PULWAMA, India-administered Kashmir — Bashir Ahmad Gogjoo visits three different graveyards to offer prayers for his son.
The 60-year-old is unsure which grave in three separate burial grounds belongs to his son, Shakir.
Twenty year old Shakir Ahmad Gogjoo was killed in a ‘gunfight’ with Indian armed forces in June 2017, barely two months after he had joined the ranks of rebels fighting India's rule in disputed Kashmir. The Himalayan region is claimed in full by Pakistan and India, but administered in parts by the two nuclear-armed arch rivals since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and after the United Nations brokered a ceasefire.
Shakir, an undergraduate student, was killed in a shootout not far from his house along with his two affiliates, Majid Mir and Irshad Ahmad.
The Indian army and police personnel overpowered the poorly trained rebels, using an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to blast a residential house where they had allegedly taken refuge.
On a recent rainy day, TRT World visited Shakir’s family in Kakapora town, in volatile south Kashmir, some 25 kilometres from the summer capital Srinagar. The feeling of despair and gloom seemed to have set in permanantly in their newly-built house.
Shakir's father Bashir and his mother, Shamima Begum, say their only regret is that "they were not able to see the body" of their son.
“After he joined Mujahideen [rebels], we knew he will achieve martyrdom,” Bashir, who sports salt-and-pepper stubble, says. “They [India's army] killed him, but they should not have mutilated his body.”
A day after the intense shootout, Bashir says he was called in by the local police, asked to take the body of his son.
“I asked them where my son was, they alluded to three shrouds,” he says, while consoling his wife whose eyes well up with tears.
“Curious, I went closer to the shrouds. When I opened the one believed to be that of my son, there were only bones and burnt flesh. I broke down. I asked them how did they know it was my son’s body. They kept saying that it was.”
Shakir’s family and local residents claim that the three rebels, purportedly affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant outfit, were first gunned down and then their bodies were tossed into the burning house.
“We had no option. We buried the broken bones and burnt flesh in our graveyard,” Bashir says. “I can’t say with certainty that the mortal remains we buried in the grave were that of Shakir.”
Since the other two rebels who fought and died alongside Shakir also hailed from south Kashmir, Bashir visits the three burial sites where the dismembered bodies of the three comrades were lowered into separate graves.
“My husband [Bashir] goes to offer prayers at all the three graveyards to ensure blessing reaches the deceased soul of Shakir,” Begum says, adding that the mother of another slain fighter believes her son ended up in the Kakapora graveyard, where Shakir's remains are believed to be resting.
"The mother of martyred Mujahid from Aghaspora told me that her son came in her dreams, told her he was not the one who was buried there, and that he was lying in Kakapora," Begum tells TRT World.
Bashir and Begum have picked some soil from one of the graves and brought it home.
“This gives us solace. There is fragrance. It keeps Shakir alive in our hearts,” Begum says.
TRT World emailed questions to the Indian army’s defence spokesman regarding the allegations of mutilation of bodies levelled by the families, local residents and also a top pro-India politician, but had received no response by the time this story was published.
Mehbooba Mufti, a pro-India politician and former chief minister of India-administered Kashmir, recently criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government for allowing the mutilation of Kashmiri rebels.
Mufti however faced blowback. Critics pointed to her controversial and seemingly futile tenure as chief minister of the disputed territory between April 2016 and June 2018, the time when the Indian army was accused of mocking and disfiguring the bodies of many fallen rebels.
Like several other rebels Shakir was killed and his body defaced while Mufti led the contested region as New Delhi's point person.
It's only after the ruling BJP pulled out of an alliance with Mufti's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in June 2018, bringing down her government, that the jilted politician started questioning the BJP.
“Of late chemicals are used during encounters to bring down the target buildings that also leads to mutilation of bodies beyond recognition. Many a time to ascertain the identity of the slain militants DNA tests are the only means,” Mufti tells TRT World.
“This is inhuman and against all ethics. It breeds more hatred [for India] and alienation [in Kashmir].”
But Khalid Jahangir, a local BJP leader, has a different opinion. He not only accused Mufti of "playing politics once out of power" but also blamed her for the killing a young rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016.
"As a Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti headed the Unified Headquarters (a body of all top security agencies including Indian army, paramilitary and local police). She was in coalition with the BJP. She never raised any such issue in power," Jahangir said.
A vicious cycle
Navigating through orchards of apple trees in full bloom, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks and gushing brooks, hardly anyone can believe that beneath the breathtaking natural beauty in Amshipora in south Kashmir’s Shopian district lie tales of death and destruction.
On April 13, 2019, local rebel commander Shah Jahan and his associate Abid Wagay, believed to be affiliated with Jaish-e-Mohammad group, were killed in a brief shootout in an orchard at Gahind.
Outside Jahan’s house a group of women are trying to comfort the grief-stricken family. There are no screams. No dirges either. Only the eerie silence.
The fear was palpable however. Everyone refused to talk to TRT World, fearing reprisals from the Indian army stationed nearby.
Later the slain rebel Shahjahan's sisters spoke to us about the circumstances in which they received the mutilated corpse of their brother.
A group of villagers went to the district police station to fetch the bodies of the slain rebels, one sister said. “Shahjahan's whole body was wrapped in a white bandage. The army had set his body on fire. All the men were shocked to see it and unable to identify the corpse.”
She says Shahjahan's broken tooth, as pointed out by their uncle, became the sole way to identify her brother.
“When the body was put in a small truck to take it home, the Indian army personnel stopped the vehicle at Shopian. On noticing the body belonged to JeM rebel, they beat the body, group of villagers, and also the driver Mohammad Rafiq. His arm is still broken,” the villagers say.
The family kept the body in the house for only five minutes “since they could not bear seeing the mutilated body”.
“My father [Abdul Hamid Mir] and mother [Tasleema] broke down. They could not see the burnt body of their son. We decided on a swift burial,” his sister explains.
There is no picture of Shahjahan at home since the family alleges that the army set their belongings on fire in September last year.
“We do not have any of his memory in terms of albums, not a single picture,” says another sister of Shahjahan.
“The only memory with us is the terror unleashed by Indian military on us. We lost everything, our house, our relations, and Shahjahan.”