A Graveyard Remembers
Poplars tremble along the ash-smeared arms of the road and concertina coils glare at the occasional passers by. As the rim of the sun threatens to disappear over the horizon, each poplar branch seems curled into a scream.
We are in Moolu-Chitragam village of Shopian district, and minutes pass, combing through the silence. In the calm voice of Inayat Shamim Sheikh, difficult stories unfold.
His father, Shamim Ahmad Sheikh joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 1989 and used ‘Ramzan’ as his code name because it was the first day of the month considered holy by Muslims when he had picked up the gun. Shamim’s younger brother, Nazeer Ahmad discusses the extensive arms training he underwent in Pakistan-administered Kashmir for close to one and a half years in the 90s. “He got married when he came back, and Inayat’s birth signalled a new happiness for him. But it was short-lived. My brother attained shahaadat on January 14, 1994,” Nazeer says.
Shamim was killed in Moolu with four other fighters, Khurshid, Afzal, Manzoor, and Bilal. Being well-trained, all of them had given a tough fight to the Indian armed forces, but after hours of a raging gun battle, none of them could survive owing to the exhaustive use of ammunition by soldiers who disproportionately outnumbered them. Nazeer was then forced to pick up their dead bodies. “It was a night of horror. There was blood all around, so much that it flowed till my knees.”
The room sinks in silence. All the objects around us bear the quiescence of the sun falling through the window. In a corner, a small library beckons to the eye. “This is Tariq’s,” Inayat remarks.
Tariq Shamim Sheikh, also known popularly as ‘Tariq Molvi’, was a religious scholar who had completed his education at Dar-ul-Uloom Raheemiyya, a prominent Islamic seminary in Bandipor, more than a 100 kilometres away from his home.
Tariq was often harassed and tortured by the police and the armed forces. Once, he was pressurized to turn into an informer against his cousin, Bilal Ahmad Mohand and Saddam Padder of Hizbul Mujahideen. He was threatened that his sister and his mother will be abducted if he does not comply. In 2016, after the killing of popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, J&K Police accused the scholar of leading religious congregations with ‘provocative’ political content and delivering speeches across several anti-India protests in Kashmir. Upon not being able to find Tariq, his uncle Nazeer Ahmad was charged under the PSA and imprisoned at Kot Balwal jail in Jammu. The forces dragged him out of his house at 2:30 am and accused him of being engaged in ‘violence’. False FIRs were registered against Nazeer, and after fifteen days, Tariq was also arrested from a mosque in Varmul district’s Tangmarg after the Friday prayers. He was labelled as an Over Ground Worker (OGW) for the rebel organisations. Even after being released, he was routinely summoned for any action carried out by the rebels.
In 2018, Tariq embraced the path his father had taken and joined Hizbul Mujahideen. He chose ‘Mufti Waqas’ as his nom de guerre because his scholarly achievements—equivalent to a PhD—had earned him the title of a Mufti.
On May 3, 2019, he and two other fighters, Lateef Dar (‘Lateef Tiger’) of Dogripor, Pulwoam and Shariq Ahmad Nengroo of Chotigam, Shopian, were killed in an encounter in Adkhara, Imam Sahib area of Shopian. Lateef was the last surviving rebel from the photograph of eleven associates of Burhan Wani that garnered immense popularity in Kashmir and sent shock waves across India. While the fight was going on, locals rushed out of their houses in anger and young boys pelted stones at the Indian forces. More than a dozen protestors suffered pellet and bullet injuries minutes after the encounter.
“They had criminalised my brother’s eloquent oratory skills,” Inayat says, pressing his fingers against his palms. “The army even stole his shoes and clothes after his death. They told us that we are not allowed to keep or wear a rebel’s clothes and took away a part of him that we could hold on to. They did not spare his watch and mobile phone either.”
Inayat flips through a diary and a beautiful handwriting glows from the pages. “He loved to read and write. My brother was always immersed in books,” he adds while gazing longingly at the library.
“For 25 days, he was with Hizbul Mujahideen, and on his last day, he was a Jaish-e-Mohammed fighter. If only we knew…,” Nazeer’s voice quivers.
In February 2019, Inayat was detained at Indian army’s Pehnoo camp in Shopian and was tormented all night. He was commanded to become an informer. In an act of psychological warfare, the Indian soldiers attempted to make a video of him where he is presented as an informer and an enemy of his people who wants his own brother dead.
His paternal cousin, Zahoor Ahmad has been the youngest armed rebel in the family. He was barely 13 years old when he was killed in Sugan in September 2005. It was only after 26 days of him having joined the rebel ranks that the family discovered his new identity. Unfortunately, this was also the last day of his life. Zahoor was burned to death by an Ikhwan and an army major who was then deployed in Zasow and is currently on duty in Balpor camp, Pulwoam.
“For 25 days, he was with Hizbul Mujahideen, and on his last day, he was a Jaish-e-Mohammed fighter. If only we knew…,” Nazeer’s voice quivers.
