On the afternoon of 7 March, 28-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Pala was travelling back home from Rajasthan after four months, when a grenade exploded at a bus stop in Jammu. Riyaz was severely injured. He was rushed to the government medical college and hospital. A resident of Mattan village in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Riyaz went into coma. After providing immediate medical attention, the authorities informed his family.
At home, 55-year-old Nazira Banu, Riyaz’s mother, was desperately waiting for him. Nazira had planned to prepare Riyaz’s favourite food. But the initial joy of Riyaz’s homecoming turned into sorrow.
Riyaz’s father, 60-year-old Mohammad Amin Pala, and his elder brother 30-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Pala, hurriedly left for Jammu. En route, Manzoor’s phone rang, and he was informed that Riyaz had succumbed to his injuries.
“Before we could reach Jammu, Riyaz took his last breath,” said a heartbroken Manzoor. “He was returning after four months. Instead of being home, he landed up in hospital. We took his mortal remains from the Jammu hospital.”
A Happy Homecoming Becomes a Black Day
Every year, the family said, Riyaz used to go to Rajasthan along with his uncle Nisar Ahmad Bhat, to earn a living by selling shawls, and during the summer, he worked as a labourer in Kashmir.
“Just before the grenade blast, I talked to Riyaz over the phone. He was happy. He had bought some items for our home and clothes for family members,” Manzoor told The Quint, sitting in a room full of mourners.
According to Riyaz’s family, he was scheduled to reach home early, but the continuous closure of the Jammu-Srinagar highway due to landslides, had compelled him to stay in Amritsar. Riyaz and his uncle Nisar had to spend four days in Amritsar.
“We told them to stay in Amritsar rather than in Jammu, because of security reasons. We have seen recent violence against Kashmiris in Jammu. When they reached Jammu from Amritsar, there was only one-way traffic allowed from Srinagar to Jammu. They spent one night in Jammu,” said Manzoor. “Had the highway not been closed, my brother would have been alive today,” mourned Manzoor.
‘The Third Blast in the Area in 10 Months’
When Riyaz’s mortal remains reached his village, hundreds of mourners were waiting to take part in his last rites. The always-smiling Riyaz was a bachelor and the younger of the two sons in the family. “Riyaz was simple and hardworking,” said Manzoor. “He was sociable. His death broke hundreds of hearts.”
Nisar also sustained injuries in the blast, but his condition is stable. The Jammu bus stand usually remains crowded with passengers. The grenade blast left two dead and over thirty people injured. Officials said it was the third blast in the area in the past ten months.
Another deceased person was revealed to be 17-year-old Mohammad Sharik from Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Sharik had reached Jammu a day before the blast took place. He had come to learn tailoring from his relative in Jammu; he needed to support his family. Six hours after the blast, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested the accused Irfan Ahmad (name changed) on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway in Nagrota, around 20 kilometres away from the blast spot.
With his head covered with a black cloth, Irfan was produced before the media. Irfan, according to police, reached Jammu early morning that day, and lobbed a grenade at the Jammu bus stand. With the help of CCTV footage and the oral testimonies of witnesses, the police were able to identify a suspect.
Accused Minor’s Family in Shock & Disbelief
“Irfan was trying to flee to Kashmir, when policed apprehended him at Nagrota toll plaza,” Inspector General of Police, Jammu, Manish Kumar Sinha, told media. “During the preliminary investigation, the accused confessed to the crime.”
When the news about Irfan reached his village in South Kashmir, his mother, Amina, (name changed) was in disbelief. “He is not my son. My son can’t do this. He is a kid. How could he throw a grenade? His face is hidden. No. He is not my son,” Amina repeatedly told her family members.
Amina remained in disbelief until the police officials confirmed the information to the family. “We didn’t believe media reports. But when we received information about Irfan from officials, Amina fell to the ground. She cried her heart out,” said Abdullah, Irfan’s grandfather. “Amina is going on crying since the incident,” said Abdullah.
Conflicting Reports on Accused ‘Minor’s’ Age
Irfan, the family said, had gone to meet his cousin sister who is studying in Jammu. “Four days of winter vacation were still left. He told us he wants to visit his cousin sister in Jammu till the schools reopen,” said Abdullah. “The police raided our house and confiscated all documents of Irfan and his mobile phone. They also questioned his parents,” Abdullah continued.
Irfan was revealed to be a “minor” the day after he was arrested. As per a PTI report, while “the medical tests claim his age to be 19 years and more, one set of documents recovered from him show that he turned 16 on Tuesday (12 March) and another show that he turned 14.”
The boy’s Aadhaar card and other identity proofs, including school records, show his date of birth as 12 March 2003. The ‘age test’ which Irfan was made to undertake, declared Irfan to be an adult. But as per this report, the Juvenile Justice Board in Jammu has rejected this claim for now.
According to the police Irfan was indoctrinated by the Hizbul Mujahideen. “The boy has confessed he was paid Rs 50,000 by HM for lobbing a grenade,” the police said. “The HM commander of Kulgam district, Farooq Ahmed Bhat alias Umar, has passed on a grenade to the minor for throwing at Jammu. Farooq and the accused minor boy are residents of the same village,” the police claimed.
‘Collateral Damages’ of an Ongoing Conflict
Denying police charges, the family and neighbours of Irfan asked how he managed to reach Jammu with an explosive.
“The security always remain alert on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. How could Irfan reach Jammu?” asked Zaina Begum, who lives next door to Irfan’s family. “Since the Pulwama attack, security has been tightened.”
“If Irfan hurled a grenade – which we don’t believe – and was subsequently arrested within hours by police, then why did they fail to spot him with an explosive when he was heading towards Jammu,” Zaiba continued, angrily. “We want a full clarification.”
Irfan, according to his family, was shy and had never shown an inclination towards such activities. He was the eldest son of a painter, and was studying in class 9. The police confirmed that Irfan has no previous records of such (criminal) activity.
On the one hand, the minor’s family is still in disbelief. They say their son became a scapegoat. On the other hand, Riyaz’s family is yet to fathom the loss of their youngest son. The family is inconsolable. They don’t know whether or not to believe whether the accused minor boy has killed their son. “We don’t know whether the boy was involved or not. It is up to the police,” said Manzoor. “The worrying thing is he is a minor. The unending Kashmir conflict has pushed us to the brink.”
(Note: In accordance with the Juvenile Justice Act, nothing has been mentioned in this report that can reveal the identity of the accused minor).
(Aamir Ali Bhat is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist. He regularly writes for 'The New Arab' and other local organisations. The views expressed here are that of the author. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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