Kashmiri Scholar in Wilderness: Where’s Hilal?

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Missing Scholar Hilal. Photo Editor – Prathmesh Ausekar

100 days after he went missing in the woods of Naranag, a Kashmiri scholar’s case remains an unsolved mystery.

ATOP half-white half-green crevices, slipped inside the northwestern Himalayan cracks that tower above the humble town of Naranag, 400 people had searched through sticks and stones for a tangible explanation in place of words that had failed their employers. Parallely, 58 kilometres away in Srinagar, the dread that usually follows the news of an encounter – familiar to Kashmir’s (simulated) peace – was eclipsed by brow-raising curiosity after a WhatsApp forward claimed that one of the bodies from those that were made to fall in that early shower of fire, belonged to Hilal Ahmad Dar. The ‘lost’ 24-year-old PhD scholar from Bemina. Last seen in the woods. June 14, 2020.

Now dead. A militant. It had trumpeted.

This had happened nearly three months ago, and a week after the disappearance of Hilal, who was lovingly called Basit. The viral message suspended the search operation led by his elder brother, Irshad Ahmad Dar, in the jungles of Naranag. As paragraphs from the widely-shared information reached his family, it brought more grief to the already-grieving. Not only had it proclaimed that Hilal was dead, it had also made him a militant. “The family did not know which part of the ‘news’ to fear,” Mohammed Sadiq Hussain, Hilal’s maternal uncle, rued retrospectively.

On reading the message, Irshad, lovingly called Yasir, had dispersed the 400 searchers, suspended their look-out for palpable clues, and closed their large but nth expedition in the woods since June 14, so that he could dash back to Srinagar with his uncle, Sadiq. It was confirmed much later that evening that nothing even reminiscent of the ‘lost’ adult was captured by the armed forces when they hunted every house in Zadibal, Srinagar, during the gunfight of June 21.

However, two days later in a routine press conference, on June 23, Kashmir police chief, IGP Vijay Kumar stated that the ‘lost’ 24-year-old had joined the ranks of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM).

Known to be studious, soft-spoken, and focussed, IGP Kumar had declared on June 23 that Hilal had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.

The ‘revelation’ made by the top cop acquired its space in the hyperactive Delhi-based media in the days that followed. However, the same digital news platforms and television channels missed to give the follow-up revelation equal space as the former.

“On July 26, they [police] admitted that Hilal had not been registered in their official records, as a militant. The J&K police stated that they needed more verification,” Sadiq continued.

“But the highly publicised statement that my brother had joined HM did its damage. Before their admission, when my family was hovering every street and officials’ addresses for help, they were shunned on the grounds that Hilal had become a militant. Later, the follow-up statement took care of the lags at offices but the damage to our public reputation cannot be undone,” Yasir added.

A little before the rollback of IGP Kumar’s declaration, with an appetite for proof, the police had come to Hilal’s home and returned to the thana carrying his laptop and every-other-day devices. The neighbours were also questioned. Uncle Sadiq had asserted his nephew’s innocence with such grit that he challenged the policemen to get him first, should their suspicions find validation. And they never did. Yet.

Yasir said that in a brief meeting he managed with IGP Kumar soon after the ‘militant link’ was established, the officer told him that his statement was based on sources which “may be right or wrong.”

“It has not been confirmed. But we cannot rule it out. Last year in September, right at the spot where Hilal is supposed to have paused his ‘trek’, the forces had killed two militants. So, we cannot deny the possibility but also cannot label him,” Mir Rashid, Sub-Inspector at Kangan Police Station, told Kashmir Observer while responding to a question about the IGP’s famous declaration.

But Rashid, who’s also the investigating officer for this case, added that whenever a civilian has ‘picked up arms’, there has been some form of ‘recruitment announcement’ made by rebel groups. “It could be posters, a lone pamphlet, or anything else but there has been no elaan in this case, making it harder to prove,” he informed.

Hilal’s family travels between the Srinagar and Ganderbal districts almost every day for meeting the police team in Kangan town and also for their own attempts at truth-excavation with little armies of Gujjars, Bakarwals, and trekkers. “My family has filed a missing person’s report at the Kangan Police Station,” Yasir categorically mentioned when asked if he had filed a First Information Report (FIR) and where.

