On the evening of July 8, Sheikh Wasim Bari, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, his father, Bashir Ahmad, and his brother, Umer Sultan, were killed.

According to the police, “terrorists fired indiscriminately” on Bari and his relatives, who were “outside their shops/residence” in Bandipora’s Muslimabad area at 8.45 pm. The three were rushed to hospital, where they died of their injuries.

Muslimabad is a high-security area. Bari’s home, which also doubles as the local office of the BJP, is metres away from Bandipora police station and a paramilitary camp.

Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, said two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were behind the “pre-planned attack”. “One of them is Abid [a local militant] and another is a foreigner,” Kumar told reporters in Bandipora on July 9. CCTV footage showed that one of the attackers went inside the house and fired at close range while the other kept guard outside.

Rahul Malik, senior superintendent of police, Bandipora, said the shooting was “definitely a militant attack” but that the police were investigating “all possible angles”, including a recent altercation between the executive engineer for Bandipora district and Umer Sultan, Bari’s slain brother. Sultan had reportedly tried to push for the construction of a drain and accused the engineer of ignoring his pleas because he was with the BJP. Soon afterwards, local contractors working with the government roads and buildings department held protests against the local BJP’s high-handedness.

Weeks ago, Ajay Pandita, a sarpanch affiliated to the Congress, was killed in South Kashmir. But Bari, who played a significant role in the BJP’s outreach in Bandipora, was a more high-profile political target.

Relatives and BJP workers at the funeral for the three men killed on July 8.

‘Irreplaceable to the BJP’

An Indian tricolour and BJP flags flutter above Bari’s home in Muslimabad. Numerous social media videos show him taking part in BJP programmes. “His last programme was the commemoration of Balidan Diwas last month,” said a party member speaking off the record. The BJP observes the death anniversary of Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee as “Balidan Diwas” on June 23 every year.

Yet Bari’s family started its political adventures with the National Conference, Kashmir’s oldest party. His sister, Gousia Islam, had joined the National Conference before assembly elections in 2008. But she reportedly grew disillusioned with the party and joined the BJP before the next assembly elections in 2014.

Bari, too, made a foray into politics around this time. “Bari joined politics before the 2014 elections but contested as an independent candidate,” said Mudasir Ahmad Wani, the BJP’s organisation secretary for North Kashmir. “After contesting the elections unsuccessfully, he joined the BJP formally.”

Those elections marked the BJP’s rise in Jammu and Kashmir. It won a record number of seats in Jammu and began to consolidate its presence in Muslim-majority Kashmir. “Bari played an important role in that,” said Wani. “He was elected as the BJP’s first district president for Bandipora. He was a very enthusiastic worker and would ensure party activities and programmes were carried out professionally.”

BJP workers in Bandipora say Bari was instrumental in ensuring Central government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Ayushman Bharat were implemented.

“I have been associated with the BJP for the last 18 years,” said Mohammad Ashraf Reshi, a senior BJP leader in North Kashmir. “I have not seen such an enthusiastic and brave party worker as him. He’s irreplaceable.”

Before his death, Bari held the post of programme coordinator, responsible for training party workers. According to members of the BJP in Bandipora, he had played a crucial role in recruiting local residents to the BJP. “We have a membership of 3.5 lakh workers in Bandipora, in every membership drive, Bandipora was on top,” claimed Wani.

Bari’s father, Bashir Ahmad, was a district executive member of the BJP while his brother, Umer Sultan, was programme coordinator for the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. “With all the work he did, it was expected that Bari would be given a ticket in the next assembly elections,” said the party member who spoke off the record.

At the party office in Muslimabad, BJP workers and functionaries are rattled by the killing. “The kind of planning that went into his killing is worrying,” said Reshi. “It clearly means the militants knew his schedule and movements and they were watching him. That’s why we have to be very careful now. I have discussed these fears with my security personnel but the primary responsibility for precaution also lies with me.”

The BJP office in North Kashmir's Bandipora district. Photo: Safwat Zargar

‘Guards didn’t do anything’

Bari’s wife, Falak Feroz, is distraught. The couple had returned from her parents’ home moments before the killing. “As we went into our house, Bari went downstairs to check on his father and brother, who were at the shop,” she said. “He had locked the door to my room because I was alone with the children. All his guards had gone to their room and he went out alone.”

The family’s living quarters are on the first and second floor of the building. The ground floor has a row of shops, including Bashir Ahmad’s grocery store, towards the front. That was where the shooting took place. “I heard gunshots and became worried,” said Feroz. “Since the door was closed, I started banging on it. One of his guards opened the door and I went downstairs. When I reached the shop, Umer and Daddy were lying in an embrace. Bari was right before me. He had been shot in the head. Both Umer and Bari were alive at the time.”

She alleged that none of the policemen deployed for Bari’s security went out during the shooting. “I was the first to reach the spot after they were shot,” she said. “The guards didn’t do anything. They had no any idea that Bari had gone out again. It all happened within a minute,” explained Feroz. Bari is survived by his wife, two infant children and an ailing sister. His mother died in a road accident in October 2018.

Feroz said her husband had never feared for his life.“He went everywhere, he never felt afraid,” she said. “People would queue up to see him and tell him their problems.”

A fight and a complaint

Immediately after the shootout, all 10 police personnel deployed for Bari’s security were arrested and suspended. “They have been dismissed from service and are being questioned,” said a police officer in Bandipora. “We are not ruling out the possibility of an inside job.”

The police have also summoned several local contractors for questioning about the altercation between Umer Sultan and the Bandipora executive engineer. “A local contractor intervened on behalf of the executive engineer,” said Malik. “After the argument, both sides had filed complaints with the police.” The argument had taken place more than a week ago, he added.

Abdul Hamid, the executive engineer, said that he had not filed a formal police complaint but “informed” them about the argument. Hamid said Umer Sultan had stormed into his office on that day. “He began banging a small table in my office,” recalled Hamid. “I asked him the reason for such behaviour and he said that he had asked me to construct a drain somewhere but I had not. I told him that maybe there were no funds, that’s why it did not happen. He told me that the deputy commissioner had given him approval in writing. I told him that the DC’s approval is not enough, it needs further authorisation.”

According to Hamid, Sultan accused him of ignoring his pleas “deliberately” as he belonged to the BJP. “I told him nobody’s party affiliation is a concern of mine,” Hamid continued. “He also alleged that there has been embezzlement in the department. I asked him for proof but he said he will file an RTI [an application under the Right to Information Act]. I told him to go ahead. He started shouting slogans like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Hindustan Zindabad’. I politely told him to leave the room.”

The executive engineer continued: “When he [Sultan] started shouting, some contractors came inside and took him out. I don’t know what happened outside because I didn’t leave my room. He was not manhandled before me.”

In his complaint, Umer Sultan accused Hamid and Naseer Ahmad Mir, a local contractor for government construction projects, for assaulting him. Mir was once a close aide of Usman Majid, now a leader of the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party. Before joining politics, Majid had been part of the Ikhwan, the counter-insurgency militia raised by the Indian Army in the 1990s. According to local residents, Mir is now close to Nizamuddin Bhat, a local leader of the People’s Democratic Party.

The Bandipora police said Mir was summoned to the police station and questioned.