A community of nomads were barely touched by the decades of Kashmir conflict, but it all changed this Spring.
SONMARG, India-administered Kashmir — The residents of this remote hamlet, ringed by mighty Himalayan mountains in Kashmir, had hardly begun restarting their unique way of living this April when blood-soaked bodies started to arrive from distant places.
Every November, the residents migrate en masse to more accessible places as snow cuts the hamlet off from the rest of the world for circa six months. They usually return in late March or early April.
Located in picturesque Sonmarg (the Golden Meadow), a famous tourist spot, the village’s geography had shielded it from the searing effects of the raging anti-India insurgency.
But the situation in the mainland has become so grim that the conflict appears to have reached this distant village in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the evening of 22 April, the villagers learnt that the bodies of four Kashmiri insurgents, who hail from southern Kashmir, about 150 km away, were being buried in a nearby graveyard.
The men rushed to offer funeral prayers. Over the next month, they would turn up for 12 others, including Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Riyaz Naikoo, who was killed on 6 May.
Until mid-April, the Indian forces handed the bodies of Kashmiri rebels to their kin for burial. An insurgent would end up either in his ancestral graveyard or the local “martyrs graveyards” even if he had been killed somewhere else.
Given that rebels’ funerals began to attract large crowds, the general consensus was that such occasions would further feed the deep-rooted anti-India sentiment. As a result, Indian forces decided that all rebels would be buried in a distant hinterland, irrespective of the location of death.
The forces manage this by passing off every slain rebel as “unidentified”. To claim an “unidentified” rebel’s body, the law requires the claimants to officially request an exhumation, as well as a DNA test. The timeframe of this is up to officials, and therefore can prove long.
Families of Kashmiri fighters have, for now, yielded to the government’s firm resolve in preventing big funerals. It has started an altogether different trend, one where the family of the deceased, after learning of a death, discreetly approaches the police to claim the body.
This spares them filing a formal application for the exhumation and the organisation of the DNA test. With police permission granted, two to three closest family members tend to drive to Sonmarg for the last prayers. In some cases, slain fighters haven’t had anyone present to offer final prayers.
There is another similar graveyard where ethnic Kashmiri rebels have been interred since the middle of April. Located in the northern Baramulla district, it was somewhere, before April, where only Pakistani militants or Pakistan-administered Kashmir militants were buried.
Kashmir police chief, Vijay Kumar, told the Indian media on 28 April that bodies were not being handed over to families for burial in order to ensure that COVID-19 lockdown guidelines were appropriately followed.
“If we allow for identification at encounter sites and permit burial at their native places, huge gatherings might spread infection of COVID-19,” he had said. No top official who TRT World contacted was willing to speak on the record about whether the insurgents would be buried somewhere other than their native lands once the lockdown was to end.
The trend of not handing the bodies of rebels to local residents began after tens of thousands of Kashmiris attended the funeral of the Pakistani militant, Abu Qasim. On that occasion, in October 2015, two villages clashed with each other over the custody of his body.
The Sonmarg graveyard is therefore the second “martyrs’” graveyard “created” by the Indian government. Of all places, why did they pick this spot? The villagers have some opinions on the matter.
They say that opposite the site, separated only by a road, is a sprawling camp of the Indian army’s 123 Infantry Battalion. The village itself is separated from the camp by wire fencing. A police station is situated on the other side of the graveyard, about 100 metres away. Along the back of the graveyard runs a tributary of the Sindh River. All this means, of course, that the dead are under the watch of Indian forces all the time. The weather lends a hand on surveillance, too, given that for six months, the snow-bound graveyard will have no visitors.
Sonmarg is also the base camp for Hindu pilgrims who visit the Himalayan cave shrine of Amarnath. In the two months during which the annual pilgrimage takes place, normally beginning in June, many Kashmiris avoid visiting the scenic spot due to the harsh security measures. In fact, we have learned that a patch of land right next to the graveyard, the villagers tell us, is rented out by its private owner as a tenting site for pilgrims.
Conflict travels to the sleepy village
Until mid-April, the villagers’ engagement with this ordinary graveyard was minimal. A few pastoral nomads who had died during annual migrations over decades lay buried here in nameless graves.
Their relatives, if they happened to pass by, offered prayers. But it often became somewhere the villagers, who are ethnic Kashmiris and whose ancestors had gifted this piece of land to nomads, would come and see to grave care and restoration themselves. They would clear grass, restore a sunken grave, among other things.
The tourist-filled atmosphere, the stunning scenery, and its location by the side of a busy highway that leads to the Ladakh region, had rendered the graveyard inconspicuous.
During the burial of the rebels, the villagers felt they were experiencing the wider conflict for the first time in their lives.
They complain the police did not dig the graves ‘properly’. Rather than the locally-preferred and better lahd, in which the body is placed in a niche carved out of a side of the grave, they opted for shaqq, in which the body is lowered into a hollow dug into the base of a wide and deep rectangular trench.
Islam permits shaqq. But, the villagers say, they had never seen one made by an earth excavator. Watching its fortified steel teeth tear into a graveyard was a repulsive sight because Kashmiris are accustomed to seeing gravediggers burrow into earth with a pickaxe, removing earth in a wicker basket while sullen mourners watch by and whisper prayers.
