What Happens When a Kashmiri Joins the Indian Army

The ceremonies followed at the funeral of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz were extraordinary sights for the residents of his village, many of whom did not know that he was an army officer. Aasif Shafi/Pacific Press/ LightRocket/ Getty Images
Elections 2024
05 June, 2017

At around 9 am on 10 May 2017, the body of 22-year-old Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz Parray reached his home in the cluttered village of Sarsuna, in Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Ummer had been abducted in Shopian village the previous night, and early that morning, his body was discovered in Hermain village. His death was widely covered by the Indian mainstream media. Many politicians released statements condemning Ummer’s killing, and others paid tributes to him for his service to the nation. Before burial, the army officer’s body was draped in the Indian tricolour. Soldiers offered a gun salute to their slain colleague, and lay wreaths by his body.

These were extraordinary sights for the villagers of Sarsuna who attended the funeral. The ceremonies at the funeral were a declaration that the young man was an officer of the Indian armed forces—a fact that many of them had, until then, been unaware of. “Nobody in the village knew that he was in the army,” Ummer’s uncle, Manzoor Ahmed Parray, said. “They believed he was studying outside.” “We knew he [had earlier] studied in army school but we did not know he was working with the army,” a villager, who asked not to be named, later told me.

The road to Sarsuna—located around 65 kilometres from Srinagar—passes through green fields, with a canopy of apple and cherry trees. The village comprises over 100 households, and a majority of its residents run or work in apple orchards. I reached the village at about noon on 15 May. It was quiet; the only people in sight were young boys returning home from school.

At Ummer’s home, the dull silence remained. In a dimly lit room on the first floor of the two-storey house, I spoke with the slain officer’s family—his parents, Jameela and Fayaz Ahmad; his uncles Mushtaq Ahmad and Manzoor Ahmad; and his grandfather, 73-year-old Mohammad Ashoor Parray. Through our conversations, I had to repeatedly encourage his family to speak—they were hesitant, and worried about what would happen if their statements were published. Their accounts—and my interactions with other Kashmiri security personnel—offer some insight into the fraught relationship these officials share with their own communities.

On 30 April, Manzoor told me, Ummer arrived for a 15-day leave of absence from his posting, in Aknoor, in Jammu. Close to six months earlier, Ummer had been posted there with the infantry unit of the 2 Rajputana Rifles regiment in the Indian army.He had taken leave to attend the wedding of his cousin—one of the daughters of his maternal uncle—which was scheduled to take place a few kilometres from Sarsuna, in Batpora village in Shopian district, on 11 May.

Manzoor told me that he picked up Ummer at Wanpoh, along the 300-kilometre Srinagar-Jammu national highway. “I took him to Anantnag where my two school-going children live in a rented room. We spent the night there and came here [Sarsuna] the next day without announcing about his arrival to anyone,” he said.

Apprehensive about Ummer’s safety, the family maintained this secrecy over the next few days. Manzoor said that Ummer spent two days with his family in Sarsuna, and that no one in the village apart from the family knew of his presence. “Even my sister, who is married and lives in the adjacent village could not meet him because we did not tell anyone,” he said. He added that Ummer then returned to Anantnag, and came back to Sarsuna two days before the wedding.

On 9 May, at about 3 pm, Ummer and his mother, Jameela, left for Shopian on a motorcycle. “He was happy and eagerly looking forward to attending the wedding,” Jameela said. Her eyes were moist as she spoke. Fayaz told me that, before leaving, Ummer insisted that his father come to Shopian soon as well.“You have to come tomorrow,” Fayaz recalled Ummer said. “We would not have allowed him to go there if I knew his [dead] body would return,” he told me.“We never knew such a thing would happen.”

When the mother and son reached Batpora village, the celebrations were ongoing in Jameela’s brother’s home. “My brother has four daughters but no son. Everyone was excited till this happened,” Jameela said. “At around 8.30 pm, I was in the washroom, which was outside the house, when three men carrying guns entered the house,” she said. “I heard some screams, but I thought someone fell from a window.” Jameela continued, “When I came out, I saw a person leaving through the gate. But I did not see them taking away my son.”

Manzoor was not present in the house at the time of the abduction, but had pieced together an account based on the observations of the family members who were present, such as Ummer’s cousins and a maternal uncle, who is partially blind. He said they told him that three persons who wore masks and were carrying guns had barged into the house. They made their way to Ummer, who was sitting with the bride-to-be in a room on the first floor. “We have to talk to him for 10 minutes,” the gunmen told the family, Manzoor said. “We don’t know how many [more gunmen] were outside,” he added.“Once I learnt Ummer had been taken away, I urgently went out in search of him,” Jameela said.

Jameela, along with a few relatives and some other residents of Batpora, equipped with flashlights, entered the paddy fields surrounding the village to look for Ummer. “My legs were caked with mud and dirt,” she said. She added that she did not inform the police or her husband about Ummer’s abduction until the following morning. “I believed he would return after being questioned” by the kidnappers, she said.

At around 5 am on 10 May, Fayaz told me, he received a call while he was offering morning prayers at the neighbourhood masjid in Sarsuna. He then lapsed into silence. Manzoor said that some locals in Hermain had discovered a body at the local bus stop that morning. “A doctor who is posted in the concerned hospital saw the identity card in his pocket and confirmed his death,” he said. The family members added that the wedding was postponed.

I asked the Parray family about how Ummer came to join the army. They told me that, until fifth grade, Ummer studied in a neighbourhood school. Then, Manzoor told me, they decided to send him to a school outside the village. Ummer applied to an army school in Ashmuqam, in south Kashmir. “We sent him to army school so that he could focus on his education and remain away from the village,” Manzoor said. “He passed the school’s entrance examination and got admitted.”

