Conflict

The iconic frame’s guerrilla who lived by his name

In his nearly four-year long insurgent period, Saddam Padder’s knack to break free from cordons, and to survive the cutting-edge combat, made him a ‘heroic guerrilla’. Sent-off with fifteen funerals and gun salutes after falling in a gunfight in Badigam on May 6, the Heff Shopian’s comic-cum-cricketer departed after living by his name.

Even as the Gulf War was over by 1992, Saddam Hussein’s stature was still holding sway over Kashmir, then grappling with Catch and Kill operations. In southern Kashmir’s Shopian that year, a couple was blessed with their first baby boy. They already had a name for him: Saddam, the “one who confronts”.

Months later, as the mother took the child to a health centre in Shopian for a vaccination, she heard a resounding remark about him. When the vaccinator read the name—Saddam—on the child’s prescription, he smilingly turned towards his mother, and said, “Looks like you’ve given birth to a fighter!”

The remark broke the young mother into a shy smile. Despite being gifted with intuition, she couldn’t read much into it.

Years later, as the son left home to become a fighter, the now middle-aged mother wanted to meet the vaccinator and ask him, “How could you predict the destiny of my son with a seer’s precision? Was it just in the name, or was he destined to become what he became?”

But to her chagrin, neither her son, nor the vaccinator was in sight for her.

That son was Saddam Padder, whose four-year long insurgent stint came to an end on May 6 at Shopian’s Badigam, where he fell along with his four associates in a gunfight with armed forces. He was 26.

Before arriving on the rebel front, Saddam was Heff Shopian’s street humorist. If not in the cricket field, he would be lifting the mood in the village square with his funny side. This made him an attraction in the village of around 500 families. He had suspended his studies after class 10 and was helping his orchardist father in their farms and attending to livestock.

Then 2009 happened. Shopian’s two sister-in-laws—Asiya and Neelofar—became the reason for the new rage in Kashmir, after being outraged and murdered. It was a militant moment for Saddam’s contemporaries, raised in militant-military confrontations, crackdowns and under the shadow of garrisons. Many of them were dragged to the dungeons for becoming dissidents that summer.

Growing in the shade of a dozen Shaheed graves in Heff, Saddam remained aloof, even when his playmates reacted over the happenings in the belt.

“Among us,” says his childhood friend, “Saddam wore a carefree attitude, always exploring means and methods to crack jokes.”

But then, as the boys began embracing guns in the jungles in post-2010 Kashmir, the likes of Saddam started shedding their ‘soft’ images very fast.

His militant moment came days before the 2014 floods, when his father Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Padder saw his elder son being summoned by the SOG camp in Shopian. Such calls were not strange, given how a few village boys had already received them.

After attending those calls twice, Saddam would return home, sullen. His father wanted to accompany him to the camp, but he refused, saying, ‘I can handle it.’

By the time, the third call came, the father realized that something was indeed cooking.

The call came when Saddam was out of town on a trip, leaving his cell-phone at home. That day it was his father responding to an unknown number, “Hello, who’s this?”

“We’re from Imam Sahab SOG camp. Where’s Saddam?” the father recalls the voice telling him.

“He’s out of home. Will be back tomorrow. Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Tell him to show up at the camp when he returns,” the caller said, and hung the phone.

Saddam’s father Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Padder

A day after, as the son returned, he would be told about the phone call. Somehow, the father was getting desperate to know, why his simplistic son was suddenly getting those summons. But the son kept dodging his father’s growing concern: ‘Take it easy. I’ll visit them after some days.’

Then, floods struck Kashmir. Parts of South were badly devastated after Veshaw, a tributary of Jhelum, went berserk. Amid flooded scenes, the son left home on the pretext of enquiring about his rams being looked after by a shepherd on some distant hillock. Apart from helping his father in orchards, Saddam was trading with livestock. He was financially doing well.

He returned days later, only to leave again: “I must make another trade trip.”

That was how Saddam Padder left home to become an insurgent.

On May 6, when he fell in a gunfight, he wasn’t far from the spot where a high-ranking police officer from Imam Sahib SOG camp wanted to meet him in 2014. But like the last surrender pitch raised by SSP Shopian, who even invoked Khuda to disarm Saddam and Co., he rejected the call.

“There’s always method behind madness,” Mohi-ud-Din Padder told me in June 2017 at his Heff residence with smashed window-panes and visible assault marks. “After searching for my son for around six months, he finally came home one day to tell me why he became an insurgent.”

Before his arrival in that searing summer of 2015, Saddam had become a new face of Kashmir’s militancy, along with Burhan and ten other insurgents. The group had released an iconic image—brandishing AK-47s, donning fatigues and posing like guerilla heroes, somewhere in a South Kashmir jungle—and created ripples across.

Among other things, the father asked the son—then turning up in his home, like a secretive visitor—about that call from Imam Sahib SOG camp.

“He told me, ‘They wanted me to be their informer. That’s why I was called twice at the camp. And that third call which you attended was about my first assignment as informer. They wanted me to spy on my childhood buddies turned militants with whom I played cricket. It was out of question for me to follow their dictates.’ After that, I insisted him for surrender. He told me that he can’t trade with the blood of his Shaheed Mujahid brothers. Even as his mother placed her headdress at his feet, he stood steadfast. I realized then and there only, that my son had reached to a point of no return,” Mohi-ud-din recalled.

