Featured image by Kamran Yousuf and all other images by the author.
The photograph sits among the countless postcards India has consistently produced to expand its colonial project in Kashmir.
“Gar firdaus…,” these postcards announce an invitation to a nation reduced to a landscape. The careful visuals reinforce the obliteration of history, identity, and aspirations of the peoples of Kashmir. The celebrated ‘Paradise on Earth’ promises an exotic refuge to ordinary Indian citizens by offering entertainment and recreation, and serves as a reassurance of ‘normalcy’ for the Indian liberals, aiding their unwillingness to know about the oppressive, illegal Indian presence in Kashmir. Aestheticizing its violence, the State generates among Indians a neoliberal consumerist desire for the region and manufactures consent for its occupation.
A totalitarian control over histories and a calculated manipulation of meanings have been instrumental in India’s narrative warfare.
Over the decades, majority of these postcards have been characterized by a stark absence of locals—Kashmir minus Kashmiris—and India’s dangerously advancing settler-colonial project in Kashmir is an extension of this fantasy. Since 1947, India has imposed a multidimensional war on Kashmir which it has continued to justify with its militaristic logic of ‘security’ and expansionist ambition of “integral part”. By grabbing, delimiting, and defining the social and the spatial in the occupied zone, more colonial fictions have been written onto the Kashmiri body and into the Kashmiri everyday. The sovereignty and integrity of the Indian imagination has been formalized in Kashmir by routinely constructing it as a homogenous objet d’art.
A totalitarian control over histories and a calculated manipulation of meanings have been instrumental in India’s narrative warfare. Its armed and administrative forces have actively pursued the destruction of historiographic and material evidence of the Kashmiri past.
However, there exist ‘witnesses’ that reject the Indian imagination, refuse to grant it any legitimacy, and rule out any possibility of submission to its apparatus of regulation. These ‘witnesses’ attest to the multiple struggles of Kashmir’s pasts and preserve the evidence of its demands from the future. They undermine the colonial design by engaging in a negotiation of power where they reimagine the Kashmiri body, Kashmiri history, and the Kashmiri everyday. Subverting the threat of erasure and elimination, the ‘witnesses’ promise life in their sense of continuity, renewal, and resilience.
The semantic ambiguity of the Arabic word shaheed, in being both ‘testimony-bearer’ and ‘martyr’, extends into a polysemous network of meanings in the context of the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination. The cognate shaheedencompasses the idea of bearing ‘witness to truth’, being a ‘witness in faith’, and continuing to ‘witness until death’.
The Village of Martyrs
Afternoon is growing weary in Rampor, Qaimoh of Kulgam district, and the sun glares like a question over our heads. We trace our way along the snow and find ourselves inside a narrow lane where the only way forward is to pass through two slogans– “15 August, Black Day” and “Freedom”.
On the other side of this declaration resides the Sheikh family that has, over the decades, witnessed more than fifteen of its young men pick up the gun and achieve shahaadat. In August 2019, soon after the Indian State announced the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, the siege brought with itself men from the Indian military establishment who knocked on their doors with the threat that they will end their lineage and not allow even a single trace of theirs to remain on the face of their village. They were told that all their children will be eliminated because ‘the family has been producing armed rebels since long’.
The first armed rebel from the family, Muhammad Ibrahim Sheikh, rose in the early 1990s, and was killed in 1997. Recounting their wedding barely five years before his death, his widow Shahnaza Bano breaks into a soft smile as she speaks of her thrill upon welcoming over forty armed rebels who came in the bus as baaraatis. She hails from Hawoora and takes pride in continuing to be a part of the tehreek to liberate her homeland. Ibrahim was among the tens of thousands of men who had embraced armed rebellion when it took the shape of a mass movement in the nebulous 90s. He received his arms training in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and was equipped with better weapons than those available to the rebels today. Shahnaza explains that back in the day, gun did not feel any different than their everyday life, welded to their daily routines like working in the kitchen or in the paddy field. “That time is gone”, she lets out a sigh.
Their children, Heena Ibrahim and Salman Ibrahim grew up without their father, discovering in their mother’s stories the only way to tuck themselves in his warmth. While Heena is an undergraduate student now, her younger brother has been in jail since August 1, 2018. A student of class XII, Salman was 18 when he was taken away for questioning at an army camp and was later tortured by the Special Operations Group (SOG). Imprisoned in Jammu’s Kot Balwal jail, he was not allowed to study nor was he permitted to appear for his Class XII board examination, despite repeated requests by his mother.
