Until he went missing on August 17, 2021, Shahid Bashir Sheikh had been helping his father sell shoes in Srinagar.

Every morning, the 17-year-old would leave for Batamaloo, a busy market area in the heart of the city, spread out their wares on a cart and wait for customers. His father, Bashir Ahmad Sheikh, who was diagnosed with back problems last year, joined him in the evening. “I got him stock worth Rs 3 lakh to help him expand the business,” said Bashir Sheikh.

On the morning of August 17 last year, Shahid left home for work and did not return. Within two months, he was dead, killed in a gunfight with security forces in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on October 15.

The police claimed he had been responsible for the assassination of a Power Development Department employee two weeks earlier. On the evening of October 2, Mohammad Shafi Dar was shot dead outside his home in Batamaloo.

It was the second civilian killing that day. Earlier, suspected militants had shot Majid Ahmad Gojri, a local gangster who lived in the Karan Nagar area of downtown Srinagar. The two killings had shaken the city and sent shock waves across the Kashmir Valley.

Bashir Sheikh, also a resident of downtown Srinagar, does not believe his son was involved in Dar’s killing. But he bitterly admits the fact that his son joined militant ranks.

“Those who are running militancy in Kashmir should have sought my consent before brainwashing my son into joining their ranks,” said the 49-year-old, who has been bedridden for a while now. “At least, they should have informed me that my son has joined them. They didn’t bother to. I would have begged him to come back.”

He blamed Pakistan for “luring young boys” into militancy. “He was not an ordinary child, he was a blessing for me,” said a grieving Bashir Sheikh.

Bashir Ahmad Sheikh shows his son's picture, stored on his phone. Photo: Safwat Zargar

Spotlight on Srinagar

Whether or not Shahid was responsible for killing Dar, his story reflects a growing trend in Kashmir. The four districts of South Kashmir were the epicentre of the local militancy that gained ground over the last decade. Over the last year, the epicentre of militancy has moved away from South Kashmir to Srinagar.

In the first eight months of last year, for instance, the city topped the list when it came to the number of militancy-related incidents. This year, too, similar trends are visible: of the 12 policemen killed in Kashmir this year, five died in Srinagar.

Across the capital, there are signs of greater vigilance. The deployment of security personnel has increased. In March 2021, the police came up with a wanted list of eight militants operating in Srinagar, five of them residents of the city. Even now, posters of the wanted militants are plastered across the city.

According to a senior police official in Srinagar, who did not want to be named, militant groups wanted to register their presence in the city. “Any killing in Srinagar is bound to make more impact than any other place,” he said.

The city is the urban hub of the Valley and the political nerve centre of Jammu and Kashmir. A killing here sends reverberations across the region and makes national news.

The Srinagar killings gained pace after August 5, 2019, when the Centre placed the region under a communications blackout and a heavy blanket of security. It then stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and formal autonomy under Article 370. Article 35A, a law which ensured special rights and privileges for people defined as “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir, was also repealed. Amid mass arrests and shutdowns, the Bharatiya Janata Party government had claimed “normalcy” prevailed in Kashmir as there had been no widespread protests.

The legislative changes had given rise to fears of “demographic change” – that the government had thrown open the doors for people outside Kashmir to settle there and alter the Muslim-majority character of the Valley. Militant groups such as The Resistance Front, which emerged after August 2019 – although the police believe it is merely an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba – weaponised these fears in their choice of victims.

Migrant workers and religious minorities in Kashmir were picked out for targeted killings. Most of these killings took place in Srinagar. They caused an outrage across the country, forcing the home ministry in Delhi into a huddle to appraise the security situation in the Valley.

“A disturbed Srinagar gets more currency when it comes to deflating the government’s projection of normalcy and peace in the Valley,” said the police officer.

According to the police officer, the topography of Srinagar might also make it ideal for hit and run attacks. “It’s relatively difficult to carry out anti-militancy operations within the city,” he explained. “Given the sheer number of people in the bustling markets, it’s easier for a militant to dissolve in the crowd after throwing a grenade or shooting someone.”

One of the killings that shook Srinagar was that of Makhan Lal Bindroo, a Kashmiri Pandit who had never left the Valley even when much of the community fled in the 1990s, under attack from militant groups. Bindroo was at his chemist’s shop in Srinagar’s crowded Iqbal Park when he was shot dead last October.

One of his killers, according to the police, was 19-year-old Mehran Yaseen Shalla, who had joined The Resistance Front in May 2021.

Mehran Yaseen Shalla joined The Resistance Front in May 2021. Within months he was a most wanted militant. Photo: Special arrangement

‘Most wanted militant’

A few months before he joined up, the commerce student had started working as a delivery man for a courier company. On May 18, 2021, he returned from work to his home in downtown Srinagar’s Jamlatta area and retired to his room. “Suddenly, he came rushing downstairs and told his mother that he would be back soon,” recalled a relative who did not want to be named.

