Death highlights plight of former rebels-turned-government employees who have not been paid for more than two years.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – At 10:15pm on June 27, Rukaya Liyaqat, 23, went to bed after an arduous day of work in their kitchen garden in the village of Hari Parigam in Indian-administered Kashmir’s volatile Pulwama district.
The family had finished dinner and decided to sleep early. Like she does every day, Liyaqat called her husband Liyaqat Fayaz, an Indian army trooper posted in the region’s main city of Srinagar, 46km (28 miles) away.
In the next room, Liyaqat’s 24-year-old sister-in-law, Rafia Jan, suddenly heard a loud thumping on the main door of their house.
She rushed to tell her father Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, a special police officer (SPO) with the region’s police force for two decades.
Bhat, 45, his wife Raja Begum and Jan walked down the hall to open the door as Liyaqat continued talking to her husband on the phone, oblivious of the events unfolding.
As soon as the Bhats unlatched the door, unknown gunmen fired on them.
Hearing gunshots, Liyaqat sprinted out of her room to see her father-in-law down on his knees, one of his hands over a bullet wound on his abdomen.
She saw a gunman standing in front of a badly wounded Bhat, pointing his weapon at him while another gunman stood by the door.
Despite her pleas to spare her father-in-law, one of the men pulls the trigger, killing Bhat on the spot and running into the darkness.
Bhat’s family said he was found with eight gunshots on his body, two in his head. His wife was fatally shot in the head while their daughter Jan was critically wounded with three bullet injuries. She died in hospital the next day.
The killing of the Bhats was one of many attacks on Kashmiris employed with the disputed region’s police force or the Indian army, attacks the police blame on rebels.
“It has been more than a month now but I still can’t believe all this happened to us. Three of our family members were killed. This is not a small thing,” Liyaqat told Al Jazeera.
Bhat’s elder brother Bashir Ahmad said he did not know who the attackers were, but condemned the killers for targeting innocent women.
“We don’t know exactly who the gunmen were and why did they kill my brother? But whoever they were, they were not humans but monsters,” he told Al Jazeera.
“If my brother had done anything wrong, why were his wife and daughter targeted? What was their sin?”
So far, no rebel group has claimed responsibility for the attack on Bhat and his family.
But the region’s Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar blamed two attackers belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad group, one of whom is a Pakistani national, for the killings. No arrests in the case have been made so far.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who rule over parts of it since their independence in 1947.
On the Indian-administered side, an armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule began in 1989 and has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians.
The rebels demand either a merger with Pakistan or to form an independent nation. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of backing the rebellion. Pakistan denies the charge, saying it gives only moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiri people fighting for self-determination.
But thousands of Kashmiris have crossed over to Pakistan-administered Kashmir to receive arms training and wage their war against the Indian state.
The situation worsened in August 2019 when India’s Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scrapped a constitutional special status to the part of Kashmir it administers and divided the region into two federally-controlled territories.
In October that year, Modi’s closest aide and India’s Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that Articles 370 and 35A, which granted the special status to Kashmir, were the “gateways of terrorism” in the country.
“Prime Minister Modi has closed this gate by repealing them,” Shah had said.
‘Simply doing his job’
As the disputed region marks the second anniversary of losing its special status, it continues to reel under violence by rebels and human rights violations by Indian forces.
Killings of Indian soldiers and rebels continue unabated, while young Kashmiri boys and men join rebel groups to fight against Indian rule.
A major component of suspected rebel activity has been the targeting of Kashmiris working for the Indian army, or police, and their families.
In April, suspected rebels killed Mohammad Saleem Akhoon, 35, a soldier in the Indian army, outside his home in the southern Kashmir town of Bijbehara.
Akhoon, a decorated Indian army officer, was home on leave when he was attacked.
He is survived by his wife, a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son.
Akhoon’s wife Zubeda Bano told Al Jazeera that her husband was “simply doing his job”.
“Even if he had done something wrong, his killers should have warned him rather than killing him directly,” a distraught Bano told Al Jazeera.
“People join militancy to become martyrs or ascend to heaven. And those like my husband join the army to feed their families.”
Last month, police said armed rebels stormed into the house of police officer Sajad Ahmad Malik in Verinag, Anantnag district, and fired at his wife and daughter, badly injuring both of them. Malik was not home at the time.
According to data collected by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a federation of the region’s rights groups, at least 89 rebels, 30 armed forces personnel and 16 civilians have been killed in Indian-administered Kashmir so far this year.
Last year, according to the JKCCS data, it was 244 rebels, 103 armed forces and 63 civilians.
However, attacks on the police have increased in recent years.
According to official sources in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, at least 1,579 of its officials have been killed since the armed conflict began in 1989.
In 2019, 11 policemen were killed while the number was 15 last year, sources said, adding that so far this year, at least 10 police officers have been killed in various attacks.
The attacks have created an environment of fear among local Kashmiris employed in the Indian army and police, despite unemployment remaining a serious concern in the region.
Ahmed, 30, from the region’s Tral area, was completing his undergraduate study when he got a job in the Indian army in 2012. He said his family was happy with the move as dozens of youth in his neighbourhood, with postgraduate and engineering degrees, were unemployed.
But the unending attacks on the local policemen and army personnel have deeply affected Ahmed, who did not want to reveal his full name, and his family.
“My family is always worried about me and more so when I am home,” he told Al Jazeera.
“At home, I can’t talk freely even with my friends. Sometimes they jokingly say I am a ‘ghaddar’ (traitor) because I work with the Indian army.
“I just pray that the remaining years of my service pass quickly so that I can live peacefully, and not always under this constant shadow of fear.”
Sheikh Showkat, a political commentator from the region, told Al Jazeera that once a person becomes a combatant, there is no difference between a local or a non-local.
“The issue is once you are a combatant, you are vulnerable, irrespective of one’s place of origin,” Showkat said.
“It seems more like a sort of retaliation. Once they [rebels] lose their cadres, they believe it’s the local collaboration that helps [the Indian army] and automatically, they become suspects.”
According to New Delhi-based defence analyst Pravin Sawhney, it only proves that things are still not normal in Kashmir, as the regional and federal governments claim.
Sawhney said he was not surprised by the attacks on Kashmiris working for the Indian army and police.
“This has happened before also. The locals are not happy about people joining the services because whether it is the police, the paramilitary or army, they are seen as oppressors in Kashmir,” he said.
“When you are seen as an oppressor, then obviously you will be targeted.”