“If the youth pick up guns, let it be known that they were forced to do so,” said Hurriyat chairperson Mohammad Ashraf Khan, better known as Sehrai, as he awaited the body of his militant son, 29-year-old Junaid Ashraf Khan, who was killed in a gunfight today.
Mr. Khan is the second prominent commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant outfit to be killed in May so far. He was a divisional commander of the Hizb and was killed in a ten hour long gunfight with government forces along with an associate Tariq Ahmed Sheikh from Pulwama district of South Kashmir, in downtown Srinagar’s Nawakadal area.
Mobile phone services, barring the state owned BSNL, have been barred since the gunfight. The news of his killing reached the family through television, Mr. Sehrai said at his residence as he attended to mourners. “We were in a state of ambiguity since morning,” he said.
Mr. Sehrai said that he had approached local authorities seeking the return of his son’s body but was “stonewalled” by officials who directed him to approach the District Commissioner or the district’s police chief. “But both of them were not in their office when we visited,” he said.
The authorities, Mr. Sehrai said, told him to wait and that information regarding his son’s body would be conveyed telephonically. “We understood that this meant they would not return his body,” Mr. Sehrai said, adding that the family only wanted to “perform his last rites as commanded by our religion.” Though, funeral prayers in absentia were held in their neighbourhood led by Mr. Sehrai himself.
Mr. Sehrai lamented the government’s newly “established policy” of denying last rites to families of militants. “Others have seen their sons for the last time but we are not being allowed to. [Mourning] families want to see their sons for the last time,” he lamented. “India claims to be the world’s largest democracy but their attitude is similar to the Nazis.”
Even as his bloodshot eyes were moist, he asserted that “we are still not in despair”. In the recent gunfights, the government has denied bodies of militants to their families, most of whom are buried in two graveyard in and Central Kashmir.
“He died for a cause”
A photograph of Mr. Khan, the youngest son of Mr. Sehrai, holding an assault rifle went viral in Kashmir just days after his father had replaced Kashmir’s octogenarian pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani as the chairperson of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat – an anti-India political outfit, in March 2018.
Addressing the media shortly after, Mr. Sehrai had said that he would not make appeals to Mr. Khan to shun militancy. At Mr. Khan’s condolence meeting at their Srinagar residence, Mr. Sehrai told The Kashmir Walla that his son “did not become a militant for personal revenge. He died for his cause and mission of [fighting Indian rule].”
Mr. Sehrai said that his son had taken a stand for “righteousness” and to fight injustices in Kashmir. “He did it for his passion for freedom,” said Mr. Sehrai. “He knew the truth that we need to struggle for our rights and if that meant spilling blood, even his own. It is now for the Kashmiri nation to protect and respect the sacrifice of all martyrs, not just him.”
However, the Director General of Jammu and Kashmir police Dilbagh Singh said that “[Junaid Ashraf] Sehrai was assigned the task of heading Central Kashmir areas,” he said. “He would hold meetings with the youth and lure them towards militancy.” The police also said, in a statement, that Sehrai was involved in multiple cases.
Since the inception of the Hurriyat (and its subsequent factionalism), Mr. Khan is the first son of a prominent office bearer of the Hurriyat to join the militant ranks. In recent years, the Kashmir based pro-freedom leadership has been drawing flak from various quarters within Kashmir and outside for its alleged complacency.
Many observers then believed that Mr. Khan joining the ranks of the militants would silence the criticism. Mr. Khan has, however, maintained a low profile during the two years that he was a militant. Hours after the gunfight in Nawakadal, on Tuesday afternoon, smoke rose from the rubble of more than a dozen houses damaged or destroyed by government forces during the gunfight.
“Political dispute not recognised”
The ongoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was strengthened following his killing and minor protests had broken out in the vicinity of the Sehrai residence, now adored with two flags of Pakistan and a green flag symbolising the Muslim faith.
The lane littered with rocks leading to Mr. Sehrai’s residence was and sealed with a spool of concertina wire and a large contingent of government forces stood guard to prevent any further protests. Police personnel warded off another group of protesters not far from Mr. Sehrai’s residence, near the Old Barzulla bridge.
As the young men shouted slogans against India and in favour of Pakistan, it was evident that the gathered mourners – relatives, friends, and neighbours of the Sehrais – were angry over the denial of Mr. Khan’s last rites. “They [the government] think that Kashmiris would take a step back because of this,” a masked young man said, refusing to divulge his identity. “We want to make it clear that we won’t. This only means that Kashmiris are fighting injustices.”
The Modi government in Delhi, Mr. Sehrai said, was a “Hindu majoritarian government” that was “mistreating its minorities, especially the Muslims” and was particularly irked by the Muslim majority region of Kashmir. “India has declared a war against Kashmiris. They may not say it openly but they have declared it practically through their actions,” he said. “It is for Kashmiris to now protect their faith and withstand [attacks on faith].”
Mr. Sehrai said that the struggle for freedom in Kashmir had claimed the lives of many Kashmiris including his son and expressed fear that it may continue to claim many more if the “political dispute was not recognised” by India. The Kashmir issue, he said, was not about the special status but of the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination.
The Government of India, however, Mr. Sehrai said had instead “given a final shape to their plans to overturn Kashmir’s Muslim majority” in the wake of the “forced integration” post August 2019. “We have been treated worse than animals,” Mr. Sehrai said.