“Since the 1990s, whenever any conscientious person spoke up,” prominent Kashmiri lawyer activist Babar Qadri said in a on Facebook, on September 24, “they have been killed.” Hours later, Qadri was shot dead at his Srinagar residence.
Babar Qadri was better known as a fiery orator who frequently appeared on Indian television. He had the remarkable ability to outshout his hosts without crossing the lines of decency. He was someone who could speak at length, especially on issues related to human rights, at a moment’s notice.
Despite being sort of a controversial figure, Qadri’s debates on television news were watched by many in the Valley, especially those from the legal fraternity. “He was always ready to debate,” said lawyer Mansab Wadoo, Qadri’s friend and colleague of five years. “He never needed to prepare. He would be given a topic and he would start debating.”
For Wadoo, Qadri’s frequent appearance on Indian television was a form of activism. He was “someone who spoke for Kashmiris.” “If there was an orator from our side, it was Babar Qadri,” said Wadoo. “He tried, through his debates, to represent Kashmir on international platforms and he succeeded in doing that.”
But Qadri stepped on many toes with his unrestrained criticism of wrongdoings, irrespective of the side. According to his friends, it was a quality symbolic of his courage and integrity. But eventually, it became the very reason for his assassination. For the last two years, Qadri had made public the multiple threats he recieved to his life.
Shot in cold blood
On the evening of September 24, two men, pretending to be clients, sought to meet Qadri at his residence in Srinagar’s Hawal area. After a brief conversation on the lawn, the men opened fire at Qadri, hitting him in the face and upper body.
Qadri collapsed as he attempted to rush inside his home and the attackers fled. Family members rushed Qadri to the hospital where he was declared dead. The news of the assassination shook the neighbourhood and mourners poured in from different parts of the city.
In a press conference, a day after the assassination, the Inspector General of Police in Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, claimed Qadri had not informed the police of the threat to his life. “Had he done so, we would have taken him to a safe place,” Kumar told reporters. The IGP further added that Qadri “was not a protected person.”
However, he did admit that Qadri had survived a previous attempt on his life in 2018 and that in the past week, local police officials had “requested” him to move out of the neighbourhood, which Qadri had refused.
Kumar said the two attackers were wearing masks and the police were in the process of identifying them based on CCTV footage from a camera facing the street outside Qadri’s residence. Qadri’s father, Yaseen Qadri, however, claimed that the assailants were not masked.
Qadri’s friends and family members also say that repeated requests made by him for a security cover were denied by the administration. In June 2018, Qadri had made the following tweet.
Stirring the hornet's nest
The 40-year-old lawyer rose to prominence in 2012, after a picture of —accused of rioting and who was being escorted by a uniformed police officer—in court went viral. The photograph had evoked widespread condemnation of the police’s lack of sensitivity in handling juveniles.
He was also a vocal critic of the High Court Bar Association (HCBA), accusing it of complacency and intolerance towards diversity of opinion and leadership.
Lawyers in Kashmir, more than any other section of the society, work within the ambit of the Indian Constitution but the Bar Association has long been dominated by lawyers who openly espouse pro-freedom sentiment. In a recent video uploaded on social media, Qadri had pointed out the association’s inaction in the aftermath of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy and statehood in August 2019.
Over the years, Qadri apart from being a vocal critic of the administration also advocated juvenile justice rights in Kashmir besides other issues pertaining to Kashmir on several television debates. “He had his own viewership just because of his fearlessness,” said Qadri’s friend Majid Hyderi, also a regular panellist on Indian television.
“He was surely a fearless tiger,” said Hyderi, adding that it was Qadri’s “fearlessness” that got him expelled from the HCBA. “Sometimes he would criticise [India], sometimes he would criticise [Pakistan]. For Kashmir, he would pick a fight with whichever side. And this proved costly to him.”