Even though he has his own mobile services shop in Downtown, Yasir has had little time and no mind for it since Hilal was lost. Married and temporarily brother-less, this eldest son of deceased parents searches for his sibling all day, every day, and dreams of reunion at night.

When he was approached for details, he was walking to a post office to send the Governor a letter pleading for ‘real’ intervention. “Humein jitni madad milni chahiye police ki taraf se, nahi mil rahi (We are not getting the help we need from the police),” he said. He has written to higher-ups for transferring the case to a police station closer to him but has not heard back from them. Yet.

Yasir remembered the day when his search group was made to pause while he slid down from the peaks to the valley at its feet because of a false message. The uncle-nephew duo had concealed the fright they sensed. Women, old and young, had gathered outside their house to mourn his missing brother’s ‘tragic death’.

Tight knots of panic in their diaphragm were slightly loosened after they were assured that the message was indeed false but at the police station, when the duo asserted that the officers should’ve dealt with the news before it became the hot exchange for the day, the police counter-asserted that the news was not published by their offices.

But in any way, two days later, other official places of business would print and publish the decorated police officer’s statement about Hilal and the Hizbul Mujahideen. The police’s latest statement, however, a clarification that the missing scholar’s militant link had not been proven, would be ignored by masses and media already convinced that the boy had gone rogue.

The First Suspects Who Swear By Their Innocence

The Kolsar Lake as captured by Tabish “on reaching the spot”.

Since Hilal had accompanied a group of five young adults to Kolsar Lake, which falls under the jurisdiction of Kangan’s police machinery, Sub-Inspector Mir Rashid and his colleagues have been probing the matter.

“So far,” the investigating officer said, “we’ve thoroughly interrogated the four boys. The fifth one had gone home intimidated by the size of the mountain. We also conducted polygraph tests on all four and have applied for the court’s permission to perform a Narco test on them. We’re leaving no stone unturned and our process is completely transparent.”

But does he, the investigating officer, strongly suspect the four boys? “Not really,” he said. And as per his findings so far he has got no reason to suspect that the group was responsible for Hilal’s disappearance.

One of the boys from the trekking group, who Hilal’s family said “was the only one who knew our son”, was the scholar’s acquaintance since childhood. Named Tabish, he had assembled the trekking group after inviting some of his friends and younger brother for the hiking trip. He said that he had not invited Hilal per se, but he had requested to join them.

“The others did not know Hilal. Just my brother, me and the other boy, Towfiq, who went home early,” he solemnly stated. “Four of us, including Hilal, were from Bemina and the other two were my friends.”

Tabish has said that he never invited Hilal but agreed to let him join when he asked.

They had begun their journey in the wee hours of June 14. It was a Sunday and trekking season had just started. Hilal had taken his two-wheeler for the trip, acting against the advice of his elder brother, Yasir, who had ‘pragmatically’ suggested he take the four-wheeler instead.

Tabish said that they had reached the town of Naranag at 6:30 am and started their ascent by 7 that morning. He added that as per the whispers around him, Hilal had not informed his brother that he would be leaving home even before Fajr. A minute detail highlighted from a stream of hushed gossip.

Tabish

Tabish’s brother, Sahil, was the last person to have spoken to Hilal before he disappeared. The siblings maintained that throughout their journey, until his ‘tired’ stop at Trunkhol, Hilal behaved like any other happy person on a trek.

“The most challenging phase of the ascent is the 8-kilometre-long stretch of Budhsheri. Hilal was walking just fine during that part of the journey. Had he stumbled or felt tired there, we would have turned back as the town is not far from that point,” Sahil detailed.

He recollected that after climbing Budhsheri, his team rested to drink the tea they had carried in a kettle. “We stopped for tea at around 10:15 am and Hilal went away to text or chat.”

Sahil with Hilal in the attire the scholar was last seen in.

This was also confirmed by Mehraj, a professional trekker since 2017. Noting the onset of hiking season, he had planned a trip to Gangabal Lake with his friend on the same day as Hilal’s much-awaited climb to Kolsar Lake.

Two lakes separated by a turn in the woods, Mehraj went straight to Gangabal whereas Hilal’s group turned left towards Kolsar, from the point that separated them at Trunkhol.

He was last seen at Trunkhol. 

Trunkhol as on June 14, 2020. Photo clicked by Mehraj.

