Srinagar: The killing of pro-freedom leader Mir Hafizullah in Kashmir’s Anantnag is the third targeted political assassination of Hurriyat members in the last three months. Before him, Shakir-ul-Rehman Sultani of Sopore and Tariq Ahmad Ganie of Shopian were killed by unknown gunmen in September and October, respectively. Like Mir, who was heading Anantnag district for politically influential Tehreek-e-Hurriyat – the amalgam founded by Syed Ali Geelani – the duo was also part of the Hurriyat Conference led by Geelani.
There are many coincidences and similarities in the life and death of the slain Hurriyat members, which gives rise to speculations about the motive of their killings. The trio was instrumental in rallies during the public uprising at the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. Later, they were among 524 persons booked by the Mehbooba Mufti-led government under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) in a sweeping crackdown to curb protests. Oddly, they were shot dead outside their homes a few months after their release from jails.
Although the killings of pro-freedom leaders and activists are not new to Kashmir but since the militancy transformed from high intensity to low intensity beginning 2005, political assassinations faded. Besides waning militancy, the curtailment was widely a consequence of the irrelevance of the notorious government sponsored Ikhwan (counterinsurgent group) once its dreaded chieftain Mohammad Yusuf Parray alias Kuka Parray was killed in 2003. Accused of torture, harassment and extortion, the civil militia rampantly executed people, especially those with strains of Jamaat-e-Islaami ideology. According to Al-Jazeera, the popular religio-political party lost 2,000 of its members and supporters to the Ikhwan. Another 1,000 were subjected to enforced “disappearance”.
In the wake of the killing of a second Hurriyat leader in Shopian, panic slowly but steadily seeped into the ranks of pro-freedom groups. Spooked by threats, many including Hafizullah relocated to relatively safe urban pockets. The father of five had returned to his home in Achabal only a day ago.
While police have blamed militants for the killings, separatists and militants have quickly rebutted the charge. No substantial evidence has so far come up from either side to back their divergent allegations. Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Geelani noted with concern that the killings were aimed at “weakening” Tehreek-e-Hurriyat.
Geelani, who is under house arrest for years now, said Jamaat members were selectively targeted during the peak of armed militancy. “Now again, it looks like agencies are out to implement the (kill) list prepared in 2016 and they have started from TeH,” he said.
The 88-year-old was alluding to the “kill list” which surfaced in the news during the 2016 protests. According to Geelani, people including “pro-freedom leaders and activists, civil society members, business leaders, government employees and journalists”, who “have not succumbed to their machinations” will be wiped out. The government does not lend any credence to this list. “There is no truth in it,” said a police officer, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Depending on who one talks to, there are multiple versions about the killings. For the rank and file of separatists and even militants, the assassins are agency-sponsored, a reference to Indian intelligence agencies. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, whose father was assassinated allegedly by militants in 1990, together with Geelani and Mohammad Yasin Malik has blamed the government for Hafizullah’s killing.
“The authorities tried to break his (Mir’s) will and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not toe their line,” said the trio. “When they failed to cow him down, they decided to eliminate him physically.” It was almost an iteration of what they said about the previous killings as well.
United Jehad Council, a grouping of Kashmir militant outfits based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, also called it a “handiwork of Indian agencies”, in a statement issued by its chief, Syed Salahudin.
Except for speculative allegations, Hurriyat and militants have not substantiated their account with credible evidence. In the aftermath of Hurriyat members’ killing in Sopore, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) established a high-level panel for investigating the “gruesome murder”. Two months into the probe, the outcome is yet to be known. A JRL leader gave an unsatisfactory reply. “We are under arrest”, he said, explaining why the murder could not be investigated.
Rigidness, or steadfastness, like in the 88-year-old ailing Geelani, is considered a “worthy quality” of a leader in Kashmir, where public figures including Kashmir’s erstwhile tallest leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah abandoned their political trajectories midway. But all the three slain Hurriyat leaders have been described as “devout”, with “organizational skills” to hold rallies. This, internally Hurriyat leaders say, led to their killing as they would never “succumb” despite being put behind bars.
“Their stand was unwavering – like a solid rock battling gushing waters. They were a replica of Geelani,” a Hurriyat leader said. “As a result, they turned into eyesores, and were put to rest once for all.”
As the quandary deepens, the killings have also revived discourse of “Islamic State” and Zakir Musa, who threatened to cut heads of Hurriyat leaders more than a year ago.
A senior police officer, who did not shirk from accusing militants for the killing of the Hurriyat leaders, admitted there was a “murkiness” that new militant outfits had created in the militant landscape of the region.
“Divergent ideologies and causes are bound to trigger doubts anywhere, not just in Kashmir. It was reflected in the occasional internecine battles,” he said, referring to the group clashes among militant outfits during peak militancy in the ’90s. Those years saw the assassination of several unarmed people who were sympathetic to either of the warring groups. In fact, Hurriyat Conference leader Prof Abdul Gani Bhat in 2011 openly blamed militants for some prominent political assassinations.
At Kashmir University, a political science teacher, however, explains that in a conflict with multiple groups and divergent ideologies, it is “impossible” to pinpoint who killed whom unless the attack is owned.
“Lack of responsibility shrouds the case in doubt and triggers confusion among people,” he said. “Confusion favours the various stakeholders. It was there in the ’90s and nothing has changed even now.”
The political scholar remarked, “In a war, both sides can exploit each other,” and Kashmir is no exception to this.