Umar had been a class mate of Tufail’s. They played together after their tenth class exams. He said he was a timid boy. Tufail wasn’t a stone thrower. The day he died he was going to his maternal home, carrying his school bag, when he was caught up in the tear gas, in the firing and the shelling. Umar simply said, ‘They shot at him.’
Boys grow so much between the ages of 17 and 19. Sitting beside me, Umar was almost a man. It was hard to imagine him in the same class as Tufail, whose own boyhood had been frozen in time by the small passport sized photograph that circulated in the media after his death.
Farooq, who was almost old enough to be Umar’s father, spoke about their work as caretakers of the Martyrs Graveyard in Srinagar, known in Urdu as the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa and in Kashmiri as the Shaheed Malguzaar. It was a service both to the nation and to Islam, carrying fourth a Sunnah, as the Prophet Mohammad used to deliver the burial rights for his own companions. Farooq and Umar’s vocation brought them to a world in Kashmir where loss was most visible and pain most raw. This is their everyday. Umar buries his friends.
Farooq said the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa in Srinagar, was formed just 22 years ago when the armed conflict began in earnest. It was the will of the people, and when people came together in their thousands, he said, there was little the government could do to oppose them. Emerging from this will the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa was envisioned as a place where martyrs from all over Kashmir would be laid to rest. But once the government recognised the historic importance this place would engender every effort was made to thwart that process of memorialisation. Each martyr’s grave is a piece of historical evidence – ever accumulating as the conflict continues – that the state does not want around. It is estimated that 70,000 people have died in the last two decades though only around 1,000 have been laid to rest in graves here. Not all who try manage to reach.
Both Farooq and Umar spoke of how the armed forces would cordon off the area with barbed concertina wire – especially during the uprising of 2010. They would beat people who had come to bury their loved ones. Refusing them entry to the graveyard. The government forces would fire on people demonstrating at the funerals of the martyrs. As a result, in the process of attempting to bury the dead, more people would die. Because of this many burials now take place in the dark of night, without a proper funeral.
Due to the violent repression the government has employed over the past two decades, it is no longer just Srinagar, but now almost every town across Kashmir has a Mazaar-e-Shohdaa of their own. As Farooq said, the peoples’ will would find a way. But before the 1990’s Kashmir did not have the culture of maintaining martyrs’ graveyards as it does today. Historically, there are the 13 July martyrs who in 1931 rose against Dogra rule, but for Farooq this was something very different. He said that it was only in the 1990s, when death and struggle became a part of Kashmir’s everyday life, that the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa became a part of their cultural fabric.
Another young man briefly joined the conversation. He said we are disconnected today from the repression that is still taking place around us. He said, ‘We feel things are fine, as if peace is in the air, but in reality boys are taken away in the night and we have no idea in what conditions they are detained.’ Farooq intercepted and said confrontation and violence would not achieve anything – conversation was what we needed.
Umar took us to the grave of his friend Tufail. Then he took us to the grave of another friend who died in 2010. In three days it would be the two year anniversary of this boy’s death. His name was Aanas Khursheed. Like Tufail, he was 17 years old when he died. Aanas was known as a fierce stone pelter, who had been under the eyes of the authorities. In 2010 on August 3rd Aanas decided to throw some stones at the CRPF vehicle that was stationed in his locality. There was nothing happening on the streets that day, so no one expected much response. But a senior officer signaled for one of his men to take aim. Aanas received a bullet in the abdomen. The CRPF placed a heavy drainage pipe over his bleeding body and left him there. They refused to let anyone recover his injured body. Hours later, Aanas was finally taken to the hospital, and declared dead on arrival.
Imagine the fury that pushes a young boy to throw a stone at a man with a gun and the legal immunity to shoot to kill. Now imagine the fury in that boy, as he lies there with the knowledge that he has been shot.
This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Nawaz Gul Qanungo as translator.