“We were on the same trail that day and met at ‘Budhsheri Top’. The boys were sipping tea when two from their team approached us. We were having our first meal of the day, some sweet corn, when the two came and said that they had seen us on a 40-member-trek to Mount Mahadev. I apologised for failing to remember them and offered them my breakfast. They politely refused and carried on,” Mehraj, the eyewitness, said.

“Mashallah! The team was happy and united,” he added.

He even informed that he had casually spoken to Hilal about the shoes he was wearing. Since the two groups – one of five members and the other of two, were headed the same way, they interacted sporadically. Mehraj suggested Hilal to invest in a pair of hiking shoes if he was going to continue indulging in the sport. “He told me it was his first-ever trek and requested that I recommend some good models. I had told him to look at some pairs on the online store of Decathlon,” he sadly reminisced.

The two groups were within the range of each other’s visions until Trunkhol. Sahil said that after hiking past ‘difficult Budhsheri’, Hilal had slowed down creating half a kilometre’s gap between the rest of the team and him.

“My brother walks the fastest so I asked him to stick with Hilal who was struggling behind us. We naturally split into two: three ahead and Hilal behind with my brother,” Tabish described further.

While Mehraj claimed that he reached Trunkhol at 11:13 am, “a meadowy brilliance; a filler before one approaches the glory of Mount Harmukh”, with the three boys in close proximity, the surviving group has said that they reached at 12:30 pm.

Mehraj’s click with his friend walking in front. Three from the trekking group, excluding Hilal and Sahil, are visible ahead.

“We went straight towards Gangabal from the meadow. They went left. I do not know what happened after but it has been very unfortunate,” Mehraj stated gloomily.

Still lagging, Sahil said that Hilal and he had successfully reached the turning point and walked a little ahead from there. “But a few minutes later, Hilal sat down on some stones from exhaustion. He wanted to go another way from there but I refused because I knew the right way to the lake,” he shared.

According to him, he tried to convince Hilal to resume walking. He said that they had finished 90 per cent of their hike and it made no sense to waste time when the group was already divided. Apparently, Hilal was persistent and demanded to go another way but Sahil tried to negotiate. He even offered to carry his bag to ease the burden but he altruistically asked Sahil “to not spoil his trip” because of his tiredness.

“He told me that he would wait at that spot for our return. I found it odd to leave but he was not ready to move and my brother was much ahead, so I agreed and left.”

Faheem and Khalid from the Four.

They reached their destination by 2 pm and stayed there for an hour. Remembering that they had to descend and regroup at Trunkhol, they left Kolsar Lake at 3 pm.

But Hilal was not there.

The siblings said that their team searched around for two hours. They checked with every farmer, herder, nomad, in sight. Even Mehraj corroborated this claim from his participation in Hilal’s rescue operations in the days consecutive to his disappearance. “All the Bakarwals and Gujjars we spoke to, during rescue efforts, told us that the four boys had leaped around the meadows looking for their friend.”

A nomadic group from June 14.

Tabish said that since his group was looking for Hilal in a no-network zone, they could not call his cellphone. Just as they reached Budhsheri, Tabish received a call from an uber-tensed Yasir asking, “Where have you kept my brother?” He thought of it to be more of an insinuation and less of a question and was disappointed by the sound of it. “He must be at the foot of the mountain,” he had told Hilal’s brother.

However, after the Four descended from the body to the feet of the majestic rock, they saw Hilal’s two-wheeler still parked in place and his family gathered with a few men in uniform. The presence of the lone vehicle without its rider seemed ominous to them.

“They were accusing us. We understood that they were disturbed. So were we. We did not go home that night and stayed at a cheap hotel above a dhaba so that we could join the police team in their search operations the next day,” Sahil said.

The Four had “checked every hotel in Naranag” for Hilal. What if he had climbed down and taken a room to rest… they thought. But Hilal was nowhere. Some hoteliers tried to pacify the boys by telling them that their friend must have camped with tourists in the folds of the ranges. “Many do that,” Sahil mentioned it to the family as well.

Kabhi keh rahe the upar hoga, toh kabhi keh rahe the ki neeche hoga (They were saying ‘he must be at the foot of the mountain’ sometimes or sometimes they were saying the opposite),” Sadiq clicked his tongue in exasperation.