In 2012, Ummer qualified for admission into the National Defence Academy. Fayaz said that Ummer had not undergone any coaching for the entrance exam. Ummer’s family was very happy with the prospect, but decided to keep it a secret. “We did not fear for his life when he joined army. He was appointed on merit as an officer. We were happy,” Manzoor said. Like many other Kashmiris, Ummer “too, had gone to offer his services for the country,” Ashoor, Ummer’s grandfather, said.

In Sarsuna, “only 15–20 people are government employees,” Mushtaq, Ummer’s other uncle, told me. “The rest of the village works in their fields.” He continued, “Nobody works in the police or the army here.” Mushtaq said that many of the young people in the area were employed with the Rehbar-e-Taleem—a government scheme under which educated young adults are locally employed as teachers in primary and middle schools. If it were not for the scheme, Mushtaq said, “They too would have joined the army.” So far, Mushtaq told me, Sarsuna had seen only one villager join the militancy—Fayaz’s uncle, Mohammad Ayub Parray, who was killed in the 1990s.

Nearly a month since his killing, it is still unclear who is responsible for Ummer’s death. Several news reports, as well as the security forces in the region and central and state leaders, suggested that Kashmiri militants may be responsible for the abduction and killing. On 12 May, the United Jihad Council, an umbrella grouping of militant outfits in the state, released a statement denying any involvement in Ummer’s death.

“Our militants are not involved in murder of Lt Ummer Fayaz. Such a killing is condemnable,” Syed Salahuddin, the chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen and of the UJC, said in the statement. He alleged that Ummer had been “murdered by the Indian agencies and militants are being accused of it to shield the real face of the Indian agencies.”

Ummer’s family members were hesitant to accuse anyone. “We can’t say who killed him, but those who killed him committed a sin,” Fayaz said. “We can’t say mujahid”—militant—“or anyone else. How can we say that?”

Hardly any of the Kashmiri security personnel I reached out to after Ummer’s death were willing to speak to me. I contacted six security personnel—including veterans and serving army officers. All of them refused to speak to me even off the record. A former army officer I met in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district told me that he would be happy to serve me a cup of coffee and discuss films, but not politics or his professional life.

On 22 May, I visitedthe sprawling headquarters of Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry at Rangreth, on the outskirts of Srinagar. At the heavily guarded gate, a group of Kashmiri soldiers checked and noted down my credentials. Inside the complex, I met two Kashmiri soldiers—one hailed from south Kashmir and the other from north Kashmir. Though they insisted that they had no trouble visiting their homes, both soldiers did not give me their names. “I am returning from my home right now,” said the soldier from north Kashmir, who was dressed in civilian clothing. The other soldier said that he joined the army in 1997, during the peak of the militancy. “Nobody kills you unless you commit wrong,” he told me.“I visit home even now. But I do not face any problem.”

At the headquarters, I also met a 52-year-old former army official. He, too, spoke to me only on the condition of anonymity.The officer, who retired only recently, said he joined the army a few years prior to the surge in militancy in Kashmir, which began in 1989. For 13 years after that, he told me, he did not visit his home, located in a south Kashmir district. (As we spoke, a person standing a few yards away, at the door of the room in which we stood, urged the former officer to leave. “Come out. We are getting late,” the man shouted. “He does not want me to give the interview because of the ongoing situation,” the former officer said.)

For over a decade, the former officer said, he would call his family to Jammu and meet them there. In November 2002, he was posted in outside the state, when his father died. He was able to visit only on his father’s chehlum—the fortieth day after his death. That was the first time he visited his home since the 1990s, the former officer told me.“My brother told me not to visit. Despite that, I reached home late evening, for two days. I visited the grave at 4 am,” he said.

During his visit, he continued, he ran into a former school classmate. He told me that his classmate was a former police official, and had been dismissed from the service. The classmate had then joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. “We had lunch together at my home but he did not know I was in the army,” he told me. At the time, he added, “I also did not know had been dismissed and was now a militant.”During this lunch, the classmate said that he had heard of an army official visiting the village. The classmate insisted that he has to visit the official. The former officer said he tried to dissuade his friend, but was unsuccessful.

“When he insisted, I revealed that I am the soldier. He did not believe me. But I showed him my I-card,” he added. The former officer’s classmate then warned him. “I have been sent here for recce,” he told me his classmate said. “We have to lift you in the evening and you should leave before that happens.” Following this incident, he said, he did not return home for over a year.

Yet, a number of Kashmiris appear to be to signing up to join the army. According to Colonel Rajesh Kalia, a Kashmir-based defence spokesperson, the recruitment rallies the army has conducted in the valley in recent times have received an overwhelming response. Kalia said that in north Kashmir’s Pattan district alone, 19,000 Kashmiris applied for soldier’s posts in the army during a recruitment rally held between 4 April and 12 April. “The response and enthusiasm shows motivation of young boys for a better future,” he said. On 28 May, a day after the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Sabzar Bhat and his associate Faizan Ahmad were killed in Tral, the army held an entrance examination for the selection of junior commanding officers and other ranks.The army later released a statement noting that “defying shutdown,” nearly 1,300 aspirants appeared for the exam.

I asked a young man who had applied for a soldier’s post this year why he had done so despite being familiar with the risk that Kashmiris in the armed forces face. “As Kashmiris, we are killed by bullets. As an army man, the same bullet will kill me,” he said. “But till that time, I will earn for my family.” Jaleema, Ummer’s mother, had attributed the decision to destiny. “It was god’s will to make him qualify exams,” she said as I was leaving their home. “Today, [his death] is also god’s will.”