This has been a gruelling struggle for Shahnaza who has toiled, for years, with little support and resources. Despite being unable to read or write, she has persevered with her fight to get her son out of the jail, traversing the maze of judicial and bureaucratic structures. Two long years, Salman continues to be behind the bars. “He wanted to study to pull us out of poverty,” she says with her voice wilting with sorrow. Shahnaza has not been able to see her son all these months.
“The children grew up without a father, and I tried my best not to make it difficult for them. But today, my son needs a father to help him through this ordeal, and today I find myself all alone,” she adds.
There has been no end to her pain. After her husband’s death, she married his younger brother, Ashraf Sheikh in 2002, and seven years later, even he was taken away from her. In 2009, Kulgam witnessed a lull in armed rebellion, so Ashraf picked up a gun because he had decided to revive the struggle for freedom. He was angry with the order of things, and wanted to fight zulm. He was killed within forty days in a gun fight. “Close to his home,” completes Shahnaza Bano looking out of the window, her eyes grazing the silence of snow.
With Ashraf Sheikh, she has three sons, Zeeshan Ashraf, who is a student of class XI, Asrar Ashraf, who studies in class VIII, and Ifam Ashraf who is in class II. Ifam was still in his mother’s womb when his father was killed. As she shares details of Ashraf’s last message to her where she was told to keep the children safe and to make them study, Ifam comes running in with his school bag—relieved after a rather tiresome day at school—and fills the room with his quiet, wistful eyes.
He sits down in a manner that betrays the earnestness of a young man, and slowly reveals that he has only heard of his father in his mother’s stories and only seen him in photographs. His eyes shine as he speaks of his father’s courage.
Shahnaza looks back on other shaheed in her family, Mohammad Maqbool Sheikh, Rahman Sheikh, Ahmad Sheikh, and her paternal cousins in Vijbyor, and says that nothing remains of these men except their photographs.
Her late husbands continue to be her companions, in their death and in her sleep. On most nights, she recedes into her dreams where she talks to them, laughs with them, and carries the pain of her waking hours. She gathers the remains of her days in her eyes and unburdens herself in her amorphous dreams.
“I want to go and meet him,” the little girl chimes in impatiently.
Rasheeda Bano, the wife of the third brother in the Sheikh family, Muhammad Abbas Sheikh, reveals a difficult detail: she was called to Cargo, one of the dreaded interrogation centres in the Valley, for questioning by SHO Qaimoh, but the family decided to avoid sending a woman alone. Her 80-year-old father-in-law, Ghulam Hassan volunteered to go in her place, leaving his wife Mubeena Begum worried for the uncertainty that awaits the family.
Abbas Sheikh used to be an armed rebel who later began working as a tailor in his village. But life was not going to be easy. Personnel from J&K Police and the Indian armed forces would often harass and arrest him, blaming him for any violent episodes in the village. It was this routine of intimidation and torment that was finally interrupted one night. In 2014, dawn was only a few hours shy and the entire village was asleep when Abbas’ family woke up to a raid by the army at their residence. But he refused to come out and present himself. He refused to be harassed or to be killed. He jumped out of the window, broke the cordon, and left from the backyard of the house. He joined Hizbul Mujahideen.
In his mid-40s now, Abbas Sheikh is counted among the sharpest armed rebels with the training of the 90s to his advantage. In addition to being motivated by the principles of the tehreek, he was moved to take this decision respecting the path his elder brothers had chosen to fight the oppressor.
Rasheeda describes in detail a grave injury he survived in 2017 when a bullet hit him on his right arm in Verinag.
She has four children, Uzair Abbas who is a first year undergraduate student, Uqab Abbas who is currently in tenth standard, Unza Abbas who studies in class VIII, and Ather un Nisa who has just started attending her kindergarten classes. Rasheeda was once warned by SHO Qaimoh that if anything were to “go wrong” in the area, her house will be burnt down and all her family members will be killed.
Oblivious to this threat, perhaps, Ather hears us talk about her father and steadies her pace as she approaches the cupboard where she had already scrawled her father’s name. As and Bs from her elementary lessons at the school join together to become her father’s name. As our conversation proceeds, she moves her fingers all over Abbas’ name and presses her cheek against the cold inattention of the wood. Her mother tells us that once Ather was sitting down and running her nimble fingers over her wrist—as if to check her pulse—and when she was asked what new game she was up to, Ather looked up and responded that she is missing her father.
“I want to go and meet him,” the little girl chimes in impatiently.
Tiny vapours gush from the mouths of tea cups as we speak and, for minutes, we are fenced in by silence.
