Kashmir: the land of the dead

DAILY TIMES

COMMENTARY / INSIGHT

Kashmir: the land of the dead

Tawfeeq Irshad Mir

JULY 11, 2019

Picked hours after he brought his bride home, Tahir’s remains were sent home in a poly bag. The brutal killing gave Kashmir many sleepless nights. 13 years later, Ubeer Naqushbandi visits the family still in pursuit of justice.

In autumn 2003, Ghulam Hassan Makhdoomi, 60, who taught at the Falah-e-Aam school in the restive Tujjar village of Sopore was returning home happy. He had just confirmed his eldest son’s marriage with his deceased brother’s daughter, Afroza. On his way home, Makhdoomi was busy making plans, calculating the cost of marriage and other expenses. But first things first: he has to seek permission from Major Rajinder Singh aka Major Raju, a dreaded name in Tujjar who commanded Indian army’s 22 Rashtriya Rifles. “It was an unsaid rule in Tujjar. No marriage ceremony would take place without seeking a written permission from Major Raju,” recalls a frail Makhdoomi.

Once home, Makhdoomi sat down, took a pen and paper, and began an application to the Major sahab, 22-RR Camp Bomai. Makhdoomi finished the application informing Major sahab, “I am going to celebrate my son’s marriage on 10 and 11 September, 2003. In this regard, a little gathering of my relations and neighbours will be held.”

Next day, Makhdoomi bought a box of sweets and went to the Bomai camp to seek formal permission from the major. “He granted permission instantly,” recalls Makhdoomi. Thus began the celebration in Makhdoomi’s house. The entire neighbourhood resonated with songs praising groom’s innocence and bride’s beauty.

On September 11, 2003, around 4 p.m., Makhdoomi’s son, Tahir, left for his bride’s house. By midnight, Tahir was home along with Afroza, his bride. At 4 a.m., when everybody was asleep after a hectic day, a loud bang on the front door shook everybody. “It was Major Raju along with his men at my door,” recalls Makhdoomi. “He straightaway asked for my son.” Sensing trouble, Makhdoomi pleaded with the major to leave his son alone as it was his wedding night, but he did not listen. “I just want to have a little chat with him,” the major told Makhdoomi. He assured Makhdoomi that Tahir would be back by 7 a.m. With no other option left, Makhdoomi let Major Raju take Tahir with him.

Before Tahir left, Afroza his bride of just a few hours had one last look at her husband, and then held her mehndi-covered hands towards Major Raju. “She couldn’t say anything,” recalls Makhdoomi. “He [Tahir] was taken in his ceremonial attire.”

The moment Major Raju took Tahir, Makhdoomi knew something bad was about to happen; it was a bad omen for the helpless father. Instantly, celebrations turned into gloom. When Tahir did not return at 7 a.m. as promised by Major Raju, Makhdoomi, along with a few neighbours and relatives, went to the Bomai camp to seek his son’s whereabouts. “Major Raju sent us back assuring that Tahir was fine and would be home soon,” recalls Makhdoomi.

For the next two days, Makhdoomi and his relatives waited in vain, but there was no news of Tahir. On the third day, Major Raju knocked at Makhdoomi’s door once again, this time with news. “Your son was killed in an explosion while heading towards a hideout in the Balkul jungle,” Makhdoomi remembers Major Raju telling him without a hint of emotion or remorse.

It was heartbreaking for the family; nobody could control their emotions. Tahir’s mother, upon hearing the news of her son’s death, raised hue and cry, and confronted Major Raju. “He [Major Raju] took a spade and tried to hit my wife. I grabbed him by his collar and said to him: ‘Saale, tu kyun nahin mara’? (Why didn’t you die too?),” recalls Makhdoomi.

A day earlier, villagers had heard several gunshots in the nearby jungle, but nobody linked it with Tahir. “We thought there might be some gunfight,” recalls Makhdoomi.

As news of Tahir’s death spread in the adjoining villages, people started pouring into Tujjar, from where a huge procession headed towards the Balkul jungle. “Army didn’t allow us to visit the spot where Major Raju said Tahir was killed,” says Makhdoomi. “But people were adamant. We demanded Tahir’s body.”

Makhdoomi claims that Major Raju had already tortured Tahir to death inside custody. “He staged the entire thing to make it look like an accident,” alleges Makhdoomi. “How come only Tahir was killed in the blast while army men accompanying him escaped unhurt?” asks Makhdoomi. “Not a single army man had even a bruise.”