Owing to the widespread support for Jamaat-e-Islami among the locals, this area has witnessed excessive violence for decades with Ikhwan terror combined with the rights violations committed by the Indian armed forces. The locals believe that the violence against them has increased after August 2019 because they had earlier ‘broken’ several encounters that allowed the rebels to escape safely. Night raids, pellet injuries, tortures, and killings have forced several families to run away from the neighbouring villages, despite limited economic resources.
Nazeer Ahmad recalls gut-wrenching episodes of being tortured by the army, and then mentions Geel Shah, an Ikhwan who harassed his family for years. “I was tortured by him and so were several others in the village.” When he died in 2007, no one allowed him to be buried in the community graveyard. He was then buried by a desolate roadside in Shopian. Some locals also believe that while his body was being lowered, water came out of the grave.
Nazeer now fidgets with his kaengar and the glowing embers let out a soft rustle. He discusses his marriage with Fatima Bano, his widowed sister-in-law with whom he has three children, Huzaifa, Ishrat, and Rizwan. After his brother’s death, it was Nazeer who brought up Inayat and Tariq with the thoughtful affection of a father.
When Ishrat married Salim Rather in September 2019, the family celebrated for days. However, the celebrations were soon interrupted because Salim was picked up by the army and harassed. This happened twice. “His crime was to marry in the family of mujahideen,” Nazeer smiles. “Once they took him to an army camp and misbehaved with him. They only let him off after receiving a hefty bribe.”
Rizwan, who has been leaning quietly against the door, now joins the conversation. His eyes, the colour of embers, pronounce anger.
On October 16, 2019, the Indian armed forced launched a CASO targeting their house and arrested 16-year-old Rizwan. He was first dragged to the police station and then taken to a nearby camp where he was repeatedly asked to disclose his shaheed step-brother’s hideouts. Upon not being able to extract any information, the soldiers abused the shaheed and asked Rizwan to die like Tariq.
In the same month, the killings of an Indian truck driver from Rajasthan and two other migrant labourers from India were reported, and the J&K Police announced a ‘major breakthrough in the case’ by identifying the involvement of rebels, Syed Naveed Mushtaq (‘Naveed Babu’) and Rahil Magrey. The police also claimed that Rizwan played a major role in these killings in order to ‘avenge the death of his brother’.
“My son is innocent. They actually wanted to arrest me in order to pressurize me to become an informer. As I have never listened to them, they decided to punish my son instead. Had Inayat been home that day, they perhaps would have taken him too,” Nazeer observes.
When Nazeer reached the army camp in order to save his son, the officers on duty offered INR 5 Lacs to him, asking him to become an informer. “They said that the mukhbir on whose tip-off they killed Tariq took INR 16 Lacs, and that I should accept this amount because no one will suspect the brother and step-father of a shaheed. I was asked to distribute this money among the poor or donate it at the nearby mosque, and was told that my reputation in the village will ensure that this deal remains a secret. Their words filled me with anger. I swore by Allah that my son is innocent. I swore by Tariq’s grave that my son is innocent. But they did not want to listen,” he adds.
Major K.P. Singh of RR 44, stationed at Pehnoo camp in Shopian, told Nazeer Ahmad that his son could only be released if he receives information about 2-3 rebels within the next few days because he wanted to go home on a holiday. Singh stressed that he urgently needed an encounter within a week so that his long-overdue promotion does not get delayed any further. However, it was sheer luck that Singh was transferred after five days and another officer, Major Sahil Sharma from Jammu, replaced him.
Rizwan was finally released after 25 days with strict instructions to Nazeer to keep an eye on a family in their neighbourhood where, according to Sharma, someone had joined Jaish-e-Mohammad. And on June 7, 2020, Nazeer learnt that their neighbour, Owais Ahmad Malik was killed in an encounter at Reban, Shopian. He was later buried in an undisclosed location, 25 km away from Handwara.
“It was extremely strenuous. I had to rush to the camp with all the certificates and documents to prove that Rizwan is a minor. Perhaps they would have charged him under the PSA. Perhaps they would have thrown him in some jail in Agra. Look at him, he is barely out of school, yet that did not stop them from inflicting pain upon a young boy,” Nazeer says with eyes retreating into sadness.
On January 30, 2020, at 1:00 am, the forces stormed into their house again and took Rizwan to Pehnoo Camp for the night. Next day, he was blindfolded and rushed to a police station in Shopian, which was followed by an eight-day long detention at an army camp in Hirpor, Shopian.
Inayat looks vacantly at Rizwan and reads an old letter written by Tariq. His words, frozen in a pale ink, express anger over the exhausting loop of arrests several youth in Shopian are caught in. “Ab zulm ki inteha ho chuki,” his letter concludes, enunciating his anguish against the oppression that seems to have crossed all limits.
“My brother could never meet our father. He was born a few months after his death. It’s strange how they were both 25 when they attained shahaadat,” Inayat sighs while keeping the letter away.
“My brother was such a beautiful person. He was kind and he was sensitive. I wonder if there can ever be anyone like him,” Nazeer adds.
