He wasn't in the good books of Kashmiri resistance groups nor their Pakistani supporters, so the former carrom board champion was probably used by the Indian state to serve a purpose and then discarded.
Thousands of people attended the funeral of Kashmiri militant Zakir Musa on Friday. Videos circulated on social media showed a mass of humans bracing rain and chanting slogans. Some held up the dreaded black flag of the terror group Daesh.
After he was killed in a gunfight with a special unit of Indian police in the restive Kashmir region on May 23, newspapers around the world called him the country’s most wanted militant. But was he really that dangerous?
“He was perhaps the loneliest militant in Kashmir,” says Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, a Goa-based security expert. “He was insignificant. Maybe he had a band of five or six followers. But he has no attacks on security forces to his credit.”
Musa, whose real name is Zakir Rashid, rose to prominence in 2016 after he replaced Burhan Wani as the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, one of the valley’s most effective rebel organisations.
Wani was killed by the Indian troops and his death sparked protests that left 100 people dead in the following months.
Soon after taking charge, Musa began threatening Kashmiri resistance leaders for pursuing a secular struggle rather than what he saw a fight to enforce Islamic Sharia law in the region.
In online videos and messages, he even criticised Pakistan, which has long been accused of backing rebel groups fighting the Indian rule over Muslim-majority Kashmir.
“Whenever we are fighting with a gun or throwing rocks, this should not be for nationalism but for Islam,” he said in one video.
After being expelled from the Hizb, which sees itself as a pro-Pakistan nationalist movement, he launched Al Qaeda’s local chapter in Kashmir and called it Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.
“The actual tenure of a militant in Kashmir is not more than one to two years,” says Routray. “Zakir Musa lived for six years because he was indirectly serving a purpose for Indian state by his statements against Pakistan.”
The boy who played carrom
Born in 1994, Musa came from a relatively well-to-do family. As a young boy, he represented Kashmir in inter-state carrom board championships.
But like many other Kashmiri boys, he also had a brush with the Indian police.
In 2010, he was arrested and charged for throwing stones at the police.
“He hadn’t done it, I kept telling them. But they continued harassing him. When I remember those days, and I have been trying to find the reason why he joined militancy for the last four years, I have come to believe that it was sometime during those moments of harassment that he decided to pick up the gun,” Abdul Rashid, his father, told the News18 website for a 2017 story.
Musa was enrolled at a university in the Indian state of Punjab, where he was studying civil engineering. In 2013, while visiting home for holidays he vanished and joined the Hizb.
He was a close associate of Wani. Both men could be seen together in pictures. But Musa, who once used to wear a trimmed beard and jeans, gradually changed his appearance. In later years he was seen in pictures sporting a long bushy beard, holding a cane and wearing the traditional Kashmiri coat.
It remains unclear what shaped his views after he assumed the leadership of Hizb. But he was against seeing the Kashmiri struggle as a nationalist affair.
“He was leading a very directionless struggle, which had no supporters - neither from Pakistan nor from Kashmir. At times he would say things against Pakistan and at times criticise BJP, calling India a Hindu state. He was known for his statements rather than any militant activity,” says Routray.
Even the Indian police didn’t take him seriously and some of them have been quoted as calling him an ‘item number’ - a slur used in Bollywood movies for a cheap entertainer.
“Zakir Musa was actually serving the purpose of the Indian state by criticising Pakistan and they sort of tolerated him,” says Routray.
The two countries have fought four wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Kashmir, the Himalayan region, divided between the two, has been at the heart of the conflict.
But in Musa’s death, the people of Kashmir once again saw a figure to rally around.
“That’s because of the growing alienation that Kashmiris feel against the Indian state,” says Routray.