Ghost killers of Sopore

Martyrs graveyard Sopore. Photo: Muhabit-ul-Haq
Martyrs graveyard Sopore. Photo: Muhabit-ul-Haq

There have been six killings in row within three weeks in Sopore town of North Kashmir; one by one they were shot dead at point blank range. The pattern of killings remains same – unprovocative circumstances, unarmed civilians ‘targeted’ and gunned down. The latest ‘target’ was a former militant, Aijaz Ahmad Reshi who was shot dead in Mundji area of Sopore on Monday. According to police officials, reported by an English daily, “Reshi shunned militancy long time ago and was living a normal life.” Reshi’s death followed killing of an ex-militant, 24 hours ago, who had surrendered in 90s. He owned a poultry shop in the town and was killed in broad daylight. Now that looks like someone playing a video game, victim targeted-killed-killer chases another life.

But, it’s not a virtual world, it’s real, in Sopore civilians are being shot dead in cold blood.

Terror engulfed the streets of Sopore and adjoining areas on May 25 when telecommunication service operators were asked to shut down their businesses by a ghost militant outfit “Lashkar- e- Islam.” Ghost as, neither the state or central government or separatist factions nor United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of militant outfits headed by Syed Salahuddin, claimed to be associated with this newly sprouted militant group. Salahuddin is chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen – the indigenous militant outfit operating in Kashmir.

Post threats to shut down all mobile services by this supposedly local militant outfit, the fear continued for about 10-12 days, killing two, before mobile services resumed in the Valley. The search operation was put on place and security beefed-up around these mobile towers in order to foil any attack. While the operation to trace the hands behind the tower attacks, that seemingly is still going on, it followed more random killings in the town on 9, 12, 14 and 15 June.

On 15 June, the Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) SJM Gilani told reporters, “As of now it seems to be the act of the same group which carried the earlier (tower) attacks.” But, he added, it is not difficult to kill anyone randomly. He was referring to the subsequent killings.

On security of public who are being targeted randomly, he said, “It isn’t a group of 10 people or 100 people that we have to protect them. It is a random sort of a killing and they can kill people anywhere anytime. We can secure people only when we nab the attackers.”

Now, the jigsaw puzzle remained between – who is doing it, why is it happening and why are civilians being targeted in Sopore with an aim to get a clear picture, if there’s one.

Before trying to understand the latest set-up, if it’s so on the ‘killing spree’, it is important to comprehend a similar pattern of attacks that erupted during peak militancy phase in Kashmir. Henceforth, a culture that took birth in mid-90s was popularly called as Ikhwans, a pro-government militia, also called as ‘Naabedh’ in Kashmiri dialect.

Who were Ikhwans?

Interestingly, Ikhwans were none but the surrendered militants, who quit the active armed rebellion against the Indian forces for ‘Azadi’ or to free Kashmir. The simple role of Ikhwans was to counter the militant groups operating in the state, mostly Kashmir, they acted as informants to Army; in return, they were given stipend by the Indian security agencies, and a ‘sense of security’ was guaranteed to them for their cooperation.

The prominent names of pro-government militia included a folk singer-turned militant-turned-pro-India leader- turned politician Mohammad Yusuf Parray, aka ‘Koel’ or ‘Kuka Parray’ who carried anti-militant operation for a mid-ranking military intelligence officer called ‘bulbul’ in hard-hit Bandipora, North Kashmir. Later, he was assassinated in 2003. Others like him who joined the Ikhwan force were Javed Ahmad shah, the former National Conference MLC who began a parallel initiative backed by the State police’s Special Operations Group (SOG) in Srinagar and Liaqat Khan, who joined the movement shortly afterwards operating in Anantnag, South Kashmir.

By late 1994, three of their groups had coalesced into the feared Ikhwan force, and they began cooperating with the Army to catch and foil militant activities in the Valley. These groups were ethnic Kashmiri and instrumental in suppressing rebellion movement ahead of the 1996 Assembly elections. As they became informants to Indian security agencies, in one of the statements to a newspaper in 2003, Farooq Khan, who was then the SOG head, said, “Without these groups it would have been very difficult for the elections to have been held in a peaceful atmosphere.”