The clock in the kitchen is noisy as if, with its heart pounding so fast, it might just run out of all time. Fatima Bano sits by the window and points to a spot on the wall where once Tariq’s photograph was. “She would spend hours staring at it. We had to remove it because we do not want this loss to worsen her health. Ever since Tariq left us, she has been unwell,” says Inayat.
But there remains a remainder, a reminder of the photograph on the wall. Sometimes, her eyes sit still on that spot which is vacant, but not empty—pulsating with the life of her son.
Tariq was close to his mother. Every time he came back home from Bandipor, he insisted on seeing her before meeting anyone else. He would often ask her what she requested for during her prayers, and would hurriedly add that she should pray for her son to be a ‘mujahid’. Once, he put her thumb impression on a letter expressing his desire to join Hizbul Mujahideen and shared it with its prominent commanders. Having been discouraged to join the ranks in the past, this was a plea that carried his mother’s consent this time.
Inayat steps out of the kitchen and shares that his mother often remains worried for him because he is the eldest child in the household. “She has lost her husband and her son, and now she does not want to lose me. She wants me safe.”
“They do not even allow us to keep the photographs of our shaheed in our phones. Our phones are checked regularly and seized at the camps. How is a photograph dangerous?” Inayat asks after a brief pause and points to the black metallic gate outside. ‘Mufti Waqas’ glows softly in a tender hue of pink. “Every time we open or close the gate, his name smiles at us. Will they call this dangerous too?”
In the local graveyard, where generations of armed rebels are buried next to each other, young children gather and point to Tariq’s grave like they have always known him, like he was family. “Commander bhai, Commander bhai,” one of them squeals and bursts into laughter.
Our feet sink deep in the snow and under the weary sun, an epitaph proclaims: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over. The martyr dies and his rule begins.”
Snow was gathering over us and in the dark, under the cobalt blue, there appeared phantoms – dark outlines of trees, windows, and tin roofs marking their presence against the indifference of the sky. Their traces were rendering them manifest, these were the outlines of what is and what continues to be. In the vast deep of snow, an absence was being pronounced.
In holding on to the traces of their sons, fathers, uncles, brothers, and husbands, the families of shaheed armed rebels have, for decades, resisted against any state-imposed erasure and rejected all forms of state-manufactured narratives against their life and death. The streets of Kashmir have also expressed their collective will in extending their life to the death of these rebels.
“Shaheed ki jo maut hai, wo qaum ki hayaat hai.”
The community declares that it lives through the death of its martyrs, it announces that its martyrs give up their lives to bring it the promise of salvation. These collective declarations form the part of the everyday in Kashmir, inseparable from the ordinariness of their daily lives. Take, for example, the practice of naming water taps, town squares, and streets after the shaheed; of painting the walls and shop-fronts with graffiti that proudly adds their names to an inventory of political memorandums; of criss-crossing anecdotes of their life and character with daily conversations by the roadside stalls and inside the paddy fields; of weddings that assimilate mourning and celebration in the rhythmic melancholy of wanwun to honour the departed; of installing flex banners and posters across the streets in towns and villages with aching tributes; of local mosques and late night prayers harbouring them in both life and death with equal gentleness; of naming the new-borns after popular commanders; of creating YouTube videos, WhatsApp status stories, and Facebook photo collage with personalised styles of homage; of neighbourhood martyrs’ graveyards with carefully worded epitaphs and routine visits by the locals; of circulating the shaheed’s photographs, audio messages, and videos with reverence; and of collecting and preserving the belongings martyrs leave behind that become a sacred relic for the family, friends, and visitors.
These practices of embodied remembrance become significant ways to challenge and break the rules of assembly, mobility, speech, and all forms of public and private behaviour that are strictly controlled and monitored by the occupying regime. In defying the spatial and temporal code of military occupation, the people reclaim their social and cultural spaces that face a perpetual threat of being extinguished under a violent establishment.
Encounter sites gather a larger-than-life quality – painfully ironic because all life is suspended in such a space – where hundreds from the neighbourhood and nearby villages rush to ‘protect’ the rebel from a seething, sophisticated machinery of arms and ammunition. After the ‘encounter’ is over, the body of the rebel is drawn out from the rubble and, after being returned by the forces, is endearingly wrapped in a variety of flags that denote the Kashmiri political will. The site gradually acquires the shape of a ‘shrine’ for visitors from far-flung areas who pay their visits in pain, loss, and reverence.
Massive funerals greet the slain fighter where thousands march to meet his family, pay their condolences, and accompany him in his last journey in this world. While the shaheed is being lowered in the grave, amidst tears and rage there rises the slogan for freedom, the war cry of a people who the world has forgotten to listen to. The shaheed is a child and a groom at once when women sing lullabies and wedding songs, thereby lifting him up from the temporal constraints and ascribing to him the realm of eternity. Mothers shower almonds and candies, decorate the palms of the shaheed with tender paisleys in henna, and whisper words into the ears of the fallen. Multiple funeral prayers and plurality of demands for Kashmir’s future dot the site where the shaheed becomes a source of succour and a space to replenish, once again, the will of the ground. Men, women, and children chart their way through narrow bylanes and winding alleys, defying curfews and braving the imminent risk of being maimed or killed during the processions, young men climb atop trees to take a final look at their hero, and tired fingers of mourners move briskly to touch the shaheed’s face or his shoes, one last time, as if to possess an entirety of a person in that evanescent moment.
