On the first day of the festival of Eid-ul-Azha, Panthan village was deserted, save for a cavalcade of military vehicles stirring up a cloud of dust. A tent was pitched in one of the bylanes of this village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama. But instead of the customary festivity, there was mourning.

It was at the home of Shabir Ahmad Bhat, Pulwama constituency president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. His bullet-riddled body had been found the previous night. Police officials suspect he was killed by militants.

‘Unjust killing’

While women wailed in the tent, Bhat’s mother sat still, refusing to eat. His family said Bhat, 31, had been in contact with them until about 7 pm on August 21. “His mother phoned him to call him home for Eid,” said Nazir Ahmad, Bhat’s cousin. “He said he would come by the evening or early the next day, on Eid. But he did not return. Around 1 am [on Wednesday] I got a message that he was missing.”

Bhat had left his party’s office in Pulwama town around 5.30 pm on Tuesday. Around 7.45 pm, according to Ahmad, residents of Litter area, where Bhat’s body was found, heard gunshots. The body was found only past midnight.

His family hurriedly carried out Bhat’s last rites before the Eid prayers on Wednesday morning. Ahmad said the funeral was attended by thousands of people because Bhat was as a “peace loving person” who never refused help to anyone. “Today, politicians are hated by all,” Ahmad added. “But his image was such that people from all around gathered for his funeral. The Eidgah [where the funeral was held] was full.”

The family decried the killing as “unjust”. “Everyone has their own ideas,” said another cousin. “Some choose the gun [militancy], some choose to be in the STF [former name for the police’s counterinsurgency unit]. It doesn’t mean we will kill each other. This [his killing] is unjust.”

‘Ambitious worker’

Before joining the BJP, Bhat family’s said he worked as a sales manager at a private company while simultaneously pursuing a graduate course. He was the first in the family to join politics, Ahmad said, going against their wishes. “We did not support him in this,” he said.

But as a political worker, Ahmad added, Bhat was “helpful”, mediating between the villagers and the administration. “He would create awareness about central schemes and their benefits for the villagers,” Ahmad said. “He always worked for the people.” Last year, Ahmad claimed, Bhat’s intervention even secured the release of a young man arrested during the funeral of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant.

Bhat joined the BJP about six years ago. In 2014, he was promoted from district youth president of the party to Pulwama constituency chief. Since then, the party’s officials said, he had done “satisfactory work” and was about to be made the Pulwama district president. According to a senior BJP functionary based in South Kashmir, Bhat was jovial and committed to the party’s work. “He came into the fold by himself,” the functionary said. “He had been working towards party expansion and to make it stronger at the grassroots.”

The senior functionary credited Bhat’s campaigning for drawing many workers from other political parties into the BJP. He claimed the party has about 32,000 members in Pulwama district, about 10,000 of them in Pulwama constituency, which Bhat looked after. The figures could not be independently verified.

The functionary said Bhat was ambitious. “When I asked him when he was getting married, he would say once I have become the MLA,” he recalled. On June 12, Bhat posted his Facebook: “Oh God, bless me in this holly [sic] night/I am full of sins/I belive [sic] You will forgive me tonight/Friends kindly pray for my 2020 Sucesses [sic].”

In contrast, a social activist who knew Bhat spoke of his “reckless” public behaviour. Recently, the activist recalled, Bhat had shouted slogans in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi inside a mosque. This was risky, given a recent video of BJP workers in Bandipora district offering prayers for former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was severely criticised by militant groups on social media.

‘Cut to size’

His family believes Bhat was never threatened for his political activity until an overground worker of a militant group paid him a visit around two weeks ago. Overground workers are members of militant groups generally tasked with providing logistical support and, sometimes, carrying out grenade attacks.

The social activist said Bhat later told him “he had been cut to size”. The incident was confirmed by the senior party functionary. According to him, the overground worker had Bhat contact a senior militant commander through the Blackberry Messenger app. “He demanded the release of a prisoner from a Jammu jail,” the functionary recalled Bhat telling him. “They also told him to provide them with weapons. But he categorically refused. He told him [the commander] that he was not in a position to do so. He said he was a small worker.”

According to police officials, Bhat was recently provided with two personal security guards. But on the day he was killed, Ahmad said, he was unguarded as he had sent the guards home for Eid.

The police said “a case under relevant sections of law has been registered” at Litter Police Station in connection with Bhat’s killing and an “investigation has been set in motion”.