Late in the evening on October 16, Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh was home with his family in Homhuna village of South Kashmir’s Shopian district when he got a call. “There are guests at the door,” Sheikh told his family and hung up the phone. Moments later, he was trying to run out a window but was caught by one of the six guests and, soon, shot dead.

Sheikh, who had survived a murder attempt in 2013, was a worker of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. The guests, it turned out, were separatist militants.

His family claimed the militants wanted to take Sheikh away to “another location where they could kill him with no one watching”. But the family resisted and in the ensuing scuffle, the militants shot Sheikh dead. One of the attackers, Showkat Ahmad Kumar aka Falahi of Trenz, a village about 12 km away, was killed as well.

Any other day, Sheikh’s murder would have been blamed, as such incidents generally are in Kashmir, on “unidentified gunmen”. Now, it is clear that the 40-year-old contractor’s killing was the handiwork of Hizbul Mujahideen, the militant group to which Kumar owed allegiance.

How exactly Kumar died depends on whom you ask, and how safe they feel answering the question. A relative claimed that one of the militants grabbed Sheikh’s mother by the hair and pulled her away when she tried to shield her son. “As she fell, he opened fire,” the relative said. “The second time he fired, the bullet went through [Sheikh] and hit the mujahid behind him.”

Relatives rued that Sheikh was “killed by the same people he worked for, by making roads”.

The family denied the allegation that one of them had shot Kumar. “Now [the separatists] are spreading word that the militants had only gone to talk and we [Sheikh’s family] killed them,” said another angry relative who asked not to be named. “Truth is they have picked up guns they don’t know how to use and killed themselves.”

Unending ordeal

Still, Sheikh’s family was blamed for Kumar’s death. The next day, a few hours after Sheikh was given a quiet burial, well-wishers came running to the family to warn of “a mob of hundreds and four mujahids marching” towards Homhuna. Everyone in the Sheikh house ran into the orchards nearby, many barefoot. “At around 2.30 pm heavy stone-pelting began on our house,” said the relative. The mob, he said, were calling out for them.

They watched from a distance as flames leapt from their home. “They used the grass in our cowshed to start the fire,” the relative said. After a while, the police came and took the family away. Several of them, including Sheikh’s brother Farooq Ahmad and son Mohammad Irfan, have since been shifted to a safe house outside Shopian.

The mob had gathered from surrounding villages, including Kumar’s Trenz, the police said, and it was instigated by “two to three militants whose identities are being ascertained”.

At the safe house, Farooq Ahmad’s family and Irfan are confined to small rooms. On October 20, a small television set played a movie but Irfan silently stared at the ceiling of the damp room. Farooq’s wife started to wail but the men in the room asked her to quiet down lest she draw attention.

Irfan wasn’t sure what day it was nor did he care. He spoke in incomplete sentences. “I aimed to be one [militant]…because… but they gave me this instead,” he said, referring to the militants killing his father.

Irfan’s three younger siblings and a cousin, aged 4 to 10, are still in shock. “They don’t speak much, they don’t eat properly, and they get frightened if someone speaks loudly,” said Farooq Ahmad.

‘Leaderless anarchic gangs’

Police officials claimed that Sheikh’s murder was a consequence of security forces killing a large number of top militant commanders over the past year. The killings, they explained, have left the militants leaderless and operating as “anarchic gangs with no responsibility”.

In particular, the killing of Waseem Shah, the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s district commander in Shopian, earlier this month has left a void in the militant leadership that Saddam Padder, his Hizb counterpart, is seemingly finding difficult to fill. “They are leaderless now,” a police official said. “So they are doing things on their own. Terrorising people.”

In all, at least 68 militants have been killed in South Kashmir over the past year. In retaliation, police officials alleged, militants have killed at least 31 civilians and 23 policemen.

One among the 31 civilians was Aijaz Ali Lone, a 30-year-old schoolteacher whose body was found on October 18, with the throat slit. A note left on the body and signed “ZIA Squad” – the name apparently refers to the initials of militants Zahid Mir, Irfan Abdullah, and Asif who were killed in an encounter on October 9 – warned that all informers would meet the same fate.

One of the three militants had been shot near Lone’s house in Gatipora village of Shopian. A few days later, a video shot by a Srinagar-based media house showing Lone being escorted by a soldier went viral.

Aware of the fate of Sheikh and his family, Lone’s relatives weigh every word they say. Lone’s father Ali Mohammad refrained from blaming militants for his son’s killing but one of Lone’s cousins pointed to the video. “The one who took the video is responsible,” he said.

The early morning encounter of October 9 happened largely in the open, Ali Mohammad said. The three militants emerged from the hills overlooking the village. “They must have known the Army was coming, they were running towards the settlement,” he added. “They were killed before they reached here.”

Afterwards, Ali Mohammad said, the Army grabbed his son because “they wanted him to point out which house was his and use him as a shield during the search after the encounter”. Lone’s wife, who is also a teacher, has not recovered from the shock and his 7-year-old son is unaware of his father’s death.

“If militants did this, no one will give them shelter,” said another of Lone’s cousins. “People will not let them move in their villages if they continue to do this [kill civilians] over baseless allegations.”

'I am not a mukhbir' ads published in an Urdu newspaper in the early 1990s.

‘Who is the oppressor?’

The recent spate of attacks on civilians and workers of pro-India political parties has revived memories of the early 1990s when such killings were routine. Although most such killings were carried out by militants, many were a result of people using the situation to settle personal scores. The allegation of mukhbiri, or spying for the security forces, amounted to a death warrant then as it does now. Newspapers would carry classified ads, sometimes dozens together, in which citizens declared that “I am not a mukhbir [informer]” and proclaim they were “ready for any punishment if the allegations are proven”.

Still, hundreds perished. The brunt was borne by workers of the National Conference, then the most important mainstream party in Kashmir. More than two decades later, grassroots workers of mainstream parties remain the most vulnerable to killings by militants.

Activists of mainstream parties in Shopian said Sheikh’s killing has exposed the separatists. “Ramzan’s family was not even given a breathing period when the militants again came for them,” said one activist who asked not to be named. He even accused the Hurriyat Conference, the separatist political organisation, of being complicit in the killing. “They would have come up with a statement condemning his killing had this happened away from the public,” the activist said. “But now,” with the militants having come – unwittingly – out in the open, he added, “they came again to make an example out of this so that no one resists them again.”

The activist alleged that while Hurriyat activists are detained for instigating violence, workers of mainstream parties are killed for just propagating an idea.

“Are we supposed to sit silently and wait to be killed in our homes?” Sheikh’s angry relative asked. “Ask them [the separatists] who is the oppressor and the oppressed here? What jihad is this?”