Around 8.20 pm on October 29, three men were killed in a shooting near a public prayer ground in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. At a hospital near YK Pora village, where the incident took place, they were declared “brought dead”.

The police said the three men were members of the Bharatiya Janata Party – Fida Hussain Yatoo was the party’s Kulgam youth general secretary, Umar Ramzan Hajam and Haroon Rashid Beigh, were party workers.

On Friday, Kashmir police chief Vijay Kumar told reporters the Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for the attack. “Fida was with his two colleagues in a car and the militants fired indiscriminately on them from close range,” he said.

However, the families of the three slain men are anxious to distance themselves from the BJP.

BJP under fire

Altaf Thakur, a prominent BJP face in the Valley, said Thursday’s incident took the number of BJP workers and leaders killed in Kashmir this year to nine. Five of these killings took place in the districts of South Kashmir, the epicentre of the local militancy.

The attack also took place just three days after the Central government scrapped historic land laws and amended other laws so that non-local buyers and investors could acquire land in Jammu and Kashmir. Under Article 35A, a law that was scrapped on August 5, 2019, only people defined as “permanent residents” had the right to buy and sell land in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. The same day, the BJP-led Centre also split the state into two Union Territories and stripped it of special status under Article 370.

Last year’s decisions, which caused widespread anger in the Valley, have also endangered the lives of BJP workers in the territory. As August 5 approached this year, the police identified 1,619 people vulnerable to attack. They were quartered in heavily secured hotels in Pahalgam, in the hills of Anantnag district. “Fida Hussain was kept at Pahalgam’s Dolphin hotel and he stayed there for three weeks,” said Kumar. “After that, he gave an undertaking and left that accommodation on his own will.”

However, Altaf Thakur blamed the Kulgam police for not taking threats to party workers seriously and failing to provide them with security. “Recently, our district president approached SP [Superintendent of Police] Kulgam officially about threats to our workers but it was not provided,” said Thakur, who was in YS Pora to visit the families of the murdered party workers. “Out of the three who were killed yesterday, our district president had discussed the need for security for two.” contacted the Kulgam police with questions. They are yet to respond.

Mourners at Umer Ramzan Hajam's funeral in South Kashmir's Kulgam district. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Wouldn’t have let him join politics’

Very few in YK Pora acknowledge that Fida Hussain Yatoo was with the BJP. Even his family claims to have been in the dark about this.

“He belonged to a very well-to-do family and Allah has bestowed us with a lot,” said Bashir Ahmad, Yatoo’s uncle. Until he was killed, Ahmad said, he had never known his nephew was with a political party. “Nobody knows about his association with BJP,” he said. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have let him join politics be it any party. He didn’t lack anything in his life.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Yatoo was the only brother to six sisters. He was also father to a two-year-old daughter. While his father teaches in a government school, some of his sisters also have government jobs. Yatoo himself had not studied beyond school. “He didn’t need to work but sometimes he bought and sold cars,” said Ahmad, who is a retired government employee.

Yatoo only got into trouble with the police once, a few years before his death. “He was in jail for a month,” said his uncle. “At that time, he was alleged to have militant links. But then he was released.”

Yatoo was called Tipu at home. “There used to be a TV serial on Tipu Sultan and that’s how he got that name,” recalled Ahmad. “He was humble hearted and very skilful. Everybody has to die but not like this.”

‘Nothing to do with politics’

Less than a kilometre from Yatoo’s house is the austere single-storeyed house where 24-year-old Umer Ramzan Hajam lived. Hajam was trying to finish a bachelor’s degree at the Kulgam degree college. To pay the bills, he also drove a goods truck.

“He had just returned a day before [his death] from a trip to Tamil Nadu, where he had to deliver some goods,” said Mohsin Ahmad, Hajam’s teenage cousin. The 24-year-old leaves behind two sisters and his parents.

Ahmad is shocked that Hajam is being called a BJP worker on social media and in media reports. “He had nothing to do with politics or any party,” Ahmad. “Just like everyone in the village, he was friends with everyone.”

Ghulam Ahmad, another relative of Hajam, said he was home through the day on Thursday. “In the evening, he stepped outside and met his friends,” he said. “Then they might have got into the car to go for a ride, like friends usually do.”

According to Ghulam Ahmad, had Hajam been associated with a political party, he would not have been able to work. “He had just returned home after a month-long trip,” he said. “If he was associated with any party, do you think they would have let him go for so long?”

‘We told the BJP people not to visit’

Haroon Rashid Beigh’s family also denies he was with the BJP. “His friend circle was large,” said a relative and neighbour. “Out of 400 people here, 300 are his friends. Is it possible that not a single one would have known about it if he was with the BJP?”

Twenty two-year-old Beigh’s father is a government employee. He had studied a polytechnic course before starting a motorcycle workshop outside his home in Kulgam’s Sophat village. “This is where he used to work,” said the relative, waving at the empty workshop. “He had hired mechanics and would supervise them. Now, there’s no one left to look after his shop.”

The car in which the three men were shot dead belonged to Beigh. “I had got him that car some days ago,” said Dilawar Ahmad, a childhood friend. “It was yet to be registered in his name.” According to Dilawar, Beigh was too “immature” and “young” to join politics – “He was still a child. What does he know of politics?”

On October 30, senior BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir visited the homes of Yatoo and Hajam in YK Pora. But Beigh’s family declined to host them. “We told the BJP people not to visit our home,” said the relative.

The missing car

Thursday’s attack took place at a secluded spot deep inside Reshipora locality in YK Pora, about a kilometre from Yatoo’s house and five kilometres from Beigh’s home. Kumar said the police were investigating what the men were doing there.

The police are also questioning Altaf Hussain Rather, who lives just metres away from the spot of the attack. On Thursday evening, when gunshots rang out in Reshipora, Gulshan Bano called her sons – Altaf Hussain Rather and Asif Hussain Rather – asking them not to come home. “But when I called my elder son, Altaf, he said he was already near home,” she said. “He told us to keep the gate open.”

Some time later, when Rather was still not home, she called him again. “To our utter shock, he said that he had been stopped by some men near the village shrine and pushed out of the car,” said Gulshan Bano. “While he tried to prevent them from taking his vehicle, they got into the car and drove away in a rush. He told us that he ran after the men to get his car back.”

Rather didn’t get his Maruti Alto back, she continued, so he rushed to the nearby Qazigund police station. “It was not his own car, it belonged to his brother-in-law, who works in the police,” she said. “He has been in the police station since yesterday but called us at night to say that he’s fine.”

A father of two daughters, 35-year-old Rather, runs a mobile shop in Qazigund town in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

On Friday, the police seized a Maruti Alto near Telwani village, close to the Achabal police post, also in Anantnag district. They did not confirm if it was Rather’s missing vehicle.