Since the evening of August 25, Naseema Bano’s house in Hakripora village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district has seen a steady flow of visitors. That was the day the National Investigation Agency filed a 13,800-page chargesheet on the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack which left 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead.
The chargesheet said the attack had been planned by the Pakistan-based leadership of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. It listed 19 names accused of involvement in the conspiracy. Two of the names were 50-year-old Peer Tariq Ahmad Shah, Bano’s husband, and 23-year-old Insha Jan, their daughter.
Bano, whose house is in Pulwama district, knew nothing about the chargesheet until visitors started pouring in. “We don’t have a television, nor do we have a big mobile,” explained Bano, a housewife and a mother of three. “Besides, I don’t want to see anything.”
What Bano was referring to but refusing to name was a photograph of her daughter released by the National Investigation Agency on August 25. In the photograph, Jan is wearing a military vest, holding a pistol and an assault rifle, sitting next to a Pakistani militant. “People have seen it. I have heard them talking about it but I don’t want to see it,” Bano said.
Jan and Shah, a labourer, were arrested from their home by officials of the National Investigation Agency back in March. According to the chargesheet, they harboured militants in their house and provided them with logistical support “on more than 15 occasions”. The Jaish operatives stayed at their home for days at a time between 2018 and 2019, the chargesheet reportedly says. It also claims Jan kept in touch with them through text messages and on social media.
Of the 19 named in the chargesheet, seven are Pakistani nationals. Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar is accused number one, followed by his brothers, Rauf Asghar and Ammar Alvi.
Another Pakistani national named in the chargesheet is 24-year-old Mohammad Umer Farooq, a bombmaker killed in a gunfight last year. His father, Ibrahim Rather, was one of the hijackers of flight number IC814 in 1999, when Azhar and two others were released in exchange for the passengers taken hostage. The militant whom Jan was photographed with was Farooq. The investigating agency claims text messages suggest “a proximity” between them.
Bano does not deny that militants stayed at their house before the Pulwama attack, but she claims that the family was too afraid to refuse them.
‘Cannot say no to a person with a gun’
“Three days before they arrested Shah and Insha, NIA officials came to our house and questioned each and every family member individually,” she said. “We told them the same thing.” The next time officials from the investigating agency paid a visit, they arrested her husband and daughter.
Bano claims the family had no choice but to take in the militants and that circumstances had made Jan the chief point of contact with them.
“My son drives a truck for a living and he works mostly during the night because trucks are allowed to travel only during night hours,” she said. “Whenever the militants came around, my husband would panic and flee the house.”
That left only three women in the house: Bano herself, her daughter-in-law and Jan, who had to deal with the militants. “I am weak-hearted and couldn’t face them,” Bano said. “Besides, they were mostly speaking Urdu and since I didn’t know Urdu, Insha would serve them food and tea.”
According to Bano, the militants visited the house three times between 2018 and the Pulwama attack. They came to their house three at a time, she said. Their home was in a desolate patch of ground on the edge of Hakripora village, the front door leading into an apple orchard. Bano speculates that is why the militants chose it for shelter.
“At that time there weren’t many houses around our house and since we hadn’t erected any walls to seal off our compound, anybody could have come and knocked on our door,” she said.
Bano claims she did try to resist the repeated visits. “Once I confronted them, saying that I will go to the army and tell on them,” she said. “They said Kashmiri women feign weak-heartedness easily. They also told me that their companions know they are staying at our place. It clearly meant that if anything happened to them at our house, there would be consequences for us.”
The family feared it could even cost their lives. “Many years ago, militants killed one of our relatives, who was accused of being an informer,” said Bano. “He didn’t live very far from here. The reality is that one cannot say no to a person with a gun.”
‘No idea why they took the photograph’
She is, however, mystified by the idea of a photograph of her daughter carrying arms and posing next to a Pakistani militants. Jan is the youngest of three siblings. Her elder brother, Shahnawaz Ahmad, and sister, Bilkees, are married. Jan dropped out of school after Class 9. Bano as well as relatives and neighbours say she spent most of her time indoors.
“She was obsessed about keeping the house clean,” said her mother. “She had no friends and wouldn’t even go to relatives. Not even for a single night. She didn’t want to leave me alone.”
Bano also said Jan was very attached to her ailing grandfather, who died two months before she was arrested. “She would feed him, give him medicine and take care of him,” she said.
Bilkees said that, unlike many other girls her age, her sister was not interested in socialising or in trendy clothes. “She would wear a pheran even in the summer, she wasn’t excited about fashion and all,” Bilkees said. A pheran is a long, loose garment, usually worn in winter in Kashmir.
Other residents of Hakripora testifid to Jan’s reclusiveness. “I saw her for the first time when the NIA people arrested her. I hadn’t seen her before that at all,” said an elderly man from the village.
The family can only speculate on how the shy, retiring Jan became the weapon-wielding girl in the picture. “Maybe they forced her to take it, maybe she got fascinated,” said her mother. “I have no idea when this picture was taken. She never discussed it with me.”
Within hours after Pulwama attack, a pre-recorded video of the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, went viral. It claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the National Investigation Agency, the video was shot by Farooq and another active local militant, Sameer Ahmad Dar, sometime towards the end of January 2019. The location: a room in the house on the edge of Hakripora village.
“Once they got inside their room, they locked it from inside,” she said. “Who knows what they did there?”
She did recognise Adil Ahmad Dar when the video went viral after the attack. “I had seen him once with other militants who came to our house,” she explained.
Calls from prison
It has been nearly six months since Shah and Jan were arrested and taken outside the Valley – the family says they do not know where. Father and daughter are allowed to call home every fortnight or so. “It’s usually small talk about our health and well-being,” said Bilkees. “We don’t talk much beyond that.”
With limited financial resources, the family have not made any attempt to meet them either. Even if they had planned to, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown made it impossible.
“My daughter seems worried about her father there,” said Bano. “They are allowed to meet each other every 15 days. She said her father has grown weak. Last time she called, she said that her father might die in jail.”
Visiting relatives point out that it is not unusual for Kashmiri families to harbour militants. “For the last 31 years of tehreek [armed struggle], militants have eaten and taken shelter in the houses of Muslims, Sikhs and Pandits,” said one relative. But for the house in Hakripora, he said, it had become a “curse”.
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