USA

Babar Qadri, Lawyer and Defender of Kashmir, is Murdered

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On television and in the courtroom, the young lawyer could be a force. Babar Qadri stood as a rare, pugilistic voice arguing on behalf of his native Kashmir, the rocky region long torn between India and Pakistan, on India’s combative and increasingly nationalistic talk shows.

Shouted at, he would shout back. More than once, an angry host kicked him off the air.

On Thursday, Mr. Qadri, 40, was shot to death in his home, making him one of the most high-profile casualties of the violence wracking Kashmir.

Family members said an assailant posing as a potential client shot him in the head and chest in the courtyard of his home in the old part of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. The identity of the assailant was not clear, the police said, according to local media. They declined to answer questions from The New York Times on Friday.

Kashmiris on Friday mourned Mr. Qadri as a rare public advocate for his home in a troubled time. One year ago, India tightened its hold on the Kashmir region, and local activists say speaking out has become increasingly dangerous.

“The lion was killed in his den,” said Majid Hyderi, a longtime friend of Mr. Qadri, citing a common nickname for him. “With his killing, we have lost a roaring voice for peace.”

Long volatile, the predominantly Muslim Kashmir region has suffered growing violence since the Indian government last year revoked the region’s semiautonomy and increased its security presence there.

The move hardened the attitudes of militants who have fought for years for independence from India and sidelined moderate voices calling for ways to improve relations with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has taken an increasingly hard line toward India’s Muslims.

Mr. Qadri’s death is part of a wave of political assassinations that have shaken the region in the last few months. It was the first killing of a prominent civil society member since the killing of Shujaat Bukahri, the editor of a local daily newspaper, two years ago.

Mr. Qadri had said in recent weeks that he had received death threats. On Twitter this week, he said the police should investigate people who had accused him of being a man of “agencies,” implying he worked secretly for Indian intelligence.

“The sense of tragedy is all the more because he warned of the threat,” Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the region, wrote on Twitter. “Sadly his warning was his last tweet.”

Mr. Qadri’s round, bespectacled face was famous in the region and throughout India for his vociferous criticism of New Delhi’s increasingly stronger hand in Kashmir. In person, he could be shy and retiring and would rarely interrupt others, unlike when he was on television. He also had sharp words for Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting pro-independence Kashmiri militants and other armed groups.

Both countries, Mr. Qadri said in an interview with The Times about a month before his death, “play with the dead bodies of Kashmiris.”

Mr. Qadri grew up in Srinagar speaking Kashmiri, Hindi and English, which later made him an effective spokesman in polyglot India. He studied law in the city and became a human rights lawyer. He was a common sight in Srinagar, driving around the city in a gray hatchback with his two young daughters.

He rose to prominence in 2012, when Indian police forces accused a number of children of attempting to murder officers and burning police vehicles. A photo of him wearing a gray suit, perhaps a size too large, while trying to comfort a terrified boy being led away by a police officer went viral on the Kashmiri internet. When the boy was set free, his family members said Mr. Qadri had argued in court on his behalf “like a lion,” giving the young attorney the nickname.

As security forces put more Kashmiris in prison, Mr. Qadri was widely sought after, and he became known for his ability to win the freedom of children in particular. He also became a frequent guest on Indian television, where he sharply criticized the Indian forces for their harsh oversight of Kashmir.

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Credit...Stringer/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Qadri kept up his television appearances even as Indian media became increasingly nationalistic after the election of Mr. Modi in 2014. As Indian forces stepped up their enforcement efforts in Kashmir in the name of fighting terrorism, he faced an increasingly difficult reception. Other panelists often called him “Mr. Traitor.”

Late Thursday, as the dust settled in the city, Mr. Qadri’s body, covered by a red blanket, was put in an ambulance and taken to his ancestral home in north Kashmir, where family and friends lowered his body into the ground and bade him farewell.

Friends and relatives beat their chests. During the procession, one of Mr. Qadri's daughters — Zahera, 4, who had been playing with her father minutes before he was shot — asked her mother where her father was, according to Surat Shakeel, a family friend. Mr. Qadri’s wife told her that he had gone to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Kashmiri parents often tell their children that the dead have gone to hajj.

Burhan Ahmad Bhat, a university student who participated in the procession, said he wondered whether Mr. Qadri’s killers would be found and whether they would continue to be labeled “unidentified,” like the killers of so many other Kashmiris.

“All we know is that they are killed by unidentified gunmen,” Mr. Bhat said. “But we never come to know why.”

Iqbal Kirmani contributed reporting.

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