On the afternoon of August 31, Mirdora village was calm under the bright sun. The village lies in the Tral area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. A narrow lane branching off from the main road close to the local Jamia Masjid led to a house packed with a nervous family. They shared silent glances, wary of strangers.

The house belongs to Ghulam Hassan Mir, a cook at a police training centre in Central Kashmir. The youngest of his three sons, Nasir Ahmad Mir, in his mid-20s, had gone missing the previous evening after he went to offer prayers at the Jamia Masjid.

Hours after he went missing, a phone call informed one of Mir’s other two sons of a message that was going viral on WhatsApp: Nasir Ahmad Mir was among five people who had been kidnapped by militants. They were all relatives of policemen.

A distraught Mir returned home on Friday morning. “No one saw him being taken,” he said. After a long pause, he added: “But even if someone did, why would they tell us?” As the men of the family prepared to head to the mosque for the weekly Friday prayer, women prepared lunch. Mir’s wife shivered as she burst into tears. “He is an innocent boy,” she said out loud.

Across the main road, a house had been ransacked and its windows broken. It belonged to Bilal Ahmad Kumar, a special police officer, one of the irregular employees of the police who are paid stipends. The next day, the imam at the Jamia Masjid read out a letter from Kumar, informing local residents of his resignation from the police.

Over the last couple of years, militants have released videos warning security forces against harassing their family members. On August 30, this was no longer an empty threat.

At least 12 Kashmiris, mostly civilian relatives of policemen but also a few policemen themselves, were kidnapped by militants across the southern districts last week. The Hizbul Mujahideen, the group which claimed responsibility, said this raft of abductions was a response to recent instances of alleged harassment by security forces and the burning of militants’ houses. By the morning of September 1, all those abducted had been released.

The abductions seem to be part of a vicious cycle of retaliation that has gripped the Valley.

A last warning

On the evening of August 31, another video was released on WhatsApp. It showed Nasir Ahmad Mir wearing a T-shirt, his eyes shuttling left to right. A militant, not seen on camera, rattled off the customary disclaimer: No one in the video was speaking under duress. But it also stressed another point: This was the last warning.

In the video, Nasir Ahmad Mir could be heard making an appeal to the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Shesh Paul Vaid, not to harass the families of militants. A voice is then heard telling Nasir Ahmad Mir that his crime is no different from those of the families of the militants who had held him hostage.

“If they [security forces] continue with the harassment of our families, general public, [subjecting them to] hardships or damage [to property], we can also go to any extent,” the unidentified militant told Mir. “We will not forgive again. After this we will enter your homes. If the orders are from above, we will shoot you, but there will be no forgiveness”.

In other videos too, militants direct the appeals made by hostages, who ask police authorities to stop the harassment of militants’ families. In most of the videos the militants end with a similar note of warning against harassment. “We neither have a jail nor a government, only the Quran and Hadith,” said one militant. “Next time we will straight away shoot you [relatives of policemen], remember this is your last warning.”

Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo also released an audio message on WhatsApp on the evening of August 31, directed at Kashmiris who were “helping India crush the freedom movement”. In the clip, which lasts nearly 12 minutes, Naikoo is heard addressing Kashmiri policemen who he said were on the “frontline” of the fight against militants. “We have tolerated a lot till this day and tried to reason with the Kashmiri police but they did not budge,” he said. He added that the police had forced the militants to abduct their relatives. “We kidnapped them so you know we have the capacity to reach your families,” Naikoo said. “This time we have let your families go unharmed but this will not happen again. Their next time will be as your actions are.”

He gave the police a last warning to release all detained family members of militants. If not, Naikoo said, the families of policemen would not be safer. “You must be aware that we can’t imprison your families,” he said. “We only have one punishment, which you very well know.”

Asadullah Naikoo and Ghulam Qadir Naikoo's home in Awantipora’s Beighpora village.
Asadullah Naikoo and Ghulam Qadir Naikoo's home in Awantipora’s Beighpora village.

‘Why involve us?’

On August 29, a day before the abductions spread panic in Kashmir, four policemen, including a driver, were killed by militants in broad daylight in the southern district of Shopian. After dark, local residents alleged, security forces descended on two villages in the district, setting alight the houses of two active militants. In Pulwama district, Riyaz Naikoo’s father was detained yet again.

One of the houses damaged by fire was in Shopian’s Nazimpora village. It had been the home of Syed Naveed, who had been a police constable for six years before joining the Hizbul Mujahideen. That night, only his grandparents and a cousin were home. His parents and two brothers had left the state since Naveed’s father needed medical treatment elsewhere.

On September 1, burnt mattresses hung from the roof and verandas of the modest house. Sitting in a corner of a dimly-lit room, 78-year-old Mohammad Yaseen Shah recalled the night of the fire. It began with a soft knock on the door at 1 am. “There were about eight to 10 men, wearing pherans and caps, speaking in Kashmiri,” he said. “We were asked to assemble outside.”

Shortly after that, they were asked to go back in and settle in a room. “One of the men stood at the door,” said the cousin. “Three men went upstairs, gathered all the mattresses in the centre of the room and set it on fire.”

Shah said at least two of the men were armed. They left the house by around 2 am. “They had tried to lock us in the room but there was no bolt on the door outside,” he said. “We could have been burnt alive.” Hearing the commotion, a neighbour used the village mosque’s loudspeakers to call residents for help. “People rushed in and then the fire services came in time to douse the fire,” said Shah.

