Mohammad Yaseen Qadri was at home on the evening of September 24 when two visitors arrived, asking for his son, Babar Qadri. An advocate, 40-year-old Babar Qadri often had clients visiting his home in Hawal, a locality in Srinagar’s old town. There were chairs in the lawn where visiting clients could wait.
“As our helper showed them towards the chairs, he called for Babar,” recalled Mohammad Qadri.
The advocate met the visitors in the lawn and started chatting. “They were carrying some files,” said his father. “While Babar was still going through the files, one of the visitors opened fire on him. Even though he had been hit, he managed to run and reach the corridor of the house. I saw him lying in a pool of blood in the corridor.” The shooters had melted away instantly.
Neighbours and his relatives rushed Babar Qadri to a hospital, where he was declared brought dead by the doctors. “One of the bullets had hit him in the head,” said a family member who did not want to be named. “When I pressed the wound, blood oozed out from it. I don’t remember anything after that.”
‘Threat to my life’
In the days leading up to his death, Babar Qadri had been afraid for his life. His last tweet, posted on September 21, urged the police to book a Facebook user, Shah Nazir, for spreading rumours that he worked for security agencies. This could lead to a “threat to my life,” the advocate wrote. The Jammu, and not the Kashmir, division of the local police was tagged. According to his Facebook profile, Shah Nazir is self-employed as a contractor and lives in Srinagar.
On September 24, the day he was shot, Babar Qadri posted a video on Facebook in which he criticised the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association and its president, Mian Abdul Qayoom.
“When I look at Mian Qayoom’s role since 1990 in Jammu Kashmir High Court Bar Association, politics has been only carried on the basis of threats and pressures,” says Babar Qadri in the video. “Why can’t we do politics honestly and with dignity?” He declared that he was not afraid of the consequences of critising the association.
Mohammad Qadri claimed that his son had received threats from several quarters. He also stated that his son had applied for security after two attempts on his life but it was never provided.
According to Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s inspector general of police, Babar Qadri’s brother-in-law, who is also a senior police officer, had advised him to avoid staying at home because of the alleged death threats. “To his brother-in-law and local police, he had said that he did not want to leave his house,” said Kumar.
A day after the killing, the local police announced that militants were behind the killing and that a special investigation team had been set up to find out which group was responsible. Kumar said the killers would be arrested soon. “If that is not possible, they will be neutralised in an encounter soon,” he told reporters at a press conference in Srinagar.
Mohammad Qadri gave a detailed description of the men who visited their home on September 24. They were unmasked and wore civilian clothes, he said. “One of them was short and darkish with a stubble,” he added. “The other one was tall, strong built, clean-shaven. He looked like an armed forces man. Only commandos or well-trained men can run away the way they did after the shooting.”
The police did not confirm whether Babar Qadri had applied for security or whether Mian Abdul Qayoom would be made part of the investigation.
Mian Muzaffar, a nephew of Qayoom, said his uncle was “not available” for comment about the incident. Aijaz Bedar, vice president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, also said he would not comment on the incident till the police investigation was complete.
In a statement released after the killing, the bar association demanded that “the perpetrators of the heinous crime be brought to book at the earliest”. It also asked lawyers to abstain from work on September 25 to express solidarity with the family and attend Babar Qadri’s funeral.
But the family say they will not cooperate with the police investigation. “I didn’t cooperate with the police even when they were completing formalities at the hospital, I will not cooperate with them in future,” said Mohammad Qadri, who had returned to the family’s ancestral home in Tangmarg in North Kashmir. “If they ask me, I will boycott it. I have no expectations from the police. They will arrest some poor guy and blame it on him. If they wish, they can catch the real culprit in an hour. My son spoke for Kashmir and with his killing another voice of Kashmir has been silenced. And when you don’t have freedom to speak, people will eventually pick up guns.”
Mourners who had flocked to the Qadri household in Tangmarg brought up the killing of journalist Shujaat Bukhari, who was shot outside Srinagar’s Press Colony two years ago. The police originally blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba militants and claimed to have killed those responsible. But, two years later, there is still no closure on the case and conspiracy theories float around in Srinagar.
Bukhari had been a well-known figure, speaking frequently on the conflict in Kashmir. Involved in Track II talks between India and Pakistan, he often called out all sides involved in the conflict. Much like Babar Qadri. Before he was finally killed, Bukhari had survived three attempts on his life. Again, much like Babar Qadri, who survived two.
In January 2019, Babar Qadri had floated his own political party, naming it the All Jammu and Kashmir People’s Justice Party. It proved to be a short-lived experiment, ending when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and announced it would divide the former state into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019.
“It was a pre-August 5 idea, at his individual level,” said Shafqat Nazir, a lawyer and Babar Qadri’s colleague at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. “After August 5, he dropped the idea.”
