In light of the recent killing of the Sarpanch of a village in Sopore, Haziq Qadri and Qadri Inzamam take a closer look at this recent phenomenon of unknown gunmen targeting members of the Panchayat in Jammu and Kashmir.
Three days after the assembly polls in North Kashmir’s Sopore, five unknown gunmen kidnapped a village headman in the Hygam area of the township. Next morning the bullet-ridden body of the village headman was recovered by the Kashmir police in the nearby apple orchards. The police registered a case and attributed the killing of the Sarpanch Ghulam Mohammad to ‘unknown gunmen’.
We talked to some of the families whose family member(s) – who had also been Sarpanches – were killed by unknown gunmen and tried to decipher the identity of these unknown gunmen.
On the evening of April 8, 2013, Ghulam Mohammad Lone, 50, was watering the bricks with his son in their under-construction house in Kulpora Pulwama of South Kashmir. In the dark, someone appeared suddenly behind Lone and asked him, “Are you Ghulam Mohammad Lone, the Sarpanch?” When Lone replied yes, the dark figure grabbed him by the head and shot a bullet in his forehead. He died on the spot while the assassin disappeared in the dark. Lone’s only son, Aijaz Ahmad, is the sole witness of the whole incident.
The killer was not a ghost who came and disappeared in the dark. But the truth is that the assassin is more mysterious than a ghost whose targets have been mainly Sarpanches, Panches and their families.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir has 4,128 Panchayats spread across 22 districts and about 33,000 Panchayat members. It includes about 29,000 Panches and 4,145 Sarpanches. The elections for the Panchayat’s were held in April 2011 in J&K, the first time since 1989 – the year when armed uprising began in the state. These elections were seen as the beginning of the new era of democracy, as people participated in large numbers in these elections.
The Panchayat members were elected for the local issues and to serve people at the grassroot level. However, a year after the election, a systematic killings of Panches and Sarpanches in Kashmir began by the hands of unknown gunmen whose motives remain as complicated as their own identity.
After the death of Ghulam Mohammad Lone, an FIR was lodged in the concerned police station. In the report, the police reported the assassin as a ‘unknown Gunman’ whose identity has not been revealed so far.
Hajra Bano, the wife of Lone, says that the police did not take any further action after registering the FIR. It has been more than a year since the incident, yet the police are clueless about the killer. But at the same time Lone’s family does not dare follow the case. “We do not want to invite more trouble now. Following the case might enrage the killers, and they might harm my son. I do not want that to happen,” says Bano.
The eye-witness of the incident and Lone’s only son, Aijaz Ahmad, 24, is in a dilemma about the killers of his father. “My father was an honest and generous man. He did not have any personal rivalries with anyone. I do not understand who killed him and why!” Aijaz says.
In the aftermath of the Sarpanch killings, pro-India political parties and the police blame the militants or the separatists for the killings while the separatists term it as a ‘grand conspiracy’ and un-Islamic and condemn it. The Panchayat elections were to be fought on non-party basis but most of the members recognised themselves with the major political parties of Kashmir, like the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party or the Congress. Many times, these political parties also blame one another for the killings, calling it a tactic to win the favour of the victims.
The killings became frequent during the Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly elections held this year in J&K. Thus, the killings were seen as an act of the militants to instil fear among the masses in order to hold them back from voting. But a section of people in Kashmir believe it is an act of the political parties to affect the polling results. “In areas where a certain party fears to lose, holding people back from voting in such areas may change the results. In such cases, political parties may resort to killing Sarpanches to instil fear among people,” says Zahid, a research scholar in the University of Kashmir.
Two months after the death of Lone, two militants of Hizbul-Mujahideen were killed in South Kashmir during a long gun-battle with the Indian forces. After the encounter was over and the militants were identified, the-then DIG of South Kashmir issued a press statement wherein he claimed that the slain militants had been responsible for the killings of the Sarpanches in South Kashmir, which included Aijaz’s father also.
