If Muneera Bano’s militant son had been killed in a gunfight with the armed forces, life would have been easier for her and her family, she said.
Bano, 52, is the mother of Tariq Ahmad Pandit, the only surviving militant in the widely-circulated photograph of a group of 11 local militants led by Burhan Wani.
As Kashmir experienced a new wave of militancy in the middle of last decade, the photograph – which went viral on social media in 2015 – showed a group of young men in army fatigues, weapons in hand, posing in a huddle around Hizbul Mujahideen commander Wani. The image was seen as an iconic representation of Kashmir’s new age militancy.
Over the years, all the militants posing in the picture, including Wani, were killed in encounters with the security forces. Only Bano’s son is alive. Tariq Ahmad Pandit, 24, has been in prison since 2016.
For Bano, it has been hard to decide whether that is a blessing or a curse.
“If he had been martyred, we wouldn’t be this enfeebled mentally and financially,” said Bano, as she recalled her experiences with her only son. “It wouldn’t have bothered me if he had been martyred. We wouldn’t have gone through this much.”
Surrender or arrest?
On May 28, 2016, when Tariq Ahmad Pandit landed in the custody of the security forces, different agencies had varying accounts about the circumstances in which he had been captured. The police initially claimed that Pandit had surrendered but the army said he had been apprehended in a “well-coordinated swift operation” on Newa-Pinglana road in Pulwama. Eventually, the police also said that Pandit had been arrested.
With young Kashmiri men joining militancy in large numbers at the time, the arrest of a top militant like Pandit was unusual. At the time, Pandit carried a reward of Rs 3 lakh on his head.
A resident of Karimabad village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Pandit had just passed his 12th standard exams when he went missing in the last week of March 2015. The day he went missing, three other boys from the village also disappeared.
One of them was Naseer Ahmad Pandit, a constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Police. On March 28, 2015, Pandit had deserted from his posting in Srinagar, taking two AK 47 rifles with him. The others were Afaq Ahmad Bhat and Bilal Ahmad Bhat. As it turned out later, all four had joined the militants.
Among the four, Afaq Ahmad Bhat was the first to be killed. He was shot dead in an encounter on October 26, 2015. Six months later, in April 2016, Bilal Ahmad Bhat and Naseer Ahmad Pandith were killed in two separate encounters. A month later, Tariq Pandit was arrested.
“We had no idea about his arrest until the news spread through the village,” recalled Bano, a housewife.
Strong support for militancy
But not everyone in Karimabad village believed the story about Tariq Pandit being arrested. Many accused Pandit of giving up arms to protect himself. “After his arrest, whenever there would be a cordon and search operation in the village, rumours would float that Tariq was a police informer,” Bano said. “People would claim that it was Tariq who would be leading the army and police and showing them where to make searches.”
Karimabad is well-known for its support to the militancy. Like many villages across Kashmir, the village has a separate graveyard for militants, popularly known as the “martyrs’ graveyard”. In the 2015 photograph of the 11 militants, at least three, including Pandit, hailed from Karimabad. Now, when militancy in Kashmir has suffered heavy blows with the elimination of top militants, Karimabad counts only two men from the village as active militants.
The families of militants, particularly those who have been killed, are widely respected in the Valley since they are perceived to have given their children for the cause of “azaadi” or freedom.
“Under this popular support for militancy, an act of giving up arms is frowned upon and equated with cowardice,” said a youngster in Karimabad, who asked to remain unidentified.
Pandit was not only accused of cowardice but also becoming a collaborator – an even more grave charge.
In the Valley’s three-decade-long armed insurgency, scores of Kashmiris accused of working as informers for the security forces, have been gunned down by militants. These killings have rarely evoked condemnation from the ordinary residents.
Though the Pandit family has no idea how their militant son landed in the custody of the security forces, very few spoke up in their support. Curiously, among those who did were militants themselves.
One of the first to clear Tariq Pandit of the claims that he was an informer was Burhan Wani himself. In a video message after Pandit’s arrest, Wani had said that his arrest was a loss to the militancy. He did not say Pandit had surrendered.
Despite Wani’s message, the rumours did not stop. A month or so after Pandit’s arrest, posters purportedly issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen appeared in South Kashmir, accusing Pandit of being responsible for the deaths of two militant commanders. The posters claimed that Pandit and his family had received Rs 45 lakh for giving the authorities information about militant hideouts.
While the family was uncomfortable about the rumours, the situation did not get really serious for them until Wani was killed by the security forces on July 8, 2016. The Hizbul Mujahideen commander’s killing triggered mass protests across the Kashmir valley. More than 100 protestors were killed by the police.
“As long as Burhan was alive, nobody dared to touch us and call my brother a collaborator on our face,” said 22-year-old Basharat, the sister of Tariq Pandit.
But once Wani was dead, the family faced public anger. During the agitation after Burhan Wani’s killing, the Pandit family’s home was attacked with stones one night.
“They broke our window panes and doors,” recalled Bano, with a lump in her throat. “They were our own people. They accused us of being collaborators and taking money from the government after getting militants killed.”
After that episode, Bano said, they felt ostracised by their neighbours. “We were even afraid to strike a conversation with anyone,” she said. “It was difficult to look into the eyes of people.”
Bano had to change the way she conducted herself. Previously, whenever a militant would be killed in an encounter, she made it a point to visit his family to offer her condolences. Following the mob attack on her home, she stopped.
“Burhan’s father advised me that I should avoid visiting the house of martyrs,” she said. “Since then, I stopped going.”
