Courtesy: HarperCollins/Javeed Shah
Book Extract
Invisible Grief
The story of two remote villages along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The army massacred people in one, the militants in the other. Today, the villagers grieve alone, silently... forgotten by everyone, and alienated from all.
send via whatsapp
People Unlike Us: The India That Is Invisible

RS 295, 214 PAGES

I was born here. I grew up in these apple orchards, dreamed on the banks of these freshwater streams. I went to school there, sitting on straw mats and memorising tables by heart. After school my mates and I would rush halfway home, tearing off our uniforms and diving into the cold water. Then we would quickly dry our hair, so our parents would not find out what we had done. Sometimes, when we felt especially daring, we would skip an entire day of school to play cricket.

I was here, too, when the first bomb was exploded in 1988. I remember my father describing the blast as an opposition party plot to dislodge Farooq Abdullah's government. I was seventeen. Then, that September, the killing in Srinagar of Ajaz Dar, one of the first Kashmiri youths to become a militant leader, changed everything. Bomb blasts and shootouts became frequent. As 1989 came, the situation worsened. For days the morning papers splashed photos of five fugitives -- Ishfaq Majeed, Javeed Mir, Yasin Malik, Hameed Sheikh and Shabir Shah-who were believed to be behind the rising unrest and violence. The government offered a huge reward to anybody who gave information about them, but nobody came forward. This was not a simple political game any more. It was war.

I had just completed Class XII then and was enrolled in college -- a perfect potential recruit. Many of my close friends and classmates had begun to join the militant movement. One day, half of our class in a Sopore college was missing. They never returned to class again, but nobody even looked for them, because it was understood. I too wanted to join, not knowing why or what it would lead to. Perhaps the rebel image was subconsciously attracting all of us. I acquired the standard militant's gear: I bought Duckback rubber shoes, prepared a polythene jacket and trousers to wear over my warm clothes, and found some woollen cloth to wrap around my calves as protection from frostbite. I stole five hundred rupees from my mother's purse to pay the guide.

But I failed. Thrice we returned from the border. Each time something happened that forced our guide to take us back. The third time, twenty-three of us had started our journey on foot from Malangam, north of Bandipore, only to be abandoned inside a dense jungle. It was night and the group scattered after hearing gunshots nearby, sensing the presence of security forces. In the morning, when we gathered again, the guide was missing. Most of the others decided to try their luck and continue on their own, but a few of us turned back. We had nothing to eat but leaves for three days. We followed the flights of crows, hoping to reach a human settlement. We were lucky. We reached home and survived.

As the days and months passed, and the routes the militants took to cross the border became known to security forces, the bodies started arriving. Lines of young men would disappear on a ridge as they tried to cross over or return home. The stadiums where we had played cricket and soccer, the beautiful green parks where we had gone on school excursions as small kids in white and grey uniforms, were turned into martyrs' graveyards. One after another, those who used to play there were buried there with huge marble epitaphs detailing their sacrifice. Many had not even fired a single bullet from their Kalashnikovs.

When I started writing about the war in 1992, I felt I was part of this tragic story from the beginning. I knew the mujahids, the makhbirs (informers), those who surrendered and those who did not, those who faced death because they had a dream and those who were sacrificed by mere chance, neither knowing nor understanding the issues at stake, those who believed they were fighting a holy war and those who joined for unholy reasons.

After eight years of reporting death and suffering, I felt I knew every bit of the trauma of Kashmir. I had seen a thousand widows wailing over their sons' graves, mothers of militants and mothers of policemen alike. I had seen villages burnt to the ground by security forces, bodies blown to bloody bits by militant bombs, bodies blackened by torture in interrogation centres. I had met families with no children left, no food left, no hope left. I thought I had reported the whole truth about Kashmir.

Then, one day, I travelled to a remote corner of north Kashmir, along the Line of Control. I took my time, and wandered into two small villages, speaking to everyone I met, and asking them to tell me their stories. What I discovered was a tiny world of silent tragedy and invisible suffering -- suffering that no headlines had reported, no government officials had compensated, and that virtually no one knew about beyond the village boundaries.

