THE MARCH OF THE MARTYRS: CAUSE FOR MOURNING OR CELEBRATION?

With each killing at the hands of the Indian state, the people of Kashmir are becoming more resilient and these killings – civilian or otherwise – give them a reason to celebrate martyrdom of their loved ones. In reality, it is the Indian state that needs to be worried because it takes away from Kashmiris the fear of death

On a lukewarm December morning in 2012, I travelled to Sopore in north Kashmir to interview the family members of a 19-year-old college-going student who was killed a day ago in a gun battle with Indian forces. The boy, Aatir Ahmad Dar, was a commerce student and a fine cricketer. He had joined militant ranks three months before his death. That morning when I went to his home, I was expecting mourning and wailing. There was none of that to my utter surprise. Instead, Aatir’s eldest sister, Masooda, told me that she couldn’t explain how proud she was of her brother for laying his life for what she called a noble cause. Aatir had joined militancy after consistent persecution by the police. He had crossed the threshold of harassment; he was no more scared of death. He turned it into martyrdom, his sister Masooda told me.

In my office later that day, I figured it too difficult to tailor a news report because the way we were groomed as journalists, it seemed to me — or my manufactured self — that a sister being proud of her militant brother’s death didn’t make a story. At least in Kashmir. Yet I wrote it that day timidly because what we were given to understand of such events was that the survivors should be drowned in sorrow; sadness should be layered on their faces for the reporter to peel off and turn it into a story; and that a mother, father, sister or a brother should cry for help. Having observed no such feeling at Aatir’s home, I wrote the story with a pinch of salt for a newspaper I was then working with. Because in a place like Kashmir where certain journalistic narratives are constructed in diplomatic and military enclaves far away from the social and political realities of the local Kashmiris, an expression of a sister celebrating her brother’s martyrdom would be seen as a militant propaganda. But things are what they are. Masooda was proud of her brother and so were Aatir’s father and mother.

Making of a Martyr: Family members of Iqbal Farooq Peer. Iqbal was shot dead while he was closing the shutters of his shop at Handwara town. “He has brought honour to the entire family,” says Iqbal’s father Farooq Ahmad Peer
Making of a Martyr: Family members of Iqbal Farooq Peer. Iqbal was shot dead while he was closing the shutters of his shop at Handwara town. “He has brought honour to the entire family,” says Iqbal’s father Farooq Ahmad Peer – Photos: Nisar Malik

The other day as I passed along Aatir’s home, perched near a water canal on a highway, Masooda’s words and the meaning attached to them echoed back to me. I thought to myself what would the family members of those killed by Indian armed forces in Handwara the previous month be feeling about the loss of their loved ones.

When I returned to Kashmir on 15 April, yet another bloodbath by the armed forces was already underway. Till 15th of that month, four Kashmiris had been killed by the army and police across Kupwara district, in a wanton trend that has been going on for decades in Kashmir. And on 15 April, armed forces killed another 16-year-old boy in cold blood. Three days ago, sitting in my hostel room in New Delhi, I read the harrowing accounts of the killings on the internet. It froze all of us — Kashmiris in an Indian university hostel. We huddled ourselves in a room, all of us silent. In the middle of that quiet, a doctoral student remarked in anger, “I feel like burning all these books … and picking up a gun!” He — like all of us — felt so helpless. And “picking up a gun” seemed to him — as it seemed to all of us — the last resort to salvation, though hypothetical. But whether or not you carry a gun in Kashmir, you — or anybody else on the road — are in the line of fire anyway. It is just a matter of time and space. Just as it was for these five persons. Remember the names: Iqbal Farooq Peer, Nayeem Qadir Bhat, Raja Begum, Jahangir Ahmad Wani and Mohammad Arif Dar. They have already become digits in a long inventory of carnage. They will linger around our collecctive memory for sometime. And then they will recede into oblivion as another roll of dead Kashmiris moves in.