After the killing of prominent journalist Shujaat Bukhari in 2018, Qadri’s is the second such killing of a prominent and outspoken member of the Kashmiri civil society. Hyderi accused the police of indifference towards Qadri’s security.
“For the past two years, he had a threat [to his life] but the Jammu and Kashmir Police did nothing,” he said. “The role that Jammu Kashmir Police had played in Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination, that they kind of let it happen, they played the same role in Babar Qadri’s case.”
The police in Kashmir, Hyderi added, “are not bothered about anybody’s life.”
On September 24, in the nearly half an hour long Facebook live session on the elections to the Bar association in Kashmir, Qadri had mounted a scathing attack at the incumbent head of the association, Mian Qayoom, and his associates who, as alleged by Qadri in the video, had constantly been threatening him.
In the last two years, according to his friends, Qadri was subjected to a vicious campaign that oscillated between sections terming him an agent on the payroll of the while others left no stone unturned to dub him a .
Babu Singh, a political activist based in Jammu and an associate of Qadri, had spent a week at the Qadri residence, leaving for Jammu just two days before the assassination. Singh said that he “would advise [Qadri] to avoid controversies but he would not pay heed”, preferring to speak his mind instead.
“It's a great loss,” he said of Qadri’s killing. “We didn't know that he would come on the list of the unknown gunmen. He would say that no one should die, but he himself was martyred.”
Qadri had “repeatedly demanded security from the administration but they kept on saying that they were considering it. [Qadri] is dead now and it is still under consideration”, said Singh, adding: “How many people have to be killed before we learn from our mistakes.”
Indian television channels that regularly sought Qadri’s participation on debates, Singh said, had fallen largely silent on his assassination. Instead, they chose to cover Bollywood stars. “National television called him every day, where is the national media today? Where have they died?”
However, soon after his killing, a plethora of videos and messages circulated on social media with opinions on both sides of the political divide over Kashmir expressing shock over the incident and assigning blame to each other.
To debate or not debate?
In the Valley, flooded with conflicting information, there is a constant desire to know more. Simultaneously the security state’s stranglehold on dissent off late – worsening with the liberal use of anti-terror laws to curb speech – has led many in Kashmir to view panellists on jingoistic and decidedly Islamophobic Indian television news channels with suspicion.
A consistent feature of several Kashmir based panellists on television is their professing of sympathies for Pakistan or the freedom movement in Kashmir, without any backlash beyond the name-calling and taunts by the hosts and co-panellists on debates. After Qadri’s assassination, Hyderi said he was “in an apprehensive mindset” as he was worried about “how the situation has come down to [individuals] paying a huge cost for saying the truth.”
“Every Kashmiri is supposed to be an agent of India or Pakistan till the day he gets assassinated,” rued Hyderi. “Even if they die a natural death, they die as somebody’s agent but if they are assassinated, they will become a martyr and a hero.”
Similar thoughts were expressed by another frequent TV news panellist, Iftikhar Misger. “Whoever speaks out rightly in this part of the world, his life is at threat from both sides,” he said. “The public will not trust you till the time you are killed.”
The former National Conference leader from south Kashmir’s Anantnag had announced his resignation from unionist politics at a large gathering during the anti-India uprising in 2016. “Apart from this life [frequently appearing on television debates], we have huge responsibilities [towards their families],” said Misger. “Looking at that I am afraid that today it was his [Qadri’s] turn, tomorrow maybe it will mine, and then someone else.”
However, Misger said that he and other regular panellists from Kashmir had previously debated boycotting Indian television but had decided against it. “The [Indian] media is speaking against Kashmir, these channels create a narrative which turns 125 crore people of India against us,” he said, adding that without Kashmiris putting forth their views, “these debates would become monologues”.`
“Keeping the pain of Kashmir in mind, we go to [these debates] to get abused on behalf of every Kashmiri. If the word of Kunan Poshpora [where the Indian Army is accused of carrying out mass rapes] has reached even two percent [Indians], it has reached them through us.”