Mourning Over Empty Graves in Indian-controlled Kashmir

In conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Gaza and Turkey, dead bodies have been used as leverage for years. Now, in Kashmir, India is instituting a similar strategy, halting the hand-over of militants' bodies to their families and burying them far away. Is this an historic counter-insurgency success, or collective, if not inhumane, punishment?

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Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, father of 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq, has dug a grave in the family's ancestral graveyard in the hope of reinterring his son closer to home
Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, father of 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq, has dug a grave in the family's ancestral graveyard in the hope of reinterring his son closer to homeCredit: Aabida Ahmed
Siddiqa Ahmad and Aabida Ahmed
Siddiqa Ahmad and Aabida Ahmed

"Nobody knows why or how he joined the militants," Abdul Rashid Wani told us, his eyes welling up, while his wife silently brought in a tray of tea and biscuits. "Through appeals in the media, we tried our best to persuade him to return home," he added. 

Wani, a wiry, middle-aged farmer from the southern Pulwama district in Indian-administered Kashmir, was telling us the story of his son, Junaid Rashid. We had been welcomed into his modestly built home, and directed to a damp living room, where Wani began to frantically puff away at his jajeer, the Kashmiri version of a hookah. 

"Nobody knows why or how he joined the militants. We tried our best to persuade him to return home"

A former college student, 20-year-old Junaid was killed in a gunfight with the Indian military last year in the neighboring Shupian district. Around a month before the gunfight, Junaid had joined one of the numerous militant groups active in the conflict-ridden Kashmir region. 

Soon after his appeal to his son to come home, Wani received a phone call from the government authorities informing him that his son was dead, and that the body would be buried in Handwara, a day’s drive away from Wani’s home. 

"I briefly saw Junaid’s body in a police station in Srinagar [Kashmir’s capital] and then he was buried in Handwara," Wani recounted, adding with a deep sigh that he himself had never mustered the will to visit his son’s grave. 

Villagers at the funeral procession of local militant Muzamil Ahmed Dar in Rahmoo village near Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir two years ago, when mass burial events were still permittedCredit: AP Photo/ Dar Yasin

Since April 2020, citing COVID concerns, the Indian government has put a halt on handing over the bodies of armed militants to their families, and buries them in remote locations. In 2020, around 140 militants were buried in these locations, mostly in northern Kashmir. This year the number of such burials amount to more than 100, so far.  

Previously, the funeral processions of these militants passed through their native villages and towns, as the bodies were interred in neighborhood graveyards. However, as these funerals drew large crowds, they were also seen as sites of radicalization by the security establishment.

According to a 2018 study, commissioned by the police department in Kashmir, half of new militant recruits came from within a 10 kilometer radius of the residence of a dead militant. "It has been observed that, many a time, friends of killed militants manifest a tendency of pledging to join militancy on seeing the dead bodies and funerals of their friends," the study, cited by an Indian newspaper, stated. 

"We have stopped glamorizing terrorists and avoided potential law and order problems"

In this context, successfully halting militant funerals has widely been seen by local law enforcement as a strategic success. While also citing the fear that mass funerals would aid the spread of the coronavirus, a top-ranking police official said in an interview that the burial of militants at isolated locations "stopped glamorizing terrorists and avoided potential law and order problems." He went on: "This action is a historic one."

According to another report, by the Observer Research Foundation, an influential Indian thinktank, the funerals were occasionally attended by active militants, and this brought civilians in contact with them. It deems these kinds of interactions "one of the first and important steps in facilitating (militant) recruitment."  

The family of 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq, killed by Indian forces in December 2020, refutes the claim he was a terrorist: They say he was a schoolkid preparing to go to engineering school in IndiaCredit: Aabida Ahmed

While the dead bodies of militants and civilians are also held by the state authorities and non-state actors in other conflict zones such as Israel, Gaza, Lebanon and Turkey, this is the first time that the Indian authorities have established such a policy in Kashmir. The move, however, has drawn some opposition from people in Kashmir; earlier this year, the hashtag #ReturnTheBodies trended on social media. 

At a cursory glance, and in contrast with Abdul Rashid Wani’s home, where Mushtaq Ahmad Wani lives in Pulwama exhibits the affluence of comfortable middle-class families: those who go on regular picnics (an indicator of affluence), pay their children’s college tuition from their savings and gift them the latest smartphones.

The family of Arshid Ahmad Dar, a 17-year-old militant killed in a gunfight with Indian forces, can't afford to visit their son’s grave much: Arshid was their only hope of a stable economic futureCredit: Aabida Ahmed

However, the death of Mushtaq’s 16-year-old son, Ather Mushtaq, has left this family deeply discomfited and teeming with questions. 

Described as "hardcore associates of terrorists," according to a police statement, Ather and two other men were killed in December 2020 after the police contend that they threw a grenade and fired on a group of Indian army soldiers. Ather’s family disputes this account and maintains that he was only a schoolkid who had gone out with friends.  