Aijaz is skeptical about the press statement though. “After the militants were killed, only then it was declared that they had been responsible for the killing of my father. Why did the police not say it before the encounter? They easily blamed the dead, for they know they cannot speak,” Aijaz says.
Aijaz rules out the role of militants in the killing of his father, but then he is quick to add that he cannot be sure about anything. “Had it been the militants, they would have sent a warning or a letter in advance. But we cannot rule out any possibility,” he says.
On March 8 this year, Mohammad Shaban Dar, went to offer late evening prayers – Ishaa Nimaz – in a nearby mosque at his village Dogripora Pulwama in South Kashmir. As a routine, his son, Ghulam Mohammad Dar, would follow him some minutes later. That evening when his son went to the mosque, he did not find his father there. He searched for him around but did not find him anywhere. At last, Shaban’s dead body was found in the mosque lawn. He was shot in the head by unknown gunmen.
“I was a Sarpanch then. I thought then that it was because of my designation that my father was killed,” Ghulam Mohammad Dar, 50, says.
Soon after the incident, Dar tendered his resignation in the local newspapers and asked for an apology in his village mosque on a Friday. He wanted to alienate himself and his family from any political party.
But his resignation did not do him any good. Things turned murky when Dar’s brother, Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din was killed by four unknown gunmen in his home in the same village. Mohi-ud-Din was a carpenter.
“On November 16 this year, 4 masked men came to my brother’s house in the evening and asked for him. When they found him, he was shot at and he died immediately,” Dar says.
Dar is perplexed about the two killings in his family. “If my father’s killing was because of my Sarpanch post, why was my brother killed then?” Even now, Dar and his family feel insecure and threatened by any stranger and live in acute fear.
“In the early days, one would know about who killed whom and why. But now everything is obscure and mysterious,” Dar says. In both the killings, the police registered a FIR and attributed the killings to unknown gunmen. The investigation in both the cases has shown no progress ever since the incidents happened.
Ever since they were elected in 2011, at least 11 Sarpanches and Panches have been assassinated and around 100 of them have been wounded in target attacks by unknown gunmen.
Shafiq Mir, Chairman of the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference says that, ever since the targeted attacks on the Sarpanches began, the whole institution of Panchayat has become dysfunctional. Around 1000 members of the Panchayat system have tendered their resignation and apologised to the public.
On May 13 this year, few days ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in South Kashmir, 3 men in the Indian army uniform accompanied by a local civilian knocked at the door of Mohammad Amin Pandit, 43, the Sarpanch of Gulzarpora Pulwama. It was evening time and Pandit’s wife, Shameema, only noticed the army uniform. The three unknown men took the Sarpanch along with them on the pretext of getting to know the address of a house.
“15 minutes later, we heard a few gunshots. We were terrified. I rushed out of the house and reached near the graveyard. I saw my husband lying there in a pool of blood,” Shameema says. The killers in this case also were not identified and in the FIR, the police attributed the crime to unknown gunmen.
FIR copy of Ghulam Muhammad Lone’s assassination which terms the killers as ‘namaloom’ (Unknown).
Shafiq Mir says that the government has been clueless about the killers of Panchayat members and terms it as the failure of the Omar-led government. He adds that their association is in a dilemma about the killers. “We are puzzled about who kills them and why. Our doubt sometimes goes on the militant groups because of their press statements wherein they castigated our role, but when political parties blame one another for these killings, the whole story becomes even more murky and complicated. We are clueless so we call them unknown gunmen,” he says.
Without being clear about the identity of the killers, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir division, Abdul Ghani Mir says that the police department has been investigating the cases and rebuts the claim of being clueless. When contacted, DIG, South Kashmir, Alok Kumar, refused to talk on the subject. But these families of the Sarpanches as well as Shafiq Mir say that that either the police is clueless about the killers or it is trying to blanket the issue – something that makes these systematic killings a complicated case.
In three years, the government has not been able to solve a single case of Sarpanch killing. In such conditions, the unknown gunmen are still at large which poses a great threat to the lives of other Panchayat members. Will these unknown gunmen ever be identified? This mystery remains unsolved.