Kashmir conflict has repeatedly turned devastating for some women, who first lost their militant husbands and then their sons to the same political cause

Dense spring foliage has obscured most of the graves in the community graveyard of Moolu village in the Shopian district of Indian-administered Kashmir. But local residents have ensured that the invading grass stays away from the two neat rows of graves at one end of the fencing.  

In the first row of six graves closest to the fence lie the ‘pioneer militant martyrs’ who were the first to take up arms against the Indian state in the 1990s or earlier. Buried in the second row of five graves are those who sustained the struggle in the subsequent decade. 

Intersecting the two rows is a mound of earth covered by makeshift tin roofing, which shields against the rain. This is the grave of Tariq Ahmad Sheikh, a third-generation rebel fighter who was killed in a gunfight with government forces on May 3. His father, Shamim Ahmad Sheikh, who died fighting Indian soldiers 23 years ago, is in the first row.

Tariq’s grave, like that of his father, will soon be marked with a marble gravestone encased in concrete, describing in Urdu his name, parentage and date of ‘martyrdom’, according to both Islamic and Western calendars.

At his home, Tariq’s mother Fatima had just finished offering midday prayer and was seeing off a few women mourners, mostly relatives. She was engaged to Shamim in 1988. He went to Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training in 1989 and returned in 1992, only to be told by her that she couldn’t marry a militant who could die any day.

“I told him what would happen to our kids. He told me ‘don’t you have faith in God,’ ” said Fatima. 

About 150 fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles accompanied Shamim to the wedding feast at the bride’s home.

“Militants of my village provided cover to the guest militants,” said Fatima, smiling.

Armed rebels back then lived longer than the current lot, who are on the run most of the time and many of whom have been killed within a few months of taking up arms. Tariq’s tryst with militancy lasted six months. Shamim, on the other hand, often visited home, never without his light machine gun. He would lend a helping hand in the family’s rice field and vegetable garden, accompany his wife to the doctor, play with the firstborn son, Inayat.

“He was a great husband. He would do anything for me, except leaving the gun. After a certain point, it seemed unfair to ask him to give up arms,” Fatima said.

In 1994, when Fatima was pregnant with Tariq, Shamim and four local militants were killed in a gunfight with Indian soldiers in Moolu village. Of about 22 deceased militants native to Moolu and a few nearby villages, only Shamim and another militant, Afzal, were married. 

“A day before he was killed he told me ‘you will have only two kids’,” Fatima said. 

Tariq was born three months after his father’s killing, in 1994. Fatima remembers Tariq as his father’s spitting image. Like his father, he liked eggs and dried collard greens, and performed ablution in an uncannily similar manner. He studied theology in a madrassa. His teachers doted on him for his oratory skills and he put them to food use during the months-long anti-India protests against the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016.

The security agencies soon caught up with him. According to the family members, he was tortured once and spent four-and-a-half months in preventive detention. Nazir Ahmad, Shamim’s younger brother to whom the widow Fatima was married in 1996, was also detained “for the son’s sins”. 

The Sheikhs are followers of Kashmir’s largest religio-political organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami. Such an association naturally inclines one towards secessionism in Kashmir.

“We won’t say we are not Jamaatis just to save our skin,” said Ali Muhammad, Tariq’s grand uncle.

Fatima said she had made up her mind to make Tariq an aalim, an Islamic scholar. He was on track to becoming one.

“But everything changed after his arrest. He only wanted to pick up arms and insisted I should permit him to do so,” Fatima said. Tariq once wrote a letter addressed to a militant commander, informing him that the mother has consented to his joining the outfit. 

“He then put my thumb impression on the letter to make it appear genuine. I didn’t know then what was written there. He was that desperate,” Fatima said. But her nephew, Bilal, also a rebel, thwarted Tariq’s plans and advised him to take care of his mother. 

Fayaz (whose name has been changed), a religious scholar who mentored Tariq in his Quranic studies, said he leafed through Shamim’s diary, which Tariq had presented to him.

Asked whether he remembered anything striking in the diary, he replied: “Not much, but I learnt that like many other things, rebellion can also run in the blood.”

As a last-ditch effort to prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps, Fatima did what women in Kashmir do as an act of ultimate supplication: put her headscarf at his feet. But in vain.

“He said ‘30 or 40 more years of life in this place mean nothing compared to an honourable death’. I broke down and told him ‘God be with you’,” she said. He joined his father’s outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, in October 2018. 

"I wanted him to be an officer," she added.

The Sheikhs, it appears, are resigned to the inevitable. Tariq’s great uncle, in fact, made lighthearted remarks in the tent where male mourners were offering Tariq’s stepfather condolences. 

But Muneera, a widow in her early sixties, might never reconcile the overnight transformation of her son, Shoaib Lone, from an Information Technology student to an armed insurgent, and his subsequent death in a gunfight with Indian forces this year.

Shoaib was a few months away from finishing his bachelor's in IT at a college in the Indian city of Dehradun. He had come home for the holidays. On September 13, 2018, a day after Shoaib returned to college, Muneera got a call from his friends, inquiring about whether Shoaib had got home safely. She was shocked. Shoaib had told his teachers and classmates that his mother was ill and was therefore rushing home. The family filed a missing persons report with the police. 