Rasheeda Bano says that she married Abbas when he had already established close ties with armed rebellion, and adds, after a pause, that she supports her husband’s decision because it does not concern their family alone—it is a matter of their homeland. “Smallest of my routines are marked with difficulties and with the smallest of my parts I continue to contribute to the struggle,” she maintains. Constant worry about Abbas’ safety disturbs her every day. “I am in pain, but what else is the way out?”
Kulgam has been increasingly volatile since 2016 because of the attacks on unarmed protestors and children by the Indian forces that result in lethal injuries and mass blinding. Being a Jamaat-e-Islami stronghold and carrying a blazing history of resilience, this region has long been a target of the occupying forces. Not only have the locals formed human chains at encounter sites to ‘protect’ the trapped rebels, but they have also stood guard when the rebels come home to meet their families. It is this love that has been routinely met with torture and harassment by the SOG and the armed forces. Situation has only grown worse since August 2019.
The other brothers in the Sheikh family, Tufail Sheikh and Rashid Sheikh, have been repeatedly tortured, despite theirs being no connection with armed rebellion whatsoever, and Ilyas Sheikh has been under arrest since the last sixteen months. Arrested in Kulgam, Ilyas’ youth has been devoured by unspeakable torture.
A few houses away is their sister, Naseema Bano’s residence where we find her working in her garden, tending carefully to the winter that is growing over the scanty bushes. Her son Tauseef Sheikh was a teenager when he had joined the ranks of Hizbul Mujahideen in 2013, and attained shahaadat in May 2018. He was 21. His 30-year-old brother, Farooq Ahmad, has been under arrest since eighteen months now, having endured a repeated ordeal of being called to the camp and being imprisoned in the past. He was initially summoned to the Qaimoh police station only for questioning, but hours turned to months for him in the district jail at Mattan, Anantnag. At home, his young children await his release.
Naseema looks at the vines braided thickly into each other, and slowly turns her eyes towards the sky above us only to pierce its immensity by declaring that she can only think of God when she begins to remember her son. “He had promised to meet me. What can I do now? For him, for myself, and for Kashmir, we only have faith in Allah.” There is no other memory-keeper that she would accept for her son.
Her daughter looks exasperated. She mentions that with so many men of the household being killed and others being jailed simply for belonging to the same family, it is only the women who are left behind to manage their lives on their own. The striking absence of young men across the Sheikh household is unnerving.
In July 2017, a complete shutdown was observed across Qaimoh and Khudwani of Kulgam district after Tauseef’s family was brutally beaten up during a nocturnal raid. Women and infants were not spared either as the Indian armed forces went on a rampage and destroyed the house by breaking the windowpanes. The family could only be saved by an intervention by the villagers who resisted against the Indian soldiers, forcing them to leave eventually. Screams had dissolved in the smoke on that night of teargas shells. The same windows that must have trembled with what they saw both, inside and outside the house that night, now seemed still in the backdrop as Naseema’s voice crackled with anger.
Naseema Bano was arrested in June 2020 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and J&K Police is on the lookout for her daughter who has also been booked under the same charges.
Her sister, Zainab, has a 23-year-old son, Basit who has been languishing in a jail in Uttar Pradesh since the last thirteen months, while another sister, Rafeeqa lives with the grief of having lost one son and watching another get arrested. Her son Aasif Ahmad was killed as a Lashkar-e-Toiba fighter in Doda in 2007, and his brother, Tajammul was arrested in 2018 and was sent to Kot Balwal jail in Jammu. The 28-year-old scholar, who holds an MSc in Botany, is now lodged in a jail outside Jammu & Kashmir.
“This family has sacrificed more than fifteen young men for the cause. What do these colonial laws and abrogation of Article 370 mean to us?” asks the wife of Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh, a 70-year-old Jamaat-e-Islami member who has been under arrest since 2016. He was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) multiple times, and since then, episodes of humiliation, harassment, and arrests have been routinized against him.
“He suffers from knee problems. He is diabetic. And am I to believe that he is a threat to a nation with such a mighty army? He was locked away in one of the prisons when they accused him of holding a public meeting after Jamaat-e-Islami was banned in Kashmir in 2019. How could he incite his people from the jail? They need to start cooking better stories now,” she chuckles. Being the maternal uncle of the Sheikh brothers, he has seen his family suffering, yet his wife contends that the zulm this time—the pain and anger it has brought—is unprecedented. Ramzan Sheikh has been released now, but years of incarceration have grievously damaged his health.
Five other men from the family continue to be imprisoned, including Abdul Salaam Sheikh whose 4-year-old son is being deprived of his father’s care and affection.
