The year doesn’t matter. The year was unremarkable. I was walking back from school through one of the busier lanes in the Anantnag town, when two Kashmiri gunmen appeared from nowhere and entered a CRPF bunker in a nearby market square. My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe that the two gunmen could be so foolish as to enter the camp just like that. It meant a certain death. It was several years before fidayeen attacks became common.
I froze in my feet, and waited with bated breath for the sputter of gunfire to begin. A prominent preacher and politician of Anantnag had recently been assassinated. His bullet-ridden body had been dumped a couple of miles from my home. Local municipality workers had spotted and recognized his body early in the morning. News had spread like wild blaze.
On that morning, I had gone out to get our staple warm early-morning lawasa–a kind of Kashmiri flat bread. The baker quickly handed me my bunch of lawasas, poured a bucket of water into his oven, and pulled down his wooden shutter. He joined a long line of wailing people, men and women, who were running toward the spot. I scampered off to my home, and gave the news to my parents. My father came out onto the street, and I followed.
Thousands of people had gathered. They were chanting slogans for independence. Many raised anti-Hizb slogans. Hizb, a pro-Pakistan group, was believed to be behind the killing. At a distance I could see Qazi Nisar’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, with blood still oozing out. Nisar’s body was taken to the Hanafi prayer ground where thousands of people came to see it, and pay tribute. For the next one week Anantnag rang with anti-HM sloganeering.
Although HM had never been a strong force in the town, in adjoining villages it was predominant. In a bid to emerge as the only Kashmiri resistance group, it had managed to kill and silence many pro-independence Liberation Front men as well as cadre from other smaller groups. In villages close to Achabal, a town southeast to Anantnag, after fierce turf battles with one of its own splinter groups, the Muslim Mujahideen (MM), it managed to maintain its dominance. MM, however, wasn’t completely wiped out, and would come to haunt HM later. In the town, Ikhwanul Muslimeen had remained assertive despite its bloody battles with HM, as well as the Indian troopers.
The commander of the HM in the region was a local young man from a village close to the town. He had killed a JKLF commander from Dialgam village, a man known for having once single-handedly defended the village from marauding Indian soldiers, who madly chopped down three villagers and a truckload of unarmed Kashmiri policemen.
A week after Nisar’s assassination, a major gun battle between Indian soldiers and HM in Dialgam left five major HM figures dead. All of them were war veterans from the Afghan jihad. Mast Gul, a veteran Pakistani guerrilla commander, survived. After the battle was over, and the soldiers had left, Gul assembled Jammat-e-Islami members in Dialgam’s central market, and asked them to march with the bodies of his dead comrades to the Anantnag town, which was four miles north.
People fleeing from the gun-battle in Dialgam had told my mother that the Indian soldiers had used my grandfather and my uncles as human shields. My mother got hold of her burka, and in an instant was on the road to her natal home. I went with her.
On the way we saw Mast Gul’s march. Dozens of HM men atop trucks, waving Pakistani flags, were raising their fists into the air and singing rhythmic slogans. We could see the five bodies, one of which was of Bombar Khan, who was famous for his bravery, and known for compassion, unlike Gul, who was cold and cruel. Upon reaching my grandfather’s home, we came to know that one of the dead mujahids was Captain Tariq, an Afghan, who was shot by soldiers while holding their rifles on the shoulders of my relatives. Apparently, Tariq hadn’t fired back because it would have killed my grandfather.
When Mast Gul’s march reached Anantnag he had the bodies placed in the Ahl-Hadees prayer ground, where prayers were offered for the dead. HM men and their supporters carried the bodies through the town’s labyrinthine streets, and challenged anyone to raise anti-HM slogans. The bodies were buried close to Nisar’s grave. All the while Indian soldiers were watching with glee what was unfolding in front of their eyes.