In a video that went viral on social media, Muneera appealed randomly to all militant outfits that Shoaib should be “sent home” if he had joined any of them. She threatened to consume poison if he didn’t return.

“I have no one except him,” she was heard saying in the video.

A few days later, Shoaib joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest indigenous armed rebel organisation, adopting ‘Morsi’ as his alias.

In the past four months, 23 Kashmiri youths have joined various rebel groups. Many of them would be armed only with a pistol. Parents tried hard to bring them back. None succeeded. In Shoaib’s case, the entire village had pledged that if they ever spotted him, they would drag him home by the collar. 

Rebels are venerated in Kashmir. Civilians risk their lives in efforts to save fighters during gunfights with Indian soldiers. But in this case, the people felt Shoaib was needed more at home than in the grossly unmatched battlefield: 200 odd rebels, each armed with an AK-47 rifle, against hundreds of thousands of soldiers and policemen.

The villagers would rush to a funeral of a militant, hoping they might see him there because fighters sometimes offer gun salutes to their fallen colleagues at funerals, which are invariably attended by thousands of civilians.

“But he was never seen again, as if he had vanished into thin air,” said Muneera.

Shoaib was one-and-a half years old when his father Muhammad Ashraf Lone disappeared one day in 1990 along with several other men. Sudden disappearances those days meant that the person has gone to Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training. He returned a year later to propel the first and the most intense wave of the insurgency. 

“I was both angry and happy. He told me ‘had I informed you, you wouldn’t have let me go’. But at least he returned home once he picked up arms,” Munnera said. “But Shoaib didn’t say a word either before or after. He didn’t betray any inclination towards arms struggle either. He was eager to pursue a masters in engineering. I so wanted him to become an officer. He was so close to becoming one. The college had offered him a teaching assignment,” Muneera said.

On November 30, 1995, Ashraf was killed in a gunfight with soldiers. He and his son are the only people to have picked up a gun in Bumrath village, which has a population of about 600.

Muneera had not married after Ashraf’s killing. The couple had another son, the first born Waheed-ur-Rehman, who is pursuing a masters degree. The widow funded her children's education through her meager earnings from embroidery work. 

“Like his father, Shoaib was gregarious, outwardly, made friends easily. My husband also wanted the kids to have careers. I don’t understand why he did this. It is God’s will perhaps,” she said.

On February 13 this year, dozens of soldiers armed with mortar guns, machine guns, IEDs, armoured vehicles and clad in bulletproof gear surrounded a house in which Shoaib and another fighter were hiding, in Budgam district. He was killed in a brief shootout. 

Pain in every form

Saleema, 62, has also navigated the world of a son following in the footsteps of a rebel father with remarkable courage and grit. Her husband, Ghulam Muhammad Dar, an embroider and farmer, went to Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the autumn of 1990 for arms training, leaving behind four children aged three to seven. 

In the summer of 1991, a militant informed Saleema that Dar had been shot dead by Indian soldiers at the border when he was returning home. She was pregnant with a fifth baby who was born a couple of months later.

She didn’t marry. Initially, her in-laws supported her and the kids. She would sell milk, vegetables and learnt silver-thread embroidery to earn a livelihood. She tried hard to find out the last resting place of her husband.

“Over the years, I have matured. If I were as clever in the 90s as I am now I would definitely have located his burial place,” she said in the living room of the house she and her three sons built on the meager inheritance of her husband in Hawoora, Redwani - a cluster of hamlets in southern Kashmir district of Kulgam.

The family rarely discussed Dar’s death. But, in Kashmir, such legacies linger on and exert their influence. Dar’s second son Altaf began developing contacts with rebels in 2005 but had not yet taken the plunge into militancy. He was detained at one of the Indian army’s camps in Aamnoo area in 2005. Saleema said the soldiers had subjected him to third-degree torture such as passing electric current through his body and rolling a log over his legs. He was released after 15 months. During the mass uprising against Indian rule in 2008, which was marked by street protests, he was jailed for two more years. After his release he graduated in the arts and started working as a mason.

Saleema’s in-laws asked her to leave because the raids by soldiers became frequent. All the glass panes of Saleema’s house, which was under construction, were smashed during one such raid, she said.

“They didn’t let him live a normal life,” Saleema said. He was again detained when he was at work constructing a house in Srinagar city. And then he joined the militants in 2011. He met up with Saleema nine months later.

“I told him: you have abandoned me. You picked up the gun. He smiled and lifted his arms and said ‘I don’t have a gun on me’. He said ‘I came to tell you that if I am martyred, don’t cry. We will meet there [in the afterlife]’. I told him to return. I said I would meet the local lawmaker and seek his help. Whenever I said something like this he would vanish,” she said.

Altaf was killed in a gunfight with soldiers in August 2018. At the time of his death, he was a divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Police described him as an “A++ category” militant.

From an almirah, Saleema pulled out a few posters Altaf had made during detention. He would sign these as Muhammad Shahid Saleem. One showed God’s name in calligraphy, another a chapter of the Quran with brightly coloured borders and floral motifs. 

“I didn’t feel bad when his father left. I haven’t cried, but the wounds are there. But as they say ‘the mother feels the pain in the womb, a father in the lap’, ” she said.