While many other villages in Kashmir had been struck by violence, few had experienced such extensive tragedy so early in the uprising, and few had borne their grief in such isolation. Officials had visited the two villages, and promises had been made and forgotten. But with time, as the real suffering sank in and became part of the lore and emotions and fabric of these villages, there was no one to console them. In both cases, anonymous people had died as cannon fodder, not as heroes to either side of the cause.

As the incidents receded into the past, the villages, isolated 3 and invisible, grieved alone. The rest of Kashmir, caught up in a whirlpool of violence, seemed to have no time or energy to spare for them. To the India beyond, the villages had never existed even before the massacres. Afterward, they existed only as abstract symbols to be politically exploited by India-in one case as evidence of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and in the other as an unavoidable consequence of militancy. Pakistan, in turn, kept silent on the first massacre and capitalised on the second as proof of atrocities by the Indian security forces.

But for the survivors in these remote villages, who knew little about the politics being played over their dead, the enormity of what had happened haunted their lives every day. Even now, virtually every house is a portrait of loss and gloom; nearly every family hides a tragedy.

There is a girl who wanders the graveyard where her two brothers are buried, muttering to herself. There is another who was raped by armymen, and the family and the village kept it a secret. There is a man wracked by guilt because, in trying to be loyal to India, he condemned his neighbours and relatives to death. There is a woman who was forced to marry a boy she had once cradled in her arms, after her own husband was killed. There is a mother who still curses herself for keeping her son home for an extra day of holiday-it proved to be his last. There was a boy who was killed by militants just seven days after his wedding, with henna still on his palms. There is a widow who used to boil water in an empty pot to give her children false hope of dinner. There is another who has to beg to feed her children, who has no one to follow her slain husband's case and no money to bribe the clerks.

The stories of these two forgotten villages, both situated in the frontier district of Kupwara, are different from each other. In Warsun, the people had resisted the tide of militancy and were punished by the militants for garlanding a Union minister. And yet the authorities did not believe that a village so close to the Line of Control could be entirely innocent, so they too punished the people for what they assumed was a self-protective lie .

A man who lost twenty-two of his relatives to militant attacks had his own son killed in the custody of the security forces. Another man who launched the first ever indigenous counter-insurgent group to help the army, and escaped death six times, saw his cousin's head chopped off by militants. He still bears a scar from a militant attack on his shoulder, a badge of his Indianness, and yet even that was not enough to keep a security force officer from plotting to take his life. Today, he lives in fear from both sides.

The other hamlet, Pazipora, a dozen miles from Warsun, was the site of one of the first, and biggest, massacres by the army in August 1990. So bloody and massive was the attack that the armymen ran out of cartridges. Twenty-four people died there that day as bullets rained from all sides. In the evening, there was an announcement on the radio. General Zaki, the then security advisor to the governor, claimed that the army had killed twelve militants. Later, after the bodies were identified, the government's story too changed: Now it was twelve young militants and twelve old villagers dead.

It took this village over three-and-a-half years and thousands of rupees to prove that their dead were innocent civilians, killed by the army in retaliation for a militant attack on their convoy on the main road outside the village. All through that period, their cries of protest were not heard, their demand for justice ignored. And till today, the most awful truth of the Pazipora massacre has never been told: the rape of three unmarried girls after the armymen segregated the men and women of the village. The villagers kept it a secret to avoid problems in finding matches for these girls. But in silence, the families still mourn for their lost honour.

One survivor of the Pazipora massacre has never spoken about it at all. Each day, in the village graveyard, a young woman walks in circles around two of the graves, murmuring to herself She had never been mentally well as a child, and the shock of her brothers' violent deaths drove her deeper into madness, locking away the tragedy inside her. In this invisible corner of India, her pain is the most invisible of all.

Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,

so long ago of that Sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth

bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, past the guards, and he,

keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On

two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news

of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:

"If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this."

- From The Country Without a Post Office,
by Agha Shahid All

Warsun lies at the end of a steep, winding road, deep in V V a mountain range known for its hidden treasure of marble and a variety of medicinal herbs. It is a Gujjar village of some four hundred inhabitants, who live in small houses of mud walls and thatched roofs, scattered across small hillocks.

