Kashmiris skip obligatory prayers in mosques but hundreds attend funerals of insurgents.
India-administered Kashmir — From his hiding place, Asif Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri insurgent, called his brother Raafi Ahmad before dawn on Friday.
Indian forces had surrounded a hamlet in the southern Shopian district and zeroed in on the house in which Asif and his fellow rebel, Ashiq, had been hiding.
“He said ‘this is probably my last call and I don’t see a chance of an escape. Say salam to everyone in the family and ask them to forgive me,’” Raafi told TRT World.
“I told him, ‘my dear, do you owe anyone anything?’. I couldn’t think of anything else. He had been trapped?” According to Islamic scriptures, the heirs of the dead are supposed to repay their debts.
Raafi didn’t tell anyone in the family as, he said, he feared the news would create commotion when the entire village was asleep.
At 7am, while the two besieged rebels were engaged in a gunfight with the Indian forces, the family called a local police officer and informed him about Asif’s call.
“We requested him that once the operation is over, please hand us Asif’s body,” Raafi said. Several hours later, when the militants were killed, the family was shocked when the same officer told them the identity of the deceased has not been verified.
“We told him that let us see the bodies. We will of course identify our brother’s body even if it is mutilated. But he said that we would not be allowed near the body,” Raafi said.
Bodies of non-Kashmiri insurgents, usually Pakistanis, are buried in a remote northern hamlet, where the chances of big funerals, which have been an embarrassment for the Indian state, are not possible. Burying them there became a trend after more than 30,000 people participated in the funeral of a Pakistani insurgent and the people of two villages clashed with each other for his body in 2015.
But for the first time in the history of the insurgency, local families have been denied the body of their kin.
Raafi said his elder brother and others also met the highest-ranking civilian official of their area. The official told them they could claim the body by following the rules: formally requesting the exhumation of the body and then matching the DNA sample of the deceased with that of the claimants.
Asif’s family even pledged to furnish a written testimony that only five to six people would perform the last rites if the officials feared a big funeral went against Covid-19 lockdown norms. But the request was declined.
Noted human rights defender Khurram Parvez said this amounted to denying Asif’s family the right to mourn.
“The government can limit the number of people at the funeral if social distancing is its priority but they cannot tell a family that it is not your son,” he added.
By and large, Kashmiris have stayed indoors to avoid the Covid-19 infection, skipping even the obligatory prayers in mosques and anniversaries of beloved saints at the otherwise buzzing Sufi shrines. Newspaper obituaries request people offer their condolences by phone only. Except, when an insurgent is killed while fighting Indian forces.
On April 4, Ashraf, a trader from Arwani village in southern Kashmir, looked out the window of his bedroom and saw scores of people filling the streets that were empty a while ago because of the lockdown. An announcement from the mosque loudspeaker solved the mystery: Muhammad Ashraf Malik, 23, a native of the village and armed rebel for a year now has been cornered by Indian forces in a house along with three other insurgents.
"It felt like a sin to stay at home"
Dozens of army soldiers, policemen and paramilitary soldiers had besieged the house in Damhal Hanjipora area of Kulgam district, 35km from Arwani. A familiar script would play out. The militants would (or would get no chance to) exhaust a few dozen rounds of ammunition with their AK-47 rifles (if they are carrying one in the first place). The forces will blow up the house with an IED. And if the forces don’t use any incendiary material, the bodies of militants will be dug up as one piece from the rubble. Sometimes, only charred remains are handed over to the families. And militants never surrender.
Malik’s body, intact, was handed to the family only at around 8pm, although the four rebels were reportedly killed at about 7.45am. Throughout the day, people from neighbouring villages thronged Arwani to participate in Malik’s funeral. If Indian forces stopped them on thoroughfares they would take long detours through fields or even cross nearly overflowing streams.
Ashraf rushed outside, breaching his own seriously cultivated regimen of social distancing. He had stopped sitting close to even his parents and siblings, one of whom suffers from multiple chronic diseases.