As a matter of obvious consequence, the Four were locked up immediately. “The police custody lasted two weeks,” the siblings maintained but Hilal’s brother said that they were kept for a week, if not less than that. “That statement is wrong. Only we know what happened to us in the lock-up,” Sahil sourly stated.

They were constantly interrogated. “Mind games were played,” Tabish said.

“We went with the Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) to scan the whole place. We found someone’s 5-rupee note but nothing of Hilal’s. His family has accused me of forcing him to trek but why would I coerce someone for a sport of this nature? It makes no sense,” he lamented.

“We were questioned countless times. Sometimes the CID came and sometimes the officers disguised themselves as civilians to find anything that will help in incriminating us,” Sahil continued.

“We were also made to give the lie-detector test and we passed it. Now, still unsatisfied, the police are seeking to do a Narco test and I am scared. I have heard that people can suffer severe side-effects if anything goes wrong. Memories have been lost to such tests in the past. The court needs to give permission for this and the judge has told us Four that we have the right to decline but even if we decline, the society will accuse us anyway. We consulted a few lawyers and they said that even if we had ‘free will’ with regards to the Narco test, the system would find a way to make us take it. Thus, we have given our consent, overlooking the dangerous and permanent threat to our future and lives.”

Yasir is also waiting for the Nacro test.

He Dreamed Of Writing Books

The false information about Hilal’s death in the Zadibal encounter of June 21 had shifted the focus from the manipulative harshness of encounters to the juicy update on the whereabouts of the ‘lost’ PhD scholar who dreamed of writing books.

Having lost his mother in 2014 and father in 2018, Hilal lived in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi working as a Process Associate for Admiral Group plc, headquartered in Cardiff, Wales. He was a BBA graduate from Islamia College and had even completed his MBA degree from Kashmir University (KU). He had applied for a PhD in Management Studies while he was on the job. His last conversations with his friends were about prospective job offers and career opportunities.

“Our parents raised us with passion, surviving many difficult times. Our mother dreamed of Hilal as a professor and so did he,” Yasir said.

Before he disappeared, he left New Delhi for Kashmir on March 23, just before ‘the world’s strictest lockdown’ was declared. He was working, quarantined in his quarters, when his uncle called him back home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obedient, as he had always been, Hilal came home after trying to protest a little.

“He argued that if anything were to happen to him, Delhi was a much better place to be, healthcare services-wise. But we were adamant. We had called all the children of the house back during the worldwide scare of coronavirus,” Sadiq disclosed.

And so, complying as per culture, the bird flew back to his nest to be ‘safe’. He came back to his old room, unoccupied since two years, and refurbished it in his own style with paint. He installed a Jio Fiber connection – familiar in a sans-Internet Kashmir – to work.

The evening before he disappeared, Hilal had worked for 10 hours. He had shared that evening’s supper with his brother and had told him that he had to “bring juice” for others in the trekking group.

At dawn, the following day, June 14, he had also updated his Facebook status and WhatsApp story individually, with information about the planned activity.

WhatsApp and Facebook updates respectively.

“It hurts when they speak like that. With such carelessness. He was no militant. He was barely even a political person,” Hilal’s brother stated.

At 10:15 am, when the Four were indeed drinking tea, Mehraj also saw Hilal retract with his phone.

It was to send a text message to Yasir.

Yasir’s text to Hilal at 10:15 am.

“After that, he lost connectivity and we have been searching for him since,” Sadiq cried.

“Please help us,” he said, “The police had told us a month and a half before Eid-ul-Adha that they were getting a ‘lead’ in Shopian. But they just kept repeating that for more than a month, not divulging anything more about what it exactly was. It turned out to be a phone number that they had to trace but there was no progress there. So I took the name and address of the ‘lead’ from the police and went to find out for myself. It was just a boy from Hilal’s college who he had called to discuss academics.”

Danish, the ‘lead’ from Shopian, studied in Islamia College with Hilal. “Yes, that is true. Hilal was barely my friend, just an old college-mate. Ten days before he disappeared, the forms for the Maulana Azad National Fellowship for Minority Students had been released. He called regarding some doubts he had about that scholarship. My roommate, a resident of Kangan, is studying Commerce so Hilal asked me to connect them. My roommate also knew him from college,” the ‘lead’ stated.

Danish believes that his conversation was singled out because of Shopian’s infamy and his from-Kangan roommate. “I was called in for questioning and I submitted my phone to the Deputy Superintendent of Police. Eventually they found out that we had only spoken about academics.”