These moments, mnemonics, and memorials, which are constructed to honour the young men who gave up their life for truth and justice, resurrect in their absence a presence that lingers, that persists. They become a witness to the courage, life, and struggles of these men, and most importantly, they lend themselves as spaces and occasions for celebration, for assertion, and for building the “counter-maps of ordinary life and resistance” (Mohamad Junaid). They are a site for announcing freedom, to declare liberation. And they are for everyone.
These ephemeral monuments espouse a radical heterogeneity and thrive on a binding principle of egalitarianism and dignity as opposed to the structures of dominance, control, surveillance, and violence that the Indian State has erected in Kashmir.
These memory-making endeavours not only challenge and undermine the mainstream narratives familiar to ordinary Indian citizens, but also build a critical complication for its tactics of perception management that have largely controlled how the world views this brutish occupation. In Kashmir, India has launched two simultaneous wars since 1947, one is being fought by its extensive artillery as a part of the world’s second largest military force and the other is being fought by its institutions, civil society, media, and other mouthpieces as a part of an organized, sophisticated narrative warfare. For a people whose sole weapon to counter the former is stones, a few hundred AK-47s, and pistols, memory becomes an important weapon on the social and cultural front. It contradicts the State’s legitimacy over Kashmiri life and counters the State’s narratives over Kashmiri deaths.
The Indian occupying machinery has, over the last seven decades, cultivated institutionalised erasure and silencing of Kashmiri voices that highlight their political demands, loss, grief, uncertainty, fear, longing, and anger. In not surrendering to this erasure, and instead, moulding the interstices between screams and silence, public and private, surface and subsurface to construct memories, Kashmir has continued to resist and reject the Indian rule. These memories—in their broken, fragmented narrations—become articulations of a history that has long been suppressed and bludgeoned under the homogenizing history of the State.
In ascribing to the Kashmiri past a teleological character, the State has constructed itself as something eternal and inescapable. However, these memories interrupt this chain of state-backed determinism and hammer it with the agency, experience, and truth of the Kashmiri peoples. They stare back at the “Angel of History”, amidst the accumulation of ruins and debris, to claim a healing against the wounds of this fatalistic temporality. This “homogenous empty time”, as Walter Benjamin put it, acts like a colonising regime– it measures the lives of a people by the actions and proclamations of the State, dissolves their mnemonics and memorials into the margins, and forces uniformity over a range of aspirations and assertions. Beyond disciplining and punishing, there is no other purpose to this time: for the State, every day is the same, every dead body is the same, and every Kashmiri is the same– killable. It uses force to inscribe itself on the bodies and minds of the occupied population, and is designed to trap every Kashmiri in its dehumanising militaristic logic.
However, memories promise reclamation by casting the past as well as the future in the dominion of the present with a startling urgency, thereby disrupting all statist linear formations. If the State desensitises or worse, sensationalises, memories create a thoughtful distinction, and fill their spatial and temporal orientation with sentiment and sensations. In being linked to the subterranean history of the tehreek in Kashmir, these memories pave way for redemption and revolution; they carry the constructive ability to lend themselves to the localised, indigenous history and the destructive spirit to counter and attack the statist history. It is here that the explosive potential of memories lies. In preserving the moments both in immediacy and in process, these memories create a continuity with past, subverting the authoritarian progression premised on forgetting.
Objects, language, ruins, town squares, streets, expressions, gestures, photographs, diaries, and other tokens of remembrance are retraced and liberated from their suffocating contexts in a militarised grid, and are strewn about, like a montage, across the collective archive. In restoring them to their subterranean sense, memory supplies these souvenirs with insight and emotion. With anguish and longing seething through its edges, memory brings about a renewal, rearrangement, and reimagination of the world—just like armed rebels do to the political expression of resistance in Kashmir. It rises like a constellation where past and present emerge together, dotted, frail, burning, and most importantly, illuminating.
Over the decades, memories of shaheed have served as a crucial obtrusion to the neoliberal expansionist, imperialist project of India in Kashmir. In defying the state of order by being multiple and multitudes against a regularising authority, these memories stir a disruption to any demands of submission, servitude, and annihilation the State continues to make on the peoples of Kashmir. If the State enforces closure, these acts of memory-making resist all closure by foregrounding the collective wounds and by celebrating and mourning them in a way chosen by the people. If the State engages in dehumanization of the armed rebels, these acts of memory-making restore and assert their humanity, highlighting even the tiniest, most delicate of details of their complex lives. If the State insists on rendering their deaths oversimplified with a dismissive uniformity, these acts of memory-making persist with a distinctive temporality of remembrance that honours the uniqueness of each life lived and lost.
