Witness from a funeral in Kashmir

Rouf Dar

Every occupied nation undergoes different phases in a liberation movement. Kashmir, which became the hotbed of armed militancy in 1990s, is yet again amidst a refreshed phase of armed militancy which has gripped the entire valley. The rise of a teen commander Burhan Wani, from the ashes of 2010 Ragda Ragda, has lent a new direction and the much-needed element of fearlessness among armed rebels. Consequently, people have found a reignited love for the rebels and a sea of people is always present to bid adios to any martyred rebel. This was a common phenomenon in the 1990s which has found resurrection again in Kashmir.

28th October. Around 5 pm. Khandipora. The village was cordoned off and no movement allowed to and fro, making it second crackdown of the village within a single week, with the CO admitting presence of about 6000 soldiers in the previous one. Cordons and crackdowns are again a regular affair nowadays. The surrounding villages were also patrolled simultaneously. People signed off to their homes earlier and a friend watched how armymen on the roads thrashed a car driver because his speedy car managed to stop at a distance. That was at 11 pm in the night. Everybody had predicted something to happen. Over the years, we have learnt to decipher situations by just looking at the mood of armymen and tonight they seemed in pursuit of something.

29th October. 2 am. Midnight. A grenade-like heavy shot. Soon followed by firing which continued for less than an hour. I was unknowingly out of my bed, so must have been others. Suspense consumed other part of the night. Once dawn prayers were over, people assembled on roads, and news came in that one rebel had been martyred. Soon, WhatsApp groups posted pictures of Abu Qasim, the noted LeT Commander, who had recently eliminated J&K Police’s top counter-insurgent operative Altaf Laptop, to have been martyred in the nightly encounter. Army spokesperson had already termed it as a huge victory. Scrolling down the web pages, The Times of India, Indian Express, India Today had already put up a happy headline of army’s most wanted man killed in an encounter. While some reported the encounter to have happened at Bandipora, others wrote Khudpora.

11 am. The cordon was still in place and searches going on. More than 16 hours of the people being crammed up in their homes had passed. And it was obviously irritating. Meanwhile two crowds assembled on two diagonally opposite sides of the village. One had come from Qaimoh and as far as Pulwama, the other from adjoining villages. People breaking cordons, using protests, risking their lives are among the peculiarities of current phase of armed militancy, something which didn’t happen before. The crowd from Qaimoh broke inside the cordon, shouting profreedom slogans. Army and police resorted to aerial firing which failed to deter people and eventually the former had to evacuate the place. It is easier to read this but much difficult to actually imagine people breaking into an encounter site.

No sooner had the cordon been destroyed, a sea of people arrived on the scene. A man happened to mouth some bad words regarding the martyr, he was immediately branded a “traitor” and severely thrashed. When emotions dominate minds, you don’t expect people to act rationally. As a result, he was let off almost quarter-dead. It was astonishing to hear when locals said the martyr is not LeT Commander Abu Qasim but a local boy, Muhammad Yaqoob, who had crossed border at the age of 15 and had returned after a long gap. Why his parents didn’t own him in the first place is a mystery still though locals stuck to their version. Now started the struggle to claim the dead body.

Kashmir is a land where armed rebels are adored and patronised. There is probably no such village whose graveyard doesn’t possess a foreign fighter, mostly from Pakistan. Foreign fighters have been loved as much as the locals. Three crowds, fighting for a common cause, stood outside the Police Station Kulgam viz ; Bugam, Pulwama and Khandipora. This was not a struggle for any bounty on someone’s head. This was the demand for a body, whose dead soul echoed resistance against Indian oppression. For the world, he might have been just another person to fill a patch of earth but for these people, he represented an idea. An idea of refusal to accept any damned occupation. An idea of manifestations that each Kashmiri houses in his heart but may fail to express. And an idea of choosing to die fighting than live a falsely normalised life that is way beyond reality. The body was taken by a huge procession during which exteriors of the district’s CRPF camp were demolished. Barricades just disappeared. Concertina wires flew away. The camp seemed like a desolated place. Paramilitary forces might have shrieked inside. Their weapons were of no match, on this day, to the exploding hearts of people carrying their loved one on their shoulders. After a tough fight, Bugam managed to take him to their village for funeral prayers after which he was to be taken to Khandipora for burial.