‘He sobbed like a child’
The stigma of their relative being viewed as a collaborator by their own people was a heavy burden for the Pandit family, they said. “Once my husband went to the mosque to offer prayers,” Bano said. “He sat near the father of another militant from the village in the mosque. That person had immediately stood up from the spot and sat at the other end of the mosque. He didn’t even want to sit near my husband.”
She added: “When my husband returned from the mosque, he sobbed like a child. I held him in my arms and consoled him.”
While the family was still coming to grips with the ire of their fellow villagers, another tragedy struck. More than a week after Wani’s killing, militants shot at two suspected police informers in Karimabad village. One of them was Shabir Ahmad Pandit, Tariq Pandit’s cousin. Both were shot in their legs and survived.
“It was said that time that militants accused them of having a hand in Tariq’s arrest,” said Bashir Ahmad Pandit, 55, Tariq’s father.
A message in a call recording
The subtle social boycott of the Pandit family continued for at least two years after his arrest in 2016, they said. But the perception towards the family began to change around mid-2018.
In May 2018, a call recording of Pandit with a friend made Pandit’s account of his arrest available for the first time. During the conversation, Pandit says how he was led into the net of security forces by two residents from Pinglena and Gudoor villages in Pulwama. Pandit made the call using the phone of a friend who had come to meet him in a Pulwama court during a court hearing.
In the exchange, Pandit dismissed the claims that he had surrendered and that his family had received money from the authorities. “On one side, they [the government] propagate the theory in the media that I surrendered and on the other they have framed me in dozens of cases,” he told the other person. “Several police vehicles escort me when I’m taken for a hearing. As if some Ajmal Kasab [one of the Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008] is taken for hearing.”
Pandit also acknowledged the hardships faced by his family after his arrest. He said he had wanted to speak about the circumstances of his arrest much earlier but had chosen not to. “I remained silent because of my family,” he said. “They suffered a lot. I didn’t want them to suffer more.”
The conversation demonstrated that Pandit had grown more committed to the goal of “aazadi”. He signed off the conversation by reiterating his support for the Hizbul Mujahideen armed group.
“Even in jail, I still have the same stand that I had earlier,” he said. “I was with Hizbul Mujahideen and I’ll always be with Hizbul Mujahideen.”
The recording of the call was widely circulated, especially in South Kashmir. For the Pandit family, things began to get a bit easier. According to Bano, they hadn’t heard the call recording until someone from the village told them about it. “It was a relief,” he said. “We could see people began to look at us with sympathy.”
Yet, the hurt and fear remains. There’s still the possibility that someone who is angry with the family could denounce them as collaborators. “Things are definitely better for us after that recording but then there’s also a fear that anyone can call us names,” Bano said.
Despite this, some are unconvinced that Pandit was arrested. Among them is Ghulam Rasool Pandit. He is the father of slain policeman-turned-militant Naseer Ahmad Pandit who had joined militants along with Tariq Pandit in March, 2015.
“I don’t have anything against him or his family but I don’t believe he’s arrested,” claimed Pandit. “He surrendered in order to save himself. Even if he’s set free, I don’t have any objections but I must say Tariq is not an honourable man.”
The legal battle
Over the past years, the Pandit family has been waging a grueling legal battle to free their son. The cases have drained them financially.
“Whatever money I make, it goes into paying for his legal counsels,” said Bashir Ahmad Pandit, a butcher.
The family lives in a single-storey concrete house on the edge of a patchy road in Karimabad village. Their compound does not have any fence or gate. Bano says they are too poor to build a fence.
“We recently painted our house after my daughter sold some woolen garments she had woven,” Bano said. “We couldn’t afford a professional painter, so my daughter bought two cans of paint from her money and asked her cousin to help her paint the house.”
So far, Bashir Pandit has spent nearly Rs 3 lakh fighting his son’s legal cases in three districts of Kashmir. Tariq Pandit is lodged in Jammu’s Udhampur jail, 190 kilometers from Pulwama. Each family trip to visit him costs around Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000.
“I have met him last face to face in 2018,” said Bashir Pandit. “I can’t afford regular trips to Jammu to see him.”
While his family appears in court physically at the time of his hearings, Pandit attends court hearings through video conferencing from Udhampur jail. “I don’t remember when I saw him last in front of my eyes,” said Bano.
Pandit has been charged in four cases in Srinagar, Pulwama and Shopian districts for his activities when he was an active militant. One of the cases pertains to looting of weapons from the Srinagar home of Altaf Bukhari, a former cabinet minister, in 2015. Another case registered in Shopian’s Heerpora police station pertains to Pandit’s involvement in a firing incident on security forces in July, 2015. He faces murder charges in the case.
“The trial in the weapon loot case is on,” said Adil Abdullah, one of the lawyers representing Pandit. “In another case of Shopian involving a firing incident, he hasn’t been produced before the court for the framing of charges in the last five years.”
Another case under trial against Pandit is in Shopian. “The trial is at the stage where prosecution has to present the evidence,” said Tariq Ahmad Shah, Pandit’s other counsel. “Some five or six witnesses have been examined and some are still pending. Pandit attends hearings through the virtual mode.” Shah refused to divulge the charges Pandit is facing in the case.
While the cases linger on, Bashir Ahmad Pandit and Muneera Bano are hopeful that their son will walk free one day. Once that happens, they might be able to focus on other things like their only daughter’s marriage.
“I have put my faith in Allah,” said Bano. “We have no one except Him.”