Kupwara, Baramulla, Pulwama and Srinagar: On 3 January 2021, when Shamali Begum, 80, watched a viral video of a man digging a grave for his teenage son—slain in what the police said was a firefight—she was reminded of her son’s death 37 years ago.
“I can understand what the father must have been going through,” she told Article 14. “I have been through the same suffering.”
The man, fruit trader Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, 46, wanted to bury his son, an 11th-standard student, who the police said was one of three militants killed on 29 December 2020 in Srinagar. The police denied Wani’s plea. His son, Athar Mushtaq Wani, 16, was buried in an unmarked grave 100 km northeast from his home in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
As two police officers watched and recorded her meeting with Article 14 on her property, Begum said she recalled 11 February 1984, when her elder son Muhammad Maqbool Bhat—a separatist leader and co-founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Front (JKLF)—was hanged and buried in Delhi’s Tihar jail, about 950 km south of her village, Trehgam, in north Kashmir.
Two graves were dug for Bhat, one in Trehgam and the other in Srinagar’s “martyr’s graveyard”, where more than 1,500 militants are buried. A relative of Begum—speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of trouble with the police—said the grave at Trehgam was dug the day he was hanged.
“On his fourth death anniversary in 1988, another grave was dug by his comrades in Srinagar,” said the relative. The grave in Trehgam was filled, while the one in Srinagar stays open.
“My requests for the return of the body of my son have been turned down by successive Indian governments,” Begum said. “His grave remains empty.”
No Slowdown In Recruitment
Kashmir is dotted with graveyards that hold the dead from decades of conflict, borne of a long-running separatist movement and security crackdowns in what is now one of the world’s most militarised regions.
Before the police stopped them in April 2020, militant funerals were a concern for authorities. They had become public processions and expressions of anger and grief, attended by hundreds or thousands, including children.
Initially the police cited the Covid-19 pandemic, the trigger being the funeral of local militant commander Sajad Nawab Dar, attended by hundreds with no apparent fears of infection in north Kashmir’s Sopore town.
But they now acknowledge it is official policy not to hand over bodies directly to families. Bodies are buried away from home, with police, sometimes, allowing only immediate family attendance.
“Militants earlier used to gather large crowds and their priority in funerals was to emotionally blackmail people and to motivate them so that they could recruit more men in militant ranks,” said J&K Director General of Police Dilbag Singh on 1 November 2020.
Apart from closure for families, the graves of those who die are linked partially to religion, said observers, but more substantially to political aspirations in the form of the separatist movement and the Kashmiri identity, linked as it is to the land as a home after death.
“Religion stresses the decent burial of the dead, and the burial ground is always in the vicinity,” said poet and historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef. One who dies for a “cause”, is declared a martyr, serving as a “a collective memory”.
That is why, Zareef said, “martyr’s graveyards” dot the Kashmir valley and are “revered, respected and visited” places.
It is these collective memories and the memorialisation of graves that the police hope to disrupt, but the pace of local recruitment only appears to have risen since families were denied the bodies of those killed. Now, even the emotions expressed by Mushtaq Ahmad Wani have become the subject of a criminal case, involving terrorism charges.
‘The Police Have My Property’
When news of the identity of three alleged militants killed in the 29 December firefight reached Pulwama, dozens of men and women travelled 40 km north to Srinagar to protest.
They said the slain men were civilians, a claim the J&K police denied. The relatives of the alleged militants appealed to local administration to allow them to take the dead bodies home so they could bury them in their village cemeteries, a request immediately denied, in line with official policy.
The three men were buried in Sonamarg a day later.
On 5 February, after Mushtaq Ahmad Wani symbolically dug his son’s grave and, with others, protested the denial of his body, he and six others were named in a first information report under sections 147 (rioting), 341 (wrongful restraint) and 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intention to cause a riot) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967.
The UAPA section is punishable with a seven-year jail term and fine.
“I won’t give up easily because they (police) have my property,” Mushtaq Ahmad Wani told Article 14, refusing to accept police accusations of his son’s involvement in militancy. “Had my son been a militant then I would have no complaints.”
He questioned the police version of events and said they only allowed him to see his son’s face for a few minutes under a mobile-phone light.
“He had a few bullet marks on his chest but I did not look at them,” said Mushtaq Ahmed Wani, convinced his son was killed in a “staged” firefight. “What caught my attention were his hands because they had the imprints of a rope, as if his hands were tied before killing him.”
“I’m not going to remain silent,” he said, expressing his regret about the fact that he could not hold the chaharum, the ritualistic observance on the fourth day of his son’s death, and would keep the grave he had dug open until his son’s body was returned.
Kashmir zone Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar recently said his department had completed “60% of the investigation”and would “convince” the three families that their children were “over ground workers”, a police term for those who assist militants.
In Trehgam, Begum, the mother of JKLF co-founder Bhat, described her emotions after watching the video of Mushtaq Ahmad Wani’s grief.
“I felt like my son was martyred again,” said Begum.
‘Wrong To Say Bodies Not Given To Families’
Not intimidated by the two policemen who followed us indoors filming our interview on their mobile phones, Begum said: “For how long will this oppression last?”
An open hall on the second floor of her mud home had large portraits of Bhat and a dozen banners and placards demanding his remains were propped against the walls.
Some have called the denial of bodies of militants to their families as a violation of rule 114 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, concerning the “Return of the Remains and Personal Effects of the Dead” in wartime or armed conflict. The police deny that the bodies are withheld.
DGP Singh said burial does not take place at “the local level”.
“It is wrong to say that dead bodies of militants are not given to their families,” said Singh. “The dead bodies of militants are actually handed over to the families and their burial takes place in the presence of their families and magistrate.”
Over the last three decades since an armed insurgency broke out in 1989, Kashmir has witnessed thousands of killings of civilians, militants and security forces. Apart from a notorious unmarked mass grave, the Kashmir Valley hosts three empty graves.
Apart from the two graves of Bhat and Atthar Wani, another empty grave in Srinagar’s “martyr’s graveyard” is meant for Mohammad Afzal Guru—convicted of involvement in an attack on Parliament on 13 December 2001 and hanged on 9 February 2013 inside Tihar Jail.
His grave was dug a couple of days after his death, next to Bhat’s.
The black marble tombstone says in Urdu: “The mortal remains of the martyr of the nation Afzal Guru, lying with the Government of India, are awaited (to be buried here).”
Guru’s family politely refused Article 14’s request for comment, with one of the family only saying that the government that twice denied their request for his remains.
Bhat’s relative said Kashmir’s empty graves were “a stain on Indian democracy”.
“India should return the mortal remains of all these people, so that they can be buried as per the wishes of their kith in the graves marked for them,” the relative said. “We will not ever lose hope.”
(Junaid Dar is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Srinagar. Muheet Ul Islam is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Srinagar.)