After Ashraf Sheikh’s shahaadat in 2009, this village was named ‘Shuhadapor’ (Village of Martyrs) by Asiya Andrabi who is presently a political prisoner in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. A board was installed at the village entrance celebrating its new name, and in some quiet corner, a street identified itself as Shaheed Ashraf Chowk. The Indian forces, however, tore the board down and smeared the graffiti with black ink.
Perhaps they do not know that everyone in the village still remembers the board, recognizing it in its absence, holding it despite its absence. Perhaps they do not also know that the letters illuminating the shaheed’s name grow more pronounced with every attempt to scratch them out.
A Grave without an Epitaph
Roses sharpen their colour over the thorns and clods of unspoken words loosen under our footsteps as we make our way to Okey in Kulgam.
In Bumrath neighbourhood, beige walls give into a blue room where deep, brooding eyes narrate the story of Sohaib Mohammad Lone who was 22 years old when he was killed in Chadoora, Budgam in February 2019. He chose ‘Morsi’ as his nom de guerre after the former President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.
He was pursuing a B.Sc. in Information Technology at Alpine Institute of Management and Technology, Dehradun, and was also learning ethical hacking as a separate course in Delhi. A continuous topper for two years, Sohaib was a promising student. Even in school, he was known for always having excelled in his studies—he had secured 95% in his class X examination. Sohaib’s decision to pick up the arms left his family shocked, especially his mother who took pride in her son’s academic achievements. The family struggled to identify his motivations because there existed no history of torture, harassment or intimidation nor did they ever find him participating in any local protests.
Sohaib was quite young when his father, Mohammad Ashraf Lone attained shahaadat in November 1995. Known as ‘Nazeer Kashmiri’, he remained a cherished Hizbul Mujahideen commander for seven years.
The walls seem to twitch with the muffled chirrups of sparrows outside. Silence descends on the room.
“There was no match to Sohaib’s spirit. He was a gregarious young man, always surrounded by a growing circle of friends. Even among strangers, his laughter carried a familiar ring,” his elder brother Waheed-ur-Rehman says, mildly pruning the silence. Waheed is a postgraduate scholar of psychology at Amar Singh College, Kashmir University. “He believed in independence as the principle every human life should aspire to. The journey of his life shows the strength of his belief.”
Sohaib was an ambitious young man who wanted to pull his family out of the financial constraints they struggled with, and would often speak of his dream to construct a house for them in Srinagar. He wished to gift them a better life. To his elder brother, he would repeat that a person should strive to be independent in one’s thoughts and deeds, and work hard to earn an honest living.
Pain streaks through Waheed’s voice as it turns fainter and his words hobble. “We have to accept what has befallen us as our destiny. We have to face it…and fight it.”
Their mother, Muneera Akhtar had raised Sohaib, while Waheed was adopted by her sister, Haneefa Bano. Having lost her husband and her son, she now lives with Haneefa’s family because she has no one left with her anymore. She presses her arms against her frail body and wraps herself in an embrace, narrating how her son used to hug her. “He would keep on looking at me,” she says with her eyes fixed on the carpet. Her fingers circle her pheran restlessly. “He loved me a lot.”
His attachment to his family meant frequent pangs of homesickness that would draw him to his village every other month. Careful not to disturb his rigorous study routine, Muneera would only call him thrice a week. Sohaib almost never made a call home. His mother had developed a meticulous schedule for him to stay in touch with the family. However, on September 19, 2018, their phone rang. It was Sohaib on the other side. They found it unusual, especially because they had spoken to him just two days back. He asked after everyone’s health and the next day they discovered that his phone had been switched off.
Upon enquiring, his friend in Dehradun informed the family that he had dropped Sohaib to the railway station because he wanted to be home to take care of his ailing mother’s health. For the next four to five days, the family found it difficult to understand his excuse and his strange behaviour. With no information on his whereabouts, the family finally lodged an FIR with a missing report. Back in his college, there were posters all over seeking details about him, searching for a clue that could trace him because the students as well as the teachers respected the intelligent young man. His family continued to receive several phone calls, and each time the phone rang, Muneera hoped it to be from her son. Mostly, the calls were made by his teachers who were concerned about his attendance. No news of him ever came, nor did he.
It is only when they saw him on social media that everything suddenly made sense—Sohaib had joined Hizbul Mujahideen on September 20, 2018. Distraught, Muneera Akhtar made an emotional appeal for her son to return home, and even threatened to consume poison. Little did she know that five months later, her beloved son would indeed come back. It took a long night of heavy arms and ammunition and scores of armed forces to kill her son and another rebel, Hilal Ahmad Wani.
