The last conversation 90-year-old Abdul Gani Mir had with his son had ended in a disagreement.

Mir is a farmer in Samboora in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. His son, Farooq Ahmad Mir, worked as a sub-inspector with the Jammu and Kashmir police but also helped his father in the fields when he could.

On the evening of June 17, Farooq decided to go out to water their paddy fields, on the outskirts of the village. “He had just returned from work and I told him to go to the fields in the morning. He didn’t agree,” recalled Mir. “This year, the land was parched due to lack of water. He would go to the fields to ensure the crop wasn’t destroyed.”

Farooq often returned late from the fields, around 9 or 10 pm. “It was normal for him to stay there late,” recalled a relative who did not want to be named. “We called him around 9 pm and he said he would be back soon.”

But as the hours wore on and he still did not return, his family called again. This time, nobody answered. Panicking by now, Farooq’s family and neighbours made their way towards the paddy field. “We saw his dead body lying in a canal,” said the relative. “It was around 1:30 in the morning.”

On the morning of June 18, the Jammu and Kashmir police said that, according to preliminary investigations, Ahmad was “shot dead by terrorists using a pistol”. Three days later, security forces claimed to have killed one of them in a gunfight in Pulwama’s Tujjan village. He was identified as Majid Nazir Wani.

A few days after that, the police said they had picked up those who had tipped off Wani: three teenagers who lived in Farooq’s neighbourhood, one of them was his distant relative.

Samboora is no stranger to militancy. Till a few years ago, walls and shutters in the village were sprayed with names of local militants and slogans of support for the Jaish-e-Muhammad. Yasmeena Akhter, believed to be one of Kashmir’s few women suicide bombers is buried in Samboora, her native village.

But Farooq’s killing has shaken the village in a way it has never known before.

Sub-inspector Farooq Ahmad Mir was found dead in a canal after he went out to water his fields at night. Photo: Safwat Zargar

In the shadows

The Samboora killing suggests Kashmir may have entered a new, dangerous phase of militancy. In the last decade, local militancy was popularised by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who made skilful use of social media. New recruits went underground and then announced their decision to join militant ranks on social media, posting pictures of themselves posing with guns. Videos of Wani and his band of militants playing cricket or taking arms training went viral, making them household names in the Valley.

But the age of social media-driven militancy seems to have ended, replaced by a more covert phenomenon. Militants who took up arms after 2019, when Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370, have stayed in the shadows. In many cases, police officers said, they came to know someone had joined up only after they committed an act of violence. Usually, this involved hitting a soft target – shooting at unarmed civilians or policemen off duty.

Kashmir’s militancy has always been peopled by youth. But, according to police officials, the new recruits are now shockingly young: most are teenagers in high school, usually under 18. Instead of the AK-47s used by earlier militants, they use small arms like pistols for the shootings.

Since last year, the security establishment coined a new term for such recruits: “hybrid militants”. “In this type of faceless militancy, hybrid militants kill people, including innocents and policemen, then go underground in a bid to give the impression that they have done nothing,” Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbag Singh told reporters on July 22.

Farooq’s killing bears the signature of hybrid militancy. Wani, accused of killing the sub-inspector, did not figure in police records of militants when he quietly disappeared from his home in Pulwama district. “We had come to know that Wani had gone missing and joined militant ranks just days before [the killing],” said a senior police officer in South Kashmir. Farooq’s three neighbours, accused of tipping off Wani, had not been on the police radar at all.

At least two of the neighbours were minors. The third neighbour’s family also claims he was a minor, although the police say he was an adult. “All of them were home and living normal lives,” said the senior police officer. Wani was a Class 12 student. His school records show he was born in March 2006, which would make him 16 this year.

Police officials believe it is a deliberate strategy adopted by “handlers based in Pakistan”, choosing very young boys to carry out hits against soft targets like unarmed policemen, migrant workers and panchayat members in rural areas.

“It’s very easy to radicalise a teenager because he doesn’t think like a mature adult,” said the police official in South Kashmir. “Also, the handlers in Pakistan know that if a minor is involved in militancy and gets caught, he will be released soon, given the juvenile-friendly laws in India.”

The task

Wani’s family says he went missing from his home in Pulwama’s Banpora Ladhoo village on June 14. While his parents were attending to his ailing grandmother at a Srinagar hospital, the 16-year-old said he was going to take a dip in a local spring.

When he did not return that night, his family tried calling him. His phone was switched off. “The next morning, we asked his friend about him,” recalled his cousin, Abid Wani. “He said Majid had told him that he was going to attend a friend’s function in Khonmoh [on the outskirts of Srinagar].”

Eventually, his family filed a missing complaint at the Khrew police station, under whose jurisdiction their village falls. “We were still looking for him when we came to know about an encounter on June 21,” said Abid Wani. “A relative called us to say that he had heard Majid was killed in an encounter.”

Unlike so many militants before him, Wani had no brushes with the law in the past. His family says he had no police record, there were no stories of police harassment or summons by any other security agency.

He was the elder son of Nazir Ahmad Wani, a taxi driver. “He was so young that he wouldn’t go out in the dark without someone accompanying him,” said one of his aunts, who did not want to be named. “That’s why everyone in our village laughs at the thought of him joining militant ranks.”

