Kulgam (Jammu & Kashmir): On the evening of 12 July 2022, Asif Mushtaq Lone, 29, was idly scrolling through Facebook posts when he saw a news alert that had him worried: There had been a militant attack on a police post in the Lal Bazar area of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) summer capital Srinagar, 70 km north of here.
Asif, who has an M.Tech degree and works with local companies while preparing for civil services examinations, was concerned because his father, an assistant sub-inspector in the J&K police, was posted in the Lal Bazar area. He called his father on his cellphone, but there was no answer. Asif rushed to inform his family about the attack.
Overcome by dread, the family, including Asif’s mother and two sisters, huddled together in a corridor of their two-story mud-house in Shouch village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, praying for the safety of the head of their household.
Within a few minutes, the tension turned to grief, when Asif received a phone call from Srinagar’s police control room that confirmed the policeman killed in the Lal Bazar was indeed his father, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone.
Mushtaq, 55, was shot dead at a three-man police checkpoint regulating traffic while two colleagues, constables Fayaz Ahmad and Abu Bakar, were injured when an unknown number of militants fired on them.
Mushtaq’s death became another statistic in a region wracked by decades of conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. At least 125 policemen were killed in militancy-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir between 2017 to 2021.
In the first six months of 2022, 23 policemen and security personnel have been killed, apart from 19 civilians, five of them Hindu and the rest Muslim. Over 100 militants were killed in different gun-battles by security forces in the Valley in 2022.
What set Mushtaq’s story apart in this litany of death was the fact that his youngest son, Aqib, was by killed by security forces on 28 April 2020 in controversial circumstances, his body interred in an unmarked grave in a graveyard in Baramulla, 150 km northwest of the family home in Shouch, reserved for militants killed in firefights or “encounters”.
For two years, Mushtaq—wracked by sorrow and determination, according to his family and friends—had battled to have the label of “terrorist associate” removed from his dead son and have his body exhumed so it could be buried in the family’s ancestral graveyard in Shouch.
When Mushtaq's coffin was laid down in the district police lines in Srinagar for the official wreath-laying ceremony, the family’s grief was made public in this viral video, his daughters crying and beating their heads, as they hugged and kissed the casket.
On the day of the attack, Mushtaq had resumed official duties after a three-day vacation for Eid. The memory of his dead son was strong, friends said, but he had settled back—for the sake of his family—to the semblance of normality without him.
“He left his home early in the morning after bidding cheerful adieu to his family,” said Mohammad Iqbal Lone, Mushtaq’s cousin. “In the evening we received his dead body in a casket.”
Son Dies, Probe Ordered, But Outcome Isn’t Revealed
Mushtaq’s family had endured similar grief when youngest son Aqib, then 22, was killed in a “controversial encounter” in a village near Shouch, a few km from home.
At the time, the police described Aqib as a “terrorist associate”. His family had denied the allegations. For them, Aqib was a career-focussed young man who had completed his B.Tech from a college in Chandigarh, Punjab in 2020 and wanted to do his post graduation outside Kashmir. They reacted with disbelief when the police referred to his link with terrorism.
“We couldn’t believe the police version,” said Mohammad Younis Lone, a cousin of Mushtaq. “Aqib spent most of his time outside Kashmir. He was a humble and hardworking young boy with a passion to achieve his goals. He had never shown any inclination towards separatism.”
When he was killed, Asif was preparing for his M. Tech. It was just before iftar, the breaking of the daily fast in the holy month of Ramzan, when on 26 April 2020 Asif performed his ablutions at home and said he would return for iftar.
“He had told his family he would return and break his fast with his family,” recalled Iqbal, the cousin. “Some half an hour later we called him, but he didn’t pick up the call.”
A few minutes later, the Lone family was startled when gunshots rang out nearby, which they later learned was a firefight between militants and security forces in the adjoining village of Asthal Gudder.
Initially, the police claimed they had killed four “terrorists”. The next morning, when police searched the area, they found only Aqib’s bullet-riddled body. They said the firefight began when a group of four to six militants attacked a security patrol.
One or more militants was injured but the rest escaped, police said, adding that six SIM cards, a pistol and grenade were found on Aqib, whom they described as a “terrorist associate”, a term used by the police for someone who may have been providing logistical support.
When the family contested the police claim, the police announced an inquiry. The outcome was never revealed.
The police did not hand over Aqib’s body to his family, and like other militants, he was buried in the Baramulla graveyard where all militants have been buried since 2020, the decision to stop handing over bodies to families causing much anger and grief in Kashmir.
The policy to stop returning the bodies of alleged militants began in April 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government citing as a reason the spread of Covid-19. Aside from Baramulla, alleged militants have also been buried in graveyards in Ganderbal and Kupwara, in the presence of only security forces and immediate family.