All of them were unarmed civilians and their space was already defined: Kashmir. And so was the time and circumstance.

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Back to the final pavillion: Parents of Nayeem Qadir Bhat, the cricketer

Iqbal Farooq, 23, was closing his shop after chaos erupted in the town market when a bullet tore through his skull, spilling his brains. Nayeem Qadir, 19, was on his way home, carrying a bag of vegetables, when a policeman shot him in the torso. Raja Begum, 55, was working in her garden when a “bullet from the sky” fired from an army bunker somewhere up on a nearby mountain peak punctured her head. Jahangir Wani, 24, a sand digger, was walking in an alley of a neighbourhood village when the forces shot him to death. Mohammad Arif, 16, the youngest of all, was walking toward his sister’s home when he was shot dead. Period.

Five deaths in four days: the fallout of a school girl’s “molestation” by an army man in a toilet. Remember the key words: school girl, army man and the toilet. Those who think it is immaterial to talk about the girl, the army man and the toilet are missing the real point. “It involves our honour,” few elderly locals told me. It is important that the incident be analyzed from the very beginning. Journalism is but an objective construction of the reality and I don’t attempt to do more than that. I won’t pass judgments with regard to what happened with the girl and who is to be blamed for the killings. I will first try to describe the toilet in question and then navigate you through a mental map which will take you from the school to the girl’s home and then to the toilet in question.

Description first: the worn-out walls of the toilet would be somewhere around five feet and four inches high. Before the killings, it was corked with a corrugated sheet of tin and few pieces of decayed wood. It is situated right behind a line of shops, hidden from public gaze. The toilet is a reeking garbage thing. You have to cover your nose when you go near to it. Before the killings, above the line of the shops was a one-man military bunker. Right across the road there was another concrete bunker where more than two army men would guard the Indian flag hoisted on a long aluminum pole. Both the bunkers are gone now along with the aluminum pole. What remains is dust and painful memories.

Remember the key words: justice, occupation, probe, proud, martyrdom, freedom, azadi, murder, murderer, fate. I heard these words here, in Nayeem’s room. Someone or the other muttered them over and over again

The toilet had been put up for the use of army men only. And don’t forget that: only for army men. It was nearer to the army man above the shops. Nobody else would use this toilet, a local shopkeeper told me. There are around 20 washrooms in the girl’s school. Her home is just half the distance than what it could take her to reach the toilet in question. When you leave the main gate of the school, you either turn left or the right. If you turn left and walk some 50 yards you’ll have the girl’s home and may be her own family toilet. If you turn right and walk 100 yards straight and then turn right and walk some 30 yards and then turn little right again behind the line of shops you’ll find the toilet in question, used “specifically” by the army men. However, if you are in the market and you need to go to a washroom, you’ll still have the option to use a decent washroom in a toilet complex that is probably run by the local municipality. I used it too. It has two cubicles for both the sexes and is some 40 yards away from the toilet in question. It is nearer to the school and the main road than the toilet where the alleged incident of ‘molestation’ happened.

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A crop of death: Relatives of Raja Begum, 60, who was killed after a bullet tore through her head while she was working in her family garden

It is not sandwiched between the rear of the shops and highwalled veterinary office like the toilet in question. It was this toilet, meant only for army men, that the girl had tried to use, according to her own testimony in a video clip apparently filmed and shared by the police. The video became viral on social media in which the girl, beginning with a smile, testifies that she was not molested by the army man. Instead she levels charges against two local boys for dragging her in the marketplace. Sitting with an old acquaintance in a photography shop in Handwara’s main market, I skim through hundreds of pictures on a computer screen that he captured on that afternoon. First, I see a little crowd gathering behind the shop line, near this toilet, and few young men raising their arms in the air. ‘Arm’ here is referred to a limb, not a gun. A tie-wearing school boy, visibly angry, his mouth wide open, probably shouts at someone above the shop line. Above the shop line, I would repeat, was a one-man army bunker.

