took him away, along with his brother, Ashiq Ahmed.

The two boys were beaten even as they were being hauled out of the house, alleged their brother, Tariq Ahmed. “Several other young men from the village were detained by the security forces at that time,” said Tariq Ahmed. “We thought they might have taken them to make searches in the village. Zakir was taken to one end of the village; Ashiq was taken to the other end.”

Only Ashiq Ahmad returned alive.

Later that day, the Jammu and Kashmir police announced three alleged militants had been killed during a gunfight with security forces in Chimmer. One of them was Ahmad’s youngest brother, Zakir Bashir Naik.

The Naik family refuses to believe the police version. “My brother was not a militant,” said Tariq Ahmed. “He was just a cricket-loving boy who helped us tend our orchards. His record was clean. There’s no case against him. If he had been a militant, would he be home?”

Tariq Ahmed shows the spot where his brother, Zakir Naik, was allegedly killed. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Not a militant’

Last month, senior army and police officials met the families of at least 80 active militants in South Kashmir, asking them to “guide their wards back into society”.

DP Pandey, general officer commanding of the Army’s 15 Corps, assured families that security forces would go to considerable lengths to spare the lives of militants willing to surrender. “We will take the bullet, we will take the injury, we will take the casualty but save your child,” said Pandey. “This is my promise to you. Rest, it is for you to decide.”

Last year, around 12 local militants were captured alive or convinced to surrender during the course of a gunfight. Around 36 youth who were allegedly planning to join militant ranks were also prevented from doing so with the help of their families.

But in at least four gunfights since July 2020, the families of alleged militants have battled security forces, objecting to their version of events. The stories follow a familiar pattern: youth leaving their homes to be killed within days, sometimes hours, the police claiming they were militants, their families protesting that they were not.

In one of these cases, the so-called militants were proved to be civilians. Three men killed in an orchard in Amshipora in Shopian district last year turned out to be labourers who had left their home in Jammu and travelled to the Valley for work. In December, the police filed a charges against an Indian Army officer and two civilians for the alleged abduction and murder of the three men.

The three labourers killed in Amshipora in July 2020.

‘His body was battered’

In Naik’s case, the police have stuck to their claim that the 19-year-old was a militant. A police official in Kulgam, speaking off the record, claimed Chimmer village had been watched by security forces for a while.

“We had been getting continuous inputs about the movement of militants in Chimmer village for a week before the encounter took place,” he said. “A group of three militants had come to make Zakir active [join militancy] and they were even staying at his home. Our technical intelligence gave a pinpoint location of his house.”

While two of the militants were killed with Naik, he said, the third escaped. According to local residents in Chimmer, one of the militants was killed in a cowshed; Naik and the other militant were killed in the open.

On July 2, three days after Naik was killed, the Kulgam police released another statement dismissing the family’s claim that he was not a militant. “The claim is totally baseless,” said the statement. “The fact is that he had joined terrorist ranks in June 2021 as confirmed from various field and intelligence agencies. Also, he was the first person who used deadly force against security forces cordoning the area. In self defence, retaliatory action was undertaken in which he was neutralised.”

According to the police official in Kulgam, however, Naik’s death was caused by a grenade. “He tried to throw a grenade at soldiers and it exploded in front of him. That’s how he was killed,” he said.

The family rejected the allegations that militants had stayed at their house. Tariq Ahmed also claimed his brother’s body had four bullet injuries. “His body was battered,” he said. “His shoulders were broken. He had been tortured.”

He held up a pheran, a kind of loose woollen robe, worn by Naik the day he was killed. “Wouldn’t his pheran have holes if the grenade exploded in front of him?” he asked. Ahmed added the family had not seen Naik’s post-mortem report.

Tariq Ahmed shows the pheran his brother, Zakir Naik, wore the day he was killed. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

A quick burial

In Batangoo, a village in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, another family disputes the police version of how their son was killed. Twenty eight-year-old Imran Qayoom had not been home for three days. “He had some argument with us and was staying at my cousin’s house. He was very short-tempered,” said his father, Abdul Qayoom Dar, who had written to the Anantnag deputy commissioner asking for an inquiry on his death.

The relative’s house was about a kilometre from Imran Qayoom’s home in Batangoo. Dar said he saw his son at a local petrol pump on the evening of July 24. “It was around 9pm, I told him to come home – he didn’t talk to me much,” said Dar, a government employee.

Around an hour earlier, his younger son, Arsalan Qayoom, had also seen Imran Qayoom near the petrol pump. “I told him – bhaiya, come home. He assured me he would be home that night,” said Arsalan Qayoom, a school student in Class 12.

He did not return. In the early hours of July 25, a joint team of the police and the army’s 34 Rashtriya Rifles cordoned off Sursano village in Kulgam district. They had received a “specific input” about militants in the village, the police later claimed.

“During the search operation, the terrorists hiding in the orchards started firing indiscriminately upon the security forces, which was retaliated leading to an encounter,” said a statement issued by Kulgam police on July 25. An unidentified militant was killed in the gunfight that ensued, it added.