Later on, important figures from the Ikhwan contested the 1996 elections, but only Kuka Parray won a seat. Without staying away, Shah joined the National Conference.

After the 1996 elections, the Ikhwan was facing rough time. People disliked their ruthless tactics as well as Islamist propaganda campaigns and they also found the political establishment against them. In short, they had no public or popular support, militant attacks resumed. They were constantly targeted and killed by different active militant factions.

15 years later, Modi’s way to counter-militancy

The ruling BJP-PDP alliance, this year, vowed to run the state administration jointly and effectively despite ideological differences on political fronts. It not only accompanied resentment from pro-freedom and anti-India leaders, commonly called ‘separatists’ but it also brought a sense of insecurity among the populace in Kashmir.

The situation heated up from one of the incidents, in April, when hardline separatist Masarat Alam was arrested on sedition charges and waging war against the state for hoisting Pakistan’s flag in Kashmir to welcome Hurriyat (G) chief, Syed Ali Geelani, on his return from Delhi. Waving Pakistan flag was nothing new to Valley but it looked extraordinary to PDP’s new ally, the BJP, which termed it as anti-nationalistic and an act of terrorism.

What added fuel to the fire was when Indian minister Rajnath Singh reaffirmed BJP’s stand on abrogation of article 370, which guarantees a special status to Kashmir.

Also, in rebuke, India’s defense minister Manohar Parrikar, on May 22, said that Pakistan’s flag won’t be accepted on Indian soil and on eliminating militancy in the state, he said, “Will neutralize terrorist in J&K with terrorist.” This statement sparked a political row, opposition National conference as well as separatists in Kashmir hit out at the “PDP-BJP coalition government for trying to take back Kashmir to the early nineties” referring to reinstating ‘Ikhwan culture’.

The blame-game begins

Syed Salahuddin, Chief of United Jihad Council and Hizbul Mujahideen.

On Parrikar’s remark, Communist Party of India (CPM) refuted calling it as “intemperate”, adding that it’s “shocking call to act outside law and suggests patronizing state-sponsored terrorism….”

Parrikar’s statement drew serious condemnation from separatist leaders including SAS Geelani, 86, pro-freedom leader, since 1954 and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Yasin Malik, who was among the first to cross Line of Control (LoC) to get trained in Pakistan and part of the first militant outfit JKLF fighting against Indian rule. Malik later resorted to non-violent means. He called Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed’s silence on Sopore killings as “criminal in nature” and directly linked the defense minister’s remark to civilians being shot dead in the town.

On 13 June, National Conference working president Omar Abdullah also strongly criticized Parrikar’s “terrorist killing terrorist” strategy, while addressing a public gathering with party supporters in Srinagar city. He further added that such a statement “has already shown ugly results in Sopore where a killing spree has started.”

The Hurriyat (G) chief, Geelani, on 14 June, asked the Chief Minister to step down from his power, as he said, the Chief Minister has failed to maintain law and order in the Valley and save innocent lives. Geelani added that if he fails to effectively stop the ongoing bloodshed of common Kashmiris it will become an underlying fact that “he is playing the role of a facilitator in implementing this plot” to one’s understanding.

In a statement on 15 June, while condemning the Sopore killings, UJC spokesperson Syed Sadaqat Hussain quoting UJC chief said, “Civilian killings in Sopore is a plot of Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar, which is aimed at intimidating and killing of pro-freedom people in Kashmir, state police, task force and paid agents of India are part of this dreaded and shameful plot.”

Both the state and non-state actors accuse coalition partner BJP government of trying to revive the brutal years of 90s when Ikhwanis spurted like weeds spreading terror on streets of Kashmir.

