On Sunday morning, the first day of Ramzan, an eerie silence had engulfed much of the Kashmir Valley. Shops in Srinagar and all along the road to Tral, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, were shut. Few civilians were seen on the roads. Traffic was even more sparse.
But Rathsuna, a village in the Tral area, had come alive. Songs about jihad, and those who died fighting jihad, echoed through the dusty village. This was the native village of 31-year-old Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, a senior commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Bhat and 16-year-old Faizan Muzaffar Bhat, who had dropped out of Class 10 and taken up arms in April, were been killed in an encounter with security forces on Saturday. It took place in Saimoh village in Tral. Bhat was known to be close to Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, whose death in an encounter last July had triggered mass protests in the Valley.
The encounter and the death of the two militants this weekend also sparked instant protests and stone pelting in various parts of the Valley. As news spread on Saturday morning, markets shut down almost completely within hours and traffic thinned out. At least 70 protestors were injured and one civilian killed in firing by security forces. On the same day, the army reportedly killed six militants at the Line of Control.
The separatist leadership of the Hurriyat called for a two-day shutdown to protest against the deaths. The government imposed curfew-like restrictions in parts of Srinagar and South Kashmir, snapped mobile internet services and blocked outgoing calls on prepaid connections. In Tral, all mobile connections, except for those provided by BSNL, have been suspended since Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Rathsuna was preparing for a funeral ceremony for Bhat.
At 7 am, a few dozen mourners had gathered in Rathsuna, in an open space ringed with trees. Bhat’s body was displayed here. It had been placed on wooded planks on a tractor. A young man cleaned Bhat’s face and applied kohl to his eyes.
Struggling to get a glimpse of Bhat for the last time, two women sought a token from the slain militant: a handkerchief rubbed over his face. In the early morning chill, women sat under the canopy of trees while most men gathered around Bhat’s lifeless body. Notably, security personnel, though patrolling the highways, were missing here.
A little after 9 am, the funeral prayers had been said and the mourners moved towards the graveyard. Bhat was buried at around 10 am, amid slogans for azadi and which backed Pakistan. Residents shouted slogans in tribute to Bhat, to the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Only a modest crowd had turned up for the burial. Wani’s father and grandfather, who live nearby, were present. Residents of Rathsuna said the shutdown, combined with the early hour, may have made it difficult for those in nearby villages to attend the burial.
However, by 11 am, boys on motorbikes and in taxis, carrying green flags, had reached the village. Zakir Musa, the disgruntled militant who quit the Hizbul Mujahideen because of ideological differences, had gone late on Saturday to pay his respects to Bhat, residents of Ratsuna said.
On Saturday, news of Bhat’s death had drawn thousands to the village. Local militants wove through the crowds to chant slogans. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik had also paid a visit. On Sunday, he was arrested and moved to the Central Jail in Srinagar.
The encounter in which the two militants were killed started on Friday evening. According to police officials in Tral, security forces had cordoned off a village about a kilometre away from Saimoh, where Bhat and at least two other militants were hiding. As the army patrol passed through Saimoh that evening, residents said, someone from the group opened fire.
A cordon was laid around the village immediately and the gunfight started, pausing during the night. It ended on Saturday morning with the death of two militants. A third militant, residents believe, escaped from the encounter site but returned to Rathsuna village on Saturday evening and Sunday morning to pay his respects.
Jammu and Kashmir director general of police S.P. Vaid termed the encounter a “big achievement”. “We are monitoring situation very closely post Sabzar’s killing,” he said.
In the police books, Bhat was a Category A militant, with a prize of Rs 10 lakh on his head. In March, he had managed to slip through a security cordon in Rathsuna, where he was hiding.
The militant commander
The long-haired, bearded Bhat had become popular among the Valley’s youth. Pictures of him wearing a black t-shirt, protective gear and automatic machine guns were circulated widely on social media. In his village, residents who knew him speak of his muscular built and physical fitness.
His death, some of them said, occurred because Bhat was accompanied by two younger militants. “He could have run away but he chose to stay back,” claimed a youth at the funeral. “He was the elder. He could not have just run away without them.”
A teacher in the village said Bhat had, in the past, been involved in thefts in the area, including looting a safe in the gurudwara in Saimoh village. He had also earned the moniker, Sahba Don.
“He had a change of heart and laer went to the gurduwara management and offered to return the money and pay interest as well,” claimed the teacher. Even before he joined militancy, he had sought refuge in religion but was not satisfied, the teacher continued, he complained of a “lack of peace” in his life. He had even joined a local prayer group briefly.
Twice, Bhat had approached Wani, residents said, to join the Hizbu Mujahideen. each time, Wani had reportedly turned him away, telling him “offer nimaz [prayers] for the next six months”, they said. Bhat finally joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in April 2015, the day Burhan Wani’s brother, Khalid Muzaffar Wani, was killed. Bhat had reportedly snatched a rifle from a member of the Central Reserve Police Force.
After Wani’s death, Bhat’s name had been floated as the next Hizbul commander in the Valley. Nazir Ahmad, a 26-year-old who lives in Rathsuna, said that Bhat’s killing had saddened the village as “he was out on a noble cause”.
Ahmad added: “He did not harm anyone while he was a militant. He was fighting for Allah’s religion, His rule.”
Correction: This story initially said militants armed with guns had raised slogans on Saturday. They were reportedly not armed. The error is regretted.