“It appeared that people had momentarily forgotten that they were in the midst of a pandemic. As if the congregation for Saddam’s [Malik’s alias] funeral was immune to the virus,” Ashraf said.
“As far as I am concerned two factors obliged me. He lived in the neighbourhood and he had laid down his life for the community. It felt like sin to stay home,” he added.
Malik’s family initially decided to defer the funeral to the next day. As it was getting late, people from other areas started leaving. Ashraf said they planned to return tomorrow to attend the funeral. But the family changed its mind, Ashraf said, after receiving a call from government officials who insisted on an immediate burial. There is no greater refutation of the Indian government’s claims on Kashmir militancy than big funerals of militants, even the ones who are not Kashmiris. So, the government likes to have fewer people at these funerals.
At about 11.30pm, preparations were made for the funeral and about a 1,000 people participated, a modest number compared to some militants’ funerals in the past that saw attendance of between 30,000 and 200,000 people.
Ashraf remembers that the funeral of Malik’s uncle, also a militant who was killed in 1998 or 2000, was bigger in comparison. Or the funerals of more than 60 local men killed during the past 30 years of anti-India insurgency and buried in Arwani’s ‘Martyrs Graveyard’.
But, he said, one has to “make a distinction between a funeral during normal times and the time when even a breath can be dangerous”.
“These days the muezzin and a couple of people enter the mosque. Even on Fridays, we hardly have one or two rows of people. But people still turn up in hundreds for the funeral of mujahideen [militants],” he said.
TRT World learnt that big gatherings were seen during the last rites of the other three militants in their native areas, where many outraged mourners clashed with the police. A few were injured.
The iconic rebel
Militants’ funerals are an intense affair. People jostle to touch their faces and feet, as if to be blessed. Last prayers are offered multiple times to accommodate latecomers. Often, they are buried without the ritual ablution, the concession afforded only to martyrs. And when the most iconic of them, Burhani Wani, was killed in 2016, people took home a pocketful of earth from his grave.
Since the mid-2010s when Wani made militancy popular, veneration for militants has been growing. At least 200 civilians have been killed and hundreds blinded in one or both eyes by shotgun pellets while trying to distract the Indian armed forces by pelting them with stones—or merely shouting slogans—so that the militants, cornered in some house and facing imminent death, could escape. Ashraf suffered a minor injury in the right arm after being hit with a baton by a policeman during one such incident in neighbouring Frisal village.
In Sopore, an anti-India resistance stronghold in northern Kashmir famous for its apples, more than two-dozen people were arrested for “violating social distancing norms”. These people were among more than a 1,000 people that turned up for the funeral of a militant, Sajjad Nawab Dar, who was killed in a gunfight with Indian forces on April 7.
A local journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the people thronged the militant’s house, disregarding village elders' requests, made from the local mosque’s loudspeaker, to maintain social distance. In fact, he said, funeral prayers were held three times to accommodate the people who kept coming during night.
“I would say Sajjad’s funeral was nearly as big as that of his cousin’s in March last year,” the journalist said. Dar’s cousin was also a militant.
Several arrested men have been released and all but one refused to comment because, the journalist said, they fear they might be booked for more serious charges than breaching pandemic safety guidelines. The one who did answer TRT World’s call said he would WhatsApp a note then speak on the phone. By the time this report was filed, he did not.
Although nobody was arrested in Arwani, the village and its neighbouring areas, Ashraf said, did pay a small price for an emphatic display of love for a fallen militant. A day after the funeral, a few militants turned up at Malik’s grave and fired several rounds in the air as a tribute. Their appearance again drew people out of their self-quarantined homes.
The next day, a group of soldiers descended on the village and broke glass panes of houses with sticks and stones. A video shared widely on social media shows a few men filming and abusing the soldiers who were throwing stones at a mosque.