They say the soil, which remains damp for the better part of the year, would have required the hollow containing the body to be sealed with stone slabs rather than easily-decaying wooden planks that might have the tendency to collapse the graves. Another worry is that the graveyard is not fenced.
“We had requested the police to allow us to bury these militants in our cemetery but they didn’t agree. I need not tell you what the sentiment is. We wanted them in our graveyard because of the same sentiment,” said a woman.
The police bring their own imam along to the site, but are still permitting the villagers and the local imam to offer prayers for the slain rebels and assist in burials.
“We just clean the blood and dirt off the faces of martyrs. Police bring them in zippered plastic bags and we bury them as such. We have never dealt with bloodied and maimed bodies before,” said a villager, who has attended the funeral of all rebels.
A few villagers have marked the graves, which are pyramidal mounds of earth. Big boulders at both ends serve as gravestones, one of which has the name of the slain man and the date of death. Smaller boulders stuck along the length of the graves distinguish them from those of the nomads.
On the fifth morning after commander Naikoo’s death, the villagers found that all the gravestones and a board that read the “martyrs graveyard” had been removed and tossed away during the night. It didn’t deter them, for they knew by memory each grave and the name of its occupant.
“The police were surprised when we perfectly restored gravestones to their due place. They know because they have photographs which they shoot during burials,” explained a villager.
“If the current intensity of killings continues,” said the villager, “the graveyard is likely to grow bigger.”
This year, more than 65 armed rebels, about 27 Indian forces and 10 civilians have been killed in the region that was stripped of its autonomy last year, and where new domicile rules announced by India have deepened the fears that Hindus would overwhelm the majority Muslims.
The arrival of an insurgent “martyr” follows a pattern. Bodies are brought to the graveyard during night hours to forestall chances of civilian protests. About 40km before Sonmarg, in a place called Kangan, a local journalist told TRT World that vehicular traffic is stopped during the passage of a bulletproof vehicle—and escort—in which the bodies of rebels are ferried.
A butcher there said cell phone services are snapped to prevent protests. But the ongoing coronavirus lockdown ensures, for now at least, that Sonmarg villagers and the family members of slain insurgents are the only people to offer funeral prayers.
“Because of these martyrs we got to know people whom we would have probably never seen in our lives. God wanted us to be with them in their moment of grief,” said a villager.
Ordeal of the families
Adil Ahmad Wani, a 26-year-old rebel was killed in the Shaar area of Pulwama district, some 25km from his home in Padgampora village. His father, Manzoor Ahmad, and mother Shakeela, rushed to the site of the gunfight for one last glimpse of his body. The government forces, however, stopped them at a checkpoint when they were making their way to him.
“We told them even if you kill us we wouldn’t turn back. But when we reached the village his body had been taken to the Police Control Room (PCR) in Srinagar,” said Manzoor.
The father then went to the local police who allowed nine of his family members to visit the PCR and identify Adil’s body. But Manzoor, who was the only person allowed near the body, found the police were also housing the bodies of commander Naikoo and his aide Adil Ahmad Bhat, who had been killed the same day, in the PCR.
Adil Wani and his associate Rafiq Ahmad Dar were then ferried to Sonmarg. Nine members of the family then left Srinagar at 5.30 pm for Sonmarg.
After navigating several “Covid-19 lockdown security checkpoints”, they were stopped by police at Gund, about 20km outside of Sonmarg. Five of Adil’s uncles and brother-in-law were asked to go back, Wani said.
“They tried to dissuade us also but I told them I would rather die here than return without visiting my son’s grave,” said Wani. Besides the parents, Adil’s 21-year-old brother Hilal Ahmad finally reached the Sonmarg graveyard where the graves had been dug and the bodies of the four rebels were ready for burial.
“We hugged all four of them. I was looking for my son’s shoes but he was not wearing any. Shakeela had bought henna along and she applied it on their hands. You apply henna on brides and bridegrooms. Before he joined militancy in 2018, we were planning to get him married,” said Wani. Already present at the graveyard were Dar’s two brothers and mother.
On the next day, Wani handed Naikoo and Bhat’s families the shoes and socks of their fallen kin. Shakeela had taken them off at the graveyard.
Wani had wanted to bring something home belonging to his son, too, but couldn’t find anything. They returned at about 3 am.
“At home I put the blanket in which the villagers had lifted Adil’s bullet-riddled body into a bucket of water and squeezed out all blood. I buried that water near my father’s grave in our community graveyard here. At least there is something of my son in the graveyard. I returned the blanket to the Shaar family,” said Wani.
Five days after Adil’s death, Wani returned to the graveyard with his wife and son-in-law. There, they hugged the grave again and watered it.
Since Adil’s death, Wani had been inconsolable, crying all the time. He said Shakeela, surprisingly, appeared stronger. He had vainly tried to talk his son out of militancy several times.
“She told me we have to live for our only son now. She kept saying if only Adil was buried in a local graveyard she could visit him sometimes and unburden herself. She would say Adil achieved what he left his home for. She said I shouldn’t lose heart. I had no idea that our son’s loss was eating her up from inside,” said Wani.
Thirteen days after Adil’s killing, while Wani was receiving mourners in a tent in the courtyard of his house, his daughter rushed out and explained that their mother had fainted in the living room.
Shakeela had suffered a cardiac arrest and died. She was in her early 50s, and had no known history of any chronic ailment.