On Thursday, as Kashmir commemorated Shab-i-Qadar, the night the Quran is believed to have been revealed, horrifying pictures of a man lynched to death near Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta began to be circulated on social media.

Soon after the night prayers ended around 2 am, a picture emerged of a man stripped to his underwear, bruises all over his torso. Hours later, another picture made its way across WhatsApp: the man’s jaw had no teeth left on it and his face was barely recognisable.

On Friday morning, the Jammu and Kashmir Police issued a statement: “Another police officer sacrificed his life in line of duty. DySP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] Mohammed Ayub Pandith of Security was attacked and beaten to death by a mob at Nowhatta last night.”

The lynching prompted the authorities to enforce a strict curfew in Srinagar’s downtown areas. Prayers were prohibited at the Jamia Masjid on the last Friday of Ramzan.

As a bright sun shone over Srinagar on Friday afternoon, a pall of gloom engulfed Nowpora in Srinagar, a few kilometers from Nowhatta, where Pandith lived. The funeral of 57-year-old Pandith was attended by dozens of people from his neighbourhood. Women, relatives and neighbours wept loudly as they watched the officer’s casket being carried away to the cemetery. Leaning out of a window, Pandith’s elder sister, stretched her arms out and called for her brother.

Moments later, women poured into the lanes, shouting religious slogans and chanting, “Shaheed MA Pandith zindabad” – Long live martyr MA Pandith. “Those who killed him were Muslims [Kashmiris], not the army,” one woman told reporters. Another angrily pointed out that “he wasn’t killed with a bullet. They killed him by repeatedly hitting him with stones.” Pandith’s sister, visibly distraught, rued it was “Muslims killing a Muslim”. She asked, “Was he a mukhbir [an informer on militancy for security forces], a terrorist?” The women also shouted slogans criticising separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

On the main road, dozens of people offered prayers for the dead man. Pandith’s niece asked why he was killed. “Haan hum Indian hain,” said Pandith’s sister. Yes, we are Indian.

The lynching

There are various versions of the events that led to Pandith’s murder. On the night of June 22, thousands of devotees from across Srinagar had gathered at the Jamia Masjid. Police officials say that Pandith had been assigned to the task of frisking devotees at the entrance of the mosque, the shrine at which separatist leader Umar Farooq is the Mirwaiz, or chief preacher.

A prominent version of events states that a mob of sloganeering youth at the mosque got agitated when Pandith began photographing them. The crowd, as per videos circulated in the wee hours of June 23, were chanting slogans in support the renegade Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Zakir Musa. An altercation with the youth is said to have led Pandith to open fire with his pistol, injuring three people. After this, Pandith was lynched to death.

In another version of the events, as per a worshipper, Pandith “had somehow been identified as a cop and was being roughed up, during which gunshots were heard”.

Police officials said the incident occurred between 11.30 pm on Thursday and midnight. Some policemen claim the security personnel accompanying Pandith “fled to safety once the mob had caught hold of him”. In the melee, Pandith’s pistol was stolen.

Another devotee, a local journalist who did not want to be identified, said that the mob had dragged Pandith outside the compound of the mosque. The devotee said that police and paramilitary personnel arrived in vehicles close to 1 am. “As soon as they reached the chowk, they resorted to aerial firing for two-three minutes, leading to chaos,” he said. “During that, Mirwaiz, on loudspeaker, was asking people to come inside Jamia Masjid and observe shab and that those who wanted to leave should do so without creating a disturbance.”

After the firing, he said, the mob dispersed. “There was no one left except police and CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force],” he said. “In five minutes, they fired teargas shells and left. Thirty-40 minutes later, it seemed as if nothing had happened. But people were whispering about a policeman or a CID wala that was nabbed and almost beaten to death.”

The rumour mills of the Valley were active through Thursday night as pictures of the aftermath of the lynching were spread. There were claims on social media that the man was a non-Kashmiri out to kill the Mirwaiz. Another said that he was an agent of the Intelligence Bureau. Adding to the confusion, a local news agency reported that the “alleged security personnel” man was “without circumcision”, implying that the person was not Muslim.

Relatives and neighbours pray over Mohammed Pandith's body. Credit: Rayan Naqash

On Friday morning, the police announced that Pandith was a member of the force. However, there is still no clarity on what had transpired. A senior police official said early news reports were “based on figments of imagination” as there was still no clarity about the facts. “We can not say exactly what had transpired until the investigations are completed,” he said. “Anything we say at the moment will be speculation”.

He added: “We can’t find answers for the media in two minutes. Investigations take time.”

On the morning of June 23, during Pandith’s wreath-laying ceremony at the Police Lines, the state’s Director General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid told reporters, “Investigation is going on but initial reports suggest that some miscreants who were shouting slogans caught hold of DySP while he was coming out of the mosque after inspecting access control. They started beating and lynched him.”

Vaid added that two suspects involved in the lynching had been arrested while a third had been identified. “The rest of the guilty will face the law too,” he said.

‘An honest and humble man’

Pandith is survived by a wife and two children. His daughter, who studies in Bangladesh, had returned home to celebrate Eid, which comes up next week, with the family. The Pandith family wants definitive answers about how their relative was killed. “One lakh people were there but no one saw what happened,” said one of the mourners outside Pandith’s house. “We still do not know what happened last night.”

However, the family contests the claim that Pandith could have been lynched for photographing the sloganeering mob. “He did not even have a smartphone. He owned a basic Nokia phone,” said Danish Pandith, the son of the dead man, before retreating into silence.

The Pandith family, too, received the gruesome pictures via WhatsApp. “We saw the picture but could not identify him,” said Umar Pandith, a nephew of the murdered police officer. Umar Pandith said that he “got calls from police officials at around 2.30 am, asking if he [his uncle] had come back home. I think they already knew what had happened but were unable to tell us.” Early on Friday morning, the family was asked to visit the Police Control Room to identify the body. Danish Pandith fainted the moment he saw his father’s mutilated body.

Pandith joined the police force in 1990 after acquiring degrees in commerce and law. Umar Pandith said his uncle was an honest and humble man who would never even let his security guards to open a door for him. “He was never posted in a single place for more than a year. Because he was honest,” he said, adding that “he recently started building his house. That is proof of what he achieved all the years in police service.”

A cousin reiterated this, recalling an incident from the time Pandith had been posted as the Station House Officer in Gulmarg hill station. “Some IPS officers had demanded free accommodation but he declined, saying it was not his job,” the cousin said. “He was transferred immediately after that.”

Mohammad Ayub Pandith's wreath laying ceremony

Ominous portents

On Friday, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told reporters at the wreath-laying ceremony for Pandith that if “policemen are treated as such and their patience runs out, God forbid the era, when people would run away seeing a gypsy, will return”.

For Pandith’s batchmates in the police, his lynching made the cracks in Kashmiri society more visible. “It’s society versus the police,” a batchmate said, asking not to be identified. Praising Pandith, the officer said, “Even when he was being lynched, he did not open fire on their heads. He shot them in the legs when he could well have taken five with him. That shows his temperament.”

Other police officials expressed their resentment over the comparisons being made between the lynching and killing of militants in encounters. “You can’t equate someone doing his legal duty with someone who has taken arms against it,” an official said. “It is still no justification.”

The lynching comes in backdrop of a spike in attacks on the local police, largely of Kashmiri Muslims. This year alone, at least 17 policemen have been killed by separatist militants.

On Friday evening policemen at the station in Nowhatta watched video of Mufti’s morning statement. A young policeman stroked the barrel of his AK-47 rifle and asked “Why aren’t we taking action despite so many attacks against us?”