Even though he said that he ‘hardly knows Hilal’, Danish does not think that the scholar would ever lift the gun.

His roommate of two years, Umar, called Hilal a ‘quiet type’ who slept a lot. He informed that Hilal had invited their common friend, Qadri, to the trek after learning about it. “Since Qadri’s leg/hand was hurt, he declined the offer. But feels terribly guilty now,” Umar mentioned.

When the police asked him if Hilal had any romantic inclinations, Umar said that having a girlfriend was never his priority. Hilal was immersed in his ambitions and would never miss a night’s work. He worked in the graveyard shift at Admiral Group plc. “Hilal would always manage to almost-miss the cab because of his love for sleep,” he chuckled.

Umar painted from his memory the picture of a notebook the scholar kept at Malviya Nagar. On one of its pages, Hilal had craftily written about His Dreams that one of their flatmates had caught a glimpse of. This titibit was boisterously shared among the flatmates as it reminded them of children’s expression corners created on the backs of school notebooks.

      A peek into Hilal’s room in Malviya Nagar.

He also vaguely remembered e-meeting Tabish when Hilal added him to their PUBG-team. “Hilal had friends, a decent social life. He was not lonely or facing any mental health issues. Our last conversation was about our plan to apply for jobs at the J&K Bank. He even sent me some online books to study for the same,” he added.

      Screenshot from Umar’s phone where Hilal has sent him books to study.

Hilal was not cut out to be a militant, the roommate stressed.

“A funny type,” he said, “Hilal would not follow anyone on Instagram. We once argued about that too and I had teasingly unfollowed him.”

But @hilal_abdulbasit follows one person and there is no way to know ‘who’ for anyone who is not an existing follower. His uncle said that he had reason to believe there was a clue hidden there. “I do not know if the follower was added after his disappearance and I have appealed to the police to employ their ethical hackers to check. What if he is trying to tell us that he is alive? We need to know.”

Hilal was a user of many social media platforms.

Unfortunately, the police have not checked or responded to his appeal. Yet.

“There is no case of militancy here. The child has always been studious and an excellent performer. He has won so many recognitions and was even setting his sail to Dubai after his best friend got a job there but we stopped him so that he was easily reachable,” Sadiq said stressfully but excitedly.

Hilal’s NET qualification certificate and some of the prizes he had won.

What Has Been Done To Find Him?

The investigating officer at Kangan Police Station said that there was no reason that necessitated tracing Hilal’s phone. “He was out of coverage when he ‘stopped’ and was ‘lost’. Assuming that he has ‘crossed the border’, his SIM card won’t work and hence is untraceable,” Sub-Inspector Rashid declared.

But there is no evidence that the scholar has crossed the border. Yet.

Still.

 “We have scaled the mountain 10-15 times to find him,” the cop informed. “Recently, on August 24, a large group of police officers, SHO and DSP included, stayed near the lake for four days. We checked every obvious and non-obvious spot but have found nothing.”

He maintained that they have been on their toes, at their best, desperately looking for a solid clue.

Has he left with a purpose or is a captive somewhere?

An Unfamiliar Disappearance

Neither has there been any public announcement of his suspected recruitment to militant ranks nor have the police found a single alibi from their network of information. Yet.

And the Four regret their trek. The siblings said in bitter sarcasm that they committed a mistake going for the hike that day. Now, every turn they take, they are followed by punishing looks and mistrusting faces. Their families only mourn their sons’ ill-timed adventure and pity their luck.

Hilal’s brother and family said that they have been failed by hollow promises and sympathetic words. The system’s uncooperativeness, they said, has broken their family.

“Every act is insincere and every appeal is unheard. We wander alone, sometimes with people who wish to help, to look for a sign or some direction that will lead us to him,” Yasir sobbed.

He said this as he was reaching the Kangan town looking for newly-arrived Bakarwals who were just in time for their seasonal visit, hopeful of extracting some noteworthy information about his scholar sibling.

Three months since he disappeared in a set of events – unfamiliar to Kashmir’s (simulated) peace – every byte of intelligence about him has led to a very hard question.

Has he (too) disappeared like the thousands? 

Abhi kuch bol nahi sakte,” the investigating officer sighed in response.

(Nothing can be said right now)

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