Only a few miles north lies the Line of Control. The elders dare not venture into the jungles because it is too dangerous-either militant territory, or an area controlled by the army. Beyond the hilltops, the villagers say, nobody can guarantee your life because bullets fly without warning from any direction. In a way, death seems to stalk these mountains.

The village has a school, but the majority of children cannot afford to study. Their job is to graze small herds of cows and goats. Forty-nine of them were orphaned in these ten years of mayhem. Smeared with dirt, they walk through corn fields on narrow footpaths, but there is no sound of their laughter or games. In fact, there is almost no sound at all. The village seems completely deserted.

In happier times: The target of militants as well as the security forces, Jalauddin (extreme right) has lost twenty-three of his family and friends. 'No one here is Indian at heart, nor will anybody save you for being Indian.' Before the emergence of militancy, people remember, the hills used to echo with the sound of flutes played by the young shepherds. Now there are hardly any young men left. The few who remain wield guns and belong to a small counterinsurgency group, the Muslim Liberation Army of Choudhary Jalaluddin. They are the only wealthy people in the village, and their houses are more solidly built than the rest.

Many of the villagers died simply because they were related to the Choudharys and stood by them, even though they had no politics of their own. In some cases their widows were forced to marry their brothers, even those who already had wives, so that the family fortunes would not be divided. Widows were even forced to beg in the surrounding villages to feed their children. Today, the village is still fighting to survive, and its people have little time to think about the past. But every household in Warsun has a story to offer -- a sordid saga of pain and loss.

Choudhary Jalaluddin is a tall, bearded man in his early forties-he is also the villager with the heaviest cross to bear. For most of his life, he was a shepherd and had nothing to do with politics. But after the emergence of militancy in 1990, his life became a tortuous roller coaster of shifting political demands and loyalties, physical hardships and betrayals, and survival amid death-all leading him to the bitter conclusion that no cause was sacred and no friend was permanent.

The first stage in his tumultuous path began when he crossed over to become a militant. "I never wanted to cross over to Pakistan. I never wanted to become a militant," he recalls. "There was a man, Farooq Molvi, who was very powerful for he was close to both (Indian and Pakistani) intelligence agencies. As a double agent, he was sending young men across for training. He had political scores to settle with my elder brother Choudhary Salamuddin and my cousin Alif Din, and I became his easy prey." Molvi had influence among militant ranks, and had a hit-order issued in his name. "I got to know and literally went underground to avoid certain death," he recalls. "This is when the police also started looking for me, suspecting me to be an activist of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF)."

On the run, Jalaluddin was caught between the devil and the deep sea. His cattle and sheep got scattered because there was nobody to take care of them. The police raided his house and even took away the fodder he had stored for the winter months. "I had no money to buy food or clothes for my family," he remembers. "I started selling off the cattle, partly for survival and partly because I could not afford their fodder." Then Master Afzal, a member of the JKLF from the neighbouring Trehgam village, was released from jail. Afzal promised to take Jalaluddin across the border and guaranteed his safety there. "I talked to my elder brother about it, but he was dead against my joining militancy. He was a Congressy (activist of the Congress party) and an Indian to the core of his heart."

Jalaluddin decided to go anyway. He had formed a group of two hundred and fifty men and twelve guides, and they were planning to cross via Aawra village. "All the guides were from Aawra and knew the entire border like the lines on their hands," he said. "Even my nephew All Mohammad, who ran a hotel in Kupwara, was there. Those days hundreds of young men would cross from almost everywhere in this belt. It was safe and easy. After we crossed over, I saw Farooq Molvi at Athmuqam. He had been waiting for me and tried to get me off the bus and kidnap me, but my companions resisted."

The group remained in Muzzafarabad for seven months. At first, no one in the training camp trusted them, thinking them to be Indian agents. "Nobody believed us. Nobody helped us," he said. "My nephew and I had to eat raw rice with water and molasses. We saw so much suffering that even today we cry when we remember those days. Finally, when the people running the camps decided we were not Indian agents, they gave us shelter." To earn some money, Jalaluddin and his friends guided groups of newly trained militants to the border posts, to infiltrate into the valley. "We used the money to buy oil and salt and keep ourselves going. As time passed, trust started developing and the next few months went well."