Is closure possible in an occupied territory, in a war zone?
Just like these rebel-martyrs, memories defy being reduced to a victim and force the State to react. And the State does, indeed, react by attacking the memory-keepers and by destroying commemorative physical structures. Memories, rebels, and martyrs reaffirm life in the face of death.
As much as these memories preserve the dead, they are also testament to the sustained labour of the living. These rituals of memory-keeping are built on unspeakable trauma and suffering, and require of the people everyday tasks that are both labour-intensive and emotionally draining. Generations of Kashmiris have endured the weight of bearing witness, and in sustaining the tehreek, they have come to build a solidarity of co-workers and an affection of family. These participatory practices bolster the egalitarian principle of Azadi, and open themselves to a plurality of meanings and utility– they are an archive of the brutality the people have undergone, a testimony of what they struggle for, a catalogue of the crimes committed against them, and a manifesto of their demands.
The past is not treated as an objective history, and is reconstituted in agreement with the needs of the present. For a community braving repeated assault and denial over decades, survival is the most urgent of needs. And memories provide assistance by being sites of healing and catharsis. Sometimes, no body of the shaheed returns home—the mother has to console herself with just a shoe retrieved from the encounter site, the father has to rinse a blood-soaked blanket with water to wring the blood of his son out and bury his only trace. Sometimes, memories are all that is left, only the traces, just the outlines.
The labour of remembrance lies in the details: careful individual acts of memory-making testify to the individuality of each shaheed, situating them emphatically in the everydayness of Kashmiri life and in the resilience of Kashmiri history. This collective archive carries certain proletarian ethics where togetherness is forged by the labour everyone undertakes, and it extends itself to everyone across the community, ingrained in the ordinary daily lives. An important contribution these rituals and practices have made to the collective Kashmiri life is to make the common people the chroniclers of their own history, a history nourished by Kashmiri metaphors, folk traditions, and mythology.
In fact, the shaheed have also come to acquire the shape of a legend by oral narratives that remain in circulation across generations and mohallas. There is a story that recounts the rebels who could disappear from a building and escape a cordon by reciting verses from the Qur’an and another one about Shaheed Mujahid who, on some nights, would visit the army camp in Bomai on a white horse and had managed to scare the Indian forces enough to vacate the camp. There is also the story of two rebels who were burnt down and reduced to a smoked lump during a gun battle, and who the Indian forces would often see at night around their camps, covered in a shroud. The Indian soldiers were compelled, out of fear and guilt, to go to the shaheed’s families to seek forgiveness. These spectral, mystical accounts remain firmly rooted in the lived experience of a foreign occupation and its blood-soaked reality.
The Kashmiri resistance, in its broader historical and political sense, has always been against forgetting. The young boy in the streets has picked up the stone because he does not forget the pain he has had to endure. The lady in the neighbourhood goes out to protest because she has not forgotten that she has been held hostage inside her own homeland. The man picks up the gun because he remembers, because he does not forget either.
Is closure possible in an occupied territory, in a war zone?
Residues of violence remain imprinted on bodies, minds, and spaces in Kashmir, and past continues to manifest itself in stinging trauma and grief. Memories, then, become a way to produce what Frances A. Yates calls an “inner writing” of the community. All language breaks at the precipice of silence, pain marks the threshold of speech. This writing in silence, screams, and sighs is untranslatable and illegible—rightly so—for the outsiders, for the occupiers. Absence becomes a profound landmark of remembrance. It is in absence that an alternative cartography is sculpted that marks its distinction from the hysterical fiction crafted by the imperialist forces. Memories initiate a map for the past and the present to be connected, for the worlds of the living and the dead to maintain continuity.
Memory holds history accountable for its crimes.
Together, these diverse memory-making and memory-keeping practices in Kashmir have contributed in shaping the Kashmiri cultural identity. Apart from bestowing the continuum of history of resistance—that predates the present-day Indian occupation of Kashmir—with succour, they have also acted as mediating structures between people and the information around them in order to help them negotiate the grossly imbalanced power relations with the State. They provide political-cultural frames of reference where multiple histories of the peoples lend themselves to becoming the cultural artefact of the community and where material exchanges of the resistance can be traced in its diverse memorabilia and memorials. They embrace and enhance the complexity of the Kashmiri struggle, identity, and existence.
For Kashmiri children who are growing up on the edges of a past that is continuously threatened with extinction and annihilation by the Indian forces, these practices build a space for reclaiming the plurality of Kashmiri selves as well as for knowing the struggle for liberation through the lives, struggles, and determination of the martyrs. These memories also cherish the vision and ideas of these young men, left behind as audio messages, diaries, articles, letters, and videos, thereby adding them to the resource pool for the community to take its fight forward. The strength of these commemorative rites and rituals lies in their power to rejuvenate the beliefs central to the collective as well as in their power to reassemble the social body in accordance with the wishes of the people, in rejection of the militaristic rules. In the face of state-orchestrated denial, the collective memory of Kashmiri peoples coalesces into a meaning that is collectively authored and collectively honoured.