In Amshipora village of Shopian district, the family of Shahjahan Mir, a militant with the Jaish-e-Muhammad, had a narrow escape after their house was set ablaze in a similar manner on August 29. Their home suffered extensive damage.

In Arwani village of Kulgam district, the family of Lashkar-e-Toiba militant, Azad Malik, said that apart from the routine questioning they were subjected to by security forces, their house has been damaged three times in the last three years. Nazir Malik, Azad Malik’s father, said that Army personnel broke into their property on the night of August 22.

Like Syed Naveed’s family, the Maliks were also directed to assemble in the lawns as Army men entered their home. “They overturned everything in the house,” Nazir Malik said. “Then they soaked everything – rice, sugar, spices, and clothes – with kerosene and left. We had nothing to even make the morning tea. Out neighbours helped us that day.”

Nazir Malik added that the soldiers had threatened they would “sprinkle gunpowder and set the house on fire”. “They are intimidated by the Jaish and Lashkar, that is why they are doing this,” he said. Last Ramzan, Nazir Malik said, he was in police detention for a week.

Both families spoke of the fight being between their militant sons and the security forces. “Why involve us in it?” asked Mohammad Yaseen Shah. “Militants have guns, soldiers have guns, they have to fight each other. We have nothing to do with either one of them.”

Mattresses were collected in the middle of a room on the second floor and set alight while Muhammad Yaseen Shah, his wife, and granddaughter were in a room on the ground floor.
Mattresses were collected in the middle of a room on the second floor and set alight while Muhammad Yaseen Shah, his wife, and granddaughter were in a room on the ground floor.

‘The night should not fall on us’

In Awantipora’s Beighpora village, the name “Musa” spray painted all over a single-storey house makes it stand out. It is the nom de guerre of Zakir Rashid Bhat, the Hizbul Mujahideen’s former commander and now chief of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind. One wall also bore an expletive aimed at Riyaz Naikoo. Only that bit has been blackened out, the family has not dared remove the rest.

The house belongs to Asadullah Naikoo and Ghulam Qadir Naikoo, father and uncle of Riyaz Naikoo. Soldiers of the Indian Army had defaced the house last autumn, claimed Riyaz Naikoo’s mother, Zeba Begum, saying it was an attempt to incite “a fight between militants”. “But they failed to do so,” she said.

Since 2013, the Naikoo family has seen the Army and police knocking on their doors several times in the middle of the night, as well as repeated detentions. They also say there have been countless instances of their house being damaged by security forces. On August 29, after the death of the four policemen in Shopian, Asadullhah Naikoo was detained. On August 30, amid the abductions, Riyaz Naikoo’s cousin was also detained, according to family members.

The family members say that many times the harassment follows an attack on security forces or an audio or video message released by Riyaz Naikoo. Ghulam Qadir’s daughter was once allegedly hit by the butt of a gun. “They take out all their anger here,” said Firdaus Akhter, Riyaz Naikoo’s sister. “We say that the night should not fall on us. It scares us.”

Ghulam Qadir, a driver by profession, said he has been booked under the Public Safety Act and charged for destruction of government property, besides other offences. “I have 14 cases against me in court,” he said.

On August 31, as word travelled that Asadullah Naikoo had been released, Ghulam Qadir sat on the verandah of their house answering phone calls. “Yes yes, he is coming home,” he told each caller, as neighbours gathered. Now used to the routine, Asadullah Naikoo arrived home and continued with his daily chores after a cup of tea.

Only about two weeks ago, Ghulam Qadir said, the police confronted the Army after the Army damaged some houses in the village. Riyaz Naikoo’s cousin, Muzaffar Naikoo, said that after the confrontation, soldiers forced him to record a video statement absolving the Army of ransacking houses. He also alleged that soldiers of the Army had beaten him that day.

Both Asadullah Naikoo and Ghulam Qadir, however, said that the police had “softened up” on them in the last few months. Asadullah Naikoo added that a senior police officer told him “to convey to the militants to treat our [police] families the way they treated me today, with compassion”.

The logic of reciprocity seems to work on both sides. “It is tit for tat,” said the families of militants, when asked about the abductions of the relatives of policemen. “If they did not do this, would the police have backed out and released militants’ family members?” asked the father of a militant. “This has put pressure on them.”

Police officials said that questioning of militant families suspected to be working overground for militants, possibly helping them with logistics, was not illegal. One police official admitted that targeting the families of militants in other ways was counterproductive. But he also felt that the police should not have backed down in the face of abductions by releasing the detained family members of militants. “It was not strategically sensible to buckle in the face of terror,” he said.

‘Legitimising militancy’

Since early 2017, homes across several villages in South Kashmir have been ransacked by security forces more than once. Many of the affected say the intensity has only increased of late.

In recent months, the militants have owned responsibility for the killing of policemen and civilians they deem to be informers.

Ghulam Rasool Pandit, the father of Naseer Pandit, the policeman who turned Hizbul Mujahideen militant before he was killed in 2016, said that the actions of security forces had legitimised the militancy. Pandit said that the harassment of the families of militants helped “flare up passions even more. It goes in our favour”. The security establishment, he said, was “socially and ethically defeated”.

But security officials believe there are other factors that have fuelled militancy. Violence during the parliamentary bye-elections in April 2017, which had killed eight civilians in one day, and the subsequent cancellation of the polls for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, had emboldened militants, security officials say. The hostage situation, which lasted two days, has now triggered fresh worries about the municipal and panchayat polls, scheduled over the next few months.