Then Jalaluddin heard that his cousin, Alif Din, had been killed by unidentified gunmen back home. He was a sarpanch and had been killed by militants, who were avenging some old slight. Jalaluddin was allowed to return for a week.

Salamuddin's (extreme right) son was tortured to death by the security forces, and he himself nearly met the same fate.I reached the village and saw my brother, Choudhary Salamuddin, half dead from torture-this time by the security forces," he recalled. "His son, Abdullah, had also been tortured to death by the Central Reserve Police Force. The situation was confusing, and I felt everyone was against me and my family. I heard that a group of fifty militants led by Farooq Molvi's brother had raided my house. I tried to convince them to stop, arguing that this group clash would take us nowhere. But they would not listen. I felt bitter. I had my own militant group, the Muslim Liberation Army, and I decided to take them on.

It was 1991. The war between the two groups went on for six months. Jalaluddin had only thirteen gunmen, but they managed to keep a group of three hundred and fifty militants at bay. "At times I was frightened, but I never allowed it to show," he says. "This was my village, my area, how could I allow anybody to win here? It was a battlefield of my choice." But then his enemies played a trick, and one of his men, Fareed Shah, turned out to be a mole. "One day he guided the troops of 7 Assam Rifles to my hideout. The only escape was to go up to the jungle, but there were seventy militants of that rival group up on every ridge, waiting to shoot me," Jalaluddin recounts. "Down below was the army. What could I do? I decided my only choice was to surrender."

It was a big catch. The first time that a commander-in chief of a militant group had been nabbed. "They took me to the GOC. I had already decided to go against the militants," he says. "I wanted to teach them a lesson. I gave a plan to the army as to how to deal with the militants. They trusted me and I helped them. I opened the way for others to surrender, and created an opening for politics.I created the road, which nobody knew then, and now even much bigger convoys than mine are travelling on it."

Jalaluddin claims to have been instrumental in creating a counter-militancy movement, the first insider to challenge the might of the pro-Pakistan militants. "My fight started bearing fruit when militants like Kuka Parrey, Rasheed Khan and Azad Nabi followed suit to help the authorities control the militancy," he says. In 1992, he boasts, he and his associates were the first to hold a pro-India political rally in the area. 'We garlanded the then Union internal security minister Rajesh Pilot in Warsunand organised a huge gathering to listen to his speech right here. Then we conducted several such rallies in other villages in Kupwara. It was an unbelievable thing. We did it, but we paid a price. Those of our cousins who garlanded Pilot sahib were kidnapped and killed within a few days."

But it was not only militants who were after his blood. "In 1996, an officer of the (army) Liaison Unit conspired to kill me. I later got to know that he was given a car as a gift by my old enemies to eliminate me, but God saved me and I am alive. Even a senior police officer of the district was after my life for reasons not known to me till today. My covering candidate in the elections was killed by a surrendered militant. He was given a booty of three lakh rupees to eliminate the man. Now I have joined the ruling National Conference- but only to keep myself alive. At least now I am close to the corridors of power, and I feel a bit secure, though the fear still hangs over my head like a sword."

Through the years of war, Jalaluddin lost twenty-three of his cousins, relatives and friends. "At the end of the day, I am a depressed man," he says. "I feel responsible for the bloodshed and tragedy of my entire village. I am not able to face the widows of my brothers, who were killed for being with me." As long as the army was in the village, they would send foodgrains for these families. But as the militants mounted pressure in other areas, the army camp here was moved. "Now there are days when there is nothing to cook and eat," Jalaluddin says. "What can I do? I still have nothing to offer them except pain and suffering. I can't afford the cost of their two meals a day. I wish the militants or the police had managed to kill me in the beginning. Then, children of only one household would have been orphaned, not those of the entire village."

Depressed by his solitary burden, Jalaluddin says he at times envies those who died for Pakistan. "At least they have somebody to shed tears for them. There are people who visit their families and enquire about their wellbeing. But we have neither this world nor the world hereafter," he complains. "Everyone feels the blood that was shed here for India has gone to waste. After eight years of experience with the government, I have come to the conclusion that beneath every chair lies a chor. I now strongly feel the best way to live is in the jungles. You fire a few bullets and kill a few enemies, or get a few bullets and die. The story ends there and then. In political life, nothing is clean. No one here is Indian at heart, nor will anybody save you for being Indian. It is altogether a different game, with no permanent rules, no permanent enemies, no permanent friends."