Present, grappling with itself in the knots of Kashmir’s difficult pasts, gives a referendum.
As memorialization practices and structures in Kashmir toil for the resignification of occupied spaces, the labour of Kashmiri armed rebels lies in restructuring the occupied subjectivities.
Since the last seven decades, the Indian occupying regime has placed Kashmiri bodies under a rigorous militaristic grid that decides the modalities of Kashmiri life as well as of Kashmiri death. Institutions of coercion and instruments of fear are deployed to manufacture obedience and India ‘manages’ the population in Kashmir by sustaining a direct and indirect exposure to death, by marking every Kashmiri body as killable. The survival of integrity of the Indian State has been premised upon bodies from its “integral part”, bodies that must be eliminated. Its judicial mechanisms and political institutions have aided its sovereign right to kill with impunity, therefore ‘life’ in Kashmir is essentially in an in-between of life and death. Life has been perpetually forced into submission by the power exercised by death, thereby creating a “death-world” (Achille Mbembe) in the occupied territory.
By refusing to submit to India’s necropolitical devices, Kashmiri rebels declare their own rights over their life and their death. They repudiate the contract over their life that a neoliberal biopolitical regime lays claims over. Such a regime makes death a necessary consequence for the subjugated populations, and thrives on continuously threatening them with death. And the armed rebels subvert the machinery by announcing their rejection of this threat.
“Did we not sacrifice our blood?” “Did we not sacrifice our eyes?” “Did we not sacrifice our childhood?”
Not completely subsumed by the militaristic logic of victory and defeat, their actions also carry a symbolic value of striking at the heart of one of the most brutal occupying regimes in the world today. Theirs is not a resignation to death or submission to hopelessness, rather a profound hope for liberation from the dehumanizing imperatives their people continue to be trapped in. They choose to die so that their people can live. These men reaffirm life in a “death-world”. And they become a menace for the State – not in their choice to live under subjugation, but in their choice to die with dignity. And memories that honour the shaheed of Kashmir become even more dangerous because they impede the deterministic temporality of the State, and lift the slain rebels into the realm of immortality. These men challenge State authority when alive, and disrupt it in their death. A few hundreds numbered against an army of approximately a million. And in their death, they bear witness to the fundamental principle of this occupation that every Kashmiri death makes every Indian life possible.
India has routinely produced liberals who argue that the armed rebels of Kashmir carry a “death wish”, but they fail to comprehend that these deaths expose only the “death-world” of the Indian occupation in Kashmir, that these deaths verbalize the morally depraved conception of life in the Indian colonial imagination.
That there is an urgency in their decision to pick up arms is made amply clear in the fact that today most of the fighters have lower periods of survival and less resources at their disposal as compared to their older counterparts from the 1990s. Yet they choose to fight. These ordinary men from ordinary households, then, emerge as icons of moral defeat of a nation that prides itself on being the third top spender on military expenditure in the world.
By retaining monopoly on violence, the Indian State has long assumed its permanence in Kashmir and has been engineering the optics of “normalcy” for a global audience. While the armed rebels challenge this status quo, they also embody the political ethos of sacrifice that delineates the anti-colonial resistance in Kashmir.
“Khoon jigrai yem wuzoo kor,
Tas taharat kyah karie.”
An old Sufi song of Kashmir says, “What do the rituals of purification mean to those who have performed ablutions with blood, with their life?”
And it is this shared understanding of sacrifice that drives hundreds of Kashmiri women, men, and children to ‘protect’ the rebels during blazing gun battles, that makes them attend the shaheed’s funeral procession, and that brings them to the streets, in pain and anger, protesting against the killing, despite the evident risk of being injured, blinded or killed by the occupational machinery. Locals attach a wide range of sentiments to the lives of the fighters and consider their presence as being significant to their tehreek. Tens of thousands of mothers pray for their safety when they are trapped, and thousands of towns and villages descend into mourning when the news of their death spreads. In 2016, after the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian forces, several households did not cook meals for days.
They are people’s warriors and they derive their nourishment from the people, and the people, in turn, derive strength and inspiration from them. They understand the sacrifices of these young men for their homeland, and are also prepared to sacrifice everything for them.
“Aesi khoon dyut na…”
“Aesi gaash dyut na…”
“Lakcaar dyut na…”
“Ghare barr dyut na…”
“Gham khaar dit na…”
“Panun sansaar dyut na…”
“Did we not sacrifice our blood?”
“Did we not sacrifice our eyes?”
“Did we not sacrifice our childhood?”
“Did we not sacrifice our homes?”
“Did we not sacrifice the companions of our grief?”
“Did we not sacrifice our world?”
Those who survive, in sacrifice, become witnesses, memory-keepers, and chroniclers of the history of Kashmir. And survival in Kashmir translates into strenuous emotional costs, material tribulations, and acute psychological distress.