By then, the police had prepared a stark profile on Saddam Padder, who was initially part of the Lashkar module along with Abbas Sheikh, Wasim Shah and others, before becoming Abu Zaid of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in 2015.

His pre-militancy profile reads like a clean slate. There is no case against him. “But we knew that he was working as an OGW with conviction,” says a police officer posted in Shopian. Like his friends, even police officers keeping tab on him were surprised over his militant joining.

Once he embraced the gun, Saddam shortly established himself as a committed guerrilla, whose militant swagger came from his hunk features and long hairdo. Some in the secret police even praised his ability to think ahead of his well-trained and better-equipped rivals. His terrain knowledge gathered during his livestock herder stint helped him to take refuge in the higher reaches.

Saddam was one of the few militant commanders who had an ability to break cordons at will.

On August 12, 2017, even as the army’s RR from Bihibagh camp and SOG Shopian alongwith the CRPF came hunting for the Hizb top brass holding a meeting at a mosque at Awneera, Saddam made a quick exit. An informer had tipped-off the joint forces about his presence in the meeting.

His ability to outfox counterinsurgents in the combat earned him Hizb’s trust. He was Burhan Wani’s “man Friday” and his possible successor before Kashmir’s indigenous militant outfit chose other commanders in line.

Saddam (left) with Burhan Wani (center)

Along with his slain buddy and former LeT’s Shopian chief, Waseem Shah, Saddam fostered ties between Hizb and Lashkar in the Apple town nestled in the lap of the Pirpanjal peaks. As the prized scalp with “A++ militant category”, he acted as a militant catalyst behind Shopian’s rise to a new militant hotbed. As both Hizb’s and Lashkar’s ranks started swelling in Shopian, Saddam’s name figured in many strikes.

Last winter, police named him as an executor of 23-year-old Territorial Army man Irfan Dar, whose bullet-riddled body was found in Shopian’s Wothmula Nad area on November 25, 2017. It was followed by his image with Lashkar militant Naveed Jat, whose dramatic escape from SMHS hospital rang alarm bells in the security setup.

Saddam with Naveed Jutt

Saddam had lately appeared in a grainy video—shot at night—shouting pro-Pakistan slogans, with a raised pitch, and a gun. The commander even figured as “the most hunted militant” in the list of 7 top J&K militants, all from south Kashmir, a month before his killing. The agencies were worried about his heroic influence over the youth, and his ability to draw large crowds of supporters to prevent counterinsurgency operations, like the one at Dragad Shopian, on April 1.

To force him to surrender, his father kept receiving summons from different camps. In an SOG camp in Shopian once, Padder Sr. was told by a police official that the government has come up with a surrender policy wherein a surrendered militant will be detained for a month, before being released, given a government job, and allowed to relive a normal life.

“The very offer boiled my blood,” Mohi-ud-din told me. “It reminded me of a young, prosperous youth of my village, Bilal Mohand.” Bilal was among the five militants killed in Badigam gunfight, along with Saddam, Ganderbal’s professor militant, and others.

“He [Bilal] was arrested for hosting a militant once at his home and was put behind the bar for six months,” Saddam’s father said. “After his release, as he started running his shop, he faced regular harassment, leaving only two options for him: suicide or militancy. He chose the latter, at the cost of his two infant daughters, a young wife and a vast family fortune.”

Mindful of Bilal’s story, Saddam’s father turned down the government’s surrender offer to his son, for which he faced the consequences.

On May 17, 2017, when the armed forces cordoned off Heff, Mohi-ud-Din saw some SOG personnel entering his courtyard and getting into an argument with his elder daughter over Saddam. “I had to rush to save her after one of them tried to hit my daughter,” he told me. “I asked the policemen to behave and leave, but suddenly, some 30 army and SOG men arrived to beat me, my wife and two daughters. They plucked a fistful of my beard, before I fainted.”

Saddam’s family was rushed to the hospital by neighbours. “We’ve been harassed so much now that I also want to pick up arms,” he said.

Such oppression is bound to breed more fierce reaction on the ground, Saddam’s mother warned. “India is responsible for the political and humanitarian crisis in Kashmir,” she told me. “My son realized that it’s better to die once, than again and again, in the perpetual state of oppression.”

But living in an anticipation of receiving the dead body of her son anytime had its own brunt for the mother, until she visited Tral over Burhan Wani’s passage.

There, she saw the charismatic commander’s mother telling the mourners, ‘don’t cry, raise slogans.’

“Her courage amazed me,” Saddam’s mother recalled. “I was like, here is this mother who lost two of her sons and yet she isn’t shedding a single tear for a departed son who had brought the entire valley to a grinding halt. Then she turned to me, and said, ‘Whenever your son Saddam Soab visits home, tell him to remain steadfast. And don’t feel bad about it. Tomorrow, we can also tell Allah that we also sacrificed our dearest treasures in your way. It’s Allah promise that sacrifice won’t get wasted.’ That gave me a lot of courage.”

That courage lately manifested into a gun-salute that the mother gave to her fighter son, who lived by his name.

Saddam’s mother offering gun salute to her son

“He may be dead now,” says the police officer from Shopian, “but the problem is, militants of Saddam’s stature become seeds in their death.” And this is where it’s becoming unbreakable for the establishment.

 

The headline earlier said that Saddam was the last of the militants in the iconic Burhan group to be killed, which is incorrect. 

 

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