“This marks a watershed moment in Kashmir valley,” the Army said in a statement about the abduction and killing on May 9 of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz Parray, a 22-year-old Kashmiri Army officer who was home on leave in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. “People of Kashmir will decisively turn the tide against terrorism.”
A strike paralysed Shopian town on Saturday, the day after the police named the three Hizbul Mujahideen militants they suspected of being involved in the killing. However, the strike had not been called to protest the murder. The town shut over widespread belief that a young man reported to have escaped from custody remains in police captivity at an undisclosed location.
Several people in Shopian, including residents of Hajipora and Hermain, the villages near where Parray’s bullet-riddled body was found, claimed the killing was an “inside job”. “Anything is possible in Kashmir,” said a resident of Hermain. “Ninety per cent of the people here do not believe that militants are involved in the killing.”
Even the slain officer’s family shied away from identifying the killers, and denied being aware that the police had claimed to name those responsible for the murder. Neighbours gathered in the courtyard of Parray’s home said word was sent by the militants through an unidentified person following the killing. They did not say what the content of the message was or whether the messenger himself was a militant.
“What is the difference between a militant and the Army today?” asked Mohammad Ayub Mir, Parray’s uncle. “They both wear uniforms, pherans, and carry guns. How can we say who it was? They were all masked.” Mir complained that police officials had not come to investigate the killing.
Much like the neighbouring Kulgam district, where five policemen and two civilians were killed by militants on May 1, residents point to fear and uncertainty enveloping the region. There is a palpable tension in the villages, still in shock over the death of a bright young achiever in a village of apple farmers and owners of small businesses.
‘He was our brother, he was innocent’
There is a deafening silence in the villages where the district of Shopian ends and Kulgam begins. Most are busy tending to their orchards during the day, and the few people that can be seen in the village say little.
About a dozen women sat on the front porch of the house in Batpora where Parray and his mother had come to attend a cousin’s wedding. Parray had spent the best part of a decade away from home, his family said, six years at the boarding school and four years training with the Army in Pune.
On May 9, Parray spent most of his day in Batpora playing with children. In the evening, at around 8 pm, masked men barged into the house. They asked for Parray, the relatives said, and dragged him out. The women tried to stop them, but to no avail.
Around 8.30 pm, residents of Hajipora said, three gunshots were heard. “We were watching a cricket match,” a resident of the village said. “Just as we heard the shots, I immediately switched off the lights. We felt someone had been given rukhsat [release].”
The next morning, Parray’s body was found at the Hermain bus stop.
Parray’s relatives in Shopian said they were unaware that he was an Army officer until media reports after his killing said so. “Had we known he was in the Army, we would not have let them take him away,” said Parray’s cousin Rafia Nazir. No one thought this would happen. He was our brother, he was innocent. We didn’t think anyone could harm him,” They would “not have invited him to the wedding either”, she added.
As Rafia Nazir spoke, Masrat Maqbool, their cousin who was supposed to be married on May 10, broke into tears. “We took up spades and tools but they [the gunmen] had locked the doors from outside,” she said. Maqbool’s wedding has been postponed indefinitely.
Parray, the only son of Fayaz Ahmad Parray, decided to attend the wedding despite the volatile situation. “His maternal uncle has four daughters,” another cousin Mudassir Ahmad said, at Parray’s house in Sursan, Kulgam. “He felt he should be there at the wedding to shoulder some responsibilities.”
In the courtyard of the modest house, a tent erected for guests was being dismantled while neighbours milled around. Umar’s uncle stood alone, avoiding any conversations. Inside, Parray’s father sat against a wall, his elder daughter by his side. Relatives and neighbours sat across from them, in silence.
“He was a fearless man,” Fayaz said, referring to his son. “He handled his career choice all by himself.”
Mudassir said there was no “concept of NDA [National Defence Academy] exams for us”. “We only knew IAS, KAS and MBBS,” he added, referring to the Indian and Kashmir Administrative Services, and medical education. “No one tried to discourage him.”
‘No hand of militants’
Despite the Army’s claim, the Hizbul Mujahideen has denied a role in the murder. “We want to make clear it that there is no hand of militants in the killing of Ummer Fayaz,” Hizbul Mujahideen Syed Salahuddin has said in a statement from Pakistani-occupied Kashmir where he is based. “He was murdered on the behest of Indian agencies which is condemnable.”
Meanwhile, the Senior Superintendent of Police in Shopian, Ambarkar Shriram, said that the authorities will start investigations after the bereaved family is given time to “come out of the trauma”. “We will dig deeper and are verifying all angles,” he added.
In Kashmir, militant organisations distancing themselves from actions that could potentially lead to public blowblack is not new. Blaming “Indian agencies” is common practice. Indeed, after the May 1 attack, the Hizbul Mujahideen had owned up to killing the policemen but claimed that the two civilian security guards who died were killed by paramilitary soldiers.
“Militant organisations have done this since the beginning,” said a police officer. “They do not take responsibility especially if there are civilians casualties due to their actions. At other times, they use their fronts to do the dirty work and avoid a bad image.”
Parray’s killing is the latest in a series of attacks and intimidation directed at vulnerable representatives of the Indian state in Kashmir – workers of political parties and policemen have now been joined by a Kashmiri army man. In April, militants had barged into the house of policemen in Hajipora and Lundoora villages in Shopian. In March, the family of a deputy superintendent of police in the same district had been threatened to make him resign “or face the consequences”.
Since the beginning of 2017, police officials pointed out, civilian killings by militants in South Kashmir outnumber the deaths caused by security forces.