At the funeral mother of Sauleh, the confidante of Zakir Musa, was next to her ‘loyal’ son’s body, wrapped in AGH written flag, kissing his face, while the mourners continued sloganeering. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

As the winter sun rises in the Kashmir Valley, another Saturday made headlines following the gunfight triggered between the militants and the government forces in South Kashmir. 

At around 7:30 am, on 22 December, residents heard the gunshots. A brief gunfight triggered in Aarampora village of Pulwama district. It ended within a few minutes, with the killing of six militants of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind militant outfit, including its Deputy Chief, Sauleh Mohammad alias Rehan.

Sauleh, 25-year-old, was studying science, before he picked gun on 15 March 2015 to join the ranks of Hizbul Mujahideen.

Sauleh was one of the close aides of the then Hizb commander, Burhan Wani, and Zakir Musa. After Mr. Wani’s killing on 8 July 2016, Mr. Musa detached himself from the Hizb in May 2017 to form and lead a new Al-Qaeda inspired outfit Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGH). Soon others followed him and joined AGH, including Sauleh.

A native of North Kashmir’s Sopore town, Sauleh was now with Musa. In 2011, his family shifted to South Kashmir’s Gorikadal village of Tral town. With the rise of Wani along with growing militancy in South Kashmir, many young, often educated or college dropouts chose to join militant ranks.

Sauleh was one among them. “He left for what he had wished, but he was harassed by the Army and Special Task Force (STF) many times during his studies,”  said Haleema Jan, 45, Sohila Akhoon’s mother. “Because of his beard, they used to annoy him, which pushed him to join militant ranks.”

Ms. Jan was sitting quietly in the corner of her one-storey house, seeing women mourners gathering around her. While the women watched her, she added, “He was a loyal son, really was a kind boy.”

Another woman sitting next to Ms. Jan, Ms. Aabida, sister of the slain militant Owais Nabi, a close friend of Sauleh in ranks. She alleged that he (Owais) was forced to join militancy because of continuous questioning by the government forces.

“They (STF) called him many times for questioning and used to beat him badly for being Sauleh’s friend,” she said, with moist eyes. “We paid rupees 60,000 and 20,000 to them for his release. They also took his iPhone and did not return.”

Ms. Aabida further questioned, “who pushes such young boys towards militancy?”

“Who wishes to send their sons to get killed,” she said. “It is the government forces who make grounds for them and thrust guns in their hands.” 

Following his killing, the locals were distributing juice and fruits to the mourners on the street outside Sauleh’s house—with a black banner of Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind hanging outside.

The two siblings—younger brother, Junaid Ahmad Aakhoon, and an elder sister were wailing on the balcony of the house. Junaid, who is currently pursuing a diploma in IUST Awantipora, was calming his mother during his brother’s funeral.

The gunfight took place some 200 meters away from Sauleh’s house. According to several locals at the funeral, militants had come out from their hideout, inside an apple orchard surrounded with dense trees, to fetch some water from the nearby stream.

Police said that a joint team of army’s 42 RR, SOG and CRPF launched a cordon-and-search operation following “credible inputs” about the presence of militants in the area.

During the search operation, the forces had fired some warning shots towards a ‘militant hideout’ situated in an orchard. It was retaliated by gunfire that started the brief gunfight in which all six militants were killed.

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Sauleh Mohammad alias Rehan of Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind outfit, killed on 22 December 2018 in Tral. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

As the government forces were closing their operation, local youth, including women, assembled and started throwing stones at the forces, who responded with tear smoke shelling.

Mosque loudspeakers made announcements, asking people to come out after the news of killings spread in the area. Thousands of people from adjacent areas walked towards the village to see the glimpse of the militants. Raising pro-freedom and anti-India slogans, people joined the funeral processions of six militants, including Sauleh’s last rites at his ancestral village Aarampora.

At the funeral, Ms. Jan was next to her ‘loyal’ son’s body, wrapped in AGH written flag, kissing his face, while the mourners continued sloganeering. In other parts of Tral, five other funerals were on going.

The other five militants were identified as Rasik Mir son of Ghulam Qadir, Rouf Mir son of Ghulam Nabi, Umer Ramzan son of Mohammad Ramzan Mir, residents of Dadsara, Nadeem Sofi son of Mohammad Muzaffar Sofi of Batgund, Tral at present Dadsara and Faisal Javid Khanday son of Javid Khanday of Amlar Awantipora – all were affiliated with AGH, led by Musa.

The processions echoed with slogans hailing and praising Musa, whose popularity in Kashmir has been increasing since the past year, while rumors of his presence keep making rounds now and then.

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