Every once in a while, a young boy who dropped out from school after Class 12 would take the keys to his father’s Maruti car and drive it around the village of Gundibagh in South Kashmir. He never dared to venture too far because he didn’t have a driving license. He knew the alleyways and Pulwama’s labyrinthine back lanes and usually steered clear of the highway.

One of three sons of a small-time vendor, Adil Ahmad Dar had one more passion. He loved cricket. He kept wicket, batted well and perhaps that’s the reason he adored MS Dhoni. He would scream with delight each time his hero won a match for India, and unlike the popular perception that Kashmiris cheer for Pakistan, Adil always cheered for India, says his father Ghulam Hassan Dar.

Adil was 22 years old when a year ago to the day, he drove a Maruti Eeco through one of the alleyways onto the highway and rammed the explosive-laden car into a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers. In an instant, the bus was reduced to a mangled heap of metal and 40 troopers were blown up.

Adil was no longer just a cricket-loving Kashmiri youngster. He made headlines for the sheer ferocity of his violent act, for being a fidayeen and for etching a deadly milestone in Kashmir’s troubled history. February 14 was the bloodiest day in the Valley’s 30-year-old insurgency. Never before had so many people died in a single strike in the Kashmir Valley. Nothing remained of Adil

“We did not get his body, not even in pieces. It is only when I saw the video [of Adil] claiming responsibility that I realised that it indeed was my son,’’ said Ghulam Hassan.

The family knew he had joined the ranks of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terror organisation, after he posted his picture on social media soon after leaving home in March 2018, but they had never heard from him in the year that went by. He had had lunch at home on March 19, 2018, and never came back. “I hunted and hunted for him and finally filed a missing report,” said his mother, Hamida Dar.

Adil was her favourite. “I have two other sons, but for me, he was the special one. He is the only one who helped me at home, washing utensils, cleaning the floor. He would even help me cook. He was the daughter I never had. He earned money through part-time jobs and bought me gold earrings,” she recalled, tugging at her ears, when HT visited her village.

What made him choose the path of violence? Why did he decide to join the Jaish? Did the family see him metamorphose into a different person?

The family is still searching for answers, but describe two transformative incidents that they say led to change. Both occurred after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, whose death in an encounter led to an uprising in the Valley.

Kashmir went through an unprecedented phase of stone pelting, particularly in South Kashmir, where Wani himself belonged.

According to the father, Adil was walking home from school one day when he came upon local young men pelting stones at security forces. Mistaken for a stone pelter, Adil was “humiliated publicly,” according to his father. Accused of being an agitator, he was forced to rub his nose on the ground and circle around a security jeep. Adil apparently returned home and kept asking why he had been so humiliated. The first signs of him withdrawing into a shell became visible.

A few months later, Adil saw the CRPF shoot a friend of his. While trying to help his friend, he too was shot and soon found himself in hospital with a bullet through his leg. His bone was shattered, his family says. It was this incident, the family says, that caused Adil never go back to school.

Instead, he started working at a saw mill just opposite his home in Gundibagh. He would spend the days listening to Kashmiri music and hammering pieces of wood to make boxes. He earned, according to his family, “~40,000 to 50,000” and bought his mother more gifts. His father remembers that Adil had become more reserved and was given to fits of anger. The family claims they have never voted and Adil was critical of Kashmir’s political parties. He was also regular with his prayers.

Adil’s family alone has seen three of its boys join the ranks of the militants. His uncle’s son, Manzoor Rashid, who lived in the same courtyard, left home in 2016 to join the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He was killed within a few months. His younger brother, Tauseef, followed suit. He returned after a fortnight and is currently in jail. Adil left home before Tauseef returned.

In Adil’s home, one of his sisters-in-law says in a matter-of-fact tone, “My husband says he too will join militancy. He needs to put his shoulder to the cause.”

What cause?

“We are fighting a freedom struggle,” she says.

Will her husband go then?

“I’ve told him, you don’t go, we will send our son.”

Her son is three-years-old and is named Manzoor, after his uncle who joined the LeT and was killed.