Around 9.30 pm on Wednesday, four gunmen surrounded Mohammad Ramzan Parray on the street outside his house in the North Kashmir town of Hajin and demanded to see his identity card. Parray, a constable with the Border Security Force posted in the Valley for a year, was at home on leave. His family members rushed outside on hearing the commotion and managed to free him from the gunmen. He dismissed their pleas to leave for a safer place.

“Some 15-20 minutes later, they [the gunmen] came running towards our home and barged in through the front door,” said Parray’s brother Mohammad Afzal Parray.

Calling the assailants militants, a cousin said, “Two militants were outside, stopping other cousins from approaching the home. We jumped on their leader, who was in the house, and three of us tried to pin him down. That’s when he took out a knife and another militant managed to enter the house.” He added, “They had also locked the gates from the inside.”

Mohammad Afzal Parray said his family begged the men to spare his brother’s life. “But they started beating anyone who came in their way,” he added. “My father and aunt, who tried to save him, were hurt. Finally they shot him in the room.”

As they left, the gunmen fired shots in the air to disperse neighbours who had gathered on the street.

Mohammad Ramzan Parray’s 70-year-old father, Ghulam Ahmad Parray, was stabbed multiple times in the stomach. He is being treated in a Srinagar hospital. “Our father still doesn’t know Ramzan is dead,” said Mohammad Afzal Parray. “He keeps losing consciousness.”

‘Targeted for being in the BSF’

The youngest son of a farmer, Mohammad Ramzan Parray studied till high school. Residents recalled he was often surrounded by young boys eager to listen to stories of his adventures in the jungles and deserts of India. They teased him over his military haircut.

A group of boys in the neighbourhood said everyone knew he was a soldier, and that he helped train others who were preparing for the security forces’ recruitment programmes.

The residents of Hajin have no doubt who Parray’s killers are. The four men wore pherans (a loose, woollen Kashmiri garment) and “pathan suits underneath” and came to the village that night, they said. They were militants, they added.

Parray’s cousin recounted, “Two had long hair, and only one was unmasked. They spoke in a Punjabi-type language and Urdu in between.”

A neighbour said the incident had shocked the entire neighbourhood. “We have been with them [militants] since the beginning,” he said. “But that night, the environment was full of terror. Had we known they were going to kill, we would not have left them alive. We don’t understand why or what they get from killing someone as kind-hearted as him [Parray].”

Mohammad Afzal Parray said his brother was targeted simply because he was with the Border Security Force.

Bloody history

At first glance, Hajin is a small market town. But there are alleys leading deep into the countryside. As darkness falls, residents hurry home, leaving the streets deserted. In recent months, it has been in the news for two reasons.

The first is a scale-up in cordon and search operations by security forces and the killing of militants in encounters. In January, Abu Musaib, commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and nephew of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi – prime accused in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks who is currently out on bail in Pakistan – was killed in a gunfight with security forces in Hajin. In August, Abid Hamid Mir, reportedly one of the town’s first militants in 22 years, was killed alongside a Pakistani militant in an encounter in Sopore.

The second reason Hajin has drawn the media’s attention is for killings by unidentified gunmen. In August, unidentified assassins beheaded 24-year-old Muzaffar Parray. Earlier, in April, they killed Rashid Billa, a member of the Ikhwan ul Muslimeen – a counter-insurgency militia raised by the Indian Army – and wanted in connection with the Saderkoot massacre. The Ikhwan had allegedly killed seven members of three families in the Saderkoot-Bala area of Bandipora district on October 5, 1996.

But the murders in Hajin are only the latest incidents of violence in a town with a history of bloodshed. In the 1990s, Hajin was a base for various militant outfits, a transit zone between North and Central Kashmir. Later, it became the headquarters of the Ikhwan. The militia was set up by Mohammad Yusuf Parray, better known as Kuka Parray. Once a militant, Kuka Parray had switched sides and even contested the 1996 Assembly elections before being shot dead in Hajin in 2003. Billa was the commander of the Ikhwan base.

Today, the slogan “Shariat ya shahdat” (Sharia/Islamic law or martyrdom) has reappeared on the walls of buildings in Hajin. The youth complain about the lack of “saaman”, or weapons, that stops them from joining militant groups.

Rashid Billa, commander of the counter-insurgency militia Ikhwan, was gunned down allegedly by militants in Hajin in April. (Credit: IANS)

A beheading in August

While Hajin is full of talk about Mohammad Ramzan Parray’s murder last week, another recent killing has receded in the background somewhat.

On August 27, the headless body of 24-year-old Muzaffar Parray was fished out of the Jhelum river. A school dropout, he had changed jobs often, sometimes working in the sand mining business or as a butcher, at other times helping out at his family’s orchards. He had been missing for two days before his body was discovered. Beheadings are not new in the Valley. But residents in Hajin could not recall one in the town before this.

