A young bodybuilder with a massive following on Instagram was assassinated from a close range, prompting different fears and theories in the troubled region.
On the morning of July 27, at exactly 11.30 am, Sheikh Meeran Ali was shot dead by unknown assailants outside his home in the old city of Srinagar, the capital of India-administered Kashmir.
Within a few hours, photographs of the assassination appeared all over the Internet, with Ali lying on the road in a crisp white shirt, his blood splattered against the grey tarmac road.
Kashmiris have grown used to seeing such random killings, a living nightmare the 500,000-strong community has inherited ever since an armed militancy challenged the Indian rule in the region in 1989. In the following decade of the 1990s, it became hard to decipher who was killing whom. The stakeholders had different names and symbols from Pakistan-backed guerillas to militant-turned-renegades supported by New Delhi. The conflict has so far swallowed over 40,000 people, according to the Indian government. Kashmiri separatists however peg the total deaths at 100,000.
For Kashmir watchers, Ali's killing was confounding because the police pinned it on a "gang rivalry". Never before in the past 30 years of the conflict did Kashmir witness a killing by any organised crime syndicate since such cartels have never existed in the region.
The slaying was carried with discriminating timing too — at a time when President of India Ram Nath Kovind was on his day-long visit to Kashmir.
The incident had everything to fuel the war of narratives. Some accused the victim of being close to pro-India political parties and police, which makes him a black sheep in the eyes of those who either support Kashmir's merger with Pakistan or its complete independence from both India and Pakistan.
Another theory, currently examined by the police and attributed to a militant outfit named The Resistance Front (TRF), an offshoot of Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as per the Indian authorities, made circles, describing Ali as a drug dealer backed by pro-India counter-insurgency groups, whose job was to harass "resistance movement lovers and supporters''.
The police's gang theory also raised the spectre of the Ikhwan, a dreaded counter-insurgency unit that Human Rights Watch once described as India's "secret army," accusing it of "grave human rights abuses, including summary executions, torture, and illegal detention as well as election-related intimidation of voters."
Amidst all the claims and counter-claims and slanderous social media commentary, Ali's identity has become muddled, putting his family under a major psychological strain. For his parents and friends, Ali's character was not even remotely related to what the slain youth has been accused of by various stakeholders of the Kashmir conflict.
"Kids as young as eight and nine would visit the gym and ask him (Ali) for selfies. They wanted to be like him. They want to have a body like him," said Khalid Ali, who had trained the deceased for nearly five years.
Ali had earned himself a huge following not only on social media, where his Instagram page used to be inundated with praises but also in the old city of Srinagar.
One Srinagar resident described him as a "fitness freak" who had participated and won prizes in local bodybuilding competitions.
Ali had recently appeared in a music video released on Youtube by a major Indian music record label and film production company. His second cameo is yet to be released. His career in India's multi-billion dollar entertainment industry was beginning to take off.
A drug addict or an activist?
So what made him a gangster in the eyes of the police?
According to the police investigation, Ali was part of a "gang" named "16 Gujjar Chattabal".
A senior police official requesting anonymity told TRT World that Ali and his group drew public attention the day they released a video on the Internet, showing 109 young men out on a night trip, driving down the road of a local hill station with loud Indian Punjabi music blaring from their cars.
"We had even counselled Meeran Ali and his other friends a few weeks back and he was responding positively. It is unfortunate what happened," said the police officer, adding that the absence of "gang culture" in Kashmir made the group the talk of the town.
"The videos of them driving in hordes did not go well with the local population.
The Instagram Page of the group, which has been taken down by its members, had several such videos but there were some alarming videos doing the rounds as well including those in which knives were being showcased," the officer said.
Another senior police officer who keeps a tab on the city's crime incidents said the 16 Gujjar Chattabal was recently investigated for a stabbing incident targetting a "rival gang" called Bemina Belts, in which seven individuals were booked on charges of "attempt to murder".
Ali, as per the officer, was also brought in for questioning but let off after police established he wasn't involved.
Prior to revealing the gang war angle, police claimed that Ali's killing had the earmarks of a militant group job. That theory was quickly brushed aside, which made local observers suspect that an assassination carried out by militants in the middle of the President's visit would have posed uncomfortable questions for India's security establishment.
TRT World contacted Inspected General of Police Vijay Kumar to know whether the militancy related aspect of the killing was still being probed, but the official did not respond until the filing of this story.
Nevertheless, with multiple theories smearing Ali's character, his family is now battling to clear the reputation of their slain son, while grieving his loss.
"He had nothing to do with the police or politicians. We didn't even know he had 10 thousand Instagram followers. It is unfair how he is being treated after his death," said one of Ali's school friends from the elite Delhi Public School.
Speaking to TRT World, Ubaid Gulzar, one of Ali's closest friends and fellow 16 Gujjar members, said that "a faceless" group named Downtown Itihad suddenly "cropped up" on social media a few weeks ago and started sharing "slanderous videos'' of Ali, in which he was purportedly posing with women, police officers and politicians. His family however say the videos were deep fakes.
Defending his group 16 Gujjar Chattabal, Gulzar said it was created to save youngsters from becoming drug addicts and also teach them to respect women and help the poor.
"How can anyone call him a druggie? He was so conscious of his health. In January 2020, on our trip to New Delhi, we randomly were struck by the idea of creating an Instagram page by the name 16 Gujjar. The idea behind the page was to have fun, click pictures, share videos and so on. Yes of course we would intervene to solve small and mundane matters faced by group members and friends but we are not a gang."
Gulzar added Ali was one of the youngest members of their friend circle but the most popular to the extent he had become the front face of the group.
Since crime syndicates with ruthless hitmen ever ready to bump off their foes have never been a big business in Kashmir, portraying Ali's killing as a result of a so-called gang war has raised different kinds of insecurities and fears in Kashmir.
The ugly prospect of armed gangs controlling the streets amidst a heavy Indian military presence primarily meant to deal with a few dozen gun-toting militants only spells doom for ordinary Kashmiris.