Two elite commandos of the Indian Air Force were killed, the first casualties from the air arm of the Indian armed forces in the valley in decades, in a counter-insurgency operation in north Kashmir’s Hajin area, an erstwhile base of the dreaded pro-India militia Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon.
The encounter that left four people dead, including two Indian Air Force Garud commandos, comes at a time when forces are shifting their attention towards north Kashmir after launching an "all-out operation" in south Kashmir.
Sergeant K Milind Kishor and Corporal Nilesh Kumar Nayan were killed in a gunfight with a group of militants hiding in the area. Both of them were recently deployed in Kashmir for operational experience and training purposes.
"They (Garuds) had come here for the first time for the operational experience," Indian Army spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia told Firstpost.
The slain militants have been identified as Nasrullah Mir, a local, and Abu Bakr. Both were from the Mehmood group of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which police said, was responsible for the killing of Border Security Force (BSF) soldier Mohammad Ramzan Parrey.
Ramzan was killed by militants after a minor scuffle with four armed men near his house. The gunmen had returned 15 minutes after letting him go initially, and had directly barged into his home and had shot him dead.
The gunfight started when forces laid a siege at Rakh area, in a neighboring village of Parrey’s.
From home of counter-insurgency to militancy
Hajin was once home to the once-dreaded Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, a home-bred counter-insurgency militia operating mainly out of Bandipora and its adjoining areas.
Feared by the local populace for their brutality, Ikhwanis, as they came to be known as, enjoyed complete impunity. They didn’t exist on paper, so their crimes — ranging from rape to extortion and murder — went unpunished; their status in the security grid bestowed on them the factor of complete deniability. When the horrors of these men came to the light, no one owned them.
But that time is long gone now.
Now Hajin resembles a ghost town in the evening. Hardly anyone ventures out of their homes. The streets are deserted and a drop of pin silence takes over; a throwback to the early 1990s when the writ of Kuka Parry, a folk singer-turned-head of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, ran large in the area.
Something changed in Hajin on 13 September 2003, when Kuka was gunned down by the militants. His death had come years after Ikhwani gangsters spread mayhem by indulging in kidnapping civilians, extortion, torture, rape and murder, with complete impunity from the state.
Today, even in his death, Kuka remains under the watchful eyes of the security personnel who couldn’t save him from the militants. Kuka lays buried in the courtyard of his heavily guarded house, barely fifty metres from the place were BSF constable Ramzan was shot dead.
Hajin, too, has come a long way. Ant it's slowly changing its perception from being erstwhile headquarter of Ikhwanis to a stronghold of foreign militants. And this feeling is present in the air, the mysterious appearance of these cluster of villages or the accompanying street talk.
At the crossroads
In these tense times, Ghulam Nabi Parray, a resident of the Parray Mohalla in Hajin, orders his family to gather in one room of their house as night approaches. Shops are shuttered hours ahead of schedule and villagers prefer to stay inside their homes instead of, say, taking an evening stroll.
Nabi, 75, has seen worse. In the early 1990s, visitors took extra precautions before going to Hajin. People with beards avoided visiting these cluster of villages located amid lush green trees and large swathes of orchards, fearing persecution at the hands of the government-backed gunmen.
"I have seen the rule of both the militants as well as the Ikhwanis," Nabi told Firstpost, as we sat at a shop front in Parray Mohalla, 50 meters from Kuka's house and 100 metres from the house of Ramzan.
As he spoke about the early 1990s and the changes that took place in villages and Mohallas across this area, he sounded like a man without hope.
A graffiti drawn with charcoal read: “Go India! Go back!”
Another said, “Land of Arhan,” signifying a major shift that has taken place in last seventeen years in Hajin.
It is not that Hajin in north Kashmir is what Tral is in south Kashmir, but it sits at the crossroads of an extremely important geographical location. Two important roads going towards Bandipora on one side, and Baramulla on the other, pass through these clusters of villages. It was, and still remains, a transit route for militants who sneak into Kashmir through the Line of Control (LoC).
That could well explain the reason why Hajin remains an area where the highest number of militants were killed in north Kashmir this year.