The larger reason for these burials was revealed in December 2020 when Kashmir inspector general of police Vijay Kumar told The Hindu that the policy “not only stopped the spread of Covid infections but also stopped the glamorising of terrorists and avoided potential law-and-order problems”.
How A Grieving Father Tried To Impose Normal Life
The death of Asif and the “terrorist associate” tag had stunned the Lone family, especially his father, police officer Mushtaq.
According to the family, it had become Mushtaq’s mission to have the stain on his younger son’s reputation removed and bring the body back to the ancestral graveyard.
“Mushtaq went from pillar to post to demand the body of his son,” said Iqbal. “He always said his son wasn’t a militant. Aqib had never said and done anything that provided us a hint that he had a separatist ideology.”
Gloom descended on the family after Aqib’s death. Mushtaq tried to balance dual imperatives: fighting to prove his son’s innocence and renewing hope of a better life for his daughters Mehvish and Monisa, wife Shakeela and elder son Asif.
“Some members of the family went through depression and couldn’t return to normal terms,” said Younis. “Mushtaq was desperately trying to bring his family out of tragedy. The death of his younger son had killed Mushtaq from Inside, but he would mask his sadness with a smile.”
Mushtaq visited his son’s grave at least twice every week without informing his family.
“One day, last year, I was driving to Baramulla when I saw Mushtaq uncle returning from Aqib’s grave,” said a relative, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He was looking tired and his eyes were wet. When I inquired about his sudden visit to the graveyard, he began to cry and hugged me.”
“Mushtaq told me he visits Aqib’s grave twice every week and asked me to not inform his family about this,” said the relative. “He wanted to bring his family out from the emotional and psychological distress that had disrupted their day-to-day life.”
Mushtaq was planning to have his daughters married, as he strove to bring the family normalcy of sorts.
On the day of arfa the day before Eid, when Mushtaq came home, he bought Eid essentials, bread, sweets and other food. As Eid began, he slaughtered sacrificial animals himself. “Had the militants known Mushtaq, they would never have thought of killing him,” Iqbal said. “He was a firm believer in Allah, [someone] who dedicated his life to the family.”
When Article 14 visited their home, Mushtaq’s widow Shakeela, 50, and their daughters sat in a tent packed with mourners, singing dirges for him.
“Where are you my father?” the daughters sang. “Why have you left us? Have you gone to meet your son Aqib?” Shakeela was inconsolable, constantly weeping .
The family demanded that the administration grant Mushtaq’s wish and return to them Aqib’s body, so that can be buried beside his father.
“We know Mushtaq’s last wish was to bury his son’s body in his ancestral graveyard,” said Iqbal, the cousin. “We have the same demand.”
As the family mourned Mushtaq, his circumstances around his death indicated why such killings were unlikely to cease.
Two Militant Outfits Claim Responsibility
A militant outfit, The Resistance Front (TRF), which police believe is an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or army of the righteous, implicated in a series of terrorist attacks in India over the past two decades, took responsibility for the attack that killed Mushtaq.
In an unverified statement that was circulated on social media, the TRF, which came into existence after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status in August 2019, warned that their next attack “will be more surprising”.
“Cadre of Falcon Squad #TRF carried out a surprise attack on stooge forces at Lal Bazar area of Srinagar City in which a stooge JKP official died on spot (sic) and 03 other stooges got seriously injured,” said the statement issued on 12 July 2022 and carried by News 18, the day of the attack on Mushtaq. “Surprise attacks will be carried out throughout the valley, particularly on collaborators, traitors and the JKP stooges.” Article 14 could not independently verify the veracity of the statement.
On the day after the attack, Amaq, a propaganda outlet of the terrorist organisation the Islamic State, released a video of the attack. A 39-second edited video, filmed from close range, probably from body cameras used by the attackers, made the rounds of social media.
A government official told NDTV that the attack was carried out by three motorcycle-borne terrorists.
It is rare for militants to film attacks but not unprecedented. In 2020, militants had similarly filmed and released a video of an attack on security forces in Baramulla.
Mushtaq’s death was criticised by various politicians, including former chief minister and People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti. “My condolences to ASI Mushtaq Ahmed’s family in this hour of grief & prayers for the two policemen critically injured,” she tweeted on 12 July.
J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha, expressed his condolences to Mushtaq’s family. “I pray for the early recovery of the injured,” he tweeted on 12 July. “Strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack on security personnel in Srinagar. Perpetrators of this heinous act shall be brought to justice soon.”
Back in Shouch, Mushtaq’s family can only think of one thing and have only one expectation of the government: that if the government gives them what they really want, father and son will, finally, be united in death.
(Aamir Ali Bhat is a Kashmir-based independent journalist.)