If life in an occupied territory is marked by enforced submission, does freedom have to be defined by death? Must death become a qualifier in the grammar of political rights? How many dead Kashmiris before the world acknowledges this struggle for self-determination?
The assertion of Kashmiri fighters is labelled as “terrorism”, as if the empire demands that the only good Kashmiri is an obedient Kashmiri, a dead Kashmiri. Situating Giorgio Agamben’s articulation that “in the eyes of authority—and maybe rightly so—nothing looks more like a terrorist than the ordinary man” in the context of Kashmir, it is self-evident that the widely-accepted nomenclature of “terrorism” is used by India not only to justify its military occupation of a foreign land, but also to justify its organized extermination of Kashmiri peoples. The post-9/11 rhetoric of global war on terror, growing Islamophobia, and India’s manufactured crisis of “security” all grant legitimacy to its neo-colonial project in Kashmir. The armed rebels who challenge the Indian rule are greeted with packaged labels of “Islamist”, “recruiter”, and “jihadist”, in addition to becoming the face of “Kashmiri terrorism”.
Further, the Indian film industry and Indian media contribute in supplying this menacing stereotype to the visual imagination of ordinary Indian citizens who ultimately consume the “idea of India” that lays claim to the Kashmiri territory, even if—and especially if—it comes at the cost of the Kashmiri body. Indian liberals, on the other hand, perpetuate another mythical category of “innocent Kashmiris” in order to express ‘regret’ over civilian lives lost to Indian bullets. This classification excludes the Kashmiri fighters because they are assertive and defiant, hence not “innocent” and worthy of all punishment for their transgression of the Indian occupational codes. This arm of the Indian State constructs “innocent Kashmiris” as being worthy of grief because they are represented as docile victims. Not only does this lacklustre myth assume that unarmed Kashmiris lack political action and participation in their everyday struggle, it also strengthens another myth of the “hapless Kashmiri caught between two guns”. In erasing the differences between the political context and moral weight of the two kinds of guns in Kashmir, this myth criminalizes the resolute defiance of the Kashmiri fighters. These myths disregard the political maturity that informs the decisions of these men and also advance the obfuscation that claims “religious indoctrination” to be the cause of “Kashmiri terrorism”. These myths remain completely ignorant of the diversity of motivations that have guided these men, motivations such as being ideologically committed to the liberation of their homeland or being perceptive to the oppression in their everyday lives.
Because the Indian colonial machinery in Kashmir also understands itself as a ‘civilizing mission’, it advertises itself as a “saviour” of the said “hapless Kashmiri” and promises to ‘rectify’ the “terrorist” on the basis of its own set of values.
By fabricating these labels and myths, the State seeks to homogenise the armed rebels and dismiss the complexities, struggles, and aspirations of their individual lives. Their stories and their memories tear through the statist propaganda that dehumanises them and foreground their humanity. They speak of the void the shaheed leave behind, the material and emotional loss for the family, and a harrowing realization that these men can never be recovered, they can never return. Trace by trace, the labour of memory-keepers lies in preserving the life of these men in the folds of the everyday. These memories also enable startling transformations: transforming grief into a subsurface articulation of political demands and transforming an absence into a lingering presence. In dismantling the project of dehumanisation of armed rebels, ordinary Kashmiris seek catharsis in the poignant memories of their cherished men.
When the State finds it impossible to punish the transgression of death, it resorts to punishing the memory-keepers. Often, family members of the shaheed, protestors on the streets, young men rushing to encounter sites, and people walking through funeral processions are harassed and tortured by the Indian forces. In February 2017, Chief of Defence Staff, Bipin Rawat declared that anyone who creates hurdles at encounter sites or does not comply with the armed forces’ orders would be treated as an “overground worker of the terrorists”. Earlier, in October 2009, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command Lt General BS Jaswal had declared ordinary protestors on the streets as “agitational terrorists”, and parroted the argument that all protests by Kashmiris are funded by the “terror state” Pakistan. Any Kashmiri who declares herself to be human, rejecting the binary of subject-object the State wants to arrest her in, is viewed as an extension of “terrorists”, and the State endorses the death of “terrorists” beyond all consequences or accountability.
It, therefore, becomes pertinent to highlight that “in essence, the occupation is not a military strategy to achieve a political solution. It is a political strategy to achieve a military deadlock. Lacking legitimacy, the military occupation remains the only way India can hold on to Kashmir.” (Mohamad Junaid) Over the years, several Kashmiri locals have expressed their frustration with being humiliated, jailed, abused, tortured, threatened, and even gravely injured for the non-violent means of resistance they have been practising. A section of these locals considers armed rebellion in the region as an extension of the struggle they are collectively engaged in.
Despite their contested and diverse ideologies, groups and organizations of Kashmiri fighters remain invested in the local politics of Kashmir, and seek to liberate their homeland from the Indian rule– one segment views merger with Pakistan as the future of Kashmir, while another considers independence to be the way forward.