When the demand for handing over Tahir’s body grew stronger, Major Raju, along with his men, came to Makhdoomi’s home and handed him a polythene bag. “It contained a portion of Tahir’s mangled leg and a few other pieces of meat,” says Makhdoomi amid sobs. “That was all that was left of Tahir. I cannot forget that gruesome moment for the rest of my life. It has killed me.”

When the demand for handing over Tahir’s body grew stronger, Major Raju came to Makhdoomi’s home and handed him a polythene bag. “It contained a portion of Tahir’s mangled leg”

According to the villagers, a few days before Tahir was taken into custody, Makhdoomi had an argument with Major Raju. “He had forcibly taken villagers to the Bomai camp for manual labour,” recalls Makhdoomi. Major Raju ordered everyone to cut grass from the camp’s lawn. “Nobody dared to say no to Major Raju, but I refused,” say Makhdoomi. “Major warned me, “Iska anjaam theek nahi hoga” (There will be repercussions for this),” recalls Makhdoomi, an Imam of Jamia Masjid, Nathipora, who taught at a Jama’at-e-Islami run school. “My association with the school irked the major.” Makhdoomi says the major killed his son just to take revenge from him.

Next day, Tahir’s leg was buried in the local graveyard outside the Tujjar Sharif shrine.

After the news of Tahir’s brutal killing became public, the entire Kashmir witnessed protests. Tahir’s college in Sopore, where he was pursuing graduation as a first year student, remained closed for one month.

A few days later, Mufti Sayeed, the then chief minister and PDP president, and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, visited Makhdoomi’s house, and assured action against the accused Major Raju. “But nothing has happened so far,” Makhdoomi says. “I then took up my son’s case on my own to get him punished.”

But Major Raju was in no mood to let Makhdoomi breathe freely even after Tahir’s brutal killing. “He started threatening me of dire consequences if I didn’t stop pursuing Tahir’s case,” says Makhdoomi. “But I had made up my mind.” Then, alleges Makhdoomi, an agitated Major Raju started harassing Tahir’s younger brother, Tariq. “He would pick him on one pretext or another and torture him. It was all to keep me from pursuing the case,” says Makhdoomi.

While trying to bring Tahir’s killers to justice, Makhdoomi had many other issues back home.

His wife, Haleema, was a living corpse ever since she saw Tahir’s mangled remains. Tahir’s wife, Afroza, was no better. “She was grieving for her son, and at the same time, was worried about Afroza’s future,” says Makhdoomi.

After consulting Afroza’s brothers, Makhdoomi married her to his younger son, Tariq, in a simple ceremony. But this did not help change Haleema’s condition. “Her eyesight was fading, she had turned into a loner,” says Makhdoomi.

After Tahir’s killing, an FIR was lodged in the Sopore police station by Makhdoomi. Subsequently, the case was heard in the Tangmarg Lower Court, Dangiwacha Lower Court and Sopore Lower Court. “I didn’t let this case get buried under official files,” says Makhdoomi. But Makhdoomi’s intense perusal was making Major Raju restless. And finally one day, Major Raju came knocking at Makhdoomi’s door, for the third time. “He had come to apologise and make an offer of Rs 700,000,” says Makhdoomi.

“Khoon ka sauda karna chata tha” (He was putting a price on my son’s life),” says Makhdoomi.

Mufti Muzzafar, Makhdoomi’s brother, who was there at that time, told Major Raju that if he wanted to sincerely apologise, he should kill himself. “He left without saying a word,” says Makhdoomi.

After a few days, Major Raju once again resorted to his earlier tactics: picking up, harassing and torturing Tahir’s younger brother, Tariq, says Makhdoomi. “In between, he raised the blood money to 1.2 rupees. But I stuck to my demand: kill yourself,” says Makhdoomi.

In 2006, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) took cognizance of the case, and ordered an inquiry. However, despite the SHRC’s, intervention Major Raju was transferred to the Watlab area of the Bandipora district.

In 2014, the case was sent to the home ministry. “I have yet to hear from them,” says Makhdoomi.

Sources: A State Human Rights Commission report.

The ordeal revealed by the father of the deceased.

The writer is a student at GMC Srinagar