According to the police official in Kulgam, as security forces cordoned off the village, “there was a face-off between forces and militants but there was no firing”. “After that, there was a foot chase and the militants tried to flee,” he continued. “But we had secured the area from all sides and the militants ran into our men. While the two others managed to escape, he [Imran Qayoom] didn’t know what to do and fired. He was killed in retaliatory fire.”

Back in Batangoo, Dar left for work early morning on July 25. Around 8am, he got a call from the village sarpanch telling him that the police wanted him to report at the police post in Khanabal, near Anantnag town, along with his son, Imran Qayoom.

“After some time, I received one more call from the police post Khanabal itself and they too informed me [of] the same,” writes Dar in his letter to Anantnag deputy commissioner Piyush Singla. “I took the matter lightly as I couldn’t think in my wildest dreams that anything terrible would happen. [At] about 4:00 pm I reached police post Khanabal where they showed me the photograph of my son’s dead body.”

At first, Dar was not sure if the person in the picture was his son. He made a second trip to the Khanabal police station with other family members. “When they saw the picture, they confirmed it was Imran’s,” recalled Dar.

After the family had identified Imran Qayoom, they were directed to the police control room in Srinagar, where they were told they could see his body before he was buried. “When we reached Srinagar, they [the police] informed us that he had already been buried in Handwara [in North Kashmir],” said Arsalan Qayoom. “They told us that they had waited till noon and then taken him for burial at 1:30 in the afternoon.”

‘Hybrid’ militants?

In February this year, another grieving father, Mushtaq Ahmed Wani, was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act after he led a protest march demanding his son’s body. Sixteen-year-old Ather Mushtaq Wani had been one of three youths killed on December 30, 2020.

The police claimed they had been killed in an overnight gunfight on the outskirts of Srinagar. Two of them had been “hardcore associates of terrorists (OGWs)”, they alleged. OGWs, or overground workers, is the name given to non-combatants who are usually tasked with providing logistical support to militant groups. The third youth, the police said, had joined militant ranks very recently.

The families of all three youths rejected the police version. All of them had left home on December 29, they said, and all of them had called their families to say they would return late that night or early next morning. But by the evening of December 29, their phones were switched off.

The police statement issued in the aftermath of the gunfight suggested their families may not have been aware of their militant activities and that overground workers could also be involved in actual violence. “Generally, parents don’t have an idea about the activities of their wards,” it said. “Several OGWs after committing terror crimes like grenade throwing & pistol shooting etc stay normally with their family.”

By June, security forces in Kashmir had coined a new term – “hybrid or part-time militants”. Security officials said militant attacks in Srinagar in the second half of June – usually targeting civilians or off-duty policemen – had suggested the emergence of this new form of militancy.

“We are tracking full-time terrorists but there is difficulty in tracking the part-time or hybrid terrorists as they go back to their normal work after carrying out an incident,” said Vijay Kumar, inspector general of Kashmir, at a press conference in Srinagar on June 29.

Arsalan Qayoom shows a picture of his brother, Imran Qayoom. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

Going incognito

A few years ago, Kashmir entered a new phase of militancy, popularised by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, whose killing in 2016 had sparked mass protests in the Valley. These new militants, mostly from South Kashmir, usually disappeared from their homes when they took up arms. But even as they went underground, they went public on social media, announcing their decision to become a militant with gun-toting pictures and the name of the group they had joined.

Many new recruits to militancy now stay under the radar, security officials say. “Let’s say there are X number of [known] active militants in an area,” said a senior police official in Kashmir who did not want to be named. “We have their details and we are continuously tracking them. But we have no idea about how many militants are there who are anonymous. We have no inkling that they are militants.”

Such militants, he added, were often picked to attack soft targets such as panchayat members or party workers. “There have been instances where militants handed a potential recruit a weapon and told him to kill someone after six months,” he continued. “For all those six months, that person was living an ordinary life and staying with his family, meeting relatives and working. Even though we don’t have knowledge about his joining militancy, he’s a militant for us.”

Another senior police officer said the new pattern of militancy had started emerging after August 5, 2019, when the Centre scrapped special status for Jammu and Kashmir and split the former state into two Union Territories. The move had been accompanied by a communications blockade and a security crackdown. New recruits had started hiding their affiliations to armed groups, he said, because of the “relentless pursuit and surveillance of the militants about whom we already had knowledge and details”. He added: “There’s not a single militant who has exposed himself on social media and that we haven’t got.”

When militants went incognito, police officials say, families who had been kept in the dark about their activities saw their killing as a “fake encounter”.

Waiting for answers

In Batangoo, Imran Qayoom’s family is waiting for the results of the magisterial inquiry on his death. After Dar wrote to the Anantnag administration asking for an inquiry, he was told a magisterial inquiry had been ordered on the same day as the shooting, but in Kulgam district, where the incident had taken place. Such inquiries are standard procedure in shootouts involving the police. The family have been told it will take 90 days.

Qayoom has no record of offences related to militancy. “He was a drug addict and had faced imprisonment in a case registered under NDPS [Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances] act,” said a police officer in South Kashmir who did not want to be named.

His family refuses to believe he was a militant. “We are not asking for much,” said Zahid Qayoom, one of his brothers. “We just want to know who killed him and who declared him a militant. We want to ensure that they don’t get any job promotion or other awards throughout their career.”