The Funambulist Correspondents 31 /// In Indian-held Kashmir, a Father’s Last Wish is to See His Son’s Body Buried



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

Read the introduction /// Explore the rest of the series 

Mushtaq Ahmad Wani touches his son’s name, which he had carved on an apple tree when he was only ten years old. Mushtaq often stares at the name for hours, thinking of how suddenly his son was stolen from him, killed by the “cops greedy for medals.” Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

Ather Mushtaq, 17, used to accompany his father, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, to the apple orchard near his home in Bellow village in south Kashmir’s Pulwoam area when he was barely ten years old. Ather had carved his name on one of the apple trees in their orchard. The tree and the child seemed to grow together, and as the tree began to be laden with apples, Mushtaq was convinced that his son’s future would be bright as well. 

“I raised my child and nourished him just like this tree. The only hope that filled my days was to see him succeed. But I had no idea that one day these reward-hungry forces would devour my child for the sake of medals and trophies.”

Mushtaq pauses to look at his car’s windshield, which, too, bears his son’s name. Even though the shield has a crack, he refuses to replace it, preferring to keep it for as long as possible. Ather was very fond of this car. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

When Mushtaq visits the orchard now, he sits near the tree and stares at the engraved name for hours, remembering all the work he put in to raise his child, only to have him murdered by state forces, who claimed that he was a militant.

“When I sit in front of this tree, his entire childhood flashes before my eyes. I wanted him to be a high-ranking officer, so I enrolled him in the town’s best school. At home, I used to spend time with him and play with him. He was the only son I had. By killing him, they have made my life a miserable nightmare.”

Every time the family sits down for a meal, an empty cup and plate are placed for Ather so that they might sense his presence. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Mushtaq Ahmad cries with a relative outside the Srinagar police control room after his son was killed in a gunfight in the HMT area of Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

Mushtaq should have been focusing on his emotional recovery after losing his child, but instead, he is fighting a lonely battle to have his son’s remains returned. Since April 2020, Indian officials have refused to return the bodies of militants and civilians killed in anti-militancy operations in Kashmir to their families, citing COVID-19 limitations and fears of new recruitments in militant ranks as justifications for burying the dead in remote border areas.

After his son’s death, Mushtaq dug a grave with his hands in their ancestral graveyard. The grave remains open, like a wound, waiting for Ather. Mushtaq intends to keep it open until the government returns his son’s body or proves that his son was either participating in militancy or had joined militant ranks. 

Mushtaq covers his son’s empty grave with a metal sheet in his ancestral graveyard in Bellow village, Pulwoam district, Kashmir, to prevent it from being filled with anything. He has promised to keep the grave open until his son’s body is returned. Every morning, his first priority remains to ensure that the grave is properly covered. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Ather’s father prays at the grave where his beloved son’s shoes and blanket are interred. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

“When my child was killed, the police officers said that they would present evidence of my child’s involvement and contact his family. After a year, I am yet to get a single message from any government agency stating that my son was at fault. My son was a school-going child. His exams were underway and he had appeared in four papers. He was about to appear in the last paper, but the cops killed him in a fake encounter.”

He maintains that because the government has failed to produce any evidence of Ather’s involvement in militancy, he is certain that his son was interrogated and later killed in an encounter, along with two others, in a residential house in the HMT area of Srinagar.

“Bullets were fired into his body. His body was thrown to the ground from the second floor.”

State forces killed Ather Mushtaq, along with two other young men claimed to be militants by the state, in the HMT area on the outskirts of Srinagar, on December 30, 2020. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
People protest by pelting stones on state forces near the encounter site in HMT, Srinagar, on December 30, 2020. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

The toughest challenge for him is to take his family to visit the grave of his son, which is located around 150 kilometers away from his village and remains out of bounds during winters due to heavy snowfall. The visit is not so simple either: the family has to seek permission from the police and hand over their phones and other belongings before entering the graveyard that is guarded by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

Mushtaq Ahmad displays the applications he has filed with the Jammu and Kashmir government, requesting the return of his son’s body. He has written to practically every government department in Kashmir, pleading for the remains to be returned, testifying to his child’s innocence, but to no avail. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

“After getting permission from the local police, the CRPF officials still hold us for questioning for around 10-20 minutes. They allow only three members at a time, for only five minutes. After covering such a long distance, they allowed us to visit for barely five minutes. Is this humanity?”