The acquaintance explained to me that these boys wanted the army man to come down from his bunker to answer them what he was doing in the toilet a minute ago from where the girl was also reportedly seen coming out. The army man, according to the acquaintance, after coming out of the toilet had pushed away the boys and climbed back straight to his bunker. That’s when the crowd swells and they demand that the trooper be brought down. The photographs show a white-mustached policeman talking to the outraged boys. The acquaintance kept explaining to me the context of the photographs. He explained that the police wanted the boys to calm down, but that the boys wouldn’t budge. They too, like the elderly men, had uttered the words, “It is about our honour.”

And then the mayhem and the killings began.

The breeze wafted inside the room, chiming little pieces of glass in a bulb jar, creating a jingling sound — tin, tin, tin…. For a moment, it felt the sweetest jingle I had ever heard in my life. Or perhaps because nobody had talked to me for more than an hour and I had to listen to something. There were few men in the room, including Ghulam Qadir Bhat, Nayeem’s father. White-bearded, wearing a pheran, Bhat was leaning against the wall, asleep. When he woke up, he went straight to the room’s attached bathroom and came out fresh. He still didn’t talk. And when somebody brought up Nayeem’s name, he uttered these words, “Today I miss him a lot… I won’t forget him even in my grave.” I didn’t want to burden him by asking questions. So I stayed there and observed, observed until he had spoken. Remember the key words: justice, occupation, probe, proud, martyrdom, freedom, azadi, murder, murderer, fate. I heard these words here, in Nayeem’s room. Someone or the other muttered them over and over again. Though I didn’t count, it felt to me that the word ‘martyrdom’ was used many times by Nayeem’s family members than any other word. When Nayeem was breathing his last in the lap of his uncle, Ali Muhammad, he muttered these words, “Kaka, I have become a martyr!”

Not so far from Nayeem’s home is the house of a pro-India politician. It is surrounded by 12 feet high concrete walls. Above the walls, rolls of concertina wires have been laid out. To me it seems like an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territories. Dozens of Indian paramilitary troops guard this house day and night

It’s martyrdom that Nayeem’s family is proud of, despite knowing they have lost a jewel too soon. Uncle Ali Muhammad’s eyes brimmed with tears when he recalled how a local policeman named Rafiq shot Nayeem in the chest. “First he fired teargas shells at us,” he said, and after a brief pause, continued, “I told him please don’t shoot as we are on our way home. But he took a rifle from another policeman and shot Nayeem directly.” Nayeem’s association with cricket remains to be a default memory within the family. Whenever they recall Nayeem, they recall cricket. And whenever some says cricket, they recall Nayeem.“He had all the cricket gear that an international cricketer would have,” his father said. “I would always ask him why he remained all the time in the cricket field. He would gently say, ‘Don’t I pass the exams with flying colors?’ He would make me smile.”

Nayeem was a 1st year commerce student at Handwara Degree College. On 16 April, he had to leave for Dehradun to enroll in a bachelor’s degree in forestry. But he couldn’t make it till 16 April. The cricketer boy was in a hurry to depart to the final pavilion. Period.

A week ago, when I went to Handwara, I asked passersby for the direction to Nayeem’s home. An elderly woman pointed to a two-storey house. Her eyes shone and she remarked, “Ye ous soun gulab” (He was our rose). “Shaheed gov” (was martyred). I entered Nayeem’s room, trophies and medals that he had won lay decorated on shelves.

Nayeem was shot dead an hour after Iqbal Farooq was killed in the main market. Iqbal was shot in the head, abdomen and shoulder. He was closing the shutters of the shop when bullets from behind hit him. Prince Studio, where he worked, is some 10 yards from the now-demolished army bunker. The acquaintance who showed me photographs told me that Iqbal’s death was celebrated as if it were his marriage. Pallbearers carried him through the market like they carry a groom. When I went to his home in Dragmulla last week, his father Farooq Ahmad and mother Rafeeqa were sitting in a room.