Weeping, wailings lamentation,
Piercing through the silent night,
Cries of children and their mothers,
The moon and stars sorrow-soaked,
The night crowned with weeping stars...
The night has nothing to show but dark.

-Makhdoom Mahiuddin

For the women of Warsun, the war was not a confusing cauldron of rapidly shifting political events, but the legacy of a single, violent incident that forever shattered their lives. There are more than a dozen widows in this village whose husbands died in the violence. They were the hardest hit of all victims, yet they never knew why such tragedies struck them. They were all illiterate. They never understood the nuances of Indo-Pak hostility, the politics of militancy anti counter-insurgency. They had no say in the lives of their husbands and little control over their own lives after being widowed. Even when asked to recount their personal tragedies, they defer to male relatives to speak for them. They are the most invisible victims of all.

After she lost her husband in a militant attack, Arsha was married off to his nephew, a boy she had raised as her ownArsha does not remember her age. She looks frail and careworn. An elderly neighbour believes she is about forty. She lost her husband, Mohammad Din, in 1992 in a militant attack. He was neither a militant nor a counter-insurgent. He was a simple farmer who had gone to fetch a missing calf from the meadow, never to return alive. He was hit by bullets and was carried home but died on the way. Mohammad Din, in fact, was killed merely for being the first cousin of Choudhary Jalaluddin, and more precisely for accompanying Jalaluddin on that fatal day.

"He was outside his house, preparing to start for the meadow to look for his calf, when I saw him," recalls Jalaluddin, speaking on Arsha's behalf as she sits silently across the room, weeping. "I had to visit the nearby army brigade headquarters and asked Mohammad Din to come along." They both left for the jungles where, on the way, they were attacked by the militants. "I received a bullet in my shoulder but ducked down on the ground. He too was lying flat but he thought I had been killed and shouted for me. This is when the militants shot at him," he says.

Arsha lives in a small two-room house which she shares with her three children, her cow and a few sheep. There are a few aluminium utensils, two mattresses and some old blankets for bedding. For the first four years after her husband's death, she fought the hardships of life single-handedly, feeding her children by begging and working as a daily wage labourer in neighbouring villages. Finally the village elders met and decided she needed to remarry. Choudhary Jalaluddin admits he forced her to marry her late husband's nephew, even though he was half her age and had even been cradled by her in her arms.

Arsha had no option. She either had to leave her children | behind with no one to take care of them and go back to her parents' home, or accept the trauma of marrying a boy she had raised like her son. Even her parents were not ready to take her in, so she had to accept the harsh verdict of the elders. Arsha does not speak easily about her trauma, but after repeated queries she bursts into a litany of grief and sorrow.

I don't know what is the reason for this bloodshed. I remember my husband's last few moments. It seemed as if the entire world was crying. He was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't hear. He asked for water, and he asked for his son Fareed. Then his eyes closed. Later, they forced me to marry my poot, a boy I had raised like my own.But still nothing has changed."

I have three children-two daughters, Shakeela and Zaitoon, and a son, Fareed. They have nothing to eat or wear. Many a time I boiled water on the mud oven to keep the hope for food alive when they were starving. They waited and waited for dinner as I kept telling them to wait just a few more minutes, until they fell asleep on empty stomachs. I have begged for months to get food to keep them alive. Nobody ever came to ask me whether I needed anything. The army camp nearby sent rations for a few months after my husband's killing, but later nobody cared. When the wound is fresh everybody comes to console you, but as time passes it becomes an old story."

