Umar had been a classmate of Tufail’s. “We played cricket together after our tenth-class exams. Tufail wasn’t a stone thrower. He was gentle. He was walking to his maternal home, carrying his school bag, and they shot at him.” Umar spoke with simplicity. Boys grow so much between the ages of 17 and 19. Sitting beside me, Umar was 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 seemed 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 is our service both to the nation and to Islam. We are carrying fourth a Sunnah. Our Prophet Mohammad used to deliver the burial rights for his companions too.” Farooq and Umar’s vocation brought them to a world in Kashmir where loss was at its most visible and pain was raw. This is their everyday. Umar buries his friends.
Farooq told me 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 come together in their thousands,” he said, “there is little the government can do to oppose them.” The Mazaar-e-Shohdaa in Srinagar 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..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 Shaheed Malguzaar of their own. As Farooq said, the peoples’ will would always find a way. But before the 1990s 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. “It was only in the 1990s, when death and struggle became a part of Kashmir, that the Mazaar-e-Shohdaa became a part of us.”
Both Farooq and Umar spoke of how the armed forces would cordon off the area around the graveyard with barbed concertina wire—especially during the uprising of 2010. They would beat people who had come to bury their loved ones. They would refuse them entry to the graveyard. The armed forces would fire on people at funerals. As a result, in the process of attempting to bury the dead, more people would die. Farooq and Umar told me that now many burials take place in the dark of night, without a proper funeral service at all.
Another young man suddenly joined the conversation. “We are disconnected today from the repression that is still taking place around us. 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 condition they are detained.”
“Confrontation and violence won’t achieve anything” Farooq interrupted, “conversation is what we need.” The young men remained silent, but didn’t seem convinced.
Umar took us to the grave of his friend Tufail. Then he took us to the grave of another friend who also died in 2010. “In three days it will be the second anniversary of his death.” Umar’s friend was named Aanas Khursheed. Like Tufail, he was also 17 years old when he died. But Aanas was known as a fierce stone pelter. He had been under the watch of the authorities for some time. On August 3rd 2010, Aanas decided to throw 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 then placed a heavy drainage pipe over his bleeding body and left him there. The CRPF refused to let anyone recover his injured body for hours. Finally Aanas was taken to hospital, and declared dead on arrival.
Imagine the mix of fury and desperation that pushes a young boy to throw a stone at a man with a gun and the legal immunity to kill him. Now imagine the fury in that boy, as he lays there with the knowledge that he has been shot.
This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Nawaz Gul Qanungo as translator.