“Sohaib was finally home—as a shaheed,” his brother says.
Muneera’s fingers are restless again, she refuses to let her eyes leave the carpet.
Waheed continues to speak about his brother and his intellectual pursuits. A favourite of the popular “Google Sir” in Dehradun, Sohaib was considered highly productive as a student who would leave everyone stunned with his performance in exams. He managed to be a topper even with the least preparation. He loved to read, and literature was of deep interest to him. He was, in his family, the only avid reader of novels, a boy who loved stories.
“We all miss him,” Waheed says, looking at his mother, and adds that the family has preserved his laptop and all his books.
After his class XII board examination, Sohaib was excited about being chosen for a prestigious scholarship that would enable him to pursue higher education overseas. However, officials of J&K Police and the Intelligence Bureau of India did not allow him to secure a passport because he was the son of a shaheed. To harass him further, Deputy Commissioner of Kulgam called him to his office and told him that he could only have a passport if he answered three of his questions correctly. Despite his accurate response, the police continued to withhold it. Sohaib struggled for close to five years for his passport, but all his efforts were rendered futile.
Despite this harrowing episode, the family never expected that he would join the ranks. “He was so full of life,” Waheed says, sinking his deep eyes in the blankness of the room. Gently, he takes his mobile phone out of his pocket and places it between us. We see Sohaib adjusting the sleeve of his orange shirt with a smile perched firmly between his cheeks, we see him posing like a fashion model against the lush greenery of a Kashmiri village, we see him with his eyes teeming with laughter, we see him partly hiding behind a tree, we see him belonging, completely, to life. Waheed presses his fingers tightly against the mobile screen as if to plumb the distance that has now been written between him and his brother. Sohaib is now a photograph, an image written in light. Waheed gazes at him, but Sohaib cannot return his gaze.
The photographs that Waheed has preserved carry nothing of the militaristic visual regime enforced by India where the Kashmiri fighters only appear as dismembered and defiled sub-human entities. In these photographs, Sohaib belonged, completely, to Waheed, to Muneera, to humanity.
“I regret it,” Waheed whispers dryly. He remarks about his introvert nature and blames himself for not cultivating a space of conversations with his brother. Sohaib would spend most of his time with his friends, always encouraging them to study, but even they could not predict the decision he was to make. “His heart, I wish I could leap into his heart. He kept everything there,” Waheed rues.
Memories, they surface all of a sudden in Haneefa Bano’s eyes. She has been inexpressive all these hours, but now her sobs are hard to control. The windows listening to us gather mist and there is silence once again.
“We all miss him,” Waheed says, looking at his mother, and adds that the family has preserved his laptop and all his books.
“What is the point of this story? Can the dead come back? Can my dear ones come back?” Muneera Akhtar demands with a sense of urgency. Her husband was a graduate and an armed rebel when they got married. He picked up the gun motivated by the will to fight against zulm. Mohammad Ashraf Lone had received arms training in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and was barely 29 years old when he attained shahadat.
Her 82-year-old father-in-law, Ghulam Hassan Lone is a part of Jamaat-e-Islami, and according to him, his son Ashraf was as bright a student as his grandson. He had just completed his BSc when he topped the sub-inspector exam, however he was not allowed to take charge because of his father’s association with the religio-political organisation. A local MLA had denied him the position twice as that would have undermined their project of demonizing Jamaat as a group of uneducated, uncouth men. Ashraf’s brother-in-law, Abdul Khaliq Lone comments on the elegance of his mannerisms and reveals that even his enemies—the Indian army officers in the nearby camp—respected him. “Ashraf was a pious man who could not do much for his home and thought only of his homeland,” he adds.
Unlike his father, Sohaib was untrained and could survive only for a few months. “He was never hounded or tortured, but he noticed the zulm against each one of us,” his uncle says. “And that is why he never surrendered.”
After killing Sohaib, a few Indian soldiers visited their house to express their bewilderment at his decision to be a fighter.
“Is zindagi mein maine zulm ka silsila dekha hai aur ab shahaadat ka silsila bhi dekh rahi hoon (This life has made me a witness to relentless oppression of my people, and now I am a witness to a chain of martyrs),” Muneera declares sombrely.
“I am alone now.”
In early 2000s, officers from Bihibagh Camp—a camp constructed in an occupied orchard—demolished Mohammad Ashraf Lone’s grave and desecrated the epitaph. So, the family decided not to raise an epitaph for Sohaib, fearing that even in death he would meet the same fate as his father.
