On September 16, the Jammu and Kashmir police released a press statement about the death of an alleged “OGW”, or overground worker. That is the name given to non-combatant members of militant groups tasked with arranging logistics.

“On 15-09-2020 at about 12:45 hours, one OGW namely Irfan Ahmad Dar (age about 23/24 years) S/O Mohammad Akbar Dar R/O Sidiq-Colony, Sopore was apprehended and two Chinese Hand Grenades were recovered from his possession,” the statement said.

It did not mention where Irfan Dar was arrested. He was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act at a police station in Sopore in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district. In the course of investigations, the statement said, a police team took Irfan Dar to Chairdaji in Tujjar Sharief village to recover more arms.

“In the meanwhile, the OGW while taking advantage of darkness and terrain managed to escape regarding which a separate Case FIR No. 71/2020 U/S 224 IPC was registered in Police Station Bomai and during search the body of OGW was found near Stone Quarry of Tujjar-Sharief,” the statement added.

On September 17, Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, told reporters: “I believe the youth died after falling on a stone. He may have died due to cardiac arrest when he fled during a raid amid darkness.”

The police said the Baramulla district magistrate had ordered an inquiry on the circumstances that led to the death of Irfan Dar. “Let the inquiry team and medical team come up with exact details about his death,” said Vijay Kumar.

The Dar family as well as residents in Sopore believe Irfan Dar was killed in custody. “The police are just trying to cover up a murder,” said an angry relative. “Show me a single person with a conscience who believes the police’s theory.”

According to Irfan Dar’s family, his body bore torture marks. “He had bruises on his back,” said his elder brother, Javid Akbar Dar. “His head was swollen and he had torture marks on his face, neck, head and nose. Two of his teeth were broken, too. Anyone can see how much he was tortured.”

A stranger and a search

The Dar family lives in Sopore’s Sideeq Colony, where they run a grocery shop outside their house. Irfan Dar usually took care of things in the shop. On the afternoon of September 15, Javid Dar got home to find the shop closed. His brother was not there.

“I called him up and he said he was in court, helping a friend out with some documentation,” recalled Javid Dar. “He was in touch with me till 2 pm. After that Shabu didn’t take calls.” Shabu was the family’s nickname for Irfan Dar.

Later in the afternoon, a stranger in civilian clothes appeared outside the family home in Sopore’s Sideeq Colony, Javid Dar said. “My brother had two mobile phones and he was carrying only one when he was picked up from the shop,” he said. “He had called me and said a person from the court would come and I should hand over the other phone to him.”

When the stranger turned up soon afterwards, Javid Dar assumed it was the emissary from the court and gave him his brother’s phone.

The family did not start to worry until neighbours told them something “unusual” had happened at the shop around noon. “They told me that a Tata Sumo had stopped near the shop and some men in civilian clothes had entered,” said Javid Dar. “After sometime, they had come out with Irfan. They left with him after he closed the shop. They told me that the men in the Sumo looked like STF men.”

STF, or special task force, is the local name for the Jammu and Kashmir’s counterinsurgency wing. Although the force is now called the Special Operations Group, the old name persists in local parlance.

Around 3:30pm that afternoon, a contingent from the Special Operations Group entered the house for a search. “They turned everything upside down and snatched all seven mobile phones in our family,” said Javid Dar. “One of the SOG personnel took me aside and told me that my brother was in their custody. They also asked me where the man who had stayed at our place 10 days ago was. I told them no one had visited our place. After that they slapped me and punched me.”

A second arrest

The police officials promised his brother would be released the next day, Javid Dar continued. “When they took me along with them after the raid, they kept questioning me,” he said. “All they kept asking about was some man they claimed had visited our house. I kept telling them that we have CCTV footage of the shop and house for the last month and a half. I asked them to check it and see for themselves. They didn’t talk about grenades and recoveries.”

Javid Dar was released at around 11.30 pm on September 15. “I was already unwell but my entire body started paining in custody and they eventually released me,” he said. “The munshi [police official] told me to bring community elders from my locality the next day. Then they would release my younger brother. I went home.” He had not seen his brother all the time he was in custody, Javid Dar said.

It was around 11:30 am on September 16 that the family came to know Irfan Dar was dead. “When the media started coming to our house, we realised that my brother had been killed,” said Javid Dar, sobbing. “They [police] didn’t even bother informing us.”

Looking back, Javid Dar feels he had been released the previous night because of his brother’s death. “I think that since he died in custody, they let me go,” he remarked.

Local residents say mobile internet services were blocked at midnight on September 15, around the time Javid Dar was released from custody. That made them suspicious.

“There were no reports of a gunfight or anything – it was unusual,” said a teenager in Sopore, who only wanted to be identified as Abid. In Kashmir, it has become routine practice for the authorities to block internet services during gunfights or situations that are likely to give rise to public protests.

On September 16, Sopore saw public protests against the alleged custodial death. As of September 17, mobile internet services were still suspended in Sopore.

Scroll.in reached out to the Sopore police asking about the alleged search operation at Dar’s home as well as details of Irfan and Javid Dar’s arrest. There was no response. The senior superintendent of police, Sopore, was not available for comment.

Women in Sopore on September 17, protesting against Irfan Dar's death.

A faraway grave

Tragedy first struck the Dar family two months earlier, when Irfan Dar’s father died suddenly of a cardiac arrest. The youngest of four siblings, Irfan Dar had been particularly affected.

“Shabu would go to his father’s grave every day and spend some time there,” said a sobbing Javid Dar. “Now, he’s lying in a grave himself and so far from him.”

As news of Irfan Dar’s death broke, the family rushed to the Police Control Room in Srinagar to ask for his body. “We begged them,” said one relative. “We asked them to let us bury him near his father in the ancestral graveyard but they didn’t listen to us.”

On September 16, Dar was buried in a graveyard in the pastures of Sonamarg, about 100 kilometres from his home. “They allowed only a few male members and some ladies to attend the funeral,” said Javid Dar. “We buried him late at night.”

Since Covid-19 cases spread in the Valley, the police have stopped handing back the bodies of militants to families. This, they claim, was to stop large public funerals which could become super spreaders for the virus.

Sopore’s Sideeq Colony, where Irfan Dar was a familiar figure, is in mourning. They remember how hardworking he was. “In the 24 hours of a day, he would spend 16 at his shop,” said a neighbour. “He would wake up around six in the morning and collect milk to sell from around the locality.

Despite the probe, the family says they have no hope of justice from the police, whom they believe guilty. “Do you think we should ask for justice from them?” said Javid Dar.

His mother is distracted with grief. On September 17, as mourners and journalists streamed in, she pleaded to them to bring her son’s friends to her. “Show them to me,” she cried. “Please show someone like him to me. I want to see him alive.”