They both stood up to welcome me. And I sat opposite to them. His youngest son Shahnawaz brought tea. After few minutes, Farooq Ahmad asked me where I was from. I told him that I was a reporter and that I had to write something on Iqbal. “We feel so proud of him for his martyrdom,” he told me. I was taken aback once again, as I was in 2012 when Aatir’s sister expressed the same feeling and almost the same words. I wonder how much courage it takes to accept that.

A fallen son and an endless wait: Relatives of Jahangir Wani, a sand digger. Jahangir was walking in an alley of a neighbourhood village when the forces shot him to death
A fallen son and an endless wait: Relatives of Jahangir Wani, a sand digger. Jahangir was walking in an alley of a neighbourhood village when the forces shot him to death

I thought to myself that it is not Kashmiris who need to worry. Because with each killing at the hands of the Indian state, the people of Kashmir are becoming more resilient and these killings — civilian or otherwise — give them a reason to celebrate martyrdom of their loved ones. In reality, it is the Indian state that needs to be worried because it takes away from Kashmiris the fear of death. That’s what Farooq Ahmad gave me to understand. He told me that his son has achieved the noblest form of death and that Iqbal has brought honour to his entire family, to Dragmullah and to Kashmir. “I went to his grave and asked him to talk with me one more time in this life,” he told me, looking out of a window at a hazy mountain peak. “Then he came in my dream and said to me, ‘Don’t mourn my death. Celebrate it as I am a martyr’. He had said to his mother three months before that he wants to die a martyr’s death. That’s what he has achieved. And we’re all proud of him.”

On 12 April, Farooq Ahmad received a call. The caller told him that his son had been injured. Farooq Ahmad told the caller that his son will be fine. He had faith then and he has faith now. After some time when he heard that his son had died, he rushed to Handwara to kiss his son one last time. But he couldn’t reach the place where his son lay slain. Along the way Indian forces had barricaded roads and they were firing teargas shells at anyone trying to get to the town’s market.

Farooq Ahmad believes that justice will be done by Allah in the hereafter. I looked into his eyes and for a moment felt myself at his son’s place — in the grave. I wondered if I had died like Iqbal, how would have my father reacted. Would he be proud of me? Would my mother sing wanwun for me? Would my sister be as proud as Masooda was of Aatir? I didn’t ask such questions to Farooq and Rafeeqa, understating how deep a scar it is for a mother or a father to lose their son. I equally wondered and wanted to ask them where from their courage comes to hold back. But then I thought of my maternal uncle who lost his five sons during the ‘90s. But they had left home wearing kafan in an apparent open invitation to death. They had ventured into something they knew the consequences of. Young Iqbal, on the other hand, had left home for a day of work, to earn a living and help his ailing father and mother. As long as he could survive, Iqbal served them. And his father is proud of him. Even in death.

While in Handawara, somebody pointed out a man to me an oldish, distraught person whom he identified as Mohammad Jamaal Mir, 60. He was waiting outside the office of Tehsildar in Langate. He was accompanied by few neighbours. The neighbous talked with a man who looked like an official, but Mir stayed silent as if he had nothing left to say. Mir is the husband of Raja Begum, the woman who was killed after a bullet tore through her head when she was working in her family garden, one kilometer away from her home.

Mir was waiting outside the office because he had been summoned and asked to meet the Additional District Commissioner. As he rode into a vehicle with his neighbours, he was sullen. Sullen, because in this old age he has lost his closest companion and he doesn’t know where to go from now onward. As I talked with his neighbors, he looked lost in his own thoughts away from the world around him.

I told him that I was a reporter and that I had to write something on Iqbal. “We feel so proud of him for his martyrdom,” he told me. I was taken aback once again, as I was in 2012 when Aatir’s sister expressed the same feeling and almost the same words. I wonder how much courage it takes to accept that.

