Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
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“yetti baaiy senz aash’e nenai”
(here, they steal the aspirations of your brother)
In July last year, photographs of three young men — the third was, in fact, a teenager — were in a frenzied circulation on social media after the Indian armed forces claimed to have killed three “foreign terrorists” in Amshipora, Shopian in southern Kashmir. Weeks later, three families from Jammu region’s Rajouri district identified these men as their kin and mentioned that their sons, Abrar Ahmad, Muhamad Ibrar, and Imtiyaz Ahmad, had gone to the Valley in search of work and were employed as laborers before being killed. It took the Indian Army almost two months to come up with a statement admitting that they were indeed from Rajouri and that during the military operation, powers under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)-1990 were exceeded. The Indian Army also highlighted that “the Dos and Don’ts of the Chief of Army Staff as approved by the Supreme Court of India, have been contravened” in the course of the operation. They, however, did not elaborate on exactly how the AFSPA was exceeded and which specific guidelines were contravened.
Fast forward to July this year, on the evening of July 24, Abdul Qayoom Dar last saw his son Imran Qayoom close to their house in Batengoo village of Anantnag district, which lies 54 km away from the region’s capital of Srinagar. Imran, 30, a marketing executive was undergoing treatment for heroin abuse and had also two cases registered against him under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. On the morning of July 25, a State official called Dar asking him to report to the police station. Thinking that his son had again been involved in a drug-related case, he casually asked them to detain him. However, once Dar returned home from work, his phone buzzed again; this time a police official asked him to report to the police post in Anantnag and identify his son’s body. Upon reaching there, they merely showed him a photograph of his dead son and asked him to go to the police control room in Srinagar instead, where he was shocked to learn that Imran’s body had been taken to be buried in a far-off place in Handwara, around 170 km away from their house.
In the case of Rajouri killings, a competent authority had been directed to initiate disciplinary proceedings under the Army Act against those found prima-facie answerable — in the past, three army officials have been indicted by similar commissions of inquiry for orchestrating staged encounters of civilians, in Pathribal, Anantnag in 2000 and Machil, Kupwara in 2010, but no action has been initiated against them so far — and shortly, the families’ demand for exhumation of bodies and a proper burial in their native villages in Rajouri was fulfilled. However, in the case of Imran Qayoom, neither the formality of an action was announced, nor was his body returned.
This is in accordance with the recent policy adopted by the Indian establishment in Kashmir for over two years whereby dead bodies of armed rebels are denied to their families. They are buried, often in haste and in undisclosed locations, far from their houses or ancestral graveyards in order to prevent large gatherings at their funerals. For decades, funerals of those killed by the State have been sites of collective referendum, a political right denied to the peoples of Kashmir by India since 1947. With pro-freedom and anti-India slogans and thundering tributes to the martyrs, funerals in Kashmir have testified to the unjust rule of India. They have always succeeded in breaking the optics of “normalcy” that the State uses to disguise its crimes in the region. Some estimates record the number of armed rebels killed since 2019 to be over three hundred, but by burying them kilometers away, India has now interrupted peoples’ ritual of memorialization centered around their martyrs. And now, unarmed Kashmiri civilians are also being forced to join the armed rebels in these far-flung, unmarked graves, buried without final rites, denied dignity in death — as in life.
Abdul Qayoom Dar has since been moving from pillar to post seeking the return of his son’s body so he could bury him close to his home, but to no avail. For Dar, and many others like him, the conversation no longer remains about establishing their kins’ lack of any ties with militancy or seeking wider forms of justice. It has now shrunk to the heart-wrenching cry to merely hand over the corpse of their loved one so that they can have one final look at his face and bury him with their own hands. His wife is in shock and barely talks about anything else than their son.
What bigger tragedy can befall a father who doesn’t even know where his son has been buried and who cannot visit his grave to offer prayers… Every evening when I return home from work my wife asks for Imran. I do not have an answer.
Earlier, such incidents would evoke widespread protests and public outcry, forcing the State to order inquiries. Although these probes would be mere hogwash and under the ambit of Indian legal machinery, the accused armed personnel would go unpunished, there was, at least, some kind of public discussion and rigorous documentation of such cases. However, ever since New Delhi abrogated the semi-autonomous status of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir on August 5, 2019, these State-sponsored killings are being forced into invisibility.. The families who try to raise their voice or even demand the dead bodies of their kin are being booked under draconian laws. In one such case, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, father of 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq, who was killed in a fake encounter in the outskirts of Srinagar on December, 30, 2020, was arrested in an anti-terror case along with six others. He had simply taken out a rally from the local mosque after Friday prayers demanding the mortal remains of his son. Ather was a student of class 11 and was buried by the J&K Police in Sonmarg, 110 km away from his house in Pulwama. Wani has dug up a grave for his son at his ancestral graveyard, which joins him in the long, terrible wait for his mortal remains.
I know that I won’t get justice, yet I will continue to strive to get my son’s body till I am alive.
