Raziya Bano had just started milking her cow on the evening of May 25 when she heard the sound of the opening of the main gate of her house in Hushroo, a village in Kashmir’s Budgam district. Her 10-year-old son might have slipped out, she thought. But when she looked towards the gate, she saw two men in the compound.

“They greeted me with Assalam U Alaikum,” Bano recalled. “I replied with the same greetings. I thought they were some guests.”

While the two strangers were in the compound, Bano’s son stepped out of the house to head to the market to buy something. “They asked my son, ‘Where’s Amreen?’”

Bano was not surprised to find them asking for her sister, Amreen Bhat. The 30-year-old actor appeared in television serials, including those aired on Doordarshan, and had a large following on social media.

As Bano’s son went inside to look for his aunt, the two men walked up to the door. “When my sister came out, they spoke to her for a while,” Bano said. Her son overheard the conversation. According to him, the men told Bhat that they wanted her to come sing at a wedding. Bhat declined. One of the two unmasked men then took out a pistol and shot her.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” Bano said. “I raised a hue and cry, calling for help and thinking that the gunmen would flee but they didn’t.”

Bano added, “Even after the first shot, my sister, due to her young age, managed to rush inside home. But one of the men followed her inside and shot her again multiple times.” Even Bano’s son was hit by a bullet in the arm.

Both the victims were immediately rushed to the hospital. While Bhat was declared dead by the doctors, Bano’s son returned home with his arm in a cast.

A police statement blamed the killing on “three terrorists of proscribed terror outfit LeT”, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Two days later, two local militants were killed in an encounter with security forces in Awantipora. According to Vijay Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, they were involved in Bhat’s killing “on the directions of LeT Commander Lateef.”

But the police haven’t ascribed any reasons for the killing. Bhat’s family, too, said they had never sensed any threat to her life.

Raziya Bano, along with her husband and children. Her son sustained an injury on his arm.

A TV star and instagrammer

Amreen Bhat was in Class 10 when she told her father she wanted to be an actor. “She was passionate about acting,” Khazar Mohammad Bhat, her father, said.

She began her acting career in 2007. Her family was supportive. “It was never a problem for me. Nobody ever told us that whatever she was doing was wrong,” Khazar Bhat said.

In the early years of militancy in Kashmir in the 1990s, a section of armed groups had tried to morally police women by enforcing a dress code. But these attempts failed since Kashmiri society was uncomfortable with such diktats. The violence in the Valley never came in the way of women becoming actors, singers and artists.

Had militants had any problem with his daughter’s television career, Khazar Bhat said he would have stopped her long ago. “They never harassed us or told us to tell her to stop,” he explained.

In her long career, Bhat evolved as an artist – from working in television serials on cable television as well as Doordarshan, to more recently posting videos on social media in which she lip-synced to popular songs, jokes or dialogues from the movies. Her now deleted Instagram account had more than 25,000 followers.

Bhat would also post locally produced short dramas on her YouTube channel, which has around 18,000 subscribers. The last video on the channel, about a quibbling husband and wife, has more than 95,000 views. It was uploaded on May 20, five days before she was shot dead inside her home.


‘Sole earner’

But passion alone wasn’t the driving force behind Amreen Bhat’s work.

The youngest of her father’s two daughters, Bhat was the only one in the family with a stable income. Her father, who has respiratory issues, stopped working long ago. Her mother died in 2008.

Her elder sister, Raziya Bano, stays at home. Bano’s husband is a daily labourer with a meagre income. The couple and their two children live in the Bhat family home, a two-storied house with falling paint and cracks.

In 2012, Amreen Bhat had married a man of her choice but she divorced him two years later and returned to her family home.

From her videos and appearances in serials, Amreen Bhat would make around Rs 50,000-60,000 per month, her father said. He would accompany her as she moved to Jammu for six months of the winter. “I would stay back in Jammu and she would travel to various places like Delhi, Dehradun, Patiala for shooting,” he said.

“She was taking care of all of us through her work,” said Zubair Ahmad, Bhat’s brother-in-law. “With her killing, they have destroyed our home.”

Khazar Mohammad Bhat is distraught at his daughter's death.

‘Invited by everyone’

Since the private television industry is still in its infancy in Kashmir, it is common for actors and singers to participate in official events for a small fee. Here, they often get acquainted with ministers, bureaucrats, security officials, who form the audience.

Amreen Bhat’s father said she would go to every official function, whenever invited. “She wasn’t into politics but she knew everyone.” Khazar Bhat said. “But since the last two years, she had stopped attending these functions.”

In recent years, militant groups have issued warnings, asking even school children to avoid participating in government events in Kashmir. Days after Republic Day celebrations in 2018, a video had gone viral on social media. It showed militants reprimanding a government school principal in Pulwama for allowing girl students to participate in an official event.

Bhat’s family, however, can’t fathom why militants would target her daughter. “Had they ever threatened us or warned us, even indirectly, to tell her to stop, I swear upon Almighty, I would have made her quit,” said Khazar Bhat. “But they didn’t.”

Amreen Bhat's family show her award trophies to visitors.

‘Nobody visited us’

On Friday, when Scroll.in met Amreen Bhat’s family, they were disappointed with the way the union territory administration had overlooked her death. “This is the third day after her killing and even our district magistrate hasn’t bothered to visit us,” Khazar Bhat said, in anger.

The only popular faces to visit the family to express their condolences until then were two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir – Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah.

Bhat’s sister, Raziya Bano, saw a selective approach in the administration’s attitude towards the family. “When a Kashmiri Pandit was recently killed, they made a beeline to their house,” she pointed out.

On May 12, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit, was shot dead in his office in Chadoora, the same area of Budgam district where Amreen Bhat lived. Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha met his family in Jammu the very next day, offering a government job to his wife, as well as financial assistance for her daughter’s education.

“I appeal that the LG should come here the way he went there,” Bano said. “My sister was killed too. Why didn’t he come here? Shouldn’t he come to meet us?”

On Sunday, Sinha visited Amreen Bhat’s family and promised them “every possible assistance and support”, according to a government statement released soon after. “She was a strong-willed woman and a pillar of support to her family. We shall forever remember Amreen’s indomitable spirit,” he was quoted as saying in the statement.

All photos by Safwat Zargar.