Yasin Itoo’s funeral provided a glimpse to thousands of the legend his life did become
Nagam: Monday was no ordinary day for the people of this small town in Chadoora area of Budgam district. Thousands of people converged on its streets amid a downpour to attend the funeral of Yasin Itoo who went by the alias Mehmood Gaznavi.
It was the second time that family members, friends and neighbours bid farewell to one of the longest surviving militants in Kashmir. In 2015, residents of this village had offered funeral prayers in absentia when news broke that Yatoo had died in an accident on the Line of Control (LoC). The news later turned out to be false. On Monday, the body actually lay motionless in front of them.
The Hizb operations commander was killed in a gunfight with government forces in Shopian on Sunday. People offered four rounds of funeral prayers, the organisers having to request mourners to leave the premises to make way for more
Itoo’s body had arrived the night before. Police informed his family of the death and handed over the body at Zainpora police station in Shopian. As news of the handover reached here, villagers made preparations for a quick funeral. “It is advised (in Islam) that a body be buried as soon as possible,” said one among the volunteers, who took upon themselves the task to conduct the event “smoothly”. But the volunteers underestimated the challenge that Itoo’s funeral posed.
A platform put together at one end of the large playground in the government Girls Higher Secondary School elevated Itoo’s body for public viewing. Within half an hour, the platform had collapsed. A fencing wall, which people jumped over to enter the compound as its single entrance was overcrowded, also collapsed. Between Itoo’s house and the school, separated by the road that leads to Charar-e-Sharief town, the body made several rounds – the uncontrolled energy of people had taken over from the organisers.
Amid the frenzy, the gathering shouted all kinds of slogans: pro-independence and pro-Pakistan, support for militants alive and prayers for the ones who have died. Ironic as it might be, the slogan chanted most, by men and women, at slain Hizb commander’s funeral was “Musa Musa, Zakir Musa”. Itoo’s last statement denouncing Zakir’s breakaway from Hizb-ul-Mujahideen as “an attempt to divide the Kashmiri nation” had come only four days ago.
“The doors of Hizbul Mujahideen are always open for them,” Itoo had said to the militants who had joined Zakir Musa’s Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind. In a video statement released on July 8, Itoo had said that the Azadi vs Islam debate was meant to create “confusion”. “We know that the fight to free the land from the occupier is itself a fight for Allah,” Itoo said in the video.
Many believe the “Zakir Musa” slogan has a rhythm to it, which is why gatherings chant it.
When the crowd finally relented, after wave after wave of people had viewed, touched, and recorded Itoo’s face on cellphone cameras, the body was brought to his home. Men and women of the house took turns to touch his face and then touch their own faces. Some even touched his feet to their eyes – something not encouraged in the religious practice Itoo’s family follows. Till the time his body was lowered in the grave, people kept touching it in reverence.
Many in this village vouch that Itoo’s fame was “hard earned”. “He had never used his position to harm anyone,” said a neighbour, Nasrul Mir. “Since the time he was released, we have known him in many ways: preacher, reformer, educator. Not many of us will leave a lucrative (private) coaching business to take up a gun. He did.”
Mir was talking about Itoo’s stint with business, when he ran a private tuition centre and managed it for two years till the end of 2001. But he again joined militants, and was arrested again. This had been his third spell as an “active militant” since 1996, when he first crossed over to Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) for arms training.
But police records suggest he had never given up his role in Hizbul Mujahideen and was active throughout the period he spent out of jail. In 2004, when he was again released after spending time in Kot Balwal Jail and Central Jail Srinagar, he ‘recycled’ immediately and was yet again arrested in 2006. He again spent two years in prison.
By the time the 2008 uprising happened, Itoo had begun to play a role in motivating people. For his sermons in 2010, and for leading processions, police saw him as a ‘major factor’ in the success of pro-freedom political organisations. This time, police invoked the Public Safety Act twice to keep him in jail till April 21, 2015.
Even after he was released, police kept a close watch on him and on his family. That was when Yatoo’s death was “faked”. By February 2016, police had again started to receive reports about Itoo’s activities in south Kashmir.
Itoo’s life story – from the time he first joined militants to his ascension to the operations ladder of Hizb – is now legend. Police reports only substantiate it. In their records, he was the hook that anchored Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir. Accounts by his friends tell a similar tale. Sheikh Musaib, a former militant who spent time with Itoo in jail, wrote on his Facebook wall of a conversation with Itoo’s father. “I remember my last meeting with him when he was released. I visited his home to see him. While leaving, I told his father: Yemis Gov Ven Khor Gandh Karrun (You should now get him married). To this, Itoo had replied, “Tohi Koruv Na Setha Chu (You married, is that now enough?)”