Srinagar: A cameo in a song-video and pictures of bodybuilding had made Meeran Ali Sheikh a micro-influencer on social media. He wanted to earn the title of Mr. Kashmir – winner of a body-building championship -- but his aspiration was cut short after armed assailants shot dead the 22-year-old outside his home in Srinagar on July 27.
In just three years, Meeran had changed from being an underweight teenager to an impressive bodybuilder. He would spend morning hours training at a local gym close to his home in Bulbul Lanker locality of Downtown, the heart of historic Srinagar city. Following his routine training, Meeran left his home again only to be ambushed by assailants. He was pursuing a management course and was going to appear for exams. But, only few yards away from his black SUV that bore his name on the car-plate, he was shot multiple times from a close range.
Meeran’s body was found in a pool of blood right outside the shrine of Bulbul Shah – a central Asian Sufi scholar who is believed to have introduced Islam to Kashmir. The police said the killing was an act of ‘gang rivalry’ after they revised their earlier statement of terming it an act of ‘terror’. The revised police statement added that the youth was part of 16 Gujjar Gang and was killed due to a feud with another local gang.
“There was rivalry between two local gangs --Downtown Itehad and Gujjar Gang in the area and Mehran was part of Gujjar Gang,” the police said.
In an unverified statement, often shared through Telegram channels, a militant outfit The Resistance Front (TRF), however, claimed the attack on Meeran, who the outfit alleged of being involved in “drugs menace” in the Valley, especially in Srinagar, among other charges that included being close to Indian armed forces, particularly the Special Operations Group (SOG), an infamous unit of Jammu and Kashmir police who are at the forefront of counter-insurgency operations in the region.
Family and friends of Meeran, however, refute all these charges.
“He wanted to win a body-building championship and had already been a runner-up in one and won a sub-competition in the past two years. He was, in fact, a vehement campaigner against drugs. All these allegations are baseless,” Meeran’s training coach Khalid Ali told NewsClick.
29-year-old Khalid remembers Meeran as one of his finest students, one whose recent popularity brought many teenagers to his training centre. “They often enquire about Meeran’s timing and would request to train with him,” he says.
In his Nawakadal locality, Meeran was known to some as a good Samaritan. His family believes that as well. “He was just a kid who was too enthusiastic and had a lot of interactions. He would often get into trouble like a normal teenager but, he was certainly not a gangster,” his cousin brother said. The relatives wished not to reveal their names fearing attention and risks for speaking out. They say they are hurt by what they termed as a “malicious campaign” against Meeran following his death who is now being called a “druggie” and a “gangster.”
A police official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there were no drug-related charges or incidents against Meeran but many a times he was counselled along with other members of 16 Gujjar after they got involved in street-fights and nuisance. “They were dealt accordingly if or whenever they broke any law but, they were not part of any organised crime syndicate,” the police officer said.
A close friend of Meeran and a member of 16 Gujjar, Ubaid Gulzar, says Meeran was the youngest in the group. He was famous though and would meet daily with other members of the loose grouping they named as 16 Gujjar on Meeran’s 20th birthday. “We are a network of youngsters who help each other whenever someone had a problem,” the 25year old said.
Most of the members of the group are well built, look rough, sport a tapering beard and a van dyke moustache but, speak with little confidence – perhaps now. “The things that connected all of us was fun and fitness,” Ubaid adds. According to Ubaid, neither the numerical 16 nor the title Gujjar had a well thought-out backstory. They often updated their pictures embedded with a caption – no drugs, respect girls and help poor.
None of the group members, including Ubaid, gave the exact number of members of 16 Gujjar, who they said was becoming a “social media sensation” like Meeran. But, not exactly.
In the past few months, there was at least one incident of stabbing involving the group members. The police arrested some of them but Meeran, both his friends and police claim, was not involved in the incident. “There was a rivalry with boys from another locality on a playing field which even the police had tried to resolve,” Ubaid says.
Many local residents claim the group beat up several boys and would get involved in many disputes and sometimes would encourage sometimes force others – mostly teenagers – to “join” them. Many weren’t happy with their conduct and turned to social media to call them out, often accusing them of behaving like “gangsters”. “We felt threatened at times, which is why we went to the cyber police station to lodge complaints against the online campaign and two of the complaints were made by Meeran himself,” another member wishing anonymity said.
There is no definite evidence that organised criminal gangs operate in Kashmir Valley but historically armed vigilantes linked to the political establishments have operated in the region. Initially, the Khuftan Fakirs, affiliated with Kashmir’s key pro-India leader Sheikh Abdullah reigned over Downtown in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later, they clashed with another vigilante group known as the ‘Goggas’, who were backed by the new political dispensation under Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.
Militant outfits, especially TRF, a newly established group in the region, have claimed killing many civilians they accused of being “collaborators” of the Indian state. The victims of these series of assassinations include policemen, members of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and other civilians accused being police “informers.”
Of the total 200-odd militants active in the Kashmir region, nearly a dozen are believed to be operating in and around Srinagar, a city of about 1.2 million. The police says it is investigating the killing of Meeran, whose father retired from police services a few months back. People have questions – many of which are likely to remain unanswered – against this assassination, which, to many, is another incident indicating alarming violence in the war-torn region.