Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of destiny, is the most auspicious night in the Islamic calendar. It marks the high point of Ramadan, and most Muslims spend the night praying. Deputy superintendent of police Mohammed Ayub Pandith returned to his house in Nowpura in downtown Srinagar with the same intention on June 22. But he got a call from his office just after dinner and was asked to report for ‘access control duty’ at Jamia Masjid at Nowhatta, where separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq delivers sermons on Fridays and on Eid.
Pandith went to the mosque in mufti. Some people at the mosque grew suspicious seeing him recording the premises on his mobile phone (a police officer posted in the area said he was just marking his presence at the spot to show his seniors). They started questioning him, which soon became an altercation. Pandith whipped up his service revolver when the mob started attacking him and fired a few shots. Three people were injured, but the crowd pounced on him, stripped him and hit him with bricks and stones. A blow on his head with a pipe left him unconscious. The mob dragged his body out of the mosque’s compound and dumped it in a drain outside. They left him to die there.
Pandith’s ribcage and skull were crushed, said a relative. His relatives and colleagues could not identify him from an image circulated on WhatsApp. Initially, the police even denied reports that a policeman was lynched at Jamia Masjid. They became anxious only after realising that Pandith’s mobile phone was switched off. Pandith’s family was devastated when they identified his body at the police control room the following day.
The police have arrested five people, including the three who were injured in the firing, for killing Pandith. Twelve others have been identified as part of the mob which attacked Pandith, and the government has formed a special investigation team to probe the case.
The incident has brought to the fore the deepening divide between the police and people of Kashmir. So grave is the situation that a day before Eid, Director General of Police S.P. Vaid advised his men not to attend prayers at local mosques. Earlier, he had advised policemen from south Kashmir not to visit homes for three months.
While Pandith’s murder, which many fellow policemen attributed to the circumstance he found himself in, is the first of its kind in Kashmir, there is no denying that the hostility against the police has grown manifold. The first major attack on policemen happened on May 2, when militants killed five constables and two bank guards in Kulgam. On June 17, six policemen led by station house officer Feroz Ahmed Dar, 34, were killed in an ambush by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants at Achabal in Anantnag. The police killed three Lashkar militants, all locals, in retaliation five days later. The bodies of the militants were charred beyond recognition after the house they were hiding in was set ablaze by the police.
Pandith’s family, however, is not seeking revenge. “There should be a proper investigation into the matter,” said Abdullah Pandith, his elder brother and a leading criminal lawyer. “After that, it will become clear what exactly happened that night.” Abdullah has defended many civilians accused by the police of various crimes.
Pandith’s son Danish, 22, is yet to recover from the shock. He sobs every time someone mentions his father’s name. “I don’t want to talk about it; please talk to my cousin Omar Pandith,” he said, when asked about his father.
Omar said the family wanted the place where his uncle was murdered to be named as Shaheed Ayub Pandith Chowk. “That will be a tribute to my uncle, a gentleman who never harmed anybody.”
Ironically, the Pandiths have had a long association with the Mirwaiz family. “Many of our marriages were solemnised by the late Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq,” said a relative. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq sent a delegation to Pandith’s house to offer his condolences.
While Pandith’s tragic death got the attention of the nation, the families of other policemen killed in the line of duty have been left to deal with the tragedy by themselves. “I had only one son,” said Feroz Ahmed Dar’s father, Abdul Raheem. Feroz’s mother is yet to recover from the shock and she often runs out of the house screaming his name. Feroz’s wife, Mubeena Akhtar, and their daughters Addah, 5, and Simrah, 3, live with his parents at Sangam in Anantnag. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh had visited the family and promised help.
The family of Sabzar Ahmed, one of the five constables killed with Feroz, was expecting him home for an iftar when they heard about the ambush. “He had got married only a month and a half earlier,” said Sabzar’s father, Farooq Ahmed. “He joined the police because he wanted a job to stand on his feet. What else is there to look for employment?”
The Jammu and Kashmir Police is among the biggest employers in the state. But, over the years, it has become less attractive. That the increasing vulnerability and societal pressure are taking a toll on policemen is evident from the fact that some 700 of them with 20 years of service have applied for voluntary retirement. According to a report by Kashmir Vision, an English newspaper, those seeking retirement have cited personal reasons and not threats from militants. However, it is known that militants have many times in the recent past barged into policemen’s houses in south Kashmir and asked the women to persuade their men to quit their jobs.
The frustration of the policemen was evident in their reaction to the department’s decision to deduct a day’s salary for the welfare of the ‘martyrs’ families’. Senior police officers took to WhatsApp to give vent to their anger. “Are we fighting for ourselves or the government? Our men give blood, and face bullets and stones. Now we should give money, too,” wrote a senior police officer in a WhatsApp group. Another wrote: “If anyone’s salary needs to be deducted, it should be the ministers’, the legislators’, the judges’ and all government employees’ except the police.”
At the martyr’s graveyard in Ashtengoo in Bandipora, Shahzad Dilawar Sofi, a policeman killed on June 17, and Naseer Ahmed Sheikh, a civilian killed by security forces in Rangreth in Budgam, were buried side by side. The funerals were on the same day. While burying Sofi, they chanted, “Shahzad, your blood will bring revolution.” While burying Sheikh, they chanted, “Naseer, your blood will bring revolution.” (The Week)