Bandipora: Over a dozen saffron-colored flags and a tricolour are waving inimitably at a three-story structure in Bandipora, a town in the northern Kashmir valley, surrounded by the snow-peaked mountains of Harmukh. Uniquely garlanded, this was the home of Sheikh Wasim Bari, a Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader, who was killed along with his father and brother on Wednesday evening.
Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, J&K Police said, killed the trio in a pre-planned attack and fled from the spot. Wednesday’s incident is being seen as part of a bloody cycle of attacks on pro-India political activists in the restive Kashmir region. But killing all male members of a political family has instilled fear and worry among activists and leaders of parties like BJP.
Who was Wasim Bari?
In 2014, a young and ambitious political activist, Bari, met a number of political parties seeking their ticket to contest the assembly elections, but only faced rejection. Eager to venture into the pro-India political circles, he contested as independent candidate. He couldn’t secure much. But with 796 votes (1.2 per cent), he opened his political innings.
Soon after the elections, he joined BJP as an activist, said BJP leader from the region Er Aijaz. This was the time when BJP was trying to make inroads in the Muslims majority valley on back of 25 seats the party had bagged in Jammu.
Bari made an impression from the beginning, and within a year, was given the post of party general secretary of Bandipora district. In two years, he became the party’s president in the district.
At the time of his death, the 33-year-old was one of the 40 executive members in Jammu and Kashmir for the party. “He was pro-active in the party activities. In past five years, he has been able to arrange over two dozen party rallies in Bandipora district,” said Abdul Rahman Thekri, the current Bandipora district president of the party.
Thekri is shaken by the attack. “We have lost an asset. The loss is irreparable. He was a dedicated member of the party who stood for its ideology till the last breath,” Thekri told News18, his hands shaking. In his tribute to his colleague, he branded Bari a “fierce competitor”. This is evident from the fact that Thekri is Bari’s senior in the party but the latter ascended the party ladder quickly.
The slain BJP member was holding the charge of managing the party’s training department, where BJP inculcates in newcomers the party’s policy on Kashmir. “He was able to persuade thousands of people in his area to join the party,” said J&K BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur. It is the reason, Thakur believes, militants targeted him.
Bari was seen among those faces of pro-India politics, who despite facing huge public criticism and militant threat, would not only openly talk about his affiliations but would also boldly invite other people to join the path.
Over the years, Bari’s association with the ruing BJP helped him become an influential person in his area. Locals say he had access to the bureaucratic and security circles and he would be frequently approached by people for help in government offices.
“He was quite a powerful person. We would hardly afford to overlook him,” said a local administrative officer wishing anonymity.
All the family members of Bari’s family, including his slain brother and father, were BJP workers. Bari’s younger brother, Umer Bashir, was part of the youth wing of the BJP and his father Bashir Ahmad had served as vice president of Bandipora unit of the party.
Sequence of events
Bari had returned in the evening from his in-laws’ house in a nearby village and was accompanied by security guards. Eight of the ten police security guards assigned to protect the family were present that day at the house. But, as per the police officers, they had gone for rest after Bari came back.
Bari then went out to fetch cold drinks from a grocery store managed by Bari’s father, in the first floor of their house, his sister Gousia Islam said. At the shop was his younger brother as well, who was waiting to get a haircut, from a saloon next to Bashir’s shop.
A militant Over Ground Worker (OGW) was looking out for them, police said.
As soon as the three members were near each other, one of the attackers with pistol in hand came forward and shot Bari in the head, police officials said. Then the gunman pointed the gun at Basheer and his son Umer and shot them both in head too. The second militant served as a lookout while the executions were carried out.
The trio was taken to nearby hospital where doctors declared them brought dead.
The next day they were buried on a hillock in front of a modest gathering, that included some local party leaders.
The attack has sent fear among known faces and even obscure workers of the saffron party. Conversations with them after the killing reflect that they feel they could be the next potential targets of militants.
Nazir Ahmad who hails from the frontier town of Kupwara is vice president of the party in North Kashmir. Speaking with News18, Ahmad complained that the government was not providing “adequate” security for their protection. “The militants were able to conduct an attack on the party leader in such a high security zone, it shows that there is a need to do more to keep us safe.”
Ahmad’s complaint over security triggers a déjà-vu for the party: BJP leader Ghulam Mohammad Mir was killed by militants near his home two months after government removed his protection in May 2019.
Since November 2017, before Wednesday’s attack, the party has lost at least three district level leaders to militants.
Gowhar Hussain Bhat, a 30-year-old youth president of Shopian district, was kidnapped from his home by militants on a November evening in 2017. Hours later, his body with his throat slit was found in an orchard a kilometre away from his house. In August 2018, Pulwama district president of the party Shabir Ahmad met the same fate.
Ahmad said that the killing of Bari, his father and brother will undercut the progress of the party in Kashmir, where it has to fight the socio-political resistance, if concrete steps are not taken to ensure the security of workers on the ground.
“Our leaders at the top should show concern for us and not just use these killings to sell their narrative around militancy in Kashmir.” He recounted incidents of vandalisation of his home by “some unknown people” some years ago. “I have not been compensated for the damages despite promises by my leaders.”