"I fail to understand how Ather, in a space of few hours, was deemed a combatant when there was not even a single adverse police report lodged against him?" Mushtaq asked. On the night of his death, Ather’s body was swiftly interred in Sonmarg, a mountain resort five hours’ drive away from Pulwama, again in north Kashmir, in the presence of his father and uncle.

Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, father of 16-year-old Ather Mushtaq, refutes the claim he was a terrorist. He has dug a grave in the family's ancestral graveyard in the hope of reinterring his son closer to homeCredit: Aabida Ahmed

"I was only able to see Ather’s face with a cellphone flashlight before lowering him into the grave," Mushtaq recalled.  

"Half of my soul is buried in Sonmarg. I am ready to bear all the costs of exhuming Ather and reburying him close to home"

Nearly a year after the burial, Mushtaq is hopeful he will be allowed to inter his son’s remains and bring his body closer to home. He has already dug an empty grave for Ather in their local graveyard. "Half of my soul is buried in Sonmarg," Mushtaq lamented. "I am ready to bear all the costs of exhuming Ather and reburying him here."

All the families with whom we talked expressed concerns about the remoteness of the graveyards where their sons’ bodies are being buried. "We have to borrow a car from our neighbor and spend an entire day to reach his grave," said the father of Majid Iqbal Bhat, who was killed during a firefight with the Indian military in July.

Majid Iqbal Bhat’s mother holds his picture in her home in the southern Shupian district of Kashmir. Majid, killed during a firefight with the Indian military in July 2021, was buried 100 km awayCredit: Aabida Ahmed

A native of the southern Shupian district, Majid, a father of two toddlers, is buried more than 100 kilometers away in Handwara. "Especially in deep winters, because of the snow and shorter days, we are unable to travel to this remote graveyard," Majid’s father observed.

Travelling to faraway districts also adds to the economic burden of these families, some of whom said that they cannot afford private vehicles and their associated costs. "If the government buries them locally, in the same district, it would be much more convenient for us," said Shameema Akhtar, mother of Arshid Ahmad Dar, a 17-year-old militant who was killed in a gunfight last year. 

The family of Arshid Ahmad Dar, a 17-year-old militant killed in a gunfight with Indian forces, can't afford to visit their son’s grave much: Arshid was their only hope of a stable economic futureCredit: Aabida Ahmed

In a sinking voice, trying desperately to hold back her grief, Shameema told us that, before he joined the militants, Arshid was their only hope of a stable economic future. "My husband, Arshid’s father, cannot even do menial jobs because of myriad health issues." 

It is unclear whether the bodies are buried with even minimal Muslim rituals. And many families mentioned how they were subject to meticulous surveillance when they visited these remote graveyards. "Our phones are confiscated before entering the graveyard and, sometimes, we are accompanied by police personnel," Arshid Ahmad Dar’s sister said. 

The parents of Raouf Ahmad Mir, an armed militant killed by Indian forces during a gunfight in Pulwama, Indian-controlled Kashmir: 'The graves are numbered sequentially, that's the only mark on them'Credit: Aabida Ahmed

The family of Rouf Ahmad Mir, a militant who was killed in Pulwama in August 2020, also emphasized how the graveyards themselves are designed to be as nondescript as possible: "The graves are numbered sequentially, and that is the only mark on them – no religious insignia or epitaphs," said one of Rouf’s family members.    

"The graves are numbered sequentially, and that is the only mark on them – no religious insignia or epitaphs"

The government burial policy has also triggered a tit-for-tat response by the militant groups themselves.

As the government started systematically burying bodies away from their hometowns, the militant groups confiscated at least one Indian army soldier’s body. Shakir Manzoor, a 24-year-old rifleman in the Territorial Army division from southern Kashmir’s Shupian region, was kidnapped by militants in August 2020 while traveling in his car in the neighboring Kulgam district. 

Shakir Manzoor’s father, Manzoor Ahmad Wagay, frantically searched for his son’s remains for a year after Kashmiri militants kidnapped, killed and secretly buried the 24-year-old Indian soldierCredit: Aabida Ahmed

Shakir’s torn clothes were later found in an orchard nearby. In an audio clip, released over social media, whose veracity could not be independently verified, the militants admitted to killing the young soldier and deliberately burying his body in secret. 

"My prayers were finally answered. We buried him in our ancestral graveyard"

Shakir’s semi-decomposed body was recently found in Kulgam, over a year since his death. "The entire village, frantically, searched for Shakir during these months," Manzoor Ahmad Wagay, his father, told us, as a constant stream of mourners poured into the family home. "We dug through several kilometres of orchards and fields in search of Shakir," Manzoor said. 

Manzoor, a farmer, had even sought the help of pirs, faith healers, to locate his son’s remains. He said that he never had a doubt that Shakir would be found. "My prayers were finally answered," he added, in a tone mixing grief and consolation. "We finally buried him in our ancestral graveyard."      

The reporting and photography for this article were sponsored by a global reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center

Siddiqa Ahmad and Aabida Ahmed are journalists based in India who have reported extensively in Indian-controlled Kashmir. They are using pseudonyms to protect their personal safety

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