Shouch, Kulgam (Kashmir): A day before Eid, a graveyard which had been lying in complete neglect for years in this south Kashmir village was cleaned of its thorny bushes and wild creepers.
So when it came to the notice of Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, he sarcastically remarked that someone pious in the village was going to die.
“We even recalled the good men and women in the village who are at the fag end of their lives. We had a good laugh about it. For our family, such occasions of laughter are rare,” said Asif Mushtaq, a civil engineer and the eldest son of Mushtaq who is preparing for civil service exams.
The talk of death comes naturally to the Lone family of Shouch village, which is located in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, some 70 kilometres from the capital Srinagar. The family has the prettiest, oldest house in the village, but their life has been shadowed by great tragedies.
Mushtaq lost his father to a brain haemorrhage some years ago. His mother lost mental balance soon afterwards. Then, his youngest brother died by suicide at the age of 23 years. But the biggest tragedy struck the family in 2020.
When educational institutions across the country closed their doors to the students following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mushtaq’s youngest son, Aqib Mushtaq, an engineering student in Punjab, returned home.
On April 27, 2020, when Aqib had gone to meet his friends, he was killed by security forces in a controversial shootout in an adjoining village. Initially, the J&K police’s official spokesperson said in a statement that three militants had been gunned down in an encounter.
In a rare move, the police retracted its claim within hours. A revised statement, quoting the spokesperson, said that only a “militant associate” was killed at the encounter site from whose possession arms and ammunition were recovered while the three militants had managed to escape.
The pursuit of justice
Since the pandemic outbreak, the J&K administration has been denying the bodies of slain militants to their families, citing fears of that the virus would spread if people congregated at funerals. They also cited security concerns that large funeral processions for dead militants become a fertile radicalisation and recruitment ground for militant outfits.
However, a recent UN report, citing human rights activists, has pointed out that the refusal of the J&K government to allow the families of slain men to perform the last rituals could lead to more radicalisation in Kashmir.
Even though COVID-19 cases have ebbed and all the pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted in Jammu and Kashmir, the denial of bodies of slain men has become the official feature of the Union government’s policy in the Union Territory.
Aqib’s family too was denied his body. He was buried more than 100 km away in Baramulla district of north Kashmir. “Papa would make sure to visit his grave every week. Sometimes he would take mummy and others along with him too,” Asif said.
Mushtaq, a police officer, was unconvinced about the allegations that his son was involved in militancy. He wanted to clear the charges made against his son and prove his “innocence”. “He had made it a mission of his life to bring back Aqib’s body,” said a neighbour, on the condition of anonymity.
From the village numberdar (the lowest ranked revenue department official) to the top police officers, he approached all the institutions of justice with the hope of clearing his son’s name so that the family could exhume his body and bury him in their ancestral graveyard, which is situated less than 100 metres from their home.
“It would comfort us to know that he is close to his family. I don’t want any compensation. I only want my son’s body. I want to wake up in the morning and begin my day by offering fateha (prayer for the dead) at his grave,” Mushtaq told this reporter after Aqib’s killing.
But the pursuit of justice for his young son didn’t end fruitfully. Instead, it took a huge toll on his mental and physical health. In the weeks and months after Aqib was killed, Mushtaq developed a heart condition. “He would still go to Baramulla just to spend some time at Aqib’s grave,” said Asif, Mushtaq’s eldest son.
After spending Eid with his family earlier this week, Mushtaq resumed work at the Lal Bazar police station in Srinagar on July 12. On that day, he was leading a team which was deployed near a leading private school in the city to manage the rush of people on the third and final day of Eid celebrations.
That evening, when Mushtaq stopped answering his phone, Asif assumed that the device had again gone kaput. In a text message, he even suggested to his father to restart the phone, hoping that it would solve the problem. Then, the news of the attack on a police party in Lal Bazar flashed on his Facebook feed.
He feared the worst and told his mother, “we have perhaps been struck by lightning again”. Then the news was all over social media. “Our worst fears had come true and we went to Srinagar,” he said.
In a video released by the Amaq News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack, a pistol-wielding man is seen reaching one of the uniformed policemen from the back. The chilling video, shot with a body camera, shows the assailant firing multiple shots at the cop who was part of the police party under the command of Mushtaq.
Then, the perpetrator turns his attention to the police car and, having detected a second policeman inside, fires more shots, shattering the windshield. The third cop is seen getting shot beneath a Chinar tree before the 40-second video comes to an abrupt end. While Mushtaq succumbed, the other two officers escaped death with injuries on Tuesday, July 12.
Asif struggles to hold back tears. A youngster enters the small room packed with mourners. There is pin-drop silence in the room. Even the casual side-talks, a feature of mournings in Kashmir, are not happening. The shock of Mushtaq’s death has numbed the whole village.
“He was a very kind-hearted man. He would help out villagers and regularly made charity. If the perpetrators knew who they were going to kill, they would have perhaps changed their plan,” said Abdul Rashid, a resident of Shouch.
Despite his reluctance, Asif is ushered by the youngster into a small kitchen on the ground floor of their house where he is served rice with dal. He hasn’t eaten anything since his father’s tragic death. Sitting beside Asif is his uncle, Farooq Ahmad Lone, a fireman in the J&K government.
“I am still unable to believe that he is no more. Our life has been filled with tragedies. Mushtaq had managed to somehow overcome the shock of Aqib’s passing only recently. But now he too has been taken away from us. Is this why we came into this world?” said Farooq, crying inconsolably.
With a tragic turn of events cutting short Mushtaq’s life, his pursuit of justice for his son has also ended.
That pious someone to get buried in the graveyard in Shouch, which was recently purged of its ugliness, was Mushtaq himself. The villagers hope that the J&K administration will take a humanitarian view of the family’s suffering and return Aqib’s mortal remains.
“If papa could not unite with Aqib in his life, at least I hope to reunite them in death and die a contented man. This is the least the government can do to provide closure to our family,” Asif said.