On the day the two Kashmiri militants entered the CRPF bunker, Anantnag was slowly beginning to emerge from a month of severe trauma. I waited for the gunfire to start, while slowly retracing my steps and entering another lane. I was in a fix. Should I shout and warn the passersby? But raising an alarm would mean alerting the soldiers, which could foil the militants’ plan, and land me in serious trouble. No gunfire started. I wondered what was going on. I could see a startled look on a few other faces, but people continued to go about their work.
Next day, in school, one of my classmates, who had become famous after stealing a bullet from a soldier’s rifle from right under his nose, told me Ikhwan had joined India. “That is impossible!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t believe him. Only a few months back army had besieged a house near our school, taken out two Ihkwan members from the attic, and shot them dead a little distance away. I knew one of them. People in the locality loved him enough to refuse to use his nom de guerre and insisted on calling him with his childhood pet name ‘Darlin’—a short for ‘darling’. How could avowed foes come together!
Over the next few days, I saw Ikhwanis packed to the full in army vehicles patrolling Anantnag streets. Raids were taking place in surrounding villages where old-time Jammat members were rounded up and beaten, and their houses burnt. It was believed that Jammat had used HM to settle political scores, and many people were happy that Jammat was now reaping what they had themselves sown. Senior Jammat members would hold their own separate kangaroo courts where summary justice was issued to people. But the grim sense of satisfaction turned sour very soon for even those who despised Jammat.
Drunk with newfound power, Ikhwan bared its teeth more. A prominent Jammat member and respected surgeon from Dialgam was abducted and taken to the town. He was shot dead in front of people as a warning not only to the Jammat but to others too. What followed was worse than what Kashmiris could think of. Jammat families were targeted with such ruthlessness that you needed monumental courage to say that you were from a Jammat family. The wrath of Ikhwan went beyond Jammat. They set their eyes upon anyone who questioned their brutal authority. Women were harassed. Men were randomly picked up, tortured, and forced to pay ransom.
Safely ensconced within Indian security establishment, and with absolute impunity, Ikhwan became monstrous villians who imposed their will with extreme violence. One Ikhwani, Setha Gujar, who was especially dreaded for his brutality killed common people like people kill chicken. One day he beat up a doctor from another town so badly that some people who were watching fainted. The doctor had returned to Kashmir after spending several years in Saudi Arabia, and the moment he could walk again he ran away. It was only two years later that Gujar was shot dead by unknown people.
One of my friends whose family owns an apple orchard up on the hill overlooking Anantnag was slapped and had to prostate in front of an Ikhwani one day. We were walking through the main street, when he noticed a man with scraggy beard, and black sunglasses holding a Kalashnikov–an Ikhwani manning the street. My friend told me that he knew that man, and, unfortunately a bit too loudly, that he used to be an orchard worker. The Ikhwani heard him, and grew crimson with anger. He asked my friend to come close to him. My friend went smilingly and extended his hand expecting nothing more than a warm shake with an old acquaintance. Instead of taking the hand, the Ikhwani pulled his own hand high up into the air and landed a big slap on my friend’s face. The smile fell of the face like a picture. After abusing my friend for mentioning his orchard-worker past, which apparently would have hurt his reputation as a ‘much dreaded man,’ he asked my friend to lie prostrate in front of him and beg for mercy. My friend furtively did as told, and in the process dirtied his shiny white school shirt with street muck. I don’t know why I am describing the episode as if it was humorous; it wasn’t. Perhaps it is just that I remember my friend’s smiling face and expectant hands—what the hell did he expect from the Ikhwani!
Ikhwanis said they were going to rename Anantnag as Ramnagri, probably just to irritate the residents who fondly called and remembered it as Islamabad. In the early 90s Indian soldiers regularly beat up shopkeepers, and tore down their billboards if they had ‘Islamabad’ written on them. If a soldier asked you where you were from and you accidentally answered ‘Islamabad’, that would mean either a big slap, a kick, or rifle butt was on your way. People, thus, feared the second changing of the town’s name.