There is another widow in the village named Arsha. The death of her husband, Taj Din, in 1993 was even more tragic, but she too does not speak of it publicly. She has been silenced by remarriage to her late husband's brother, who already had a wife and children. Though marrying a brother-in-law after a husband's death is an old custom in Kashmiri villages, it has been used more frequently during militancy to avoid any split in family fortunes, especially when there is hope for ex gratia relief of one lakh rupees or a government job for close relatives of the person killed in violence. Arsha's new husband, Alif Din, talks on her behalf

"Taj Din had garlanded Pilot sahib at the rally. After a few days his six-year-old daughter, Jameela, fell ill. She had pneumonia and needed immediate medical care. Taj Din rushed her to a doctor in Trehgam. He got a prescription and was about to enter a medical store when a young man called him. He paid no heed, but then a few more men gathered and took him away forcibly. He had to abandon his ailing daughter.

"They took him (Taj Din) to the government school building in Heeri village and interrogated him. Then they took him to Doripora and tortured him. They took out the thin iron rod from a Kalashnikov (a ramrod, used to clean the barrel). They put this rod in the fire and waited till it was red hot. They then pierced it through his chest. He asked for water but they put a lump of earth in his mouth instead. At Avera culvert, they pumped four bullets into his chest. He died on the spot.

"When Taj Din was kidnapped, another of our brothers, who also happened to be in the market, saw Jameela crying near the chemist's shop and carried her back home but without any medicine. The entire family was so traumatized that they literally forgot about the girl and her illness. She died the ne'3 day because she had received no medical care. And just as wow were about to take her coffin to the graveyard, her father' body arrived. They were buried side by side."

"Don't tell my father I have died," he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the f ring. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighbourhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning.

-From The Country Without a Post Office,
by Agha Shahid Ali

Barely a dozen miles from Warsun, on the other side of Kupwara, lies Pazipora village. Deep in the apple orchards and paddy fields of this frontier district, it looks like any other Kashmiri village. Unlike Warsun, though, it is situated down a slope. In fact, the lane leading to it from the main road dips sharply until it reaches a secluded hollow. This accident of geography has had much to do with Pazipora's misfortune. On one fateful day in 1990, soldiers firing downward caught its people with no place to hide from the raining bullets.

Pazipora is the site of one of Kashmir's many forgotten massacres, the scars of which are still to heal. Even after a gap of ten years, the villagers remember it as if it had happened yesterday. The events of 10 August 1990 have become part of village folklore. It is a history lesson that every mother gives her child as compulsory information.

The village lost twenty-four of its sons that day. Not a single one was a militant. Their misfortune was that militants had ambushed an army convoy returning from a crackdown operation in a nearby village, perhaps killing a few soldiers in the process. In response, the panic-stricken army Swans let loose a reign of terror.

Today, Pazipora is an open wound. Geographically, it is still a part of India, but emotionally it is poles apart. What festers is not only the memory of the massacre itself, but of the official apathy to the suffering it caused. In many other villages of Kashmir, force was used to combat militancy. But here, soldiers went berserk and punished civilians for a crime they never committed. The government eventually acknowledged the atrocity, and each victim's family received a routine one lakh rupees ex gratia relief But they never got back their sense of belonging or faith. They had believed the perpetrators would be punished, but they never were. Thus the wounds could never be fully healed, the gulf never bridged. After this, Pazipora would never really belong to India.

"No one among those killed that day had guns in their hands, no relative of the dead became a militant even after that tragedy. Why did the government not take any action against the culprits?" an old man asks. "If we are part of India, why are our lives so cheap? Where is the justice? Even if they have taken action against their of ricers, it means nothing to us until we see it with our own eyes. Why can't we demand gallows for them, they who spilled the blood of two dozen men in a single day?"

In all of Pazipora, Bhat mohalla was the worst hit. Every household lost two members. One family lost ten. This was the family of Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, an employee in the veterinary department and a village elder, who later took up the village's case and fought till the government accepted that all those killed were innocent civilians. Bhat lost his own son, three nephews and six other relatives-and yet it took him three-and-a-half years of dogged efforts to prove their innocence. Literally, he turned into an ambassador for the massacred village, carrying its grief to the corridors of power in Srinagar and searching for an echo of compassion.

In a dark carpeted room of Bhat's house, the old men of Pazipora gather one by one. They have come to recollect the massacre, and once more to mourn for their dead. The women sit on the other side of the room, listening to their men in silence. A boy passes a samovar and pours out cups of steaming salt tea. Several of the men puff on a hookah, passing it on. Bhat, sitting in a corner, begins to retell the familiar story. It is a tale he has recounted a hundred times before.