The initial phases of armed rebellion against India witnessed the rise of Hyderi Column in 1948 and organisations like Master Cell and Al Fatah in the 1960s. In 1989, the rebellion gathered momentum and turned into a mass uprising with organizations like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Allah Tigers, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Al Umar, Hizbul Mujahideen, and Muslim Janbaz Force among several others expanding their base. The fighters have included engineers, athletes, bakers, carpenters, PhD scholars, professors, tailors, pilots, government employees, and others who have come from diverse family backgrounds, caste and class locations, and from the capital, towns, and villages of the region.
These men, in their life and in their death, are a collective wealth for their community. Through their ingenious use of letters, diaries, newspaper statements, posters, video interviews, audios, and social media platforms, they have continued to serve as Gramscian organic intellectuals. Their reflections on the course of the struggle, their observations, visions, and ideas are eagerly awaited across the ordinary Kashmiri households, and they are considered to be the common Kashmiri’s heroes. This resistance literature as well as cultural artefacts of memories make the shaheed live symbolically, flourishing in the excruciating everydayness of Kashmiri lives.
In being a witness through their bodies, they surpass their bodies, and continue to live and hold sway over generations of Kashmiris. These ordinary men from ordinary households are inscribed upon the landscape of loss and longing in Kashmir that turns them into the extraordinary. People regard martyrdom in its religious and political contexts both, so resistance and faith become intertwined in these commemorative rituals and practices. And this adds to the anger of the Indian establishment that is already rattled by the rebel-martyrs of Kashmir who crush the myth of “Kashmiriyat” which exalts servitude and hospitality as the defining virtues of Kashmiris.
If the Indian State’s anger could be explained in numbers, it translates into more than 100 armed rebels being killed by the Indian forces since the beginning of 2020. The last few months have also witnessed new graveyards that have been constructed by the Indian government in remote Kashmiri villages, away from the shaheed’s locality where no funeral processions or final prayers are being allowed. The slain rebels are either being buried secretly in undisclosed locations or only a handful of family members are being allowed to visit, some not even being allowed a last glimpse of their son, father, brother or husband. The shaheed of Kashmir are now being denied a burial in their ancestral graveyard or the local martyrs’ graveyard where, for generations, memories have been preserved with great agony and care.
This has been meticulously orchestrated by the State because of its fear of the disruptive psychopolitical power of Kashmiri memories. While this is not the first time that Indian forces have obstructed practices of remembrance in Kashmir, what is new is that the bodies of slain rebels are not being returned to their family members now. Even when the families have identified them, the State insists on terming those bodies “unidentified” and compels these families—already harassed by the occupying forces and in intolerable grief—to run from pillar to post through labyrinthine bureaucratic formalities and DNA tests.
Over the last few years, Indian forces have also increasingly used chemicals to blast the houses during ‘encounters’ with the Kashmiri fighters. While the Indian armed forces dismiss it as “collateral damage”, in reality, this is a shrewd method to mutilate and defile their bodies beyond recognition. Sometimes, all that can be retrieved from these sites is barely a few kilograms of burnt flesh and charred broken bones. And sometimes, dead bodies of rebels are dragged for kilometres on rough patches of land while they bear stabs and cuts all over. This is to deny them a face, a body that mobilizes thousands to join their funeral processions. And now, even these processions are not allowed.
Memories, however, persist in their difficult labour.
They endow every Kashmiri with a distinct map of remembrance. They chart their time with remembering what they were doing, where they were, and who they were with when a rebel turned into a shaheed and trace the contours of their spaces by remembering the hideouts, encounter sites, and memorials of the shaheed. Streets and neighbourhoods discard the colonial authority that governs them, and declare their liberation by evolving into landmarks of individual and collective memories. As people recount the character and life events of the shaheed, as children repeat the promises not to forget them, as the elderly say prayers for them, as their relatives lose their individual names in favour of being known as the brother of the shaheed or the mother of the shaheed, and as the agonizing continuity of shahaadat is wound into the daily routines, a strange intensity pierces the everydayness of Kashmir. Objects, temporalities, spatial arrangements, and sensations of defiance become keepsakes for every Kashmiri and bear testament to their radical imagination of life.
The rebel-martyrs of Kashmir testify to their intimate attachment with their people, and in being nourished by the cultures of remembrance, they produce a disobedient knowledge, a subterraneous genealogy of resistance.
In death, shaheed articulates both his agency and his suffering. In death, he bears witness to the pain and truth of Kashmir. In death, he makes it clear that the world’s largest democracy is afraid of simple dreams in the eyes of simple men.
“But what do these Kashmiris want,” the world asks.
Somewhere, an Indian is dreaming of his next adventure in Kashmir, frolicking in the Kashmiri snow, calling it peace.
- Agamben, Giorgio (2009), “What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays”, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California
- Mbembe, Achille (2003), “Necropolitics”, Public Culture, Volume 15 (1)
- Junaid, Mohamad (2019), “Disobedient Bodies, Defiant Objects: Occupation, Necropolitics, and the Resistance in Kashmir”, The Funambulist, Issue 21