After praying at Ather Mushtaq’s vacant grave, the villagers and his relatives leave the graveyard. They organized a peaceful march from his home to the graveyard, demanding that his body be returned, for which Ather’s father was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Ather’s mother touches her son’s grave in Sonmarg, located in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, which is about 150 kilometers away from his native hamlet. The graveyard is heavily protected, and it contains the graves of several senior militant commanders. Every month, the family pays a visit to the cemetery. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

He wonders why his son’s body is being guarded so ferociously and how a lifeless teen’s body is a threat to the security of a region that continues to be the most densely militarized in the world.

“I wanted to spend at least an hour at my son’s grave, crying and praying, but they denied me that right as well. My innocent child is still being held captive. I am requesting people across the world to assist me in obtaining justice since they, too, have to face God one day. What would their response be? Could someone tell me what was my son’s fault?”

Mushtaq Ahmad displays photographs and other mementos of his son, which he keeps next to his bed. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
A relative of Ather Mushtaq carries his photograph during a protest in Srinagar’s Press Enclave. The protesters demanded an investigation into the deaths of Ather and two others as well as the return of their remains. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

He had cautioned Kashmiris to raise their voices against the killing of his son because he believed that the same would happen to other children as well.

“My apprehensions have come true since innocent people were killed in the Hyderpora encounter in November.”

On November 19 last year, bodies of Kashmiri men killed in a controversial encounter in the Hyderpora neighborhood of Srinagar were returned to their families amid protests by several sections of the Kashmiri society and political groups as well as mounting outrage on social media. The bodies of Altaf Ahmed Bhat and Mudasir Gul were unearthed from a graveyard in Handwoar in north Kashmir, brought back to Srinagar, and handed over to their respective families, according to the Jammu and Kashmir Police. This was the first time since the pandemic broke out that a body buried by the state forces had been exhumed and returned to the family. This gunfight has been clouded in controversy, with multiple media outlets carrying first-hand accounts testifying to the murdered civilians being deployed as human shields by the state forces.

Families of Mudasir Gul and Altaf Ahmed Bhat protest at Press Enclave in Srinagar, demanding the bodies of their loved ones on November 17, 2021. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Funeral prayers for Altaf Ahmed Bhat, who was killed in a disputed gunfight in Srinagar’s Hyderpora neighborhood, were held after his body was exhumed following a strong public outcry. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

Mushtaq Ahmad Wani accused the local government of discrimination, claiming that while the bodies of those killed in the Hyderpora encounter were returned to their respective families, his request was denied despite the administration’s failure to produce any evidence against his son since December 30, 2020, when he was killed.

Women are weeping and beating their chests outside the police control room in Srinagar, where Ather’s body was carried after the gunfight. Before he is buried, the women hope to catch one last sight of his face. They are also demanding that his body be returned to them. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
A woman wails as a state armored vehicle carrying Ather Mushtaq’s body, along with the bodies of two other young Kashmiri men killed with him, drives past her. The van is transporting their bodies from the police control room to Sonmarg, where they will be buried, hundreds of kilometers away from their home. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

“I had similar demands. I also held a protest near the mosque in my village, but I was slapped with an anti-terror law in the form of an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The way the administration dealt with them and returned their loved ones’ bodies, I expect the same. I should be given the body of my dear child so that I can bury him in the community graveyard here with dignity and care, so that I can visit him on festivals or on Fridays and pray there.” 

Ather Mushtaq’s father faints during a demonstration in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, demanding a probe into civilian killings. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Mushtaq Ahmad displays the placards that he and his colleagues have used during numerous protests over the last year. He has saved all the placards they have used so far. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

Ather’s last possessions are a pair of shoes and a blood-soaked blanket his corpse was wrapped in. Mushtaq managed to secure these from the local police station where he was sent for identifying his son’s body.

Mushtaq Ahmad takes out his teenage son’s favorite shoes from his storage cabinet. Mushtaq had purchased these sneakers a few days back for Ather, who could only wear them once. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.
Mushtaq displays a photograph of his son’s blood-stained shoes, which he brought home with a blanket, and buried in the local cemetery. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

“These cruel people wish to raise their children with the blood of my innocent child. Where will they go with their gallantry awards and profits? I have complete faith in God that their own children will punish them one day.”

Mushtaq avoids visiting the apple orchard because his heart aches when he sees his son’s name etched on the silence of the tree.

Mushtaq Ahmad prays five times a day for his son’s body to be returned to him. Photograph by Kamran Yousuf.

“When I see the letters bearing his name, something pierces my heart and shreds it into pieces. When I come here, it reminds me of Ather’s childhood, of the games we would play together and the time we shared. I had no idea that these bloodthirsty people would steal my child from me. India has sent monsters here. Look, how they are consuming our young one by one…”