Killing timeline

After Parrikar’s statement on 22 May, the frenzy horror began in Sopore town and nearby villages, the spree killers or untraceable ‘ghost gunmen’ on 25 May, fired at a franchise of telecom service provider – BSNL in Sopore killing a civilian and wounding two others including the franchise owner. On 27 May, a civilian who leased out his land to mobile company to set up a tower at Dooru village was killed. On 9 June, Sheikh Altaf-ur-Rehman, a pharmacist was shot dead. Altaf was said to be linked with the Hurriyat Conference led by Geelani. Another shopkeeper, Khursheed Ahmed Bhat from Bomai village was killed on 12 June. Most recent killings includes June 14, a surrendered militant was shot dead in Badamibagh area. Another former militant Aijaz Ahmad Reshi was killed, on 15 June, in Mundji area.

Upfront Parrikar

In an exclusive interview to Times of India, on 22 May, while clarifying his statement “terrorists should be neutralized by terrorists, he said, “Many terrorists are drawn into terrorism because of financial allurements… they are paid money for it. If such people are there, why not use them? What is the harm is using terrorists against terrorists? Why should our soldiers be in the front?”

His statements points out

“Many terrorist (people) are drawn into terrorism because of ‘financial allurements’ …they are paid money for it. If such people are there, why not ‘use’ them?”

(Lets hire people who are drawn into militancy for sake of money, well, Mr Parrikar money attracts us all but not to get killed, and those who get enticed at the stake of life are either in deep financial crisis or un-employed)

“….what is the harm in ‘using’ terrorists (destitute people) against terrorist? Why should ‘our soldiers’ be in front” (well, to save country it is soldier’s not terrorist’s job, no?).

The news article also reads “The aim is to exploit the differences between terror outfits for both intelligence-gathering as well as surgical strikes.”

So, in other words, does it mean let’s create an Ikhwan force and ‘use’ them?

In 90s, the rehabilitation packages offered to these militants who gave up arms and worked as army informant still stand controversial as their family members and houses were attacked, many got killed in the run-up.


Omar Abdullah.
Omar Abdullah.

On 16 June, Deputy Inspector General of Police (North Kashmir), Garib Dass told a local daily about the possible reasons behind the civilian killings that there is some “rivalry” withing the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) faction. Also there is “confusion because of the new group Lashkar-e-Islam. The group partly got separated from HM because of rivalry and is carrying attacks.”

Meanwhile, IGP Kashmir, during a visit to Sopore, said, “It’s a part of strategy to provide security to soft targets.”

In the recent development, police on 16 June said that the investigation revealed involvement of two Hizbul Mujahideen militants who are allegedly behind the killings. They also sought public support to trace them and a bounty of one million INR on each was announced.

Hours later, in a statement, the HM spokesperson said that the UJC itself is scrutinizing the situation. “There are dependable proofs that the successors of Kuka Parray in Jammu and Kashmir especially in Sopore town are still linked with police and Territorial Army.”

Also, they too are trying to nab the killers, and “Jihad Council makes it clear that whosoever is involved in these killings irrespective of his affiliation with any organization or not will be treated as Indian agent and anti-freedom movement element and he will be put to death,” the statement read.

After the subsequent serial killings, the Chief Minister on Wednesday held a meeting of the Unified Headquarters to review security debacle. He expressed his concerns about civilian killings in Sopore. The home department was directed to carry out the investigations and ensure safety of civilians.


The upfront remarks of Parrikar can’t be taken as naïve as it looks, in real sense it has come from Defense Minister of India himself.

So, who is behind the sudden spurt of killings in Sopore, is it a national mood behind the set-up? All fingers are pointing towards Parrikar though, as his remark perplexed or alerted many but is someone else taking an advantage of this confusion?

Is the alleged Hizbul Mujahideen the real killers?

Or is it about silently killing those who hoist Pakistan’s flag?

Has militancy in Kashmir gone out of control at present? Which isn’t the case, so why do we need “terrorists to kill terrorists”? If it’s about comeback of ‘state-sponsored militants’ then won’t it be an attempt to failure in Kashmir? Ikhwans had no popular support then, their tactics were considered ruthless and militancy relapsed. In the run-up many got killed before this culture faded.

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