Thursday, Oct 28, 2021

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.

Invisible Grief
| Courtesy: HarperCollins/Javeed Shah
Invisible Grief
People Unlike Us: The India That Is Invisible
By Ed.
HarperCollins Publishers India 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.


Outlook Newsletters


Read More from Outlook

Aryan Khan Drugs Case: Who Is KP Gosavi? NCB's Absconding 'Witness' Detained In Pune

Aryan Khan Drugs Case: Who Is KP Gosavi? NCB's Absconding 'Witness' Detained In Pune

Gosavi, said to be a 'private investigator' whose selfies with actor Shah Rukh Khan's son Aryan Khan went viral after the NCB arrested him on October 2, had been on the run.

Haryana: 3 Women Farmers Returning From Protest Killed After Truck Hits Them At Tikri

Haryana: 3 Women Farmers Returning From Protest Killed After Truck Hits Them At Tikri

The accident, which also left two women injured, took place when the women were waiting for an autorickshaw to go to Bahadurgarh railway station after attending the farmers' protest.

'I Am Not A Racist': De Kock Apologises, Will Take The Knee

'I Am Not A Racist': De Kock Apologises, Will Take The Knee

Quinton de Kock has apologised for not taking the knee with his other South African teammates during the T20 World Cup match against the West Indies. The South African wicket-keeper batsmen said it was a "misunderstanding."

Explainer | Why India Celebrates Vigilance Awareness Week Every Year

Explainer | Why India Celebrates Vigilance Awareness Week Every Year

This year, the theme of the Vigilance Week celebrations is 'Independent India @ 75: Self Reliance with Integrity'.