At one point, separatists won’t even dare to go to Hajin due to the fear of Ikhwanis, but in recent years, it has served as a base to more than two dozen hardcore foreign militants, which police sees as a "change of heart" among its residents.
"When a trend emerges in Hajin, it is replicated elsewhere," Abdul Nazir Parry, a shopkeeper sporting a flowing beard in his early forties said, "Hajin was the area which first started coming to the rescue of the militants in north Kashmir when Burhan was alive. Later it was followed by others."
But the change that has swept the region began way back in 2008 when Kashmiris were on the streets protesting the transfer of land to a Hindu Shrine board.
Hajin gets its own militant
Despite producing hundreds of counterinsurgents, Hajin didn't have a militant for nearly 21 years until May 2017.
Jawhaira Begam struggled with the idea of her 18-year-old son joining militancy for weeks, but before she could make peace with it, her son's body returned wrapped in a bed sheet while a sea of mourners gathered in the courtyard of her home. It was the last time she would see her eldest son Abid Hameed Mir, also known as Arhaan.
A short, round-faced and board shouldered teenage boy with a short unkempt beard,
A former student of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Arhaan left home for his college in Srinagar on 12 May, where he was a first-year student. He never returned. He had signalled to his mother that he would soon be joining militancy for what he said was "the oppression" that "I can't bear".
"When he first told me that he wanted to become a militant, I never took him seriously," said Begam. She lives in a single storied house, which has a sprawling kitchen garden and looks well-furnished with few books on Islam and a copy of Koran on top of a shelf in the lobby.
"I have a regret. He never spent time at home. Earlier, he was in a boarding school, then in college in Srinagar, and finally, he has left forever. We never had a militant in this area," she said.
"The area which was once known after Kuka is now identified for Arhaan and Nasrullah," she said, referring to another militant who also left on the same day from Hajin, and was killed on Wednesday.
Arhaan, as his friends would prefer to call him, become the Haijin's first militant. He operated in Sopore town, where he was killed on 5 August.
As you drive past the cluster of villages and through the sleepy town of Hajin with river Jehlum on one side, Arhaan's name crops up at shop fronts and on the bare walls, like that of Burhan Wani in south Kashmir.
According to police records, more than two dozen militants are active in Bandipora district, seven of them in Hajin. But privately they admit that there are more than 13 in Hajin area alone, all of them foreigners except one.
Home of foreign militants
When the foreign militants started appearing in the villages and across the narrow lanes of Hajin, people who had been associated with Ikhwan were the first to feel the pinch.
"They initially made contact with some former Ikhwanis and assured them that history was history," said Shakeel Ahmad, a resident of Hajin.
“Most of the Ikhwanis thought that this was some sort of amnesty. It was a clever move to establish a network of overground workers who would prove to be an asset when it comes to lodging and boarding," a senior police officer said.
But then a headless body of 24-year-old Muzaffar Parray, a known pro-freedom activist, was found near the river Jhelum in August. His body was found with both hands tied with a rope behind the torso. The LeT blamed the Indian forces, but police officials claim it was the militants who killed Muzaffar.
Muzaffar's death, followed with that of Rashid Billa, a member of the Ikhwan ul Muslimeen, who was wanted in connection with the infamous Saderkoot massacre, changed the narrative in Hajin.
According to Inspector General of Police North Kashmir Nitish Kumar, while the security apparatus in Jammu and Kashmir remains focused on south of Kashmir from the last two years, Hajin along with Bandipora has become home to many foreign militants with 80 to 85 of them in north Kashmir and majority of them being foreigners.
"One side of the story is that there is a fear of militants among the population in the area, which is the reason why many people who sided with the government have switched over," MLA Mohammad Akhbar Lone, said.
When asked when was the last time he visited the area, he said he could not remember.
But Hajin doesn’t forget. "Something has happened. We are ashamed of our history because of the Ikhwanis. The younger generation wants to change that," Nabi, a shopkeeper said in Parray Mohalla.
“That may well explain why the wave is blowing in a completely different direction,” he adds.
Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 20:05 PM