In Kashmir, graves of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat await their mortal remains; there exist two graves for Basit Dar in Marhama and Bewoora; and Bashir Ahmad Gogjoo of Pulwoam remains unsure in which of the three graves his rebel son lies buried. In Kashmir, there are mass graves with thousands of unidentified men buried by the State, and there are graveyards for scores of identified armed rebels denied an appropriate burial by the State.
Sohaib Mohammad Lone is embalmed in his mother’s memory, preserved in her eyes.
Muneera says that she wanted to make her son an officer. Holding her own tears back, Haneefa Bano interjects that he has now achieved more than just being an officer.
A Mistaken Identity
Hafeeza Bano and her husband Ghulam Nabi Mir carry the inexpressible pain of having outlived their children.
Their son, Aijaz Ahmad Mir had joined Hizbul Mujahideen in the 90s, and attained shahaadat in 2001 at Khandipor. He was a student, barely 18 years old, and remained active as a rebel for two to three years. Owing to the family’s long-standing association with Jamaat-e-Islami, they were troubled not only by the police, but also by the Ikhwan. They were forced to flee to Himachal Pradesh, returning only after their son’s death. The martyr’s memory has been kept safe in the name his elder brother, Gulzar Ahmad Mir chose for his son. Aijaz is currently in class XII.
Evening, delicate and iridescent, droops from the shoulders of willow trees. Fields and houses blur in the distance and snow grows thicker in Okey. The sky falls keenly over the white earth, waiting to disintegrate in her restive face.
Ghulam Nabi Mir leans against the wall and a sigh courses his mouth as he thinks of how kind and gifted his son was. “There is no one like him, there will be no one like him,” he says. “My son was a humble, god-fearing man. You can ask all our neighbours and relatives, and they will tell you how sweetly he would offer his prayers and how ethical his day-to-day conduct was.”
Mir was a sympathiser of Abdul Razak Mir who was a Muslim United Front MLA from Bachru and was killed shortly after the 1996 elections. Ghulam Nabi Mir was tortured in 1995, and a hefty sum of money was extorted from him on a regular basis, thus compelling him to sell two cows and his wife’s ornaments. The Indian forces had once blasted their house, and it was with great difficulty that the family managed to rebuild it. Often, his son was subjected to extreme torture after being routinely called for interrogation. At a time when Ikhwan terror was at its peak and his father’s hardships grew unbearable for him, Aijaz joined the armed resistance.
Ehsaas-e-Kashmir was lodged as bullets in Tariq Ahmad Mir’s body.
The couple’s third son, Tariq Ahmad Mir was barely five years old when the family was struggling against the Ikhwan crimes. But as he grew up, he wanted to help strengthen the dwindling finances of the family and had set up a small dry fruits business specializing in walnuts. He soon married Parveena and found happiness in his young daughter. Life, as he imagined, was finally beginning to take shape.
But it was not to be so. He was killed in Gagran, Shopian in September 2013 by the bullets CRPF personnel fired at him when he was on his motorcycle.
Zubin Mehta and Bavarain State Orchestra were to perform Ehsaas-e-Kashmir concert at Shalimar Bagh, Srinagar on September 7, 2013. The Indian State, in association with the German Embassy in New Delhi, had summoned Beethoven, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky to write over the resistance of Kashmiri people. Tariq was killed hours before the concert. He and three others who were killed with him were first dismissed as ‘anti-national elements’, then they were classified as ‘terrorists’, and finally called ‘suspected rebels’. Among these labels, there existed a son, the brother of a shaheed, a father who had stepped out to expand his business.
Ehsaas-e-Kashmir was lodged as bullets in Tariq Ahmad Mir’s body.
The room admits a feeble light, and outside the door, the garden lies bare. Everything seems to retreat into a fathomless shade between blue and grey, and mounds of snow wait patiently under the shadows. Hafeeza Bano weeps.
She and her husband were in the field to get grass for the cows when Tariq’s in-laws called in the morning, sensing a new opportunity for his business. Mir said that when they reached home, they realized that the situation was tense across Kashmir—“haalaat kharaab they”—yet their son decided to go to Shopian because he could not afford any financial losses.
Government of India set up a Commission of Inquiry headed by Retired Justice M.L. Koul and its recommendations offered money and a government job to the bereaved family. Despite abject poverty, the family rejected both. “Allah sends us help and that is sufficient for us. We do not have any other hopes,” Mir says, affirming the impossibility of justice in an Occupation. The elderly couple has three daughters who are married and one remains unmarried right now. The only source of income for the family is the meagre pay Gulzar Ahmad Mir receives as a PDD mechanic and some apples that they sell every year in order to manage their daily expenses.
