On May 7, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested Wali Mohammad Mir, an accused in the killing of seven civilians in North Kashmir’s Bandipora in 1996. He had evaded arrest for 23 years by hiding at “some unknown location,” the police said.

When news of Wali Mir’s arrest reached Ghulam Qadir Dar, 65, of Saderkoot Bala village, he felt “at peace”. Ghulam Qadir Dar, who lost four family members in the Saderkoot killings, has fought a long and hard legal battle to bring the perpetrators to justice. “It should have been done a long time ago but that did not happen,” he said, referring to the arrest.

The Saderkoot massacre

On the evening of October 5, 1996, Ghulam Qadir Dar was listening to the radio for news of the Assembly election that had just concluded. At around 7:30 pm, a masked man entered his living room and told him to step outside. “But my family did not let me go out and asked me to hide upstairs,” he recalled.

When he did not go out, a group of gunmen standing outside fired indiscriminately at the house. Ghulam Qadir Dar lost his wife, daughter, son and a nephew that night. Three other relatives, including another son, were wounded. “They fired over 150 bullets at my house,” he said. “All of this unfolded in front of me. I saw everything from the attic.”

The Saderkoot massacre, as it came to be called in Kashmir, has long entered folklore about the excesses of the Ikhwan ul Muslimeen, a counterinsurgency militia made up mostly of former militants who had been turned by the Indian security forces.

The militia first started cooperating with the security forces in 1994, under the leadership of Muhammad Yusuf Parray, better known as Kuka Parray. Over the following two years, it played a key role in the crackdown on militancy.

The Saderkoot killings took place soon after the Assembly election that was held after nine years. After the election in 1987, widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the National Conference, many who had participated in it left electoral politics to take up arms. As militancy spread across the Valley, governor’s rule was imposed in 1990.

By 1996, the Indian government felt the situation was conducive for polls. Many of the Ikhwan leaders joined politics. Parray himself formed the Jammu and Kashmir Awami League.

One of the most tense contests was in Bandipora’s Sonawari constituency, which covers Hajin, Parray’s hometown, as well as Saderkoot Bala. Parray was fighting Mohammad Akbar Lone of the National Conference.

The massacre was rooted in this electoral rivalry. Ghulam Qadir Dar, Saifuddin Dar, Ghulam Rasool Dar and Ghulam Nabi Dar, all from Saderkoot Bala, campaigned for Lone. In spite of aggressive campaigning by the Awami League, Parray got just 11 of Hajin’s 2,500 or so votes. He still emerged victorious, though.

A day after the results were declared, the Ikhwan descended on Saderkoot Bala, the villagers alleged. Apart from Ghulam Qadir Dar, they visited the homes of the other three National Conference supporters, shooting them all dead.

“We had just finished dinner when we heard gunshots,” recalled Farooq Ahmad Dar, son of Saifuddin Dar. “We were very scared and locked our door. After sometime, we heard a thud on our main door after which its glass pane came crashing down. After breaking the glass, the Ikhwanis unbolted the door and entered our living room. My father was smoking a cigarette when they shot him dead. It all happened in just a few minutes.”

The gunmen were led by Rashid Billa, an Ikhwan commander working on behalf of Kuka Parray, Farooq Ahmad Dar claimed. Billa was subsequently charged as one of the main accused in the Saderkoot massacre. In April 2017, he was shot dead at his home by suspected militants.

Absconding for 23 years?

A day after the massacre, the Sumbal police filed a first information report and booked nine members of the Ikhwan. Seven of them have since been shot dead by suspected militants. Only Wali Mir and Mohammad Ayoub Dar, now in the Jammu and Kashmir Territorial Army, survive.

Wali Mir’s family is furious over the police’s claim that he was absconding all these years. “My brother was with the Ikhwan for seven to eight months. He was an area commander,” said Sonaullah Mir, who lives next door to his brother in Dodwan village, around 3 km from Saderkoot Bala. “After quitting the Ikhwan, he lived a normal life, working at a nearby stone quarry.”

Sonaullah Mir also claimed his younger brother was not involved in the Saderkoot massacre. “He had got into a rivalry with some Ikhwanis from this area, so we told him to hide somewhere else,” he said. “He was not in Saderkoot that day.”