The party’s agenda, whether it was to fight elections or join the separatist camp, was not spelled out. But friends describe Babar Qadri’s politics as “Kashmir first”. “For him what mattered was Kashmir and Kashmir only,” said a friend who had attended Kashmir University with him. “He would not only lash out at India but even criticise Pakistan in Pakistan as well as militant groups. He criticised all sides and didn’t even think twice before saying what he believed in. Although he came from a typical Jamaati family, he would oppose Jamaat also.”
Jama’at-e-Islami, an influential socio-religious organisation in Kashmir, was banned by the government last year for allegedly supporting militancy. Babar Qadri’s father is a member of the organisation but his son seemed to have different political ideas, and held on to them firmly.
“Once he believed in some idea, nobody would be able to budge him,” continued the university friend. “At times, he acted crazy. Even if one tried to make him understand to not be so vocal about everything, he never listened. He was fearless.”
The advocate was famously blunt. “There are things that one says strategically, in order to be on the safe side,” said Nazir. “He equated talking strategically with cowardice. He said what he believed in.”
Since 2016, when the Kashmir Valley saw mass protests, Babar Qadri had been a regular panelist on Indian as well as Pakistani news channels. He was scathing about both countries and their Kashmir policy. In news debates on Indian channels, he was often labelled as a “traitor”. “Recently, a very senior BJP leader asked Babar on national television: why are you still alive?” recalled Mohammad Qadri.
For criticising Pakistan and the separatist leadership of the Hurriyat, he would be labelled an “agency man” and an “Indian agent” on social media. His social media timeline is peppered with posts questioning the Hurriyat on its silence over the developments in Jammu and Kashmir post August 5, 2019. At the same time, he is believed to have had contacts in powerful circles in both countries.
“When you make yourself vulnerable from all sides, you don’t know who will take advantage of it,” said the university friend.
He recalled their university days, when Babar Qadri had been politically active, even though student politics is officially banned in Kashmir. “He would conduct seminars, talk about student issues and also about what was happening in Kashmir,” explained a friend from his university days.
Babar Qadri started practising law in 2008, just a year after completing a bachelor’s degree. He rose to prominence as a lawyer after the mass protests of 2010. A government crackdown on protesters had left hundreds of youth in jail or facing serious charges.
“Most of his clients were families of militants, stone-pelters and other victims of conflict,” said a colleague who did not want to be named. “He didn’t just fight cases for clients but also empathised with them. He fought those cases for free. One day, a client whose son had been picked up by the police paid him Rs 3,000 as fee. When his son was released, he [Babar Qadri] called the client back and returned the entire amount. He even paid him the Rs 250-Rs 300 that the client had spent on transport to reach the court.”
The bar association
But Babar Qadri’s bluntness and refusal to conform meant he crossed swords with the bar association and its president, Qayoom. In Srinagar, the bar association is widely believed to be close to Hurriyat (G), the separatist splinter group started by Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Qayoom, who has been vocal in his demands for self-determination in Kashmir, has spent long spells in jail. After special status was revoked last year, Qayoom spent nearly a year in jail, booked under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law.
Babar Qadri’s differences with the bar go back nearly a decade. In 2012, his bar membership was revoked. “There was a strike call and lawyers were supposed to abstain from work on that day,” recalled Nazir. “But Babar had attended a few cases on that day. His argument was that they were habeas corpus petitions in detention cases and an executive member of the bar had told him that strikes don’t apply to these cases. This is how the differences started. Then both the sides started writing to each other demanding explanations. The bar association never formally sent a suspension order, they just put out a press release.”
That was a year after Babar Qadri had formed a group called the Lawyers Club. “Many saw it as a challenge to the bar but it was just a body of young lawyers for discussions and seminars,” said Nazir, who was once vice-president of the club. “Eventually, we began to curtail its activities as we didn’t want it to become a point of conflict between lawyers. It was eventually reduced to a Facebook page only.”
By 2016, the differences had grown deep. Before elections for bar association president were held, Mohammad Qadri claimed that Qayoom came to their home with another advocate. “He told me that my son was canvassing in favour of his opponent and I should take care of him,” he said.
Mohammad Qadri claimed that Qayoom promised to revoke his son’s suspension if he was elected. “After he won the election, I went to him about it – he had no reply to my questions,” he claimed.
Babar Qadri’s suspension was never revoked. Earlier this month, another was rejected. “After the release of the Bar president, I believed that he would have given up all the animosity but it proved otherwise today,” he was quoted as saying by a local news agency.
Said Mohammad Qadri: “He wanted to bring internal democracy in the bar. He said that the current bar association has been turned into a fiefdom by Mian Qayoom.”
In October 2018, Qayoom was elected bar association president for the 20th time. He won unopposed. This year’s elections are scheduled for September 28. Qayoom is not standing for any post.
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