In the backyard of the Khanqah Shrine, I saw a plump man with red cheeks, every Friday afternoon. He would come briefly; walk towards the far end of the shrine backyard, stand there for a few moments and then re-trace his journey to wherever he came from.
What lies at the extreme end of the backyard?
One day, after he left, I walked up, furtively, to that end of the shrine. A park with a mammoth chinar tree appeared: carpeted with autumnal leaves, it gazed desiringly towards the barricaded Jhelum and still bore the remnants of the past topography: ‘Ghat number 9’; now untenanted, of boats and their oars. People would ferry from Khanqah to Lal Chowk in this water transport, but when the armed movement began in late eighties and the river became an ally of the militants, it was sealed and turned into an image, that can be seen but not navigated. I kept walking. Slowly, morosely, in fearful anticipation of what might make itself manifest.
A skeleton of a room,
filled with graves, huddled closely, embracingly
under an open blue-sky.
Where wild outgrowth of trees and grass
form a tarpaulin, green,
for the bodies that reside
In a square patch of land, wild grass has crept itself over the jaded graves and time has faded the tombstones of remembrance. The opposite wall of this graveyard, half crumbled, overlooks the river Jhelum that has for years embraced the graves cradling on its bank. I stand still as I see these ruins of time, a spectacle of death, in the compound of the shrine. One of the shrine peer I have seen around in the shrine complex but never spoken to, passes by and stands next to me, silently, as he tries to coax some of the outgrown branches back into the graveyard.
‘It is the martyr’s graveyard’, he breaks the spell.
Nervously, I started counting the number of graves, feebly, in my mind.
The peer, Mehraj-ud-din Hamdani, who lives across the road from the shrine, said: ‘It got filled with bodies in no time. In some of the graves, there are two or more bodies also. In some there are only residues of body parts’.
Who were the people inside these graves?
I assumed, the red-cheeked man came to read fateh-khaani for one of his martyred kin, perhaps. But as I met more people in the shrine and in the community outside, I realized through popular oral history of the area, that the red-cheeked man, Mohammad Shafi Bangroo, came to offer prayers for five shaheeds, who were subject to inhabit these graves, prematurely.
Farooq Ahmed, Bilal Bangroo, Nazir Ahmed Shola, Shafiq Ahmed Shah, and Fayaz Ahmed Sheikh.
These five young boys were killed by CRPF in the milk ferrying vans driven by Bangroo and his cousin, during the month of Ramzan, in 1990. Dhoodhwalas (milk-men) by profession and caste, they are famously known as Haji Goore in Khanqah-e-Moulla, near the shrine. When the armed movement for self-determination in Kashmir started from late 1980’s onwards, the Indian military occupation deepened its tentacles of zulm and Downtown Srinagar was choked with curfews, crackdowns and checkpoints. On one such day, in March 1990, two dhoodhwalas, decided to get milk-supply from Narbal for the entire mohallah during the curfew-relaxation hours, declared from the loudspeakers of a J&K Police armoured ‘rakshak’ jeep, between the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the morning. Along with them, came young boys from the family and neighbourhood, either to help in the procurement of supplies or to kill the seething boredom of curfewed days. The distance from Srinagar to Narbal is 15 kilometres, roughly a 20 minute ride, one-way. Our red-cheeked man, Bangroo who was one of the goer (milkman), recalls reaching the Fateh Kadal Bridge at 8:45am, fifteen minutes before the onset of the curfew for the day, only to find CRPF wallahs dragging him out from the driver’s seat and mercilessly beating him. This, he said, was usual; a routine, a ‘terror as usual’.
“I thought we will be let go after they are done beating me, asking a few questions and seeking some explanations. But I had not anticipated the horror they unleashed on us that day. They started firing on the milk-van/matador: indiscriminate firing on the boys, on milk containers, on eggs, on lamb, on vegetables, on the seats; nothing was spared. As I watched from outside, helplessly, ‘meri aankhon ke saamne jaise andhera ho gaya’ (everything went blank in front of my eyes). They kept firing till they were satisfied that all the boys were dead, till the blood from their bodies interspersed with the milk in the matador. Two boys were killed in my matador: my nephew, Bilal, and his friend, Farooq. Three boys got bullet injuries on their skull and jaw but they survived and the remaining two feigned death through camouflaging themselves in the excess of blood that flowed from the bodies of their friends. In the other matador of my cousin, they killed three young boys at the same time. After the CRPF wallahs left, I sat in the driver’s seat and rushed towards SMHS hospital. There was only darkness in front of my eyes but I knew the roads, they carried me to the hospital as fast as they could”.
The red-cheeked man, Mohammad Shafi Bangroo, held these boys in his arms as they journeyed from their newly constructed, on-site grave in the milk-van to their corporeal asylum in the martyr’s graveyard. Later in the day, they were told that a CRPF wallah was killed in the morning by militants near Gandhi College which is tugged in between the conglomeration of the mohallas around Khanqah and Fateh Kadal. When the CRPF failed to retaliate against the militants in a war zone, they started targeting civilians on the road, perversely and asymmetrically, avenging the death of their own. This massacre by the Indian paramilitary forces, encapsulates the violence that splintered the everyday lives of Kashmiri people, then and continues to do so now. It also insinuates the visceral reality of the early 1990’s, wherein militants and civilians were doppelgangers of and for freedom, dying on behalf of each other and being buried together in the same patch of land in the martyr’s graveyard.
