His family remembers 17-year-old Saqib Khan as a recluse. He liked to spend time with his pigeons. If he left his home in Khonmoh, on the outskirts of Srinagar, it was usually to pray at the local mosque or buy milk. He was a first year student at Srinagar’s Gandhi Memorial College. After months of online classes because of the pandemic, the college had opened again earlier this year. On the morning of March 9, Saqib left home to attend class.

Later that day, militants shot and killed Sameer Ahmad Bhat, a local sarpanch, at his home in Khonmoh. According to the police and various eye witnesses, Saqib was among the gunmen involved in the killing. By evening, the police were looking for him.

Suddenly, his family was faced with a new reality – Saqib, the quiet recluse, was now a militant on the run. Five months later, he was dead. On August 10, he was killed in a gunfight with security forces in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. All three militants killed in the gunfight were apparently part of The Resistance Front, a group that emerged three years ago, although the police claim it is a rebranded version of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The sarpanch murdered in March had been Saqib’s neighbour. Months after his death, his father, Abdul Rashid Bhat, a government employee, was inconsolable. “I want to ask him why he killed my son. Who asked him?” he sobbed.

Mushtaq Ahmad Khan also had the same question of his son, Saqib. He had wanted Saqib to come back alive so he could ask him: “What did you do? Who told you? What was his fault?”

What fight?

In many ways, Saqib’s mysterious transition from college student to alleged killer is typical of the new form of militancy spreading in Kashmir. For decades, armed youth in the Valley have been fighting for “azadi”, freedom, whether that meant an independent Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan. Religion and politics were often entwined in this fight, although some militant groups emphasised the role of religion more than others.

Along with “azadi”, another powerful idea drove this fight – “zulm”, oppression. This was experienced collectively as well as at the individual level. The youth who took up arms had often been subjected to years of police and army summons, illegal detentions, even torture. They would rationalise their choice by talking about “zulm” and the need to fight against it.

It is harder to define the ideological underpinnings of the militancy that continues after August 5, 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370. It also lost protections under Article 35A, which had reserved land and job rights for those defined as “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir. In the Valley, it was feared these measures were aimed at engineering a “demographic change” in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

While the legislative changes were widely resented, few in Kashmir would talk of taking up arms to demand the restoration of Article 370 or Article 35A. Yet, the Resistance Front, which started taking responsibility for most targeted killings after August 2019, claimed to strike a blow against the “settler colonial project” of “demographic change”. For its victims, the group chose migrant workers and religious minorities in the Valley.

The profile of militants has also changed. Many of them are minors under 18. Few have personal stories of harassment by police or security agencies, once cited as a driving force behind the militancy. Take Saqib, for instance. “He had no police record, no case. He was never summoned or anything. No agency harassed him,” recalled Mushtaq Khan, who quarries stones from the mountains in Khonmoh.

He did not even figure in police’s lists of potential troublemakers; he was not someone who might have been detained in police sweeps when tensions ran high.

The porch where Sameer Ahmad Bhat was shot dead. Photo: Safwat Zargar

A neighbour visits

On the evening of March 9, 45-year-old Sameer Ahmad Bhat was home when two teenagers walked into his compound. Bhat’s family said they recognised one of the boys – it was Saqib.

“They told one of my relatives that they wanted to see Sameer about permission for some electricity poles,” recalled Abdul Bhat. “As soon as Sameer came out to meet them, he was shot by Saqib. My son was still on the porch, trying to put on his shoes. He could put on only one before they killed him.”

Hearing the bullets, Bhat’s younger brother, who was on the other side of the compound, rushed after the two gunmen with a stick. “They fired two shots at him, too, and managed to escape. Fortunately, [he] wasn’t hurt,” Abdul Bhat said.

The sarpanch was rushed to a hospital, where he died of his injuries.

According to Abdul Bhat, Saqib had been sighted in Khonmoh even a few days after the killing. “We got testimonies which said that he was seen lurking in the village,” he said. “After that the army carried out search operations in the village. But he was nowhere to be found.”

A week after Bhat’s death, three local militants affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba were killed in a gunfight with security forces in Nowgam, on the outskirts of Srinagar. According to a police statement issued on March 16, all three were involved in Bhat’s killing.

“There were a total of four militants who went to Bhat’s home that evening but only two went inside,” said a senior police official in Srinagar who did not want to be named. “Investigations revealed that the two waiting outside carried backpacks, which seems to suggest that they were carrying large weapons.”