India has maintained Kashmir as its colonial laboratory where extraordinary torture techniques, technologies of surveillance, and deadly weapons are routinely tested on the local population. As it continues to expand its settler-colonial project in the region, stealing land and resources from the inhabitants, it is also increasingly making its agenda clear: India wants Kashmir minus the Kashmiris. And this is why the State continues to annihilate the distinction between an armed combatant and an unarmed civilian. For it, a carpenter, a drug user, a teenage student, a baker, a scholar, a doctor, a businessman or a daily wage worker are equivalent to a rebel who is fighting for the liberation of his homeland. The Kashmiri body (particularly the Kashmiri male body) is viewed as a threat and is disposed of with the logic of satiating the “collective conscience”, as alluded to by the Supreme Court of India when they hanged Afzal Guru to death in 2013 in New Delhi. (Even his grave awaits his body in Kashmir, just like that of revolutionary Kashmiri leader Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged to death by India in 1984.) By heightening this macabre spectacle of death, the Indian occupational machinery is not only displaying the impunity with which its armed forces are allowed to operate in the region, but is also injecting fear and uncertainty among the locals by saturating the landscape with the dead and the dying.
Ather, along with Ajaz Maqbool and Zubair Wani, was described by J&K police as an overground worker (OGW) who provided logistical support to the militants. According to a senior police official, a preliminary probe had found that none among the three suspects killed in the encounter had any history of crime. However, in a public statement, the J&K Inspector General of Police (IGP), Vijay Kumar, had claimed that the three were involved in anti-State activities, a charge denied by all the families.
Ajaz’s father, Muhamad Maqbool is a constable in J&K Police.
My son left at 10:30 am to get his certificates from Degree College Pulwama and the next day we were asked to report to the Police Control Room, Srinagar where we were shown his dead body.
Similarly, the family of Zubair, whose two elder brothers are both serving in J&K Police, says that he was in Shopian till 3:00 pm, while the encounter, as per the police version, started at 5:30 pm.
How could our son reach Srinagar and arrange weapons in such a short time? This seems unbelievable!
Incidentally, Zubair’s brother, a policeman, who had buried many militants at the government-designated graveyard in Sonamarg this year, laid his younger brother to rest in the same graveyard. The families of the three young men suspect that there was a possibility that the trio was interrogated and later killed in a “fake encounter”.
“yetti mor’de senz laash’e nenai”
(here, they steal the bodies of your dead)
There is an absolute gag on journalists and human rights activists because of whom it was possible to document these cases and pursue justice within the limited frameworks provided by the Indian judicial mechanisms. Local reporters who try to raise questions around these killings in regional outlets are being harassed and arrested, sometimes even under anti-terror laws. Social media platforms are not safe anymore either because those who express their anguish against these crimes are being stuffed into jails as well. Further, as part of Islamophobic colonial nomenclature, language itself has been held against the necks of Kashmiri Muslims, and we are unable to escape its sharp blows. Words like “OGW”, “hybrid militant”, “white-collar terrorist”, etc. are used to portray every Kashmiri as a terror monger or a religious extremist, and employ the global post-9/11 sentiment to full advantage of the State.
Aggrieved by insurmountable pain, when families plead for the bodies of their loved ones, they are forced to provide evidence of their innocence, they carry the burden of proof to clarify that their son was not a militant. According to the family of 17-year-old Zakir Bashir of Chimmer village in Kulgam district, he was dragged out of his house and killed by Indian forces, once he came back home after playing cricket on June 30, 2021. He was labeled as a Lashkar-e-Toiba militant and Kulgam division’s J&K Police tweeted a warning to everyone who said or believed otherwise.
Numerous rights activists associated with the region believe that this sort of silencing has never been witnessed in Kashmir before. “The voices of dissent have been choked to an extent that an event has now become a non-event. The civil-society, human rights organizations, and the press have all been silenced by the State,” mentions Advocate Parvez Imroz, a prominent human rights activist. Imroz is the founder of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil societies (JKCCS) that documents rights violations and provides legal aid to the victims. His colleague, Khurram Parvez has recently been arrested on bogus charges by the Indian government and is now lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The authorities have continuously raided the JKCCS office and the homes of its volunteers, confiscating their phones and laptops. Raids have also been conducted at the offices of newspapers, senior journalists, and other civil society groups including Associated Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) headed by Parveena Ahangar.
This is the time we have never seen before. We have never witnessed silence around such killings at this scale. This has further emboldened the state to commit atrocities at will.Parvez Imroz, Prominent Human Rights Lawyer and Founder, JKCCS
“yetti, doan aachen gaash’e nenai”
(here, they steal the light of your eyes)
Jammu & Kashmir is a disputed region split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. The two countries have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir and another small war at Kargil since gaining independence from the British in 1947. Rebels in Kashmir have been fighting Indian rule since the 1950s, which gathered momentum in 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. India insists that the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it to be a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels, and State forces have been killed in the conflict so far. There are 20 UN resolutions on Kashmir, which include seeking a plebiscite to decide its political future.