When five dead bodies arrived in the adjoining neighbourhoods of Shamaswoar and Namchibal, people came out on the roads, mourning and demanding freedom, unequivocally, fearlessly, roaringly. Notwithstanding the horror of violence and the barrier of curfews, a crowd in motion swamped the topography of Downtown, like a free-falling fluid, like water at the floodgates of Jhelum. In the lanes of Downtown Srinagar, the darkness of death and the light of freedom live intimately, like sullen lovers; like lullabies sung for dead sons.
But what happens when the dead are still kept alive, in meaning, in memory, in faith?
What does the remembrance of death do to life?
Tracing the cartography of this massacre, from the shopkeeper Latief Ahmed who survived a bullet injury in his skull to the family of Bilal Bangroo where memory was trapped in the suitcase of silence, I reached the home of Farooq Ahmed, a 19 year old mechanic. In the complex inroads of Shamaswoar, roughly one mile away from the bridge of the massacre, stood the house of Farooq Ahmed, where he dutifully responded to the call of waqt-e-sahar that morning, for the last time. I sat near Farooq Ahmed’s father who, having undergone an eye surgery recently, was wearing black glasses and lying on the mattress in the first floor room. The entire family started converging and filling up the space around him and around the big kettle of evening round of hot and pink nun-chai. Expecting a conversation smeared with silences, I did not ask any questions. Instead, with the presence of the entire family in the room including 7-8 grandchildren, the space was replete with lively conversations, colourful toy-scooters on the carpeted floor and slurps of sipping nun-chai.
But Farooq was a photo on the wall,
Farooq was a knot of memory
Suddenly, Farooq Ahmed’s father, whose name I could never ask, began to recount the experience of his son’s death in a motley assortment of perfect sentences, emotional slippages and silences.
“It was the second day of Mah-e-Mubarak. 30th March 1990.
We all woke up for sehri in the kitchen downstairs. After eating, I wanted my hookah. That time I used to smoke hookah, now I don’t. My son had already done wazoo. Upset with my smoking habit, he asked me ‘why do you want to smoke?’ but still on insistence of his mother he prepared the hookah for me—filled water, added coal, tobacco and lit it for me. We both left for ‘fazr namaaz’ in the mosque [which is just here he said directing towards the right hand side of his home].
He was walking a little ahead so when we reached the mosque he was in the salfa (line of prayer) in front of me. After namaaz, we both came back together. I went to sleep in the kitchen on the ground-floor and he went upstairs. I thought he had also gone to sleep. When at 8:45 in the morning we heard gun shots, I got up…
Humein pata thi woh upar…(we thought he was up…)
[Silence, a broken sentence and a muffled cry]
I stepped outside and went to the wani-paend (shopfront) in our road. I was waiting for him. Someone who passed by told me:
‘Bangroo is dead’.
Bashir Bangroo was my friend and neighbour. I went to his home to find out what has happened as there was no confirmed news. While Bashir was home, his son Bilal was missing. I asked him to come to SMHS (hospital) with me as we heard, in the form of a rumour, that many people have been killed on Fateh Kadal Bridge. He said, ‘I can’t go, I am scared of defying the curfew’. Those days curfew used to be imposed from 9 am onwards. So instead of him, I went to the hospital alone. I asked one of the doctors if there is any dead body. The doctor showed me towards a room and I identified the body. It was Bilal: Bashir’s 17 or 18 year old son. I wrote the address of my ‘mohalla’---Shamaswari, Khanqah and gave it to the ambulance to send Bilal’s body home. After that, I went back to the doctor again to ask him if there were more dead bodies from today. The doctor took me to the morgue which had eleven dead bodies[i].
[Silence for a few seconds]
All the dead bodies were covered with a white sheet…but my son was taller. The sheet couldn’t cover his body entirely.
[Loud sobs interlaced his words and echoed in the room]
I only saw his shoes, only this part of his body [touches his own feet] and identified him. I did not cry.
‘Main roya nahi’ (I did not cry)
‘Main roya nahi’ (I did not cry)
He had got a bullet over his right eye. Here (points to his right eye and touches it) but I did not cry. I told the doctor to send this boy home. The doctor asked me, ‘do you know him?’ I told him ‘yeh mera bacha hai, Farooq’ (he is my son, Farooq) and after saying his name I fell down in the morgue.
The doctor rushed to give me an injection. I could hear everything so I gestured to them ‘don’t’. Later I told them…
‘I am observing a fast, he was also fasting. He broke his fast with a bullet, but I will open it in the evening at home’”.
The transformation of the room from toy-scooters whizzing around one moment to a mournful wailing for Farooq the next moment, was a discontinuity of time and space, of past and present, of life and death, of occupation and azaadi. It belies the rhetoric that Kashmiris have buried the violent past of 1990’s and want to live peacefully with India and its security forces who are the harbingers of death and doom. In the re-telling of Farooq Ahmed’s brutal death, his father re-scripted the frozen slide of memory from twenty-six years ago. He said, “What I just told you, these words, are etched in my heart. I am not arranging them in a sentence; I am just reading them aloud to you”. This compels me to ask: how does time alter the experience of violence? What transforms in the ‘telling’ once it passes through the fulcrum of time? Does it become a reconciled narrative of the past or does the affective world of grief stand resolutely against the passage of time?
That Ramzan, 27 years ago, remains an incorrigible memory.
It, however, works in absurd puzzling ways. It remembers that every evening when Farooq returned home from his mechanic workshop, his hands would still be layered with oil and soot and mother would sit with him to wash them clean before dinner. But it does not remember if Farooq’s family had iftaar that evening after the muezzin’s call from the mosque when his body was being laid to rest in the subterranean world of azaad Kashmiris.
[i]These eleven bodies were of young boys killed by the security forces on the morning of 30th March 1990, with the exception of one body that was of a middle-aged man.