Despite action taken by security forces, Abdul Bhat feels forsaken by the government. “My son was part of the government structure,” he said. “Would you believe it, except the local tehsildar, no one from the administration bothered to visit our house for condolences?”

He compared this to the ripples of outrage created by the killing of religious minorities in the Valley. “Had my son been a Ram Lal or a Kashmiri Pandit, even the lieutenant governor would have scrambled to come here. But my son was a Kashmiri Muslim. Nobody cares,” said the distraught father.

A declaration of intent

For years, panchayat members in Kashmir have been targeted by militants as they are seen to be working for the government. That is why most members remain in heavily secured government accommodations in Srinagar, rarely able to return to their villages.

Not Sameer Bhat. The former People’s Democratic Party member had contested the 2018 panchayat polls without party support. Unlike other sarpanches, he lived in his village. He had requested security cover in the past but was not given any, his family says. This does not seem to have worried him.

“He was always roaming about, going to places and supervising different works in the village,” said Abdul Bhat. “Had he felt any threat to his life, he wouldn’t be living at home.”

Bhat’s death was a departure from other sarpanch killings because in the end the shooter was not a strange gunman but a familiar face, a neighbour. “We allowed him inside only because we knew he was a local boy,” said Abdul Bhat.

In Kashmir’s close-knit communities, such killings had been unthinkable before.

Police officials attribute it to the changing dynamic of militancy, where new recruits are tasked with attacking soft targets. Like Saqib, many of these recruits are teenagers with no police record.

The lack of training and experience means these recruits end up choosing targets familiar to them. “One has to understand that these youngsters can’t attack soldiers or armed police personnel because they aren’t trained,” explained the police officer in Srinagar. “They are more or less asked to murder an ordinary person who they know can’t resist them.”

The police believe that, as with Saqib, an act of violence is an initiation into militancy. “In many cases, we have seen teenagers who intend to join terrorist ranks tasked with hitting a target first to prove they mean business and can’t go back,” said the senior police officer.

The fact that Saqib did not hide his face when he allegedly killed Bhat suggests the act was a declaration of intent, the police officer felt. “He was trying to make a statement that he can kill anyone,” he said.

He claimed that when security agencies searched the teenager’s house later, they found Pakistani flags and camouflage clothes. “All of this points to the fact that whatever he did wasn’t sudden,” said the officer. Saqib, according to him, had decided to take up arms long ago and “was just waiting to act.”

Sarpanch Sameer Ahmad Bhat. Photo: special arrangement

Looking away

Mushtaq Ahmad Khan heard the shots that killed Bhat on March 9. His single storeyed home is less than a kilometre from the Bhat family’s house in Khonmoh.

He only learnt about the killing two hours later, when police and army personnel knocked on their door and asked to see his elder son, Saqib’s brother. “I took them to meet him at the cement factory where he works,” Khan recalled. They then asked to see Saqib – “I told them he had gone to college in the morning and had not returned yet.”

Khan and his elder son were then taken to Pantha Chowk police station in Srinagar where they were told about Saqib’s alleged role in the killing. “Both of us were kept in detention for 15 days but I told the police clearly that I had no idea about him [Saqib]. They eventually let us go,” said Khan.

As in other towns and villages that have seen violence by known militants, the killing threatens to tear apart a close-knit community. In Khonmoh, two families that had been neighbours for years can barely look each other in the eye.

“I saw his [Saqib’s] father a few days back,” recalled Abdul Bhat in July, months after the killing. “He greeted me. I replied but turned my head away.” Another time, he changed his route when he saw Saqib’s grandfather in the distance.

Mushtaq Khan, meanwhile, finds it difficult to face the world. “I am ashamed to go out. I can’t walk with my head high in the village,” he said.

The two families had once had cordial relations but now all ties have been snapped. “When I heard that my son was involved in the episode, I couldn’t even find the courage to visit their house for condolences,” said Shameema Bano, Saqib’s mother.

After he was released from detention, Khan thought he would visit Bhat’s family.

His brothers and father had already visited in the early days of mourning. “But relatives and other neighbours advised me not to go as emotions were running high,” he said. “What if there was an argument? It would have looked bad.”

“They are in pain for their entire life now,” said Khan. “So am I.”

This is the third part of a three-part series. Read the first and second parts here.