Nearly a month after a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide bomber tore into a paramilitary convoy in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, the security forces claimed to have eliminated the main conspirators behind the attack. The bombing, which took place on the national highway passing through Lethpora village, left at least 40 men dead. The attacker was Adil Ahmed Dar, 19, a resident of Pulwama.

“In less than 100 hours of the terror attack in Pulwama we have eliminated the top leadership of the JeM that was being directly handled by Inter Services Intelligence and the Pakistan Army,” KJS Dhillon, commander of the Army’s 15 corps, based in Srinagar, announced on February 19.

The security forces had just killed three Jaish militants in Pulwama, including a Pakistani they called Abdul Rashid Gazi, or Kamran, who was believed to be the group’s operations chief in Kashmir and one of the key suspects in the Pulwama attack.

On March 12, Dhillon announced that two more Jaish operatives had been killed – a Pakistani who went by the code name Khalid and a 25-year-old from Midoora in Tral area of Pulwama. He was Mudasir Ahmad Khan, also known as Mohammad Bhai. He had been charged with involvement in a “fidayeen” or suicide squad attack on a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Lethpora last year. The police and the Army claim he was one of the architects of the convoy bombing, arranging the vehicle and the explosives.

Sudden disappearance

Mudasir Khan’s father, recalled the day his son disappeared. On January 14, 2018, he returned from work at around 4.30 pm, had tea and went out to play cricket. “He was crazy about cricket,” Farooq Khan said. “Around 6 pm, he returned home and told his mother that a mobile tower in Barsoo, Awantipora, had some issues and he needed to be there.”

Mudasir Khan was a maintenance officer with a cell phone company so work calls at odd hours were common. “When he left, we told him to make it back early,” said his father, who has a farm but also works as an agricultural labourer. “He told us if he got late, he will stay the night in Awantipora only. Till 9.30 pm, we kept waiting for him to join us for dinner. When we called him, he asked us to have dinner since he would take more time.”

They had no inkling of the choice Mudasir Khan would make, he said. “At around 10.20 pm the same night, the security forces raided our house and asked us about Mudasir,” Farooq Khan added. “The police wanted to see his room. We showed them. They searched our house and left.”

The next day, when the family tried to call Mudasir Khan, his phone was switched off. “For four days, we kept looking for him,” said his father. “We called our relatives, visited his office, asked his friends. But they knew nothing. I was at the police station trying to file a missing complaint when someone told me that his photo had appeared on the internet.”

The picture showed Mudasir Khan wearing a military vest and holding two AK-47 rifles. The arts graduate was now a militant. But his family offer none of the stories told by relatives of other militants: no harassment by the security forces, no cases of stone pelting against him, no particular interest in pro-freedom rallies. “He actually had very little time for these things because of the nature his job,” said a relative who did not wish to be named. “But there was one thing he never missed, come what may – funerals of militants.”

The site of the Pulwama convoy attack. Photo credit: Reuters
The site of the Pulwama convoy attack. Photo credit: Reuters

‘I am not your son’

Soon after Mudasir Khan’s picture appeared online, the security forces descended on his home in Midoora. There were frequent raids and summons to police stations and Army camps afterwards. “I have lost the count of raids carried out on our house,” said Farooq Khan. “I must say they didn’t vandalise anything. During many raids, security forces asked me to convince my son to shun militancy and return home.”

He had to wait nearly five months to make that appeal. “One day, he came home with a group of militants,” Farooq Khan said. “They sat in one of the rooms. After greeting him, I gave each of them two dates to eat. While we were still talking and I somehow mustered the courage to ask him to surrender. Mudasir had eaten only one date until then. He threw the other one at me and said, ‘I am not your son anymore, neither are you my father.’ After saying this, he left.”

Mudasir Khan never returned home, the family say. Meanwhile, they tried to prepare themselves for what they knew was inevitable. “On the day of the Lethpora convoy attack the Army raided our home and locked the women in one room,” Farooq Khan said. “One of the officers held me by hair in the compound of my house and told me that he wouldn’t tolerate a single shot in Tral. He asked me to contact Mudasir, and said if something happens, we would be responsible.”

After the Pulwama attack, Mudasir Khan’s family say, security agencies renewed pressure on them. “One officer from the NIA tried to convince me to talk to my son and ask him to return,” Farooq Khan said, referring to the National Investigation Agency. “I told them politely that he had already given me the answer to such a proposal. Even then, I promised that if I got to meet him again, I would tell him.”

The family say it does not make a difference to them whether or not he was involved in the Pulwama convoy attack. “We just know that he left and became a militant,” his father said. “We have no knowledge of what he did or didn’t do. How are we supposed to know that? His mission was to attain martyrdom, which he accomplished yesterday.”

‘Buried burnt flesh’

On Tuesday, Midoora reverberated with songs eulogising militants and religious war. The Khan family’s three-storeyed mud and brick house was draped with Jaish flags and posters of militants. A banner for the Hizbul Mujahideen was put up above the entrance of a tent for women mourners.

In a room inside the house, men spoke of security crackdowns and allegations of torture, so common in Tral. Fathers and relatives of slain and active militants were among the mourners. Unlike at other militant funerals, Mudasir Khan’s body had not been displayed for the public.

