Muzamil Jaleel meets Kashmiri families in the village of Khayar devastated by a vicious and seemingly endless conflictMuzamil Jaleel, Wednesday 17 July 2002

In Khayar, a remote village in north Kashmir, mourning has become a way of life. People meet more often at the small graveyard in the middle of their dusty, rundown village than for any other social occasion. The Muslim festival of Eid has lost its charm; the laughter of children is missing; even the merriment of a marriage party is dominated by the memory of the young men and women who have lost their lives over the years.
The villagers had gathered to console the family of a 70-year-old man who had died of a heart attack during an identification parade conducted by the army. Crowded in a small, dingy room, the tales they told were like postcards explaining Kashmir’s complex tragedy in miniature.

Abdul Raheem Malik is the only male member of his family alive. One of his sons and a brother died in the last 10 years while another son is missing after being picked up by the army. Malik lost his job in a private factory because he had neither the time nor the energy to continue working.

“I spent all these years either mourning my family’s dead or wandering from one army camp to another looking for my son,” he said. “Then I became scared to leave my three daughters alone at home. The eldest one is a widow.”

Blighted by misery and poverty, the Malik household has been selling off its family land to survive. Malik’s wife, Amina, has developed acute cardiac trouble. “Tears have dried in her eyes and she cries silently all the time,” Malik said.

Amina’s only remaining treasures are the few photographs of her sons. She carries them everywhere to show to strangers, hoping someone might provide a clue as to the whereabouts of Mohammad Riyaz Malik, her missing son.

Riyaz was 20 and preparing for a school examination when, late in the evening on July 4 1998, a group of masked gun men knocked on his father’s door. “We opened the door. They were Ikhwanis [counterinsurgents working with the local army unit]. They asked for Riyaz and took him along, never to return,” Malik recalled.

“I touched their feet. My wife and daughters were hysterical because we had already lost one boy, and now only Riyaz was left. But they didn’t listen to my pleas. They promised that he would soon be back.”

Riyaz did not return, and a neighbour told them he saw him being carried to the army camp at Dobban, up in the mountains. “Abdul Ahad Mir, a road coolie, had seen him and he came running to us. Even the army first accepted he was with them. For 15 months they kept us hanging and finally denied any knowledge of his arrest,” Malik said.

Malik says that he approached everybody from army officers to the top brass of the civilian government. “Everyone promised an investigation but nothing happened. Finally the government issued a death certificate and closed the file.

“Every day we hear something that rekindles our hope that our son is alive. I wanted to end this uncertainty permanently and ascertain his fate. I filed a case in the court, but last February the army picked me up and forced me to declare in writing that my son was not missing in army custody. I could do nothing and now my family has to live with this uncertainty for the rest of our lives.”

The first tragedy to befall the Malik family came right at the beginning of the turmoil. On October 4 1990, Malik’s 30-year-old brother, Ghulam Mohammad Malik, and 20-year-old son, Shakeel Ahmad Malik, were killed in an army shootout.

As Malik was talking about his family, Amina was silent. Occasionally, she would hide her face and sob but she did not utter a single word. “She has become dumb. She hardly reacts to anything now,” Malik said.

As he stopped talking, silence descended on the crowded room, but another man was desperate to tell his story. Ghulam Hassan belongs to same clan as Malik and his tale is equally tragic. Ghulam is a 50-year-old farmer and used to live in the neighbourhood. “I fled the village for the safety of my family,” he said.

In Ghulam’s case the perpetrators were militants. “I and my 23-year-old daughter, Tahira, were picked up by the army last year. I was released immediately, but my daughter was kept in custody for 11 days,” he said. “She was booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but was released because of massive protests”.

Life for this branch of the Malik clan went relatively smoothly after that, until May 6 of this year. “We were about to have our dinner that evening when there was a knock at the door,” he said. “It was a group of Pakistani militants. I identified them because they used to come to the village often for food and shelter. They didn’t say a word and immediately opened fire. Tahira was at the door and she was hit in the chest. I jumped out of the window and saved myself but Tahira died crying for help.”

“I have no idea why they did it. What had my daughter done? She was full of life. Did she deserve to be killed just because she was arrested by the army?”

As Ghulam fell silent, there was a commotion. It seemed everyone in the room had a story to tell and every tale had a different villain, explaining and also confusing the larger story of Kashmir. Amid this din, a young boy crawled up to me to whisper his story. He introduced himself as Altaf Ahmad Khan, a school student.

“I live in a neighbouring village and I have lost three cousins,” he said. “Please mention them as well. They were killed in a firefight between the army and the militants. The militants had barged into the house. After a few hours the army came and there was a fierce encounter. Nobody bothered about my cousins and, when the debris of the house were searched next morning, their charred bodies were recovered, too.”

A little girl, sitting in the corner, was listening carefully to all the stories. She did not even blink, and her face was devoid of emotion. Who was this girl?

“She was one of six siblings; the eldest is just 12. Their father, Ghulam Nabi Malik, was killed by unidentified gunmen and their mother left them. There is nobody to support them and they are dependent on neighbours,” a village elder explained. Nobody in the village is sure who killed their father. Nobody even wants to guess because to do so is deemed too dangerous.

The story of Khayar village is nothing unusual. If you wander around remote hamlets or even the wealthy parts of the Kashmiri city of Srinagar, such stories repeat themselves everywhere. Kashmir’s daily death toll is 20, and it is a Kashmiri who dies by the bullet of either side.

The separatist movement, which started as an indigeneous struggle for Kashmir’s freedom from both India and Pakistan, has been hijacked by pan-Islamic jihadis, whose agenda runs counter to the very basis of Kashmiri aspiration. As social rather than political change has become the priority, religion has gained centre-stage in the struggle and violence has become an end itself rather than a means to an end.

Why are Kashmiris fighting? For whom are they fighting? If the choice is between Kashmir’s becoming a jugular vein of Pakistan or a rose in the bouquet called India, then the struggle is already over. They are fighting in a struggle they cannot control. If they wish to hold a dialogue with New Delhi, they have to seek permission from the jihadis, who ironically do not believe in achieving their goals democratically. If they want access to the remote controls in Pakistan, to negotiate directly, they become caught up in the political quagmire in New Delhi.

Some people protest against the killing of a militant by the security forces one day and the next shout slogans against the militants for perpetrating a murder. The case of two brothers in Srinagar who laid down their lives for opposite causes, but were mourned by the same people, is a glaring example of this confusion.

When a Hizbul mujahideen militant, Hamid Dar, died fighting security forces in 1994, thousands of people protested and mourned his death. After eight years, his elder brother Imtiaz Dar also died a violent death, but this time at the hands of the militants. His death was mourned with matching intensity. The family, however, is unable to draw lines and is confused over which side to favour. They are victims of both.

What will happen in Kashmir in the next 20 years? Ghulam Rasool Bhat, an old gravedigger, pointed towards one of the security force’s mud bunkers in Srinagar. “Soon that will be made from concrete,” he said.

He may be right. Nobody in Kashmir wants war, but nobody pursues peace either. The vested interests thrive on violence and hamper any movement towards reconciliation and healing, leaving the wounds wide open.

ยท Muzamil Jaleel is a Srinagar-based journalist with the Indian Express

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