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Lessons from Irfan: being civilian or militant is a game of chance in Kashmir

Hilal Mir | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:15 IST

The picture

  • Six people were killed in Sopore in three weeks.
  • Police blamed the militant Qayum Najar, put up his poster.
  • It offers Rs 10 lakh reward to help find Najar.

The detail

  • But the face on the poster is of shopkeeper Irfan Shah.
  • The police claim he\'s a look-alike.
  • Irfan has the original photo. SP confirms he\'s not a militant.

The background

  • Security forces have passed off civilians as militants before.
  • Innocent people have been killed for promotions and rewards.
  • Mostly, investigations only serve to protect the state.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police are looking for Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant Abdul Qayum Najar, who they blame for a series of attacks on telecom outlets and the killing of six people in Sopore.

So they put up posters offering a Rs 10 lakh reward for information on him.

The face on the poster, however, was not Najar's. It was of a 26-year-old shopkeeper in Kupwara district.

Kupwara is about 50 km from Sopore. If it hadn't been for calls from anxious relatives and friends, the shopkeeper, Irfan Shah, may have remained unaware of the damning poster - until someone falsely turned him in as a militant.

Luckily for him, he was alerted. Irfan went to Kupwara's superintendent of police to inform him about the mistake. Convinced of his innocence, the SP gave him a character certificate - affirming the shopkeeper was not a wanted militant.

He has, however, reportedly asked him not to venture out of the district for a month.

No country for innocence

Absurd as this is, the police passing a civilian off as a wanted militant hasn't surprised many in Kashmir.

It's not that long since a top police officer was imprisoned for picking up a hawker and an Imam, murdering them in cold blood and declaring them 'foreign militants'. All for promotions and hefty cash rewards.

That is probably why Irfan's story didn't even make the front pages of the valley's leading dailies.

In fact, the incident is being joked about. The police have deliberately used an innocent man's picture, the joke goes, so that if someone says, 'This person is not Qayum Najar', he will be immediately arrested and asked, 'Who is Qayum Najar then?'

Still, the episode has again underscored the brazen culture of impunity in Kashmir.

A villager was jailed for months because he happened to be separatist leader Yasin Malik's namesake

DIG, North Kashmir, Gareeb Das's defence is telling: "If the photograph used in our poster is examined by experts, they will be able to pick out many differences," he told The Indian Express. "The shopkeeper is actually a lookalike of the wanted militant." The DIG's argument is that the police had not callously used Irfan's picture and tried to pass him off as a militant; that the two are actually lookalikes.

He is wrong. It does not take even an expert eye to establish the malafide. There are glaring similarities between the picture in the poster and Irfan's photo with his nephew, which he says is the source of the police's 'evidence'. The police seem to have merely taken Irfan's photo, cropped the cousin out, flipped it 180 degrees, and faded out his shirt. Even a cursory look shows that the blue of the cousin's shirt still lingers behind Irfan's face in the police poster. (See the lead diptych photo).

Culture of impunity

The police do not have a picture of Najar, who is believed to have joined the militancy in the early 90s and is now in his early 40s.

But when Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed ordered a 'time-bound' inquiry (which, ironically, had no deadline) into the attacks, and the anger kept mounting in Sopore, the police just put a face to Najar. It didn't matter that it wasn't his.

There are reasons why none of this is surprising. The disregard for facts, and an almost automatic urge to protect the state, is the hallmark of most police investigations.

Just two days prior to this, Srinagar's police chief Amit Kumar announced the outcome of such an investigation.

A court had asked him to look into the Hurriyat Conference's complaint that a former counter-insurgency police officer Ashiq Bukhari had been asked to assassinate one of its leaders, Masrat Alam.

Bukhari, who reportedly joined the ruling PDP after his retirement, had told a senior journalist that former chief minister Omar Abdullah had offered him money to kill Alam, the key mobiliser of mass street protests in the valley since 2008.

However, after probing the allegation, Kumar told the court the journalist had 'distorted' what was 'only a casual talk between him and Bukhari'.

In north Kashmir, security forces have collected details about each family, including phone numbers & pictures

Had a civilian indulged in 'casual talk' of such nature, he would've been jailed under the reviled Public Safety Act, under which a person can be imprisoned for two years without trial on the flimsiest of charges.

Indeed, in a case somewhat similar to that Irfan's, a Mohammad Yasin Malik from Baramulla district was once arrested because he happened to be the namesake of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik. This was sometime in the 1990s. Malik was travelling to visit his relatives in Pakistan and he was held at the Wagah border.

It took him months in prison to prove that he was not the separatist leader.

No small mistake

It is easy to dismiss the poster episode as a goof-up - that inadvertently might have cost a man his life. The police would certainly like to call it so, if at all they would.

However, take into account the ubiquity of the security apparatus and its panoptic surveillance, it seems impossible that a force fighting an insurgency for the past 25 years would mistake a shopkeeper for a militant. Especially in Kupwara, a border district with the highest concentration of the armed forces in the valley.

In most of north Kashmir, and some areas in the south, houses have been marked with numbers, a sign that these have been surveyed by the army and, in some cases, the police. The security forces have collected details about the households and their members, including phone numbers and photographs.

In security-sensitive areas like Kupwara, the entire population has been mapped several times over. In some areas, the people are even required to report a guest's visit to the police.

Given the widely reported phenomenon of staged killings of civilians in Kashmir, the only good thing in this whole affair is that Irfan is still alive.

And he is one more statistical proof of the security agencies' cynicism in Kashmir.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 24 June 2015, 5:22 IST
Hilal Mir @seekinghilal

Hilal Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.