"On that morning, we were having tea. The children were getting ready for school. But then we heard there had been an army crackdown in a neighbouring village, Dedikote. We asked our children not to leave for school. The army had arrested a militant, who was guiding them to hideouts in the area. We had no inkling that anything was going to happen. We later got to know that the militant had led the army into a trap. As the troops returned from the crackdown, a group of militants had laid an ambush near Dingri, only one kilometre from our village."

It was Friday and there was a namaz congregation. As the army convoy passed, the militants opened fire. It continued for a few minutes, then there was complete silence. But this was only the lull before the storm. "As people started fleeing towards the paddy fields, the army jawans fired wildly from the road above," Bhat recounts. "Soon they got reinforcements from Trehgam. Now the villagers were caught in between. The Swans fired on every object, even the slightest movement in the fields."

"It was al nafsi, al nafsi (every man for himself). I too fled. Nobody gave a thought to where they were going. It was like a flood, and everybody floated with the stream. I reached Balipora, a neighbouring hamlet, and entered the house of the numberdar, Ghulam Rasool. I got into the first room. I still vividly remember there was a fan whirring on the ceiling. I threw myself flat on the floor. Then they started firing. The glass windows shattered, and a barrage of bullets came into the room. Then they started pounding on the door and trying to break it down. I finally found the courage to stand and open the door. An armyman hit me with a rifle butt on my head, even before asking who I was. I was left alive, but one of my nephews was lying dead in a pool of blood."

As the troops entered the village, they segregated the m' from the women. The women were taken to the house of Ahad and Gani Khoja. "We heard wails and cries coming front inside. The jawans took us to the mosque compound and bent us, one by one. They had no bullets left, or they would have kept on firing," Bhat said. "Later we heard what had happened to our women. Three unmarried girls had been raped. This is a sworn secret in the village. We all agreed never to tell anyone, because it would ruin the girls' lives."

"An army officer, a captain who had been to our village before, came and told me they had punished us and even set our village (Pazipora) on fire. 'There is nothing left there, just ashes,' he told me. Then they ordered us to pick up the bodies scattered around, but only those of young men. Of the twelve bodies we could identify, three were children from my family, and one was my own son. One boy, Bashir Ahmad, had sixteen bullets in his right arm. His father had to leave another son's body behind to rush Bashir to the hospital in Srinagar."

Bhat says he had turned into a robot. There were too many deaths to mourn. As if so many killings were not enough, they arrested his other son, Abdul Gaffar, along with two villagers. "One was a radio mechanic, known to almost every armyman in Kupwara. The other was a farmer, not even remotely involved in any militant activity, " he says. But the army, he says, needed scapegoats to hide their crime.

"In the evening, we carried the bodies to nearby Poshpora village where we met an army officer. He asked us to go home, but we were drained. I felt as if there were no life left in my legs. I requested him to free my son, and he promised to let him go the next morning. But it was another three and-a-half months before we saw our boys again. The army had claimed that all three were militants, and had shown arms supposedly recovered from them in the FIR lodged with the police."

For the next forty-five days, every government agency came to the village, and Bhat had to repeat his story to many officials and journalists. But as time passed and the incident started to fade from memory, fewer and fewer people asked. General Zaki hadclaimed the first day that the twelve men killed were militants. By now it was widely believed that all the dead were innocent civilians, but the official position was still that only half of the twenty-four killed were civilians. Bhat decided he had to make sure the truth came out. "We were the victims of crime upon crime-an army attack, rape, the arrest of our boys in a cover-up," he says. "But we were the ones who had to prove our innocence, and it took me three-and-a-half years of relentless struggle to accomplish it."

The government had ordered an inquiry. The deputy commissioner was to conduct the probe, but Bhat says he was scared to visit the village. "I went to his office twenty days in a row, but he never agreed to come. Finally, I met the then divisional commissioner C. Phonsong, and requested him to help. He literally forced the DC to visit our village and complete the inquiry." When his report was finally done, it exonerated every one of the dead.

