By Raashid Hassan
Shopian: It has been 24 years since Ali Muhammad Bhat alias Salim Bader, a militant from Pargochi village in Shopian, was killed in an encounter with army in Pargochi village, but his memories are still fresh in the minds of the residents.
Residents have endured years of what they describe as “army terror” in the 1990s because of the man as the army hounded the village for four years looking for him, but Ali Muhammad is still their hero.
Villagers say that between the years 1991 and 1994, the Indian Army laid a siege to the village, beating, picking up and torturing many people while hunting for the famous militant Ali Muhammad, who was finally killed in a brief encounter in his native village of Pargochi on July 10,1994. He was 54 years old at that time.
“When the army killed Ali Muhammad, one of the army officers cursed himself when he saw an old man with grey hair and beard lying dead,” said Riyaz Ahmed, a resident of Pargochi.
Villagers recall Ali as a brave man of great strength. “He never feared the forces. Many times he showered them with bullets. Even the army feared him. The memory of Ali’s bravery is still alive in every household of the village and nearby areas,” said Gulzar Ahmad of the village.
A group of villagers told Reader that the constant crackdowns of the army lasted for over three years. “We never slept peacefully. We were always in fear of late-night raids and torture,” they said.
Villager Ghulam Ahmed recalled that Ali Muhammad used to have a strong and faithful horse, who saved Ali many times from army ambushes and cordons. “After Ali Muhammad was killed, the horse went mad and died after some months,” Ahmed said. He said that villagers still cite the example of that horse when they talk of faithfulness.
Villagers said that for over three years between 1991 and 1994, their relatives stopped visiting them and even marriages were cancelled because Pargochi and its adjoining villages were considered too unsafe.
A resident of the nearby Votepora village said that the army once brought three boys from Pargochi and beat them ruthlessly inside his home. “When the army soldiers left, we carried the boys to their homes as they were unable to walk,” he said.
Before 1990, when Pandits left Kashmir, Pargochi village had a Pandit majority. Villagers said that it was Ali Muhammad who saved the belongings of Pandits, including their houses, land and other property. “Ali warned all the villagers to stay away from the Pandit properties. I was 15 years old when Ali beat us because we had robbed some walnuts from a Pandit’s garden. He told us to never again think of robbing anything that belongs to the Pandits,” a resident of Pargochi said.
“Ali had a dream to educate everyone in the village. For that he distributed Islamic and scientific books among people. He also tried to open a Quranic learning center in the village,” said Muhammad Ayub, a resident.
Elders in the village said that they tried to prevent their children from participating in the 2016 uprising because they had not forgotten the excesses of government forces. “The whole village was in terror for about four years,” Mushtaq Ahmad, a native, said of those years. “The (armed) forces used to beat us daily. They even used to beat women. They tortured us by pulling out our nails, forcing us to eat chilly powder, pushing our heads into a bucket of water.”
Bilal Ahmad who lives in Pargochi recounted how he was tortured. “The forces took me to an isolated room and tortured me by putting chilly powder in my private parts. They wanted to get information about Ali,” he said.
An army major of the surname Pandey is still remembered by villagers as one of their chief torturers.
Irshad Ahmad, another villager, told Kashmir Reader that in the 1990s there was no media coverage of those tortures, brutality and harassment that the village faced at the hands of government forces.
“One of my brothers died after facing torture from the army soldiers. He fell ill for many months and was in trauma. He died battling his pain,” said a villager, who requested that his name be withheld.
According to a relative of Ali Muhammad, the army once tried to take away the wife of Ali’s brother for “investigation”. “As they tried to take her out of her house, villagers gathered and threw mud pots on the army soldiers. They succeeded in rescuing that lady. For me, that was the first instance I saw in Kashmir of stone-pelting and mud pots being thrown at government forces,” said Farooq Ahmad, a local.
“The army tortured every single man in the village, whether young or old. They once took three of us to an isolated room and put chilly powder in our mouths and private parts,” Farooq Ahmad said.