On August 5, 2019, the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scrapped two pieces of legislation that guaranteed Kashmir a semi-autonomous political status besides barring people outside of the region from buying land or applying for government jobs in the disputed area. Since then tensions are high in the region even though armies have silenced their guns on the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir. To curb the protests, the Indian State has launched a massive crackdown in the region, arresting thousands under draconian laws, like Public Safety Act (PSA) and anti-terrorism law, like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allows them to detain any person without trial or charges. In the past three decades, human rights organizations have repeatedly asked India to allow independent and international agencies to probe the stage-managed encounters and extrajudicial killings. However, India has refused it, citing Kashmir as its internal matter and parroting that its institutions are capable enough to probe any allegations of excesses in an impartial manner. The State forces have also been accused of subjecting people to enforced disappearances. Nearly 10,000 people have been disappeared so far and there remains no trace of their whereabouts. Most of them went missing after being picked up by the armed forces and later killed in their custody. There are hundreds of unmarked graves in northern Kashmir. India, however, has maintained that those buried in these graves are the youth who took up arms and were killed in gun battles with State forces on the LoC while trying to cross over to Pakistan for arms training or returning back with weapons. According to Human Rights Watch, the Indian forces have “long operated with impunity in Kashmir” as they are shielded by Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows an Indian soldier to shoot anyone on mere suspicion and grants immunity from any free or fair legal action. Under AFSPA, the armed forces cannot be prosecuted in civilian courts. The court martial proceedings initiated by the army itself lack transparency and the accused army officers often are let off and even rewarded with gallantry awards and promotions by the State.
To cage a Kashmiri within the label of a “terrorist” is to gain sanction, both legal and social, across India and the world, to eliminate and extinguish a Kashmiri life. A lawyer from the region argues that the state is adamant on only one narrative being able to survive through the fog of this violence, and this narrative is outrightly reducing every Kashmiri, whether armed or unarmed, to a “terrorist”. Even the bodies of the kin of J&K Police personnel killed in these fake encounters have been denied to their families, simply because they were Kashmiris. On the evening of April 6, 2020, police initially claimed to have killed four militants in Achthal-Guddar village of Kulgam district. However, they retracted this statement the next day, saying that only an OGW was killed. The deceased was identified as an engineering graduate, Aqib Mushtaq Lone, son of Muhtaq Ahmad Lone, an Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) with the J&K Police. His body was also whisked away and dumped in a far-off place in northern Kashmir’s Baramulla, 150 km away from his house located in Shuch village of Kulgam. Aquib’s brother revealed that he was warned by the army personnel of a camp nearby not to post on social media about his brother not being a militant or his murder in a fake encounter. His father added that upon requesting for his son’s body, he was assured that it would be handed over if it is proven that he was not a militant, but that never happened.
As I write, a family from Pulwama mentions that their son, Shakir Ahmad Wani was killed in a fake encounter. The police maintains that it killed two militants in the Dragad -Sugan village in Shopian district on October 20, 2021. He was labelled an OGW and even before his family could rush to the encounter site, his body had already been taken away by the police.
“wann, kaesher’ya, wunni kya karakh?”
(tell me, o Kashmiri, what will you do now?)
Weeks later, sinking into another draft of this essay, I now learn about the killings of businessman Altaf Ahmad Bhat and dentist Dr Mudasir Gul, along with a young worker Aamir Magray and a person claimed by the forces to be a Pakistani militant. The four were killed in Srinagar’s Hyderpora neighborhood in yet another fake encounter on November 16, 2021. Their bodies were taken to Handwara district and buried by the State forces. However, sustained protests from the families of Gul and Bhat, pleading that their kin were not even remotely associated with militancy forced the authorities to exhume their bodies and hand them over to their families. Magray, who police claim was a “hybrid militant” turned out to be a laborer from Gool village of the Ramban area in Jammu region. His father Abdul Latief Magray, an anti-terrorist crusader was conferred the bravery award by the Indian State after he had killed a militant with a stone in his village way back in 2005. Yet the authorities have not handed over his son’s body so far.
In a widely-shared video, Bhat’s 13 -year-old daughter tearfully describes the moment she learnt about her father’s death. While sharing other gut-wrenching details, she also mentions that when she asked the Indian soldiers present at the encounter site about her father and how they could do this to him, they simply laughed.
These killings happened barely weeks after J&K Police claimed to have killed another “hybrid militant” in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district on the intervening night of October 27-28, 2021. They had killed Javaid Ahmad Wani of Nanibugh, Kulgam, whose family continues to reiterate that their son had no links with any rebel group and was murdered after being detained by the police ten days ago. His father’s only consolation is that he managed to have a last glimpse of him while he was being lowered in the grave 170 km away from his house in north Kashmir’s Handwara.
“yetti baaiy senz aash’e nenai”
(here, they steal the aspirations of your brother)
For decades, we have understood, debated, and analyzed what the Indian occupational apparatus does to Kashmiri lives. Now, we are forced to understand, debate, and analyze what it is doing to the dead of Kashmir. We are now forced to press ourselves tight against thousands of unmarked graves, open graves, half-dug graves, censored graves, silenced graves — and wait.
(poetic interludes in this essay have been drawn from the work of Sajad Inquilabi, a revolutionary Kashmiri poet writing in Kashmiri)