Bhat followed the report from one office to another, and finally approached General Zaki. "It was difficult to reach him, especially if you had a complaint against a security force unit in your hand. The officials screening visitors would not allow you past the first checkpoint. But I played a trick," he recalls. "I put a J&K government cover on the file and pretended it was official. Finally the report received General Zaki's stamp of approval. After more than three years, we had won the battle. But the real war-to see the culprits punished for their crime and justice done to our dead-has never been fought. It is still a distant dream."

Shah Ded's son was one of twenty-four people massacred by the army and till today, she blames herself for having asked him to stay on at home for an extra day of holiday. As Ghulam Ahmad Bhat recites the tale of the massacre, an old woman hides her face in her lap. Occasionally she wipes away her tears, but she does not break her silence till Bhat has finished. His story concludes and now everybody in the room can hear her sobs. She is Shah Ded, Bhat's sister in-law. She is illiterate, but she put all her efforts into getting her son, Bashir Ahmad, a good education. He completed school and joined a professional college but was killed in the massacre even before he could bring his first salary home. Amid sobs, she talks about her son.

"He was the apple of our eye. All of us looked up to him. We saved on our expenses to make him happy and comfortable. But Bashir Ahmad was not a child anymore. He had realised his responsibility by then. That morning he called me and said, 'Aapa aupa pareshan mai gus (Mother, stop being anxious it about me now). This year, I will complete my training and return home once and for all. I hope to get a job immediately. Then I will be coming home every day.'"

Usually, she said, she did not allow her son to come to the village because the situation had worsened. But that day, she stopped him from going back to Srinagar. "I asked him to stay back for a few more days, and I will always blame myself for that," Shah Ded says."It is like a scar on my heart that will go away only with my death."

When the military came that day, she asked her son and his cousins to leave immediately for a safer place. He did not agree. He said they would simply lie down on the floor. But when the firing started, he ran in panic. "He rushed towards his uncle Ghulam Ahmad Dar in the paddy fields, but he was killed before reaching there. I cannot forget his face," the woman says sadly. "His hands were ready for the henna and I was dreaming of getting him married. My eyes have lost sight, shedding tears in his memory. It was my misfortune that God took him back in the prime of his youth."

Even years later, the death of her son still weighs so heavy on her mind that it is hard for her to see schoolchildren wearing the same colourful uniforms he once wore. "I go back to the days when he would come home from school with mud or ink spilled all over his uniform. Every corner of this village reminds me of him. At times, I feel I should run away from here because his shadows are everywhere. I long to hear him calling me aupi."

And even now, she still dreams that one day, her son's death will be avenged. "I wanted to know why he was killed. I tried to ask the big of firers who visited here after the massacre, but the men of the village did not let me talk to them?" she says. "I am a mother. Everybody, no matter how big an officer, has a mother. I know they will listen to me. One day justice will be done. My son was innocent. His blood will not go to waste.

About The Book

As we move into the twenty-first century, a look at the India we have no time for -- the people we choose not to see, the places that are falling off the map, and the attitudes and mind-sets that remain unchanged. Told with a rare sensitivity, these stories bring out the alienation and the silent rage of people on the margins. From the isolation of people in Kashmir (Muzamil Jaleel, Invisible Grief) and the North-east (Siddhartha Deb, Fragments From a Folder) to the mind-set of a village that wants to convert an incident of sati into material gain (Sagarika Ghosh, The Economics of Sati); from the decimation of tribals (Randhir Khare, 'Do Rats Have Rights') to the continuance of upper class domination (Ajit Kumar Jha, War in a Time Warp); from the invisible Indian inside our homes -- the servants who slog relentlessly for a pittance (Vijay Jang Thapa, Maid in India to the unchanging system of caste (Sankarshan Thakur, Still There), to a state struck by calamity but unaided by the state (Meenal Baghel, Lull After the Storm), these are stories about an India where little has changed, and where the playing fields are not, and can never be, level.

The essay from this book has been reproduced with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, India.

Read More In:

Books By:
send via whatsapp

Translate into:

Post a Comment
You are not logged in, please log in or register


OUTLOOK TOPICS:    a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9   
Or just type in a few initial letters of a topic: