Faith, rumors, and money: Srinagar family’s quest to find Hilal — in vain

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In the search for his missing brother, Irshad Dar has scoured Kashmir’s wilderness and corridors of power for eight months — in vain.

For the small business owner, days turned into weeks and weeks into months but no official could reassure Irshad that his brother would be found. “Everyone used sympathetic words,” Irshad said, “but that hasn’t translated into anything.”

The determined Irshad kept looking — he rented a room in Naranag, a village at the foothills of two mountains to sleep the nights as he frantically searching the forest above during the days. 

Irshad, a resident of Srinagar’s Bemina neighborhood, went everywhere where rumours took him that his scholar brother Hilal Dar, 26, met a terrible fate in the forests, possibly murdered, or he had joined the militancy.

On 14 June last year, Hilal was, along with four others, had gone on a trek to the Kolsar Lake through the Gangbal forest of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. He was supposed to return by evening but he disappeared without a trace.

In the quest for his brother, Irshad ended up at the doors of politicians, waiting for officers — with stars or no stars at all, hoping for a lead.

In return for money

In helplessness, Irshad entangled himself with brokers who claimed access to administration and shamans who claimed access to the spirit world — all offering to find Hilal, the promising young postdoctoral scholar at the Kashmir University, for a fee.

To start with, the Dar family paid 70,000 rupees to a trekking agency for a private search in the Gangbal forest for five days, said Irshad. “After that [the trekking agent] called again, saying that he would search for another day for ten thousand rupees more,” he recalled. “I was shocked at what he was telling me.”

Irshad also sought the help of a prominent politician who has a wide influence on the population living close to the Gangbal forest. The politician referred Irshad to the “Choudhary”, the head of a village close to the forest, forty kilometers northeast of Srinagar.

The “Choudhary” led Irshad to a one-legged man in his late 50s who in-turn took him to a shaman in Sumbal, about thirty-five kilometers towards Srinagar. The one-legged man brought along a young girl — he claimed that the shaman would find Hilal through her. 

The shaman gave the girl a potion and directed her to close her eyes as he asked her to describe what she saw. The girl had said that she saw Hilal falling down a gorge.

Taken aback by this, Irshad gave him some money and left. The very next day he travelled to the gorge but saw the “Choudhary” and his men, armed with sticks and spades, in the village’s market area. They claimed that they, too, had come to help look for Hilal. 

“I felt as if someone was playing a game with me,” said Irshad, explaining that he felt someone was trying to absolve themselves of a crime. “I felt that someone had harmed [Hilal] and this was how they thought they could lead me to [his body] by faking the shaman and his visions.”

Later, at the vision of another shaman, Irshad and his maternal uncle Nissar Ahmad travelled to the Ashmuqam shrine in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, about seventy kilometers south of Srinagar. “We reached there at 6 am but the shrine was locked owing to COVID,” the uncle said. “We simply came back.” 

Though Irshad has cut down on his visits to the shaman, in helplessness, he stays in touch with the one-legged man, “hoping to find something, anything.”

Dapaan

Where exactly is Hilal? The answer depends on who is asked. 

In recent years, every time a young Kashmiri man has disappeared, more often than not they end up joining the ranks of the militants. And if they don’t, the streets remain abuzz with rumours anyway. Hilal’s case is no different.

The rumours of Hilal becoming a militant were partly also attributed to him being a classmate of Junaid Sehrai, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant killed in May 2020 in Srinagar. Both pursued their Masters in Business Administration from the University of Kashmir. 

Adjacent to Gurez in the Bandipora district on one side and the Tral area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district on the other, the Gangbal forest where Hilal disappeared was once on the route of infiltrating militants. Last October, a major anti-militancy operation by the Indian Army in this area had stretched over ten days during which two militants were killed.

Irshad refused to believe that Hilal has joined the militancy — neither the police nor any militant organisation has admitted to this. “They are working at a very low-speed,” Irshad said of the police. “They spend millions on the police but they are still unable to crack this case.”

On 21 June 2020, however, rumours spread— through WhatsApp forwards and speculative stories in the local press — that Hilal had been cornered by the government forces in Srinagar. By late evening, Irshad heaved a sigh of relief as the rumours were not proven true.

However, two days later, the Inspector-General of Police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, in the presence of Director General of Police Dilbag Singh, stated during a press briefing: “Yes, as per our reports, Hilal Ahmed… has joined Hizbul Mujahideen. If his family brings him back, we will not arrest him.”

The statement from the chief of police threw the Irshad’s search efforts — joined by volunteers and locals from Naranag hired by Irshad — off track. “Everyone dispersed after that,” Irshad said. 

“They thought they were wasting their effort [searching for Hilal] when he was here [in Srinagar, in hiding]… that created a lot of problems.”

Once, Irshad recalled, a senior administration official had called him to say that Hilal had been spotted descending from the hills.

“He said that he had been seen getting on a scooter or a sumo [shared taxi],” said Irshad, adding that the multiple versions of what happened to Hilal had taken a deep mental toll not only on him but their extended family as well. 

Nissar, the uncle, said that if Hilal had joined the militancy, “wouldn’t the police have already known about it?”

Every night is becoming tougher for Irshad. He goes to bed daily to continue his search the next morning. “How can I sleep without knowing if he has eaten anything,” he said. “I go to bed thinking about [Hilal] and start the morning thinking whom to ask about him?”

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