Kashmir, Sopore killing, Sopore custodial killing,
Hajra Dar, the mother of 26-year-old Irfan Dar, breaks down as other women tried to block the road in Sopore on 16 September. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Under the scorching sun, Hajra Dar and over two dozen women had blocked the main road in north Kashmir’s Sopore town. No vehicle was allowed to pass. A young woman armed with a thin wooden stick, banged it on the bonnet of a vehicle that tried to pass through. “Our son has been martyred!” she screamed at the driver. “That is what has happened.”

Nearly 500 meters from the blockade, neighbours had gathered at Ms. Hajra’s residence in Sidiq Colony. On 15 September, at 12:33 pm, her youngest son, Irfan Dar, was at the family-run general store, set-up in a room extending from their home, when three men entered.

The store’s CCTV footage, viewed by The Kashmir Walla, showed the trio taking away Mr. Irfan’s phone and bluetooth headset as one of them, wearing a tight black t-shirt and face cover, sat on a chair. The footage suggests that the three men were speaking with Mr. Irfan as they searched the shop. Moments later, the three men are seen leaving along with Mr. Irfan, precisely at 12:36 pm. 

The bystanders informed his elder brother, Javaid Dar, that they suspect “SOG (Special Operations Group, the police’s anti-militancy wing) has taken Irfan”, said Mr. Javaid. He, then, called his brother. “He (Mr. Irfan) told me that he is going to the court and will return in an hour,” said Mr. Javaid. But he didn’t. 

The next morning, on 16 September, the family learnt that their youngest son had died. They believe that he has been killed in custody. Mr. Javaid was still in disbelief, his tears dried up as he sat surrounded by men from the locality, mourning the “killing”.  “They have committed a criminal act, this is oppression,” said Mr. Javaid, with grief. “This is a killing. They killed an innocent.” 

Havoc at break of dawn

On the afternoon of 15 September, at about 3:30 pm, the SOG had again arrived at the Dar residence. “Your brother is with us,” Mr. Javaid was told by one of the forces’ personnel. The forces personnel, Mr. Javaid said, repeatedly asked: “You have a man here. Tell us.” 

Mr. Javaid said that the forces had also thrashed him on the porch. The forces thoroughly searched the house, “room by room, [and] every piece of cloth,” said Mr. Javaid. “But they didn’t find anything. Then they took all of our phones, nothing else.” Meanwhile, Mr. Javaid was given an ultimatum: “either tell us that you have  a man here, or we’ll arrest you too.” 

“We have CCTV footage of [the last] 1.5 months,” he had told them. “You can check it minute by minute to see if anyone has entered this house; then do whatever you want to, I’m ready.” However, he added that the forces only checked if the CCTV was working, not the footage. 

Mr. Javaid, too, was detained by the SOG and taken to the police station in Sopore’s Townhall area. 

As the word spread in the area, Mohammad Yousuf, who heads the local residents’ welfare committee, also reached the police station at about 6 pm, along with other elders of the locality. They were, however, stalled for two hours before being told to come back at 10 am, the next morning. 

The same night, Mr. Javaid fell sick and was allowed to leave after “examination by the doctors at the police station”. He was told by the police personnel that Mr. Irfan will be released tomorrow morning.” However, by dawn, the news of his death had wrecked the Dar family.

An official statement that Inspector-General of Police, Vijay Kumar, sent to The Kashmir Walla, stated that on the morning of 16 September, the police claimed that it had recovered “two Chinese Hand Grenades” from the possession of Mr. Irfan — who was described as an OGW, or over ground worker of militants — at 12:45 pm on 15 September. 

The police added: “During the course of investigation, a Police Team visited Chairdaji area of Tujjar-Sharief along with OGW for affecting some more recovery on the disclosure of the OGW… while taking advantage of darkness and terrain [Mr. Irfan, whom the police have noted as an OGW] managed to escape… during search the body of OGW was found near Stone Quarry of Tujjar-Sharief.”

Mr. Yousuf, the welfare committee head, who reached the police station at the advised time, was told to “reach PCR (Police Control Room) Srinagar as soon as possible, they have their own protocol. Otherwise you won’t be able to see his body.” Along with Mr. Irfan’s uncle and his eldest brother, Waheed Dar, they rushed to Srinagar, nearly fifty kilometers away.

By 2 pm on 16 September, the Dar family’s house was filled with mourners. Soon enough, slogans for freedom from India echoed in the neighbourhood. “India is forcing us to pick guns,” another woman said. “We only appeal to [the government to] give us [justice].”

According to regional human rights organization, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), most of the probes ordered to investigate 108 cases of human rights abuse since 2008 — including nine custodial killings — have failed to initiate even a single prosecution and the families still await justice. 

The JKCCS’s data further notes that Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) saw 225 cases of custodial killings from 2002 to 2009. In 2008, the state police admitted that 330 people had died in custody in the last eighteen years. 

In 2018, the Union Ministry of Defence told the Rajya Sabha that from 2001-2016, the J-K government had sought prosecution against the government forces’ personnel in fifty cases — forty-seven out of them were denied while in three cases, it was pending. These fifty cases reportedly involved custodial killings, murder, rape, and torture of civilians by the government forces.

No closure for mourners 

“We used to play here,” said a young man sitting on the porch, who wore a handkerchief as a facemask, wiping his tears. The man, who did not want to be named, said that he went to kindergarten with Mr. Irfan and has known him since then. 

He remembers the porch differently though. “There used to be a lot of trees [in the garden],” he said, “and after school, we used to eat and play under the trees.” After finishing high school, Mr. Irfan enrolled in college to study commerce but dropped out to run the family’s general store and milk distribution.

But Mr. Irfan had lost his smile, said his friend, since the death of his father last month. “He was more focused on work now,” he added. 

When the friend got a call in the morning about the incident, he said that he was shaken. “I still can’t believe I’m standing here, watching this,” he said, in a breaking voice.

Moments later, a pickup truck, loaded with tents from the family’s shop, reached the porch. Mr. Irfan’s friend started helping to dig the tent for the mourners. The harsh sun was sweating him. His eyes were moist.

His biggest regret: not being able to bid goodbye to and offer final prayers for his childhood friend. The administration didn’t return Mr. Irfan’s body; instead, he was buried in Sonamarg, in central Kashmir, discreetly in the presence of a couple of his family members.

“Sonamarg is very, very far,” he said. “I can’t even reach there now.” But the police should have returned the body, he said. People gathered around him nodded. “It is our right to mourn him.”

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