Tahera Khatun said she last spoke to her 39-year-old son Qamar-uz-Zaman on July 9. Zaman had told her that he would come home soon, recalled Khatun. “He said that he would come get his son and get him admitted to a school in Kashmir soon,” said Khatun. Zaman’s son, who lives with his mother in his father’s ancestral home in a village called Janunamukh in middle Assam’s Hojai district, turns four in September.
Zaman, who had been living in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar district since 2013 where he told his family he sold clothes on the footpath, never came home or called after that.
A ‘viral’ picture emerges
On April 8, however, a photograph, ostensibly of Zaman brandishing an automatic rifle, emerged on social media. The caption on the photograph stated that Zaman was now a member of the banned Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen and was going under the name Dr Hurairah.
The Facebook account that posted Zaman’s picture is known to post photographs of the outlawed outfit’s new recruits. The account, called Hamza Hizbi, uses a display picture of Mannan Bashir Wani, a former Aligarh Muslim University scholar who had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen earlier this year.
Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief minister Omar Abdullah reiterated this information when he tweeted that that his “security people had told [him] about [Zaman’s] presence around Srinagar”.
The picture of Zaman created a great sensation in Assam and raised many questions. Hours after the picture came to light, local television crews swooped down on the chaotic one-street village of Jamunamukh. In a widely-telecast extempore interview, Khatun was seen tearfully telling reporters that if the man in the picture was indeed her son, he should be shot dead and his body fed to animals.
The state police have been more cautious. Additional Director General of Police (Special Branch) Pallab Bhattacharya said that the matter is still being investigated. “We are getting it verified by Jammu and Kashmir police, but there is no confirmation yet,” he said.
A police official in Kishtwar said that a preliminary inquiry revealed Zaman had come to Daccham area in 2013. His wife and son lived with him for about three months before heading back to Assam. Zaman disappeared from Daccham in July 2017 but no missing report was filed, the official said.
In Kishtwar, which lies in the Jammu region, Zaman was a tenant at a property owned by a local resident whose militant son was killed in 2013. Local police officials in Kishtwar said they are still verifying if Zaman has joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. If that were the case, police officials in Kishtwar said, Zaman would be based in south Kashmir. Their counterparts in south Kashmir, however, said they have not been able to ascertain Zaman’s whereabouts.
But how did a trader from an obscure village in Assam even make it to a well-known social media propaganda page of a separatist Kashmiri militant group? In the recent past, there has been only one documented instance of a non-Kashmiri joining the local militancy in the state: A young man from Telangana was shot dead last month in a gun battle with security forces.
This story tries to piece together his life based on conversations with many of his family members, childhood friends, fellow businessmen who ply their trade in the same market in Jammu’s Kishtwar district, and police officials to provide some answers.
Most conversations about Zaman’s childhood begin with people recollecting his “effeminate ways”. “My brother was almost like a hijra when he was young,” said Saiful Islam, his elder brother, referring to Zaman’s penchant for cross-dressing. “He’d wear a sari, put on earrings, wear nail paint.”
A female friend of Zaman from school and college, now a mother of two school-going children, said he always liked to be with the girls. “He would do our braids in college,” she said. “I am not just surprised, but totally shocked that such a boy would pick up the gun.”
Another cousin, who didn’t want to be named, said the boys would often take advantage of Zaman’s supposed effeminate ways. “We would get him to wash our clothes, and he would do it without complaining,” he said. “I think that’s because he wanted to be like a woman.”
But save from his penchant for feminine clothing, Zaman’s growing up years in tiny Jamunamukh was by all accounts rather unremarkable.
Zaman’s friends and family members often referred to his camaraderie with “Hindu boys”, while recounting his early years in Jamunamukh.
“When he started growing a little old, say during his college years, he stopped hanging out with the Muslim boys in the area,” said a cousin. “He’d only be seen with the Bengali Hindu boys. At the time we thought it was because the Hindu boys were more educated and sophisticated than us.”
From Assam to Palau via Meghalaya
The picture doing the rounds on social media states that Zaman holds a Master’s degree in English – a claim that has been picked up by several media organisations. His family, however, said that it was untrue and Zaman is, in fact, a college dropout. “He was always restless, he couldn’t stick on to any endeavour for too long,” said Saiful Islam. “That’s why I always called him 50%. He couldn’t stay committed to anything.”
Zaman’s first foray outside Jamunamukh was to Meghalaya sometime in the mid-2000s. None of his brothers, cousins and childhood friends, however, know with certainty what he exactly did there or which part of the state he lived in. “By the time he got back, he could administer basic first-aid and even apply stitches,” said Saiful Islam, adding that Zaman did “pharmacy work”.
As Zaman came back after about a year in Meghalaya, he got his passport made and asked Saiful Islam to arrange for him to go abroad. In the mid 1990s, Saiful Islam had spent a little over a year working as a road-construction labourer in the Republic of Palau, a picturesque island country located in the western Pacific Ocean.
Saiful Islam had landed in Palau through a person he had met while working in Mumbai. “I used to sell stuff on the footpath on Mohammad Ali Road,” he said. “But the money was not good, so I met a job tout who suggested that I could go abroad. I borrowed some money, got a passport made, and then we were all taken to Palau from Kolkata.”