The road from Mir’s home to his family garden goes through a quiet stream and swathes of green plantations. On 12 April, Mir and Begum went together to the garden but came back separately. One alive and the other dead. As is the custom in some villages, men leave for home earlier than women from gardens and farmlands. Mir too followed this tradition knowing little this would be the last time he would see his wife in their 40 years of being together. Begum, a woman who loved her garden, stayed back to toil an extra yard. Patriotism in villages means cultivating farmland to produce vegetables and fruits out of one’s own toil. That was Mir and Begum’s family.

All through their lives they have been proud of cultivating land. For Begum, this patriotism ended with martyrdom, her life snatched away by a bullet fired by a soldier who probably will never be traced, let alone held to any account. Begum’s killer knew nothing of the kind of love she had for her land where her blood was spilled. For her the farm was like one of her children that needed as much care and love. Her shooter, like all other shooters in uniform, only know killing a Kashmiri Muslim is a way of defending their country’s sovereignty. It is their brand of patriotism.

For Mir and Begum, the garden was like a second home. Now how can Mir go to the garden alone, I wondered but didn’t have the courage to ask him. The garden has now become an open grave for Mir.

As I reached Handwara last week, everything was back to normal after more than 10 days of curfew. The market was bustling. The people were going around their work as usual. The tension had eased off. The smell of gunfire and tear gas had dissipated. But somewhere the smell of spilled blood lingered on. Or was it my heavy mood and some eerie sense in me trying to recover what the state has done too often and shoved the people into forgetting it? I don’t know.

The military bunker that had been there in the middle of the road for 22 years as a constant reminder of occupation and its repressive measures to perpetuate itself was also gone. Few civilians were working through the rubble, probably trying to fix the market’s main telephone line that had been cut when the military bunker was set on fire. When the bunker was burnt down and subsequently razed to ground, newspapers talked about people heaving a sigh of relief in the town.

While that is true to some extent, some in the media presented this development as if it were the endeavor of a particular pro-India politician. I will tell you how secure these politicians have been kept by the Indian state. Not so far from Nayeem’s home is the house of a pro-India politician. It is surrounded by 12 feet high concrete walls. Above the walls, rolls of concertina wires have been laid out. To me it seems like an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territories. Dozens of Indian paramilitary troops guard this house day and night. It is like an occupation within an occupation. This is just a speck of the larger picture.

At each hillock or mountain peak in Kupwara district, Indian army occupies considerable land. Whether their men are in the market or not, battalions of battalions are stationed on hillocks and hilltops. They have a bird’s eye view of the district. I heard someone talking in the market that Raja Begum was killed by a sniper. The sniper might have probably gotten angry or ordered to fell a Kashmiri after hearing that one of army’s bunkers in the marketplace was being pulled down by civilians.

Such theories are bound to arise in a place where the micro structures of a military occupation stand like rattlesnakes, about to devour their prey. Yet when the Indian state and its powerful structures like the army and police try to annihilate Kashmiris at a micro level, powerful expressions like “I am proud of his or her martyrdom” are born. Such expressions come to haunt a powerful state unnerving it in the process. These expressions become proof of a new-born defiance and resilience.

Kupwara after the mayhem: What remains is dust, painful memories and military jackboots
Kupwara after the mayhem: What remains is dust, painful memories and military jackboots

I saw this resilience in Rafeeqa, the eldest sister of Arif Dar, 16, of Awoora, Kupwara, who was killed on 15 April when Indian forces shot at him from a hillock in Nutnusa, Kupwara. “Abba gave him to me as a gift on my wedding day,” Rafeeqa told me of Arif, sitting at her father’s home in Awoora. “I gifted him back to them as a martyr.” Arif died after offering Friday prayers, she said. Rafeeqa showed me a video clip in which Arif is draped in a white shroud, being readied for burial. “Look how he is smiling,” she said. Kissing Arif on the phone screen, she remarked, “My martyr brother, you have brought us honour.”

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