“The police took him away on March 31, 2014. They framed him for the murder of a sarpanch’s father. But he was with us then, watching the match. It was March 8, the Pakistan-Sri Lanka match,” said Abdul Hameed Dar, sitting in his living room in Dogripora village.
In this cricket crazy village in this cricket crazy region, life and death are tied up with matches. Abdul’s son, Ishfaq Hameed Dar, was jailed and allegedly tortured for about six months. Then the floods of 2014 came, and he was let out on parole for 10 days. “He thought, my character’s gone, my career’s gone,” Abdul said. So on October 9 that year, Ishfaq left home to join the band of Hizbul Mujahideen militants led by Burhan Wani.
Soon afterwards, Ishfaq would surface in the picture that went viral on social media, defining a new generation of militancy. There he is at the edge of the cluster, the only one in the group with his forefinger pointing towards the sky. By May 2016, he was dead, killed in an encounter with security forces in Panzgam, just a few kilometres from his home. He was 23 years old. In press statements after the encounter, the police said he was guilty of shooting the 80-year-old father of a sarpanch and other acts of militancy.
At the time of his death, Ishfaq’s parents had still not seen the famous photograph. They came to know about it after July 8, when the death of Burhan Wani triggered mass protests and the picture became a poster, strung up in town squares and village lanes across South Kashmir.
But the family now prefers to talk about how talented Ishfaq was, how qualified. He had a Bachelor of Science in “non-medical”, a local term for physics-chemistry-maths. He was also a fast bowler and everybody called him Sachin, his father says.
“He used to love Shahid Afridi (former captain of the Pakistan cricket team),” recalled his elder sister, Shaheena Hameed, a soft-voiced young woman. “Once there was a match on and Afridi was batting. He actually touched the TV screen.”
Bats and stones
Dogripora lies on the banks of Jhelum. You know you have reached the village when you see the stumps of an unbuilt bridge in the river. The village lies in Awantipora tehsil of Pulwama district but it is on the fringes of a region called Sangam, confluence. Several streams meet the waters of the Jhelum River here, before it makes its stately progress towards Srinagar. The railway line connecting Banihal in the south to Baramulla in the north passes close to Dogripora. Ishfaq was killed near the Panzgam train station.
The national highway, as it cuts through Sangam, is lined with shops selling cricket bats. Bats hanging from shop windows, long wedges of wood which will soon become bats stacked in front, “No 1 Bat Factory”, “Delight Bat Factory”, “Good Luck Sports Industries”, “Diamond Sports Industries” promising “rightly guided bats in the 21st century”. This area has 25 to 30 bat making factories, local businessmen say, most of which have outlets on the main road.
During last year’s protests, the stretch of highway passing through Sangam became famous for other reasons: groups of boys armed with stones, keeping vigil at all hours, often through the night.
Residents are vague about why Sangam became such a hub for stone pelting, just as they cannot say why the bat making industry grew there. An arterial road passing through a swathe of villages joins the highway near the bridge at Sangam, a local journalist says, depositing enthusiastic young protestors at that point. As for the bats, they were there because they had been there for generations. Before he got a job at a government school, Abdul used to have a wood supply business, possibly feeding the factories near the highway. His brothers are still in the business.
‘Everybody wants to be shaheed’
“Earlier even I used to love cricket, but now I’ve lost interest,” said Shaheena. The day Ishfaq was supposed to have killed the sarpanch’s father, she said, she was sitting with her two brothers and watching the Pakistan-Sri Lanka match. Her younger brother is in Class 11. In March this year, the police had taken him away for several days as well, the family said.
Long before Ishfaq left to join the Hizbul Mujahideen, Shaheena said, the police would keep coming for him, in 2011, 2012. They came for him during Ramzan, Ishfaq’s mother remembered. “We all had to go to the police station, they used to treat us as though we were thieves,” she said.
It got worse after one of his classmates became a militant. The police said Ishfaq would definitely leave as well, Shaheena recalls. Further down the railway line, in Braw Bandina village, two other teenagers also left.
Ishfaq was killed along with 17-year-old Haseeb Palla, who lived in Braw Bandina and joined militant ranks in November 2015. A year before that, Palla’s neighbour, Shariq Ahmed Bhat, had joined up. Like Ishfaq, he had left soon after the floods. He would be killed in an encounter within two months, also aged 17.
The railway tracks run just a few metres away from the modest house where Shariq’s parents, siblings and grandmother live. On a hot afternoon in June, 15-year-old Alia Bhat sat on the steps, trying to feed rice and milk to a cheerful but mutinous baby. Like Shaheena, after her brother died, she has “lost interest”, in books and in play. “I want to die,” she said. “I also want shahadat (martyrdom).”
It is an idea that is catching after Wani’s death and the protests that followed. “People have changed a lot”, said Shariq’s elder brother, 21-year-old Adil Ahmed Bhat. “Everyone says that we also want to become shaheed (martyrs).”
No stops on the highway
Back on the highway, bat factory owners sitting outside their shops were still counting the losses of the last year. The shops had been shut for about seven months after Burhan Wani died and even now, workers are frequently absent. Why? Some have work in the paddy fields at this time of the year. Others fear random raids and beatings by security forces, factory owners say.
“We are sitting here now, at any moment the forces could come and beat us up,” said one shop worker.
The shops mostly depend on orders from other states, from towns in Gujarat, from Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. Over the last year, they have not even been able to meet the orders. Umar Rashid Dar, a factory owner, said they produce 10,000 bats a year on average. This past year, they have made 2,000 to 3,000.
Another source of income has also dried up: tourists. Sangam lies on the way to popular tourist spots such as Pahalgam. It also falls on the Amarnath pilgrimage route. For two or three months a year, the shops are bustling with visitors making a pit stop to buy rightly guided bats in the 21st century.
Now tourism has thinned to a trickle. And didn’t a Bharatiya Janata Party leader recently warn Amarnath pilgrims not to buy a paisa worth of goods from the “gaddar (traitor)” Kashmiris? Hurt, the businessmen remember the time residents of Sangam had helped out Amarnath pilgrims stranded during the unrest.
These are among the reasons why factory owners say they are prepared to bear financial losses for the protests. “We want what everyone else wants, azadi,” said Dar.
Last year’s unrest has wrought one significant change in the region. Earlier, out of 100 cricket fans, five to six would have supported the Indian team, Dar said, now everybody supports Pakistan.
Abdul Hameed Dar says his son was right to take up arms and fight the “zulm” (oppression) visited on Kashmiris. The family now consoles itself with miraculous tales about his death. His eyes were still open, they say, and he took two glasses of milk held to his lips after he had died.
Abdul still dreams of his son. “Once he came in my dreams and said that he was happy. Once I told him, son, close your eyes, and he closed them,” said the ageing father.
Then he excused himself politely. It was the day of the Champions trophy final between India and Pakistan and he had to go check on the match.
A year after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed, triggering months of protest in Kashmir, Scroll.in returned to the picture that first made his band of militants famous in the Valley. This series is the story of the places they came from and how a year of protests have changed them. Read the other parts here.