Extensive shutdowns were observed by the locals to register their anger against the killings, and many visited the family to offer condolences. Protests demanding the removal of the CRPF camp in Gagran intensified, however the case was soon closed by the government authorities.
The case continues to sting like a burning wound for the old parents who live every day with the grief of losing two young sons.
Ghulam Nabi Mir crosses his hands over his knees and tears trickle down his wrinkled face. Punctuated with sobs, Hafeeza Bano pulls herself together and reveals her dreams. On one night, she saw Aijaz running as he screamed, “moujay”, and some five days later, he made his way panting into another dream and hugged her.
“I have not kept any objects to remember my sons. Every night, my dreams remember them.”
In the Crosshairs of Time
Under the burden of a strange disquiet, morning echoes along the empty streets. With the exception of broken queues of women at the local shops and children playing cricket in an alley, everything is still.
In Shopian’s Heff-Shirmal village, we sit inside a room the size of a father’s laughter. Mohammad Yusuf Mohand is employed at the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department as a lineman and is about to retire soon. If it were not for his infectious smiles, the house would crumble anytime into a portrait of loss. His son, Bilal Ahmad Mohand held an M.Tech degree and was also a PHE employee. He got married in 2009, and was blessed with two daughters, Aiman Bilal, who is currently in class II, and Aisha Bilal, who is in LKG. Bilal had everything that is considered a measure of success in this world– money, a loving wife, well-paying job, and a family that doted on him. In his free time, he also ran a small hardware store, and would often offer prayers at his shop and read the Qur’an. He was considered deeply religious and humble by his neighbours and colleagues.
His cousin giggles softly as he talks about Bilal’s sturdy, athletic physique and long flowing beard that commanded the respect of the entire locality. “People would slow their hastened footsteps down just to catch a glimpse of him.”
“His modesty is unforgettable,” Yusuf adds.
But Bilal’s life was not easy. Officials from J&K Police and SOG Shopian would routinely call him for interrogation where he was abused and humiliated, and between 2014 and 2016, he was tortured many times over. Often, he would ask them about the crime he was being punished for, but they always evaded the question by saying that a sahib had called him, and never gave him a clear answer. He was also arrested twice under the PSA. His was not an ordeal of days or months, it was a living hell endured over years.
He never revealed the details of his injuries or the insults hurled at him to anyone in his family, but only discussed it sparingly with his friends. Sharing a detail, he once told a friend about his broken bones.
“The local forces are all made up of our own people. They are our own, yet they bring such harm to us,” Bilal’s father remarks. “Even in our hours of distress, we have to deal with unnecessary bureaucracy,” he adds while recounting an instance where he had to run from a local police station to the district jail in Udhampur, where it was only after several formalities that he was finally able to meet his son.
For long, Bilal complied with the summons and the orders, however in October 2016, bruised and exhausted, he decided to join Hizbul Mujahideen.
His uncles, Mohammad Amin Mohand and Tariq Ahmad Mohand were also a part of the armed resistance, and had attained shahaadat in 2000 and July 2018 respectively. His maternal cousin, Tariq Shamim Sheikh was martyred in 2019 and Tariq’s father, Mohammad Shamim Ahmad Sheikh was martyred in 1994.
Sun slips under the walnut tree outside and echoes dart through the branches. Little birds feast upon their share of the sky, and some swoop down, brushing their icy wings against the tree.
Mohammad Yusuf Mohand speaks about his son in present tense, present continuous—as if to defeat the progression of time, as if to record his detachment from the vicissitudes of his life. In his language, Bilal continues to be—as if he never left him.
Bilal’s mother, Shahmala Begum enters the room and finds it difficult to hold her tears back. She speaks about her son’s wife, Shaheena Bano who had developed cancer and passed away within days of his death in May 2018. She was 34 and belonged to Trenz. The family had consulted multiple doctors and spent a lot of money on her treatment, but Shaheena could not be saved. “Her pain had increased after Bilal’s death. After a point, we had no idea how to save her,” Shahmala says.
“Death is better than a life where your dignity is lost,” Yusuf adds as we discuss Bilal’s decision to join the ranks despite being married and having two young children. “My son was a simple man. Yes, he had always been a supporter of the tehreek and of young men who pick up the gun, but it was torture and daily humiliation that compelled him to become a rebel himself. The rebel organizations usually discourage young fathers from joining the armed resistance, yet he had clarity about his actions. Is it not clear to you?”
Bilal Ahmad Mohand was killed in an encounter in Badigam village of Shopian in May 2018. Saddam Hussain Padder of Heff, Shopian, Adil Ahmad Malik of Malikgund, Shopian, Tauseef Ahmad Sheikh of Rampor, Kulgam, and Mohammed Rafi Bhat of Chanduna, Ganderbal were the other Hizbul Mujahideen rebels who were killed with him.
