A cable operator, a liberal arts student, and a People’s Democratic Party worker were shot dead by so-called unidentified gunmen last weekend in South Kashmir.

Mohammad Ismail Parray, who worked with the ruling People’s Democratic Party, was killed in Anantnag on August 19. On August 20, a 24-year-old student’s body was found near his home in Shopian district and later that evening, gunmen killed Hilal Malik, a 32-year-old cable operator, in Shopian town.

The attacks have brought back fears of unidentified gunmen in the state – a phenomenon that became common after militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989, when there was widespread fear in the state. As per police records, at least 23 civilians have been shot by unidentified attackers in South Kashmir this year.

‘Who knows why he was killed’

In Shopian district, the weekend killings have left a trail of fear.

“Neither the killed know why they get killed, nor the killers know why they kill,” said Fayaz Ahmad, Malik’s cousin and a resident of the South Kashmir district.

Malik’s funeral was held on Monday morning and shops in the town spontaneously pulled down their shutters, even though no political outfit – separatist or mainstream – had called for a shutdown. A modest crowd gathered for the funeral, held in Shopian town. Two days after the killing, on Tuesday, a tent was still pitched in a neighbour’s lawn, filled with mourning women.

At Malik’s home, men gathered in a guest room asked questions that no one had answers to: Why was Malik killed? Who killed him? On hearing these, Malik’s younger brother, Parvez Ahmad, started slapping his face with both hands and burst into tears.

Malik’s three-year-old son, Nauman, kept looking for his father. “Baba kati chu, kati chu baba (Where is father, why is father not here)?,” he asked repeatedly.

On Sunday evening, the Malik brothers and one of their friends were hanging about near the cable office close to their home when, a little after dark, two pheran-clad masked men appeared and took position on either side of Malik and his friend, while Ahmad was a few yards away. “One of the men screamed at them, pulled out a gun from under his pheran [cloak] and fired at him,” Ahmad said, adding that it all happened within seconds.

Three to four gunshots later, Malik fell to the ground and his attackers fled. Though they were in close proximity, Malik’s friend and Ahmed said they could not identify the attacker. Malik passed away in Pulwama town, about an hour from Shopian, while the ambulance carrying him was on its way to a hospital in Srinagar. “He was asking: what did I do, why did he shoot me?,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad angrily asked why Malik was killed. “Was he a mukhbir [informer for security forces] that he was killed? What was his fault?” he shouted. “They could have sent a warning if they had a problem with him, or the cable network.”

In the Urpura locality in Nagbal village nearby – which is in the Imam Sahib block of Shopian district – another family was in mourning.

Residents of the village last saw Gowhar Rahim Dar, a shy, first-year student in the Shopian college, on Saturday night near the main bus stop in Nagbal, speaking on his phone. Between 11 and 11:30 pm, they said, gunshots were heard. The next morning, Dar’s body was found in a sericulture nursery. He was shot in the head.

At their home in Urpura, Dar’s elder brother, Mohammad Isaaq, leaned against a wall as relatives gathered around him. “He was called a mout [madman] in the neighbourhood,” Isaaq said. “He was not a very talkative person and would stay indoors most of the time. Who knows why he was killed.”

Blame game

Security agencies and militants pointed fingers at each other over the attacks.

Soon after the killings, the Jammu and Kashmir Police claimed they had identified the killers as separatist militants operating in the area. Hizbul Mujahideen’s, Zubair Turray and Umar Naik, were held responsible for Malik’s murder while Waseem Shah and Nazim Dar of the Lashkar-e-Toiba were accused of killing Gowhar Rahim Dar.

Police said that Hizbul’s Turray and Nazim Dar of Lashkar-e-Toiba in Shopian district, near the victims’ homes before they joined the militant outfits and personal enmity could not be ruled out as a motive.

The Hizbul Mujahideen did not respond to the other charges but denied that its militants were behind Dar’s killing and termed it the “handiwork of Indian agencies”, which “detest freedom loving youth of Kashmir”. The spokesperson said it had become a routine matter to blame militants for the “wrongdoings” of security agencies.

Police officials, however, said it was routine for militants to blame Indian agencies for “their own dirty work”.

A police official said militant groups were being on the defensive. “There is no central command of Lashkar or Hizbul to regulate any activities. These are basically free radicals who are operating as criminal gangs with personal interests at play,” he said.

The Hizbul spokesperson was also silent on the killings of Malik and People’s Democratic Party’s Parray.

In Urpura, Mohammed Isaaq looked away when asked if he believed militants were behind his 24-year-old brother’s death and said he did not believe that was the case. At Malik’s home in Shopian town, another cousin seemed more certain about the militant involvement. “Who will talk about it? If we do, we will also lose our lives,” he said. “Earlier if they [militants] killed someone, they would put up posters saying the person was an informer. Today who knows what’s happening and why are they killing?”

Hilal Malik (left) and Gowhar Rahim Dar (right).

Kashmir’s unidentified gunmen

Senior journalist Ahmad Ali Fayyaz, who has covered militancy in the Valley for years, said that very often militant groups do not take responsibility for these killings though they usually know if one of their members are behind the attacks. “There are thousands of civilian killings which no one has claimed in the last 28 years,” he said.

But he added, “Kashmir is a small place. Here it doesn’t take much to learn who has killed who.”

Fayyaz said public reactions often give a clue about which side was responsible for the killing. “Wherever people outrage over a killing and come out on streets with protest demonstrations, human rights activists come forward, politicians issue fiery statements of condemnation, separatists call for shutdown and newspapers give extraordinary front page treatment, it is widely perceived to be the handiwork of security forces, police or counterinsurgent militias,” he said. “But when the condemnation remains confined to kitchens and drawing rooms, separatists, human rights activists, politicians and mediapersons remain tight-lipped, it is perceived to have been done by militants. It is invariably attributed to ‘unidentified gunmen’, mainly out of fear and to provide cover to secessionist militants.”

Pointing to the long history of such unclaimed killings, Fayyaz said that even when Kashmiri lawyer and separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone was killed by unmasked men in front of a 10,000-strong crowd at the Eidgah in Srinagar in May 2002, the attackers were called “unidentified gunmen”.

Fayyaz said that one of the security guards of Lone – a founding member of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference – who was injured in the attack had also claimed he could not identify the killers. The guard narrated in detail how the assassins took out their AK-47 rifles and sprayed bullets on Lone and his guards from a few yards away. “But he denied remembering their faces,” Fayyaz recalled. “He seemed to be under the fear that if he agreed to identify the assassins, they could easily kill him or his family members.”