“If you had seen what they had done to his body, you would not even have imagined asking this question,” said Ghulam Mohammad Shah, a neighbour, when asked what had become of Mudasir Khan’s mortal remains. Shah’s own son, Qasim, is a Hizbul Mujahideen militant. Qasim, a graduate, picked up the gun in 2017 and is the only surviving militant from Midoora.

Farooq Khan said he was not sure if the “burnt pieces of flesh” he buried on Monday were the remains of his son. “As soon as the encounter started on Sunday [March 10], people thronged our home saying Mudasir has been martyred. All of us stayed awake the whole night expecting some ‘last phone call’ from Mudasir but he didn’t call,” the grieving father added.

The next morning, a crowd gathered at his home. As they grew increasingly restless and angry, demanding to see the body, Farooq Khan finally decided to visit the Tral police station with some relatives.

“There were two bodies there,” he recalled. “A doctor there told us which body to take. When we asked him how he knew, he said he had known Mudasir. He also scraped off a small piece of burnt flesh and said Mudasir was light haired and the charred piece had some unburnt brown hair on it. I don’t know whether it was a head or a leg he was scraping. It was just a mound of burnt flesh. We put those pieces in a blanket and returned home.”

At the police station, a fight nearly broke out between two sets of villagers. “Many from Marhama, Sangam, were saying the body belonged to a militant from their village,” a relative of Mudasir Khan explained. “It took us around two hours to convince them. When we finally reached Midoora village, we put four knots on the coffin in order to prevent people from opening it. The charred pieces are a tabaruk [relic] for us.”

His relatives said the police had taken Farooq Khan’s blood samples for identifying his slain son. But soon after he returned from the funeral, he was again called to the police station for another DNA test. This time, he was asked to bring along his wife. “A police officer called me and said the test conducted in the morning didn’t match with the body so they had decided to do another test,” Farooq Khan said. “This time, there was another team of doctors. They collected two syringes of blood from me and my wife. The doctors said the test would take time and we would know the results in a few days.”

A senior police officer in South Kashmir claimed the second test was part of legal procedure and had nothing to do with identification. “If they were unsure that it was not their son, they shouldn’t have claimed the body at all,” said the officer who asked not to be identified. “The DNA test is a norm and it’s done in every case.”

Indian security forces during a gunfight with militants in Pulwama. Photo credit: AFP
Indian security forces during a gunfight with militants in Pulwama. Photo credit: AFP

Deathly fires

In Midoora, many villagers believe the security forces deliberately “mutilated” Mudasir Khan’s body. They recall gunfights from the recent past where militant bodies were reduced to charred flesh. “They are using gasoline and chemicals to ensure that nothing is left of them,” said a young man who asked not to be named. “Kashmir has seen encounters for the last 30 years, why do we see bodies being charred only now?”

The police and the Army refute these charges. “During the encounter, bullets and grenades are exchanged and they are highly inflammable,” said a police official. “Sometimes, the structures catch fire and incidents like these happen.”

An Army officer in South Kashmir explained that the geography of the gunfight also plays a role. “When a militant is hiding in a house and it catches fire, the security forces avoid moving forward for a while as there is a possibility of the militant lying dormant deliberately so as to target forces when they try to move towards the spot,” he said. “We have seen episodes like that in the past. Militants emerged from the rubble and fired on security personnel. Those incidents took a toll on security forces and we suffered casualties.”

Investigation continues

Mudasir Khan’s killing, Dhillon said, was part of the Army’s push to destroy the Jaish leadership in Kashmir. Apart from armed skirmishes, an inquiry is on to establish who was behind the Pulwama attack. On February 20, the National Investigation Agency took over the investigation from the Jammu and Kashmir police. So far, it appears to have focused on finding local networks that might have supported the attack.

On February 25, the agency said it had made its first breakthrough: identifying the owner of the explosive-laden car that drove into the CRPF convoy. According to the agency, he was Sajjad Bhat, a resident of Bijbehara in South Kashmir’s Anantnag. He is believed to have acquired the vehicle on February 4. “A raid was conducted by NIA team at his house with the help of J&K police on February 23,” the agency said in a statement on February 25. “However, Sajjad was found not present in his house and thereafter has been evading arrest since then. He has reportedly now joined JeM. A photograph to this effect has also appeared in social media where Sajjad is seen holding weapons.”

On February 27, the agency conducted searches at 11 locations in South Kashmir, including at Mudasir Khan’s home in Midoora and Bhat’s in Bijbehara. “Searches were also conducted in the houses of active OGWs of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Tral, Awantipora and Pulwama areas of south Kashmir. Incriminating materials including diaries containing coded writings were seized,” the statement added. “OGWs” or overground workers are tasked with providing logistical support to militant groups.

According to residents of Midoora, days after the convoy attack, eight local youth were arrested by the police and interrogated by the National Investigation Agency. They are now in police custody.

“The investigation is very much going on because the OGWs and other accused are still being investigated,” said Alok Mittal, spokesperson of the National Investigation Agency.

Also read: ‘By the time this video reaches you, I’ll be in Heaven’: The teen behind Kashmir’s deadliest attack

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