When the news of the ongoing encounter had spread in the area, youth rushed out of their homes and pelted stones on the police and the armed forces. The protests intensified, and five locals were killed while hundreds received pellet and bullet injuries. At the ‘encounter site’, two houses were completely destroyed. There were close to fifteen funeral prayers that tens of thousands of locals attended in Heff, Shopian, defying the atrocious restrictions placed by the Indian government. People walked for kilometres through fields, orchards, and alleys to pay their last respects to their fighters, and the graveyard was decorated with banners celebrating the legacy of other shaheedfrom the region. More than a dozen armed rebels also surfaced in the crowd, and together with Saddam’s mother, offered a gun salute to the shaheed.
Thick with apple orchards, Heff-Shirmal has been routinely witnessing Cordon and Search Operations (CASOs) where multiple houses are targeted at once, and since August 2019, men have been increasingly charged with the PSA and several have been tortured, including the elderly. Many relatives of the Mohand family have also been languishing in the Indian prisons under the PSA charges. Their old neighbour intervenes to say that in 2018, the Indian armed forces tore open the seats of their car. The family hesitates to elaborate further because violence of this kind, seemingly less harmful, has been normalised.
“My son left all the comforts of his life,” Yusuf smiles.
A door is flung open and the sun cascades down the frame to reveal two young girls. Quietly, Aisha and Aiman sit next to each other and stare at us. “These children know everything about their parents”, Shahmala murmurs while wiping her tears. “They understand what their father did and they understand that had it not been for these miserable circumstances, he would have always lived with them.”
The two young girls understand, theirs is a childhood that must hop its way into understanding.
The grandmother now runs her fingers through Aisha’s hair and looks at her with her old, mournful eyes. “They miss their father a lot. These young girls have been rendered orphans. We are with them today, but their parents are not. They rarely watch films, and if a film depicts the scene of a household, they cry bitterly.” After a pause, she adds, “They are all that we have of Bilal now.”
A Memory Dispersed
“We are India’s enemies after all,” Mohammad Abdullah Ganai of Heff village announces with anger. “My beloved brother was not spared, my son was not spared. They have imposed a war on us.”
He is the father of Irfan Abdullah Ganai, a student of MA History, who had joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 2015. He was only 23 when he was killed in October 2017 in the Keller area of Shopian.
Abdullah narrates how his son did not join the armed resistance because of any history of torture. He made the decision motivated by an ideological belief—“zeheni taur se”. Irfan never showed any emotion or expressed any political opinion to the family. A quiet, shy young man, he was not active at any local protests either. He was mostly engrossed in his studies, and occasionally helped the family in their orchards.
“And what will writing these stories do?”
“He spoke very little. Perhaps he spoke only to his heart,” says his father while sharing that Irfan’s decision had come as a shock to the family years back.
Rebels Asif Ahmad of Kathaw Hallan, Shopian and Zahid Ahmad Mir of Ganowpor Palpor, Shopian were also killed with Irfan when a well-equipped team of Indian military and paramilitary forces launched an elaborate ‘encounter’ against just three men. When they returned home as shaheed, tens of thousands of locals attended their funerals amidst widespread protests and spontaneous shutdowns across Pulwoam and Shopian.
Over the last 30 years, the Ganai family has lost several of its men– Abdullah’s brother, Farooq Ahmad, was killed in 1996, leaving behind his wife and a child, and his nephew, Saleem Yusuf, who was also with Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in 2012. “There are shaheed in every generation of our family.”
Snow continues to overwrite the afternoon and words continue to perish under its weight. On the other side of the door, a white silence grows.
Mohammad Abdullah Ganai does not wish to speak any further. He reveals that since August 2019, the entire village has been witnessing indescribable horrors, including night raids and sexual abuse. He adds that their area has been courageous for decades, but this time the repression is unimaginable. Scores of young men have been dragged to the army camps for being tortured and there is a sharp increase in the PSA charges. Abdullah counts some of these among the repercussions of speaking to the media.
“We do not trust the media to listen to us, only Allah.”
“And what will writing these stories do?”
His voice sits upon the fragile crockery between our fingers. There is heavy silence, circumscribed by his words. Irfan’s mother joins the silence.
“What are we supposed to do with keepsakes? We donated all his books to younger children and distributed all his clothes among the poor,” her stern face concludes.
Second part of the essay, Armed Rebellion in Kashmir and its (Re)Imaginations, can be read here