Undisclosed location near Shopian, Jammu and Kashmir, March 2004
‘Something’s not right,’ Abu Torara whispered to the man slouched on a cot next to him. A pair of early summer evening sunbeams streamed into the room from a half-open window in their small hideout not far from Shopian, just over 50 km south of Srinagar.
Abu Sabzar drew deeply on a cigarette, exhaled through his nostrils, roughly scratched his beard and turned to look at Torara, who was on his feet, leaning against the wall. A pair of AK-47 assault rifles lay at the foot of the cot. Torara was looking straight ahead of him at the tiny doorway that led to the next room — a small balcony-cum-kitchen that opened out into the woods. Emanating from that direction was the sound of boiling water, the aroma of kahwa, the frothy pour of liquid into glass tumblers and their clink as they were placed on a tray.
‘You want to talk to him some more?’ Sabzar asked, stubbing out his cigarette on the windowsill next to him. Torara said nothing. A few seconds later, bearing a steel plate with glasses of tea, Iftikhar Bhatt stepped through the tiny doorway and into the room.
Six feet two inches tall, with hair down to his shoulders and most of his face covered with a bushy beard that flowed down his neck, Bhatt wore a stony expression as he stepped forward to offer the other two terrorists their tea. His own rifle was slung from his neck, resting at his side. After they had picked up their glasses, Bhatt picked up his own and sat down at the edge of the cot, silent, staring straight ahead.
Minutes passed as the three men sipped from their steaming glasses. Then, Torara stepped forward and spoke.
Bhatt said nothing, his face rigid, unmoved, his hand still bringing the tea up to his lips. He had and on Bhatt’s knee. ‘Who are you?’
Bhatt said nothing, his face rigid, unmoved, his hand still bringing the tea up to his lips. He had met the two terrorists two weeks earlier in a village near Shopian. They had never seen him before and he said very little apart from telling them the village he was from. A few days later, he opened up a little more, speaking about how his brother had been killed in an encounter three years ago.
Another young man, they thought, looking for revenge, looking for work with a militant outfit, both for a livelihood as well as for closure. At the end of a full week, he spoke his first full sentences, telling them he wanted their help with an attack on an Army checkpoint. He showed them hand-drawn maps depicting the movement of Army patrols along a little-known hill trail, research that suggested this young, bearded man of few words had already begun reconnaissance, the most crucial groundwork for a successful attack on security forces.
Torara and Sabzar were moderately impressed. Bhatt, clearly in his twenties, though the beard hid much of his youthfulness, had demonstrated the motivation to take matters into his own hands—half the battle in the process of radicalization. Tall and well-built, there was no doubt he could be useful in the rough, dark life of a militant in Kashmir. Over the following week, the two Hizbul men questioned Bhatt, presenting him with situations and asking him what he would do. Bhatt’s answer would remain the same, ‘I need your support, I want to learn.’
Torara and Sabzar were no ordinary terrorists. Both had gained a reputation for leading a highly effective recruitment campaign in south Kashmir. If Bhatt wanted to pick up a gun and get started, these were the men to get in touch with. The men weren’t surprised that Bhatt knew who they were.
At the end of two weeks, Torara and Sabzar told Bhatt that they would help with his proposed attack on the Army’s foot patrol north of Shopian, but that they needed to disappear for a few days, coordinate the logistics and finer points. Bhatt said he would not return to his village without completing his mission, with or without them. So they took him along to their hideout, where they now sat sipping hot tea.
The attack plan had been detailed and fleshed out. A consignment of grenades would arrive that night. Bhatt would be joined by three Hizbul men, who had been summoned from another village and would show up the following morning. They would then proceed in the evening to launch the attack, with the intention of killing as many of the soldiers as possible as they trudged through a short trough in the trail.
But Torara was having second thoughts. Something didn’t seem to fit. Squatting before Bhatt, he asked again.
‘Who are you?’
Bhatt, who had been circumspect and soft-spoken thus far, placed his tumbler down on the ground with a splash. Rising to his feet, he took the rifle from around his neck and dropped it on the ground with a clatter. Then, looking from Torara to Sabzar, he spoke, his voice quivering. ‘If you have any doubts about me, kill me,’ he said, his voice raised to its highest. ‘You cannot do this if you don’t trust me. So you have no choice but to kill me now.’
Torara rose to his feet, looking at Bhatt closely. And then, just as he turned to Sabzar, perhaps to ask what to do next, Bhatt pulled out a concealed 9-mm pistol and shot both the terrorists in the head. Sabzar slouched back into the cot. Torara was thrown against the wall, blood splattering against the white as he crumpled to the ground. Bhatt fired two more bullets, to be sure.
As the swirl of gun smoke cleared, Bhatt sat down on the cot, picked up the tumbler he had set down earlier and drained the tea. Then he waited for the sun to set before he could walk, in the darkness, back to where he had come from.
And when he reached there, he would, for the first time in a fortnight, be able to use his real name: Maj. Mohit Sharma, of the Army’s 1 Para Special Forces.
Excerpted from ‘India’s Most Fearless 2: More Military Stories of Unimaginable Courage and Sacrifice’ by Shiv Aroor And Rahul Singh, Penguin Ebury Press, 2019, with permission from the publisher.
Shiv Aroor is an editor and anchor with India Today television, with experience of over a decade covering the Indian military. Rahul Singh has covered defence and military affairs at the ‘Hindustan Times’ for over a decade, in a career spanning twenty years.
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