When Safiya Bano met her militant son, it was surreal and brief — she knew that this would be the last time, it was farewell. In what felt like sixty seconds that she remained inside a besieged mosque, Bano couldn’t talk much.
Her son Muzamil Manzoor Tantray was moments away from his death and she had gone in to convince him to surrender and live. “I feel the sun didn’t rise that day,” she said. “It was dark everywhere.”
Muzamil along with four militants had barricaded himself inside the Masjid Usman in Shopian town of south Kashmir when the army and police had cordoned the area in April.
A fierce firefight had followed that continued into the night and next morning and Bano had heard the thuds at her home, at the time she was unaware that it was her son engaged in a lengthy gunbattle — his last.
Bano said the whispers generated on the internet that Muzamil was trapped at the mosque reached her in the morning, more than sixteen hours after the firefight had begun. The firefight was briefly paused when she and her family decided to go to convince him to lay down his arms.
The troopers, as part of a policy to give militants a chance to surrender, allowed Bano — along with her husband, mother, and brother — to get Muzamil to surrender. What they saw inside the mosque had left them with a sinking heart immediately.
When Bano opened the mosque’s door, she saw her son holding assault rifles in both his hands. It was after two years and eleven days, she said, that she was meeting him.
The mosque resembled scenes of an intense battle: the walls were pockmarked with hundreds of bullets and broken pieces from the shattered windows scattered all over the floor where devotees prostrate. Three militants lay dead.
“Why have you come here,” Muzamil told his mother. “Leave quickly, and save yourselves.”
Bano wanted to talk to him and had thought of what to say, but Muzamil didn’t let her speak. He fired a burst into the air even as his own mother stood in front of him. “He had affection for us but that time there was nothing,” she said. “We couldn’t go near him, he didn’t allow us.”
Bano’s attempt to make her son surrender had failed. The policy of encouraging militants to surrender has rarely been successful as, in several cases like Bano’s, the family often fails to convince their militant kins to surrender.
“We called [Muzamil’s] brother at 1 in the night and he went inside. In the morning, his father and mother went inside,” Major General Victor Force, Rashim Bali told reporters later. “We tried everything we could,” he added.
Ashiq Tantray hadn’t seen his brother for the past two years. He was allowed to go inside the mosque during the dead of the night. It was the first failed attempt to convince Muzamil to surrender.
As Ashiq opened the door, the thought of seeing his brother petrified him even more as he wasn’t sure what he would say to his brother. He went inside the room and saw Muzamil standing, that time also two Kalashnikovs in his hands. “He embraced me as soon as he saw me and took me to a corner,” he said.
Ashiq took a quick glance at the room which was dimly lit. “I saw three dead bodies covered in blood and dust,” he said. “Then I looked around and saw my brother … he had two guns (one from a killed militant) in both hands.”
Ashiq conveyed to Muzamil the message relayed by the police: surrender. “Just ask for my forgiveness from my family and don’t come here again even if they force you,” Aashiq remembers his brother having told him instead.
“My brother wasn’t afraid. I could see it in his eyes,” Ashiq said. “He was saying he won’t surrender with confidence”.
Bano’s description of her last meeting with her son gives a rare insight into the last moments of militant life — when they are actually involved in their last gunbattles.
The gunfight with the heavily armed Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) militants at Masjid Usman had begun on the afternoon of 8 April and continued till noon the next day. All the five militants had Kalashnikov rifles, a rarity since the last two years that an entire squad was equipped with assault rifles.
Muzamil had joined AGH in 2019, just days before New Delhi abrogated Kashmir’s limited-autonomy and imposed a communication blockade.
In the two years in militant underground, Muzamil had featured in a lengthy militant video earlier this year and another one that was released posthumously. Muzamil was introduced by his nom de guerre: Mustafa Abdul Karim. As he talked with eloquence, elaborated AGH’s stand on issues and urged militants of other groups to abandon nationalism in favour of a pan-Islamist idea of jihad.
The AGH was founded in 2017 by militant commander Zakir Musa after his differences about the goal of the insurgency led to a rift between him and the Hizbul Mujahideen, of which he was a part till then. Musa distanced himself and his outfit from nationalism and denounced Pakistan.
Several dozen militants over the past years then switched allegiance to AGH – which since September 2019 is led by a militant who operates under the name Khalid Ibrahim – while many others joined it straightaway.
Back in the gunfight in Masjid Usman, Bano said her son was the last to get killed at 12:15 pm, nearly an hour after she had met him. “Even if I would have wanted to sit with him for a while and offer namaz, he wouldn’t allow it,” she said.
In August 2019, Muzamil had told the family that he was going back to the seminary outside Kashmir, where he was studying to become an Islamic scholar. He left just days before New Delhi imposed a lockdown in Kashmir on 5 August and abrogated its limited-autonomy.
Weeks later, when the government allowed Kashmiris to make brief phone calls from government offices, Ashiq called the seminary to find that Muzamil never reached his stated destination. “There was no word from him, he never contacted us. No one ever said that he saw him somewhere,” she said.
The Tantray family feared that Muzamil had died on the way. But when army troops began to raid their residence in Jamnagri village, nearly three months later, the family realised that Muzammil had become a militant.
Bano’s description of her militant son was a usual mother’s tale. “He was a kid, but he was very scholarly. He was mature… He was a different person, not like other kids,” she said. “He was kind hearted, he was like a tree with shade. Pious.”
After the gunfight had ended, the Tantray family reached the Police Control Room in Srinagar, where they waited for almost an hour to see their son’s body for a few minutes. There she saw his dead body. “He was shot here,” she pointed to the back of her head. “His eyes had bulged inwards. His ear had the marks of dried blood.”
The police wouldn’t allow her son to be buried close to her home. His body was taken in a police vehicle to the border town of Handwara. “I touched his feet and kissed them,” Bano said. “Even if I become dust, I will never forget my son.”