A man cycles through the Samboora main road in September 2020. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

But the police have a different story. They believe Farooq’s killing was a rite of passage for Wani’s entry into militancy.

“Our investigation revealed that he was in touch with a handler based in Pakistan, who we presume belongs to the terror group Al Badr,” explained a police officer familiar with the case. “The first task he was given was to throw a grenade at the Kakapora police station in Pulwama. He did it but fortunately it caused no damage.”

Wani’s handler, the police said, had doubts about whether he had really carried out the attack and asked for photographic evidence. He then set the teenager a deadlier task, according to the police.

“He was asked by the handler to kill a policeman – only then would he be recruited as a militant,” said the police officer. He explained that this was a common tactic: involving new recruits in serious acts of violence so that they could never go back to a normal life.

The task assigned to Wani eventually took him to a friend in Samboora – one of Farooq’s three neighbours. The two other neighbours later joined deliberations. According to the police officer, another local policeman had been settled on as a target.

“But since he was a lower-level policeman, they decided against it,” he said. Then the neighbour who was distantly related to Farooq brought up the sub-inspector’s name, the police officer said.

According to investigations and interrogation of the three neighbours, all the boys were to keep an eye on Farooq.

“We saw CCTV footage of a local shop from the evening of June 17,” said the police officer. “Farooq Ahmad can be seen having something. The accused, including the militant, can be seen lurking around him. Later, they can be seen following Farooq.” When they showed the footage to the other accused, they identified Majid [Wani], he said.

Apart from Wani, one of the neighbours also had a pistol, the police officer said.

“The weapon delivery system is complex,” he continued. “It’s not that they hand over the weapon to the potential militant directly. It travels through multiple people who are all part of the militant network and then it’s usually kept at a place where the potential recruit is asked to pick it up from.”

Wani’s family still cannot believe the allegations. They say he did not have friends in Samboora and showed no signs of wanting to join the militancy. They learnt on the news that he was accused of killing Farooq.

“As far as we knew him, he would not have killed anyone,” said Wani’s aunt. “But had we known any such thing, would we allow our child to be part of it? Who would want something like that?”

Neighbours in arms?

In Samboora, the families of Farooq’s three teenaged neighbours said they were not at home on the evening of June 17; they returned around 9.30-10 pm, apparently after praying at the local mosque. All three had had encounters with the police.

One of them, a Class 11 student, was questioned for a day about eight months ago, after the police had seized weapons in the area. The student’s school documents suggest he is 16 but the police claim he is not a minor and have kept him in police custody.

According to his family, he spent the night of June 17-18 at his uncle’s house, where he helped look after his aged grandfather. They claim he was not friends with the two other neighbours, both 17, who live opposite each other in Samboora.

The two 17-year-olds have much in common. Both their families are poor – the father of one teenager drives a truck while the other teenager’s father is a milkman. They both went to the same school, although one of them dropped out in Class 7 and the other started college this year. The latter’s grandfather is Abdul Gani Mir’s cousin.

About four or five years ago, the two 17-year-olds were also detained at a juvenile home for a few days. “I think there was some election process happening and there was intense stone-pelting in our village,” said the father of the college student. “Many boys were picked up, including my son. He was released after nine days.”

The father of the other 17-year-old said his son had been with him in Srinagar during the day on June 17, helping him distribute milk, and had later gone to the local mosque for evening prayers. “When I met him in custody, I asked him if he was involved,” said the worried father. “He said he was in the playground that whole evening and returned home after prayers.”

None of the families are convinced their sons helped kill Farooq, although they admit they might not have known everything about the boys’ lives. “As parents, we can keep an eye on our children only when they are with us,” said the college student’s father. “We have no idea what my son is up to when he’s outside home.”

The uncle of one of the teenagers was doubtful about the apparent confessions made in police custody. “Let alone a teenager, a grown-up person can accept blame for anything when in police custody,” he said.

Police officers carry Farooq Ahmad Mir's coffin.

A village torn apart

More than a month after Farooq’s death, Samboora is riven by mistrust. The families of the three neighbours avoid the sub-inspector’s family. The only time they cross paths is in the local mosque.

Other families related to the three accused have also stopped visiting Farooq’s home. “They came to express condolences in the first few days but after it became known that their kin may be involved, they stopped,” said Abdul Gani Mir.

The mother of one of the accused teenagers did pay a visit. “She cried a lot and said her son is innocent,” said one of Farooq’s relatives. “We told her that the police have taken her son, not us. She should go to them.”

Almost everyone, including the families of the accused, talk about Farooq’s “noble” character. “He was a really kind man,” said the father of the accused college student who is also related to the policeman’s family. “His killing was a shock to everyone in the village. Nobody thought something like this would happen to him.”

Residents of Samboora recalled that Farooq went to work in the morning and went home in the evening. There was little to distinguish him from any other salaried person. “He was not a policeman who carried weapons or performed duties on the ground,” said Farooq’s father-in-law, Ghulam Ahmad Bhat. “He belonged to ministerial staff.” Ministerial staff usually do clerical work in the police department.

As the village reels from the killing, they look to the courts to provide closure.

“Only there will our child’s innocence or guilt be proven,” said the uncle of one of the accused neighbours.

Until then, he said, it would be “difficult to face” Farooq’s grieving family.

This is the first in a three-part series on shadow militants in Kashmir. Read the other parts here.