A month before he was killed, Muzaffar Parray had been released from police custody. He had been arrested after a photo that showed him with two assault rifles had surfaced on social media. Relatives blamed the photograph on a disgruntled ex-girlfriend. “He was exposed because of that,” said his uncle Ghulam Mohammad Parray.

Muzaffar Parray “was with the militants only for a few days”, his uncle claimed. His father, Farooq Ahmad Parray, said “he was in police detention because of that picture” and after his release, he was no longer “in touch with anyone”. But when he disappeared, his family did not look for him. “We didn’t know what to do,” said Farooq Ahmad Parray. “We thought he had gone off with the militants.”

Speaking of the ordeal of burying his son’s headless body, Farooq Ahmad Parray said, “Had he been killed in another manner, we would have been okay. This will haunt me till the day of judgement, that I could not find his head and bury it along with his body.”

Now all his hopes lie with the police. “We plead with them to investigate who did this and why,” he said. “If the police don’t help us in this, we have nowhere left to go.”

Return of militants

In the wake of the two murders, residents of Hajin speak in whispers of seeing militants in the town. They talk about foreign gunmen showing up on the doorsteps of houses in villages far from the main town, seeking food and shelter. “The inner areas have multiple lanes and a dense population, making it easy for them to move around,” said a college student.

The police believe around a dozen militants are active in Hajin, most of them from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

In May, three gunmen appeared at the Jamia Masjid in Bangar Mohalla and addressed the public. The townspeople said they were foreigners – two were known as Abu Abdullah and Abu Mawiya, while the sermon was led by Lashkar-e-Taiba divisional commander Abu Zargam. “They told us they have come to liberate us,” said a resident. “People followed them as they were leaving.”

That day, two boys from Hajin, Abid Hamid Mir – who was later killed in Sopore – and Nasrullah Nazir Mir, joined the Lashkar.

And in June, the police arrested five persons from the Khusarpora area and said they had busted a Lashkar module. The five were motivating youth to “pick up arms and create law and order problems”, police officials said. Some AK-47 rifle magazines, 27 rounds of ammunition and 10 grenades were recovered from the arrested men.

But after Muzaffar Parray’s murder, residents have become wary of militants. One resident said stone-pelting during counter-insurgency operations, allegedly to help trapped militants escape, has almost completely stopped.

Security personnel in Hajin after a gunbattle with suspected militants in February. (Credit: AFP)

‘Anti-government’ town

With militancy seemingly on the rise in Hajin, the Army set up a camp in Hajin in August. The residents were not happy about it but said they did not interfere with the Army’s operations. “They do their job after dark,” said Abdul Hamid Mir, the father of Abid Hamid Mir, the militant killed in Sopore. He added, “We have no dealings with them as such.”

However, he does not foresee a spurt in local militancy, inspired by the boys who joined militant ranks this year. “Hajin is already in support of the militancy,” he said. “But there is no impact as such. Had there been any, more boys would have joined militancy in the last five months.”

Politically, Hajin has traditionally supported the Congress even though the Sonwari Assembly constituency, of which it is a part, does not, he said. So, anti-government sentiment runs high in Hajin. “For the simple reason that our candidate mostly never won,” he explained. “So whoever was in power, we would be against them. It is one of the oldest towns but also one of the least developed.”

Abdul Hamid Mir said the current support for militancy in the Valley is because of unkept promises and lack of a breakthrough in the Kashmir dispute.

Speaking of his son, he said, “He picked up the gun because he wanted a resolution. He did not want to live under Indian occupation.” He added, “He fought for Sharia wali azadi [freedom that comes with Sharia].”

Caught between two sides

According to Abdul Khaliq Hanif, a socio-political worker who once represented the Jama’at-e-Islami in the Syed Ali Shah Geelani-led faction of the separatist Hurriyat, the killings of both Mohammad Ramzan Parray and Muzaffar Parray were for revenge. “It is believed that Musaib’s brother said Muzaffar got him killed, so I will get him,” he said.

Hanif said there was resentment in Hajin against the killings by militants as well as a feeling of “fear and terror” from both the government and militants. He believes the town had returned to an era where one’s fate is uncertain out on the streets. “But past experience says this is a temporary phase,” he added.

Muzaffar Parray’s father spoke of residents being caught between two sides. “Civilians are helpless between the two guns,” he said. “If we run into a problem with the police, the next day there will be an FIR against us. If we get in the bad books of the militants, we are dead the next day.”

He added, “My son was killed in the prime of his youth. Who will listen to people like me, which god will help us?”