Ikhwanis established camps in three separate places in their Ramnagri. The one in Kadipora was closest to my school. They would come to the school and harass young schoolgirls. Some of my teachers were picked up for suspected Jammati links, and tortured. Thankfully none of my teachers was killed. Often our beleaguered Principal would ask the students to assemble and go to the camp, and plead for the release of our teachers. The camp, housed in a huge Pandit house, would reek of blood and liquor.
I was walking one day near Mattan Chowk when I saw a couple of Ikhwanis run toward an auto-rickshaw. They pointed their rifles at the occupant in the back, ready to shoot. They asked the auto-driver to continue driving at a slow pace as they ran alongside. A few meters ahead they fired a volley of bullets in, and then dragged out the limp body of a young boy. I never came to know who that boy was.
Meanwhile, in an incident that happened over a cricket match, an entire team of cricketers and the umpires were roughed up black and blue, when a member of the opposing team, with connections to the Ikhwan, claimed that he was wrongly given out. It was the bloodiest cricket match I had ever seen.
When Farooq Abdullah was made chief minister of Kashmir, Ikhwanis grew even more brazen. They started building and occupying properties in the town. Many Pandit properties were occupied, and some were bought at low prices. A big Pandit house near Janglat Mandi was turned into a camp, where poor villagers from far away places were brought, tortured and killed, and their bodies left haphazardly strewn across on streets or in sewage drains. Setha Gujar built shopping complexes on public land, like the General Bus Stand. He built another in front of the district court, probably as an open challenge to the judges who might have wanted to issue stay orders on his illegal constructions—rows and rows of ugly structures, which were pulled down only after his death.
Another top Ikhwani joined pro-India politics. He had a palatial house built in a posh area generally reserved for bureaucrats. He started his own political party, which till last year paid poor Kashmiris a hundred-rupee note each to join his election rallies.
Farooq Abdullah’s government started the process of integrating Ikhwanis into regular forces. Some Ikhwanis were recruited to form the Special Operations Group (SOG), a mercenary wing of the Kashmir police. Last year when protests broke out against Indian rule over the Amarnath land deal, I saw dozens of SOG men beat up villagers who were peacefully protesting. The SOG men, all drunk, pounced upon the people like hungry wolves devouring a kill, leaving behind streams of blood and gore. For the few years that I was away in Delhi, I had almost forgotten such typical dreadful sights in Kashmir.
Also activated last year was the Mehndi Kadal camp of the Ikhwan. Ikhwanis in that camp were the ones integrated into India’s territorial army. Mehndi Kadal was the third Ikhwan camp in the town—also housed in a large Pandit house. Standing right in front of the main police station in Anantnag, the camp tortured people and dared them to go and register complaints with the police. Last year I passed the Mehndi Kadal camp every single day, on my way to work and back. Over the run down fence I would see Kashmiris in Indian army fatigues roaming about with rifles slung down their shoulders. There were Indian soldiers too, but they seemed to be largely manning the gates.
The Indian soldiers had a Kashmiri Ikhwani commander, an illiterate man known for his stutter and for killing dozens of people. It sometimes gave me a fleeting sense of unexplainable pleasure to see the equations changed. For once a Kashmiri was ordering the Indians to stand in line! But the moment would immediately pass. The man was a killer, who had harassed, tortured, and killed his own people.
“Own people”? Ikhwan in Arabic means “brotherhood.” In Anantnag, the brothers have wreaked havoc. For the last 16 years they have visited unimaginable suffering upon the town’s residents, and worse on the neighboring villagers. The brothers have a bloody trail behind them. The brutal irony of the brotherhood is probably illustrated by the case of three famous brothers from Anantnag: the eldest was a famous JKLF commander, who was arrested in the early 90s and released after 16 years in jail, and then shot dead a month later; his younger brother, who was roasted alive by the Indian army camping on the hill; and the youngest brother who, seeing all this became, a vicious Ikhwani!
Today I read in the newspapers that the Mehndi Kadal camp was closed down on court orders. Although the camp will be relocated into the army area, I still think it is great news. Every time a camp, a bunker, a picket, is removed, it is a joyous moment. It means a little less fear, a little less chance of torture, and a little less threat to life for the people.