Gota Pora (Budgam): Sitting on the carpeted floor of her home in Jammu & Kashmir’s Gota Pora village, Tajamul Mohi-ud-din Rather’s widow Marsala peers intently at photos of her husband. In some, he is in military uniform, posing with the Indian flag. Others seem to show him with faujis inside Army barracks, or at a nakka (checkpoint), kitted out in a bulletproof vest.
Marsala goes through the pictures over and over again, as if looking for clues. Then, she rubs her eyes, and starts searching again.
Around 7pm on 21 March, 28-year-old Rather, a resident of Gota Pora village in Kashmir’s Budgam district, was shot dead by suspected terrorists when he went out to buy groceries. As his family reeled from the tragedy, another shock quickly followed.
To them, he was a member of the Indian Army. But soon after his death, the Army said Rather was an “overground worker” with the terror organisations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.
An Army spokesperson also told ThePrint that “incriminating materials” were recovered from Rather in a case in 2014-2015.
An overground worker (OGW) is someone who provides logistical support and help with food, shelter, and so on to terrorists.
J&K Police sources, however, said Rather “may have been killed over suspicions of being an Army informer”. A policeman posted in the area, who did not wish to be identified, told ThePrint that Rather was always seen around with Armymen in uniform.
Even as they grieve, the question of Rather’s real identity now constantly weighs on the minds of his family members. They still believe, though, that instead of Tajamul Rather misleading them, it was the Army that let them down by “disowning” him.
Conflicting claims: ‘Fauji’, ‘overground worker’, ‘civilian’
Pulling out a stamped identity card that says “2nd Battalion The Rashtriya Rifles”, with her husband’s name and picture on it, Marsala said: “Look at this identity card. Look at this uniform. Just look at all these pictures of him in the uniform with the Indian flag and at places where he was posted.
“You want me to believe that all these are fake? Till now my husband was lying to all of us about being in the Army?”
When ThePrint contacted the Indian Army, a spokesperson said in a written response that Rather had been working as an “overground worker” with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen. He was also booked and arrested in a case in 2014-2015, but released within a month.
“This individual had been working as an overground Worker of Iss Kantroo, LeT, who was killed in 2022 and Yousif Sheikh, Hizbul Mujahideen, who was killed in 2007. He was also booked in the year 2014-15 in a joint operation conducted by the Rashtriya Rifles battalion and SOG [Special Operations Group] Budgam, in which incriminating material were [sic] recovered from his house,” the Army spokesperson said.
The spokesperson further said that no identity card was issued to Rather by the Rashtriya Rifles.
“No identity card has ever been issued to the individual by Rashtriya Rifles battalion. The identity card doing rounds in the media is fake with stamps and signatures,” the spokesperson added.
Asked about Rather’s arrest, his brother Tauseef Dar said the allegations made against him were false and he was released within days. Tauseef said Rather started working with the Army soon afterwards. When asked about the status of the said case, a J&K Police source said that it is still under investigation and that Rather was “out on bail”.
When Rather was shot dead, the local police received information saying that an “Armyman has been shot dead”, sources in J&K Police confirmed to ThePrint.
The reason — he was said to move around with the Army, even during searches, and was often posted at checkpoints. But, later, the police in an official statement said that a “civilian has been shot dead”.
In police records, Rather’s killing is recorded as a civilian killing.
‘Army has disowned him’
As far as Rather’s family members and neighbours are concerned, all evidence points to him being in the military.
“Everyone knows he is with the Army. He used to be posted at the nakkas with Armymen to carry out searches. He also had access to all their offices. Is it possible for a civilian to be embedded in the Army and move around with them with a weapon in hand and in a uniform?” Tauseef, 22, an arts graduate who has been preparing for the Territorial Army examination, asked.
“Now, since the Army has abandoned us, giving him the name of an ‘overground worker’, what do we tell his daughters? Our neighbours?” he said.
A man who lives in the same neighbourhood said on condition of anonymity that “everyone knew” Rather was in the Army.
“We often saw him with Army search parties in the area. He wore a uniform and even the local police of this area are aware about it. Now they will obviously deny it, since the Army has disowned him,” he said.
Since Rather’s death, his family has approached multiple authorities — from the J&K Police to the commanding officer in the unit they believed Rather was serving in, but did not receive the response they were looking for.
“We spoke to the commanding officer, the police but no one is hearing us out now. No compensation has been given. They have disowned him completely. This is what one gets to work for the country?” Marsala said. “We are not saying give us a lot of money but at least recognise that he worked with you. Why abandon him?”
Tauseef said the family had sought appointments to meet higher-rung officers at the headquarters, but were denied permission.
Recalling the evening of 21 March, Tauseef said: “He had come home on leave on that day itself. He stepped out of the home to go to the grocery store nearby when two men came and shot him. We heard the gunfire, and when we rushed out, we found him lying in a pool of blood.”
The family had assumed that terrorists were behind the killing, but now they are not so sure.
“We were certain that terrorists killed him because he worked for the Army, but now we do not know. Also, if he was an overground worker, why would they kill one of their own?” Dar asked.
‘Could have been an Army source’
Some of Rather’s neighbours believe that he could possibly have been a “source” or informant engaged by the Army.
“From what we understand, it is possible that the Army had given him the I-card and were paying him money for information. He could have been the Army’s source and was given access,” a second neighbour, who also did not want to be identified, speculated.
“Now that he has been killed, they could be disowning him. We understand that the Army builds sources like these, without formally inducting them in the force, but at least give the family their due. At least do not disrespect the man like this,” he added.
For Rather’s brother Tauseef, he was an idol. It is Rather who encouraged Tauseef to prepare for the Territorial Army exam for his induction into the force.
“I was preparing for the exam because I wanted to be an Army officer and have a good post. I wanted to work for the nation. But now when I see how the force has abandoned my brother, I never want to work with them,” he said. “If today it has happened to him, just because he was shot, it can happen to me also.”
For Rather’s wife Marsala, the “disavowal” of her husband’s “position in the Army” has been a deeply disorientating experience. The reality she thought she lived is under a shadow, but at least she has his photos and videos, which she checks almost compulsively.
“Look here,” she said, showing the photos and videos to her two daughters. In one, he is posing outside an Army barracks, with a sign in the backdrop saying ‘Mera Bharat Mahan (My India is Great)’. In another video, he is seen playing with children at the Rashtriya Rifles camp. “Are these all fake?” she said softly. “How will I ever know?”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)