Like many of his generation, Mehrajuddin Halwai, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative who was killed earlier this week, appears to have been radicalised in the course of the large-scale, Islamist-led street protests which tore across Kashmir from 2006
New Delhi: That morning, it was snowing, a thin coat of white painting over the grime that carpets Sopore’s Main Chowk market. Abdul Khaliq Halwai had just finished making tea for a small gaggle of Border Security Force soldiers, stationed at the main chowk in Sopore. Then, he heard shots — the sounds of an ambush targeting a BSF patrol walking down a lane around the corner — and little pools of red began to blossom.
Furious BSF soldiers are alleged to have shot dead at least 43 civilians, and set off fires which claimed over 350 shops and homes on 6 January, 1993. Abdul Khaliq Halwai lived, and set up his tea stall again.
Earlier this week, twenty-eight years after the massacre, loss has again visited Abdul Khaliq Halwai. The tea-seller’s son, long-fugitive Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative Mehrajuddin Halwai, was shot dead in a controversial firefight, which police say broke out when he snatched a rifle from officers who had arrested him.
The story of the chaiwalla’s son who became a lethal terrorist helps understand the long jihad in Kashmir.
For years now, media imagination of Kashmir new-generation jihadists has been shaped by figures like Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a charismatic social media propagandist whose killing in a 2016 encounter sparked large-scale violence that evicted the Indian State from large swathes of southern Kashmir for months.
Even though Wani’s social media videos routinely showed him cradling weapons, police records show he did not participate in a single armed operation until his death.
Mehrajuddin made no social media appearances, had little education, and was unknown outside his own local community — but was named in at least eight First Information Reports involving nine murders, including the assassination of political activists and attacks on the police.
Even though the generation of terrorists who began emerging from 2008 have been cast as highly educated — Zakir Bhat, Wani’s successor, was an engineering college dropout, while others were engaged in doctoral studies or teaching — such stories are outliers. The rank and file, like Mehrajuddin, were part of a prospect-less, frustrated youth cohort, easily seduced by the jihadist call when crisis tore across Kashmir.
A life of struggle
Born in August, 1985, Mehrajuddin grew up in the shadow of the long jihad which erupted across Kashmir at the end of that decade. His home town Sopore was among the urban centres worst hit by violence.
Long a stronghold of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Kashmir’s largest Islamist group, the city provided a safe haven for groups like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Assassinations, executions and attacks on security forces were routine.
Top Hizbul terrorist killed in Kashmir. MehrajuDin Halwai, a top terror Commander was killed in an early morning encounter with security forces in Handwara, North Kashmir. He was contemporary of Burhan Wani. Halwai killed Kashmiris on orders of Hizbul Chief Syed Salahuddin. pic.twitter.com/aIfX8OTtAW
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) July 7, 2021
Little in Mehrajuddin’s teenage life, though, suggests he was involved in either Islamist politics or drawn to jihadism. Instead, his family sought to give him the best education they could. Mehrajuddin made his way through school, graduating from a government-run middle-school in Sangrampora, and then the Boys Higher Secondary School Sopore.
Academic records assembled by police investigators suggest Mehrajuddin wasn’t a star student: he failed his first attempt at a high school degree in 2002, but tried again, and graduated in 2003.
Following school, Mehrajuddin’s father paid for him to attend the Shah-i-Hamdan Computer Education Centre in Sopore, where he earned a qualification in computer applications and desktop publishing.
The oldest of three siblings, Mehrajuddin turned out to be the best-educated. His younger brother, Aziz Ahmad Halwai, dropped out of school in the eight grade, and works at a stationery store; the youngest brother, Wasim Halwai, is a street-side salesman.
In spite of his education, though, Mehrajuddin found it hard to escape the grinding poverty he had grown up in. For four years after obtaining his computer qualifications, Mehrajuddin worked at a succession off odd jobs. Then, in September 2008, he found a temporary job as an attendant at Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital.
“An entire generation grew up with violence and killing as the norm,” says Observer Research Foundation scholar Khalid Shah. “Education and jobs were supposed to offer a new generation hope, but many ended up getting sucked back in because of the tumultuous events that were soon to break out.”
The road to radicalisation
Like many of his generation, Mehrajuddin appears to have been radicalised in the course of the large-scale, Islamist-led street protests which tore across Kashmir from 2006. That summer, mobs demolished the home of Sabina Bulla — alleged to have run a prostitution ring in Srinagar, while chanting slogans supporting Pakistan and Kashmiri independence. The police stood by.
Then, in the the summer of 2007, the rape-murder of a north Kashmir teenager provided another opportunity to Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his new Islamist allies. At a June 24, 2007, rally at Langate, Islamist leader Geelani claimed “hundreds of thousands of non-State subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris”.
Early in 2008, the Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. An Anantnag school teacher was also attacked after a video of a group of his students dancing to pop music was circulated.
Finally, later that year, matters came to a head after the state government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir.
Geelani claimed this was a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region: the authorities were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the state”.
“I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”
Learning to kill
Mehrajuddin’s introduction to the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, police records seen by News18 say, came about almost by accident.
His neighbour, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative Javed Mattoo, was injured in a shootout with police in January, 2009. Mehrajuddin helped arrange Mattoo’s treatment, using a pseudonym, at the Bone and Joint Hospital. He was introduced to Qayyum Najjar, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s north Kashmir region chief, and others in the network.
“For a young man fired up by the Islamist fervour of 2008,” a police officer familiar with the case told News18, “becoming a jihadist probably seemed much more attractive than working a dead-end job.”
Few young Kashmiris, police records suggest, actually joined the jihadist movement during this period: in 2009, there were some 75 recruits, a number which fell to 54 in 2010, 23 in 2011, 21 in 2012 and just 16 in 2014.
Lacking weapons and training, moreover — the consequence of diminished support from Pakistan’s intelligence services — the jihadists focussed on developing local support through propaganda operations, rather than armed operations.
From 2013, though, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — often operating alongside other groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad — began stepping the tempo of operations. That year, Mehrajuddin was named in FIRs connected to attacks on village sarpanches, and the killing of four police officers at Hygam. In 2015, he was again alleged to be involved in the killings of former jihadists and anti-India politicians alleged to be working as informers for Indian forces.
Little is known of Mehrajuddin’s life after 2016, after the anti-India protests which followed Wani’s killing ended.
Hunted by police, Wani is said to have fled across the Line of Control; police, however, say he remained in the region, hiding out with sympathisers in north Kashmir. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s hopes of reviving itself went nowhere, and the organisation haemorrhaged leadership through 2018-2020.