4 pm. Bugam. Higher Secondary School ( where PDP MP Nazir Laway’s car was burnt down some months before ). You got to trust me here. I have never seen such an ocean of people ever in my life. The term “crowd” for the people present there would be a misnomer. Unless I visit Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrimage, I don’t think I can again see such a large association of people. I almost feared a Hajj-like stampede. Yes, the rallies in 2010 Ragda Ragda were of similar proportions and for a moment I wandered back to those days. There was no gender difference. Men outnumbered women, women out-valoured men. There was still ambiguity over the final resting place of the martyr. Pulwama fought with Khandipora saying the slain rebel had spent much time in their district while the latter claimed he was their own. Parents changed their claims on their son a few times, maybe due to the long time period passed since he had eloped home, which made identification difficult. He was Abu Qasim for some, Muhammad Yaqoob for others. The procession left the ground towards village square where the martyr was taken inside Jamia Masjid before a unanimous decision could be arrived at. While there, gunshots were heard and nearly a stampede followed. Army ? Police ? No. It were the rebels. What the hell ! Amidst a funeral procession that was at the prominence of whole India, rebels appeared on the scene. The motor-borne fired shots in the air and whisked away. People tried to follow but in vain. Minds froze. Legs hung. Eyes stuck. I had tried to run initially. But when I saw them, my legs refused to move further. I was in awe and shock. This was a common phenomenon in 1990s and even 2000s when rebels would pay salute to their martyred comrades but in 2015, this was a first.

The mosque loudspeaker announced the martyr would be taken to Khandipora for burial. People boarded whichever vehicle they found. There was no fare to be paid. There was no overloading problem today. The announcement proved a hoax when people of Bugam buried him inside their graveyard once majority of people had left for Khandipora. When we returned at dusk, people from Khandipora marched again to Bugam along with the martyr’s mother and two sisters who had identified him. His mother is even reported to have said that he had met her a day before. A consensual decision was to be arrived on the next day.

30 October. 1 pm. Bugam. People from Khandipora and adjoining villages again marched to Bugam, and while the locals were busy in Friday prayers, the former tried to exhume the martyr by themselves. This infuriated the local community and a fight broke out. Soon, two groups fought over custody of the martyr’s body. A meeting between local committees ensued in which it was decided to hand over the body to his worthy parents. Police forces resorted to shelling and prevented exhumation. The process is now scheduled for 31st October.

The identification of the slain rebel by his parents have strictly punctured “foreign militant” theory of police. But then, LeT’s tributes to the slain commander proved the other version. Also, people from Pulwama claimed he had spent a lot of time amongst them, so they had an inherent right over his body. This, again, proved that the rebel was Abu Qasim. However, looking at all the versions regarding identification, it seems the only plausible version is that Yaqoob Hajam and Abu Qasim are two identities of the same man. He had left home in 1991, spent more than a decade across LoC, returned and operated under nome de guerre of Abu Qasim in order to save his family from army oppression, which is a common feature with rebels’ families in Kashmir . Reportedly, his parents had even offered funeral prayers in absentia before many years after hearing news that their son had been killed somewhere on the border.

Photo Credit: Firstpost.com

Reportedly when he returned to the place of his birth, for what proved to be the last time, he was duped by his own accomplice. “Informer” is not a new identity in Kashmir. The success of counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir is vastly dependent upon the existence of black sheep within our own community who don’t batter an eyelid while helping an alien force to shoot their own brethren down. Without this delicate network of local informers, I doubt India could ever have succeeded in suppressing pro-freedom activities in the valley.

Abu Qasim lived in Pakistan and also in Kashmir and still didn’t meet his parents. He managed to hoodwink the armed forces very cleverly. In operating under a masked identity, his life was set up for a different character which he played to much success. His life portrayed like that of a suspense thriller. He must have been a resilient person torn between the identities of Abu Qasim and Yaqoob Hajam, between love for his family and love for his country. In being the former, he did justice to the cause he stood for and hit the enemy as hard as possible. In being the latter, his martyrdom revealed how he suppressed his natural affectionate tendencies towards his family, thus saving them from predictable suffering thereby puncturing Indian claims that militancy in Kashmir is entirely a Pakistan-stoked phenomenon. Just when his emotions had taken over, he decided to visit his family. He did but for the last time. He returned from where he had left. He willingly blended himself with the soil he was made of. He was a true son of the soil.

Rouf Dar studies political philosophy and this essay first appeared on his blog here


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