So, in 2008, Zaman, drawing on Saiful Islam’s connections, made his way to Palau – a journey that had become a bit of rite of passage for the men in the family. After Saiful Islam’s return, before Zaman went, another sibling, Nazrul Islam, had spent a year in the country.
But it was Zaman who really found his feet there, working as a warehouse keeper. The others, homesick and bogged down by illness, were forced to return in no more than one year. Zaman, though, stayed for over four years. He came back only when his visa expired. “Even after his visa expired he did not want to come back, and worked for a couple of months in a restaurant, but finally decided to return,” said Saiful Islam.
Back in Jamunamukh, Safiul Islam said, Zaman did “this and that” but never really settled down. After Palau, provincial Jamunamukh just did not cut it for Zaman, said his brother.
According to his family, he left yet again for Meghalaya. However, he soon returned because work had apparently dried up.
The police, however, claim that he may have gone to Bangladesh during this period – a claim that Zaman’s family and acquaintance firmly contest. “There is no official record after 2012, but it appears that he may have gone to Bangladesh,” said Bhattacharya. “His family doesn’t have any record to prove he was in Meghalaya.”
After returning from Meghalaya, his family members said, Zaman expressed a desire to move to Kishtwar where a couple of his cousins had been living and working for a while. One of Zaman’s cousins is also married to a man from Kishtwar. In addition, there are at least seven other men from Jamunamukh who worked as traders in the Jammu district.
Jamunamukh’s connections to Kishtwar go back quite a few years, said a resident of the village. A few decades ago, an old man from the village, who fancied himself as a bit of a sage, had landed up there. Ever since, young men from the town often went to Kishtwar in quest of opportunities and a better life.
Zaman’s mother Khatun said that she was staunchly opposed to the idea of him going to Kishtwar. “I told him that there is so much unrest there, why go there?” Khatun said. “But he convinced me that it would be fine. He told me, ‘Amma, they do whatever they do for their cause, but we are traders, what have we to do with them?’’’
Two other men from Jamunamukh, who plied their trade in Kishtwar, said Zaman sold clothes on a footpath in Kishtwar. Zaman, like the two of them, purchased his goods from a wholesale market in Jammu, they said. They, however, claimed that they did not know much beyond that. “He was much older than us, so we didn’t fraternise with him much, and he lived by himself,” said one of them.
Soon, though, Zaman returned to Jamunamukh – to get married. The couple returned to Kishtwar together. According to his mother, they came back in a couple of months as Zaman’s wife got pregnant. After their son was born, the couple went back again. However, his wife and child came back yet again as the child fell sick, said Zaman’s mother.
Zaman however would keep coming home every six months or so, claimed Khatun. The last time he came was in January 2017. He stayed till April. It was a visit like any other, said his family members, and there was nothing odd or amiss about his demeanour during the trip.
But, three Kashmiri-speaking people came with him during this visit, said two cousins of his who didn’t want to be identified. “There were three of them, one old man, and a father-son duo,” said a cousin. “We were told they came to find out about the tea business of Assam.”
Zaman’s family, however, refused to answer queries about the people who accompanied him.
A person from the village, who sold cosmetics in Kishtwar at the same market where Zaman sold clothes, said that he remembered seeing Zaman a couple of days before Zaman’s cousin in Kishtwar approached the local police to inform them about his disappearance.
Kishtwar police, however, claim no missing report was filed. Yet, several people from Jamunamukh who work in Kishtwar claim to have been interviewed by the police at Kishtwar soon after his cousin supposedly informed the police on July 21. “We have been routinely picked up by the police since then for interrogation but we know nothing,” they said.
Around the same time, Zaman’s family in Jamunamukh also intimated the local police. The police, though, refused to file a formal complaint stating that it was outside their jurisdiction. “We asked them to approach the police in Kishtwar,” said Abhishek Boro, the officer in charge of the Jamunamukh police station.
Zaman’s family said that there was little reason to doubt the authenticity of the viral picture with Zaman brandishing an automatic rifle. “If it was a case of kidnapping we would have received a ransom call by now, it’s been so long,” said Mobidul Islam, one of Zaman’s younger brothers.
His mother blamed the Jammu police of giving them false hope. “For so long they have been saying that everything will be fine,” she said. “Each time we cried, but their words gave us consolation.”
Almost no one in Jamunamukh, though, has anything satisfactory to offer by way of explanation for Zaman’s alleged transformation. Police officer Bhattacharya said the police had information from his friends and acquaintances that there was a “change of attitude” when he came from Palau and that he could have been “radicalised” there. “If we would have found out then, it could have been prevented,” he said.
However, almost everyone Scroll.in spoke to denied having seen any such changes in Zaman that pointed towards radicalisation. “The change if there was any was of a man who had spent four years in a foreign culture,” said a cousin.
“After he came back from there, he got married, even fathered a child,” said Saiful Islam. “Are those the signs of a man who has been radicalised?”
With additional reporting by Rayan Naqash in Kashmir.