When the teenager did not return home that night, his family started calling him frantically. Nobody answered. “When we later went to his room, we found that he had left his phone at home,” the relative added.

The next morning, Shalla’s family filed a missing complaint with the police. A few days later, an unverified audio clip went viral on social media, apparently featuring Shalla’s voice. He can be heard reciting a poem, “Hum phool bhi hai, talwar bhi hai” – we are the flower and the sword – a call to arms. He then recites a prayer before announcing that he has joined The Resistance Front and his family should not look for him.

“I want to tell the youth of Srinagar to give up whatever wrong activities they are involved in and quickly get ready to choose the right path,” he is heard saying.

Shalla’s family blames repeated police harassment for his decision to join militancy. “He was just 14 when he was picked up and kept in a proper lockup for eight days for stone-pelting,” said the relative. The teenager was arrested for stone pelting again in 2018, when he was 16. “The police had told us that they would release him in a day. He was released after 25 days,” the relative said.

Shalla’s family said he had been summoned again just days before he went missing. “But he didn’t go – he knew they would keep him locked up for days,” said the relative. “He was just a minor. They should have been easy on him.”

Within months of joining The Resistance Front, Shalla had become one of the most wanted militants in Srinagar, suspected to be responsible for a series of high-profile killings and the target of a manhunt. According to the police, by the time he was killed in a gunfight with security forces in Srinagar, he was one of the top commanders of The Resistance Front.

For years, the police believed that stone pelting, a popular form of public protest in Kashmir, was a gateway to militancy. But Shalla’s transition from stone pelter to militant has prompted another theory.

According to several police officers in Srinagar, the harsh crackdown on stone-pelting in the city’s downtown area – where local youth would gather every week after Friday prayers to hold a routine protest – could have forced many angry teenagers into militancy.

“Stone-pelting would, in a way, be a vent for a lot of teenagers,” said a second senior police officer in Srinagar. “In downtown each week, a group of youngsters would express their frustration by fighting pitched battles with the security forces. That has stopped now.”

Shooting in the dark

But Shalla, who declared his intention to join militant ranks, may be the outlier. In Srinagar, as in the rest of Kashmir, there is a new crop of secretive militants. This is in sharp contrast to the last decade, when militancy was popularised on social media, and Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and his band of militants became household names.

Many of those who carried out targeted killings after August 2019 were young boys with no record of militancy. As in other parts of the Valley, the militancy in Srinagar is led by high school or college-going teenagers, many of them minors.

A large number of them are what security agencies call “hybrid militants” – youth who do not go underground after joining militant groups, who commit acts of violence and then return to their everyday lives.

“They are trained online, told where to get the weapon and how to return it and then go back to their lives,” explained the senior police officer in Srinagar.

Most attacks choose soft targets – off-duty policemen, ordinary civilians and panchayat representatives. Often, they are known to their killers.

Take the case of Parvaiz Ahmad Dar, an official of the Jammu and Kashmir police’s criminal investigation department, killed in Nowgam, on the outskirts of Srinagar, as he returned from evening prayers in June last year. “We found that a close, next-door neighbour gave the militants information about his schedule and movements,” said the police officer.

Ordinary teenagers have also been found facilitating the movement of militants. The police officer mentioned another case where a 15-year-old drove two active militants on a bike so that they could shoot a civilian. “After the attack, he led them back to a safe house,” he said. The boy is currently held at a juvenile home in Srinagar.

Unlike earlier attacks, where rifles and AK-47s were used, small arms such as pistols are popular in the new militancy. “Most of these weapons are being dropped through international borders via drones,” said the police officer. “Then, through a complex system of overground workers, these weapons are transported to different parts of the Valley.”

In May, the Srinagar police arrested two “hybrid militants” of the Lashkar-e-Taiba with 15 pistols, 30 magazines, 300 rounds and one silencer. “The consignment we managed to catch was the third one,” said the police officer. “They had already delivered 41 pistols in the earlier consignments.”

Bashir Ahmad Sheikh and his wife, Meema Bashir, are still trying to come to terms with their son's decision and his death. Photo: Safwat Zargar

Baffled families

The families of an earlier generation of militants would proudly own the fact that their sons had taken up arms. Now, most families are shocked and baffled, caught unawares by the fact that their sons had joined militant ranks.

Seventeen-year-old Shahid’s parents are still trying to come to terms with his disappearance and death. “His death has turned us into ashes,” sobbed Meema Bashir, his mother.

Since the teenager disappeared, his brother has taken care of the shoe stall. Sheikh has been bed-ridden since last year. He has two daughters but no money to marry them off. The family lives in a rented, ramshackle house in downtown Srinagar.

He cannot comprehend how a loving son, who had promised to take care of his parents, could suddenly leave home.

“He would sit with me till late at night and have long conversations,” said Sheikh. “He was my everything. I cry whenever I hear some boy has been killed in an encounter. I see my Shahid in all of them.”

This is the second of a three-part series on shadow militants. Read the first part here.