His family learned Wali Mir had been charged in the 1996 killings only in November 2015, claimed a relative who asked not to be identified. “Till then, no one had told us he was an accused,” he said. “He was living a normal life. We came to know from the media that his name is in the list of the accused in the Saderkoot incident.”

They, however, agreed that Wali Mir has not been home for eight months. “In 2018, the police raided our house several times,” Sonaullah Mir explained. “Since then, he has not been home. We were afraid somebody might kill him as Rashid Billa was. He constructed hamams for a living and would move constantly for work.”

He even campaigned for the National Conference in the 2014 Assembly election, Wali Mir’s family claimed. This was corroborated by the party. “National Conference is a big party and thousands of people are associated with it,” said Abdul Hameed, chief of the party’s youth wing in Bandipora. “I know Wali Mohammad Mir by face. He was a voter and sympathiser of the party. However, he did not hold any official position.”

He, however, claimed the party was unaware of Wali Mir’s background and the case he was involved in.

The police rejected the claims of Wali Mir’s family. “In the last four years, Mir didn’t cross Sumbal bridge even once,” said a senior police officer involved in tracking the accused. The bridge is a prominent landmark connecting two regions of Bandipora district. “He is a clever man and would constantly change his phone and SIM cards. He was always on run.”

But the officer acknowledged that “court pressure” compelled the police to intensify its search for Wali Mir. “We had constituted a special team to track him down,” he added. “Finally, he is in our custody. He has been sent to the Kupwara jail. Now he has to face the law.”

Rashid Billa, the main accused in the Saderkoot massacre, was shot dead by suspected militants in April 2017.

‘Court pressure’

The “court pressure” came after victims’ families filed a writ petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in 2014. “The positive thing in this case was that an FIR was filed at the time of incident,” said Parvez Imroz, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and fought the case on behalf of the families. “In April 2014, we persuaded the victims to file a writ petition before the High Court. The court’s directions compelled the police to act. At the time, three of the nine accused were alive and we got their property attached because they were absconding.”

As the court pushed the case forward, Ghulam Qadir Dar alleged, the accused tried to silence them. “Rashid Billa, through an intermediary, offered me Rs 20 lakh to drop the case,” he said. “Wali Mir and Ayoub Dar offered me Rs 30 lakh. But I did not give in.”

‘Not tough to arrest’

Had the law acted swiftly, Imroz feels, the seven accused who were killed over the years would still be alive and facing the trial. “It was not tough to arrest them,” he said. “The police could have done it much earlier but they have their own priorities.”

Imroz alleged that former members of the Ikhwan were given a free pass for years. “There are a lot of Ikhwanis who are now living a normal life,” he pointed out. “But have done very horrible crimes.”

Many of the Ikhwanis were absorbed into the Territorial Army over the years or into the state police’s Special Operations Group. Some, like Parray, joined politics.

Their absorption into arms of the state and political parties seemed to have offered them a measure of immunity. According to Abdul Qayoom, son of Ghulam Qadir Dar, it would have been easier to arrest Ayoub Dar than to arrest Wali Mir. “He is with the authorities only and they could have arrested him easily, but they didn’t,” he said.

But there were limits to the immunity enjoyed by former Ikhwanis, Imroz felt. “We have to understand that unlike the Army, Ikhwanis are non-state actors,” he pointed out. “And they are not very powerful people. They are very dispensable people. They don’t matter for the state anymore.”

Waiting for justice

In Saderkoot Bala, Ghulam Qadir Dar has rarely stepped out of his mud and brick home in the last 23 years. “I do not go outside in the dark,” he said. “In fact, I have never gone for morning or evening prayers in 23 years.”

He was forced to choose such a life, he said. “After that incident, I was afraid that they might kill me as well,” he explained. “Had the government not installed police pickets in our village, the Ikhwanis would have killed many more people here. I do not remember how many times I was called to Army camps and interrogated. They wanted me to withdraw the case against Ikhwanis.”

He once worked as a truck driver and government contractor. After the massacre, he never went to work again. A few years later, he sold his truck. “I was 45 at the time of incident,” he said. “Whenever I thought of marrying again, the face of my dying wife floated in front of my eyes. I just couldn’t do it.”

What the killing did bring to him was a resolve to fight for justice. “That incident changed my life completely,” said Ghulam Qadir Dar. “That day, I prayed for death or the strength to fight for justice. My heart has become a stone.”

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