Srinagar: Khadija Bano could only sleep after putting her ailing son to bed early that night and setting the alarm clock for Sehri. But the hush of the night was broken by the jackboots jumping the walls of her home in Srinagar.
She opened the door of her room at 2:30 AM to see ten government forces’ personnel, clad in black and armed with assault rifles, dragging her 33-year-old son. She had a stricken look on her face. “Where are you taking my son?” Bano shouted. Again. Her husband and daughter begged for mercy at Javaid Ahmad too. But the personnel didn’t budge.
Ahmad was terrified, too. Barely minutes ago, he was slumbering when the personnel barged into his room, snatched the quilt, and asked for his name. Frisking and searches followed. “They directed me to unlock my phone and hand over my laptop,” Ahmad said. “They were speaking on call with someone, who asked them to bring me and the phone.”
Ahmad couldn’t dare to resist. Amid the helpless cries of Bano, the personnel took Ahmad out onto the street, crammed with the government forces’ vehicles, parked in darkness. Then something unexpected happened.
“They asked me to go back. They took my phone and asked me to come to the Zakura police station next morning,” he said, wondering about the cause. It was a sigh of relief.
Frightened, he walked back into the house — “I’m back, mumma” — to see Bano lying unconscious on the floor. Unable to comprehend the situation, Ahmad rested Bano on his lap and splashed water on her frail face. Nothing. He held her hand, once again, rubbing fingers along the wrist to find a pulse. Nothing.
Bano had been a woman who lived her life in fear, said her son, Ahmad. Bano had raised a family with four children away from the shadows of guns, in a relatively calmer neighbourhood of Zakura’s Mirak Shah colony. But a word of a gunfight, or even a stone-throwing incident would upend her mental peace.
Millions in Kashmir have been in a near-constant military siege since August 2019, when New Delhi revoked the limited autonomy of the region and imposed a communication blackout. Then came the coronavirus lockdown next year and the paranoia only worsened.
The mental health woes in a region struck with three decades of conflict were further compounded by the dual lockdown.
“During the lockdowns, when she would see the military outside [on the road], she would get scared,” recalled Ahmad. “When they barged into the home in the middle of the night, she just got too scared.”
But the family believes that this also made her more protective of her children, especially her daughter, Rubeena Bano, who is visually-impaired. When Javaid and his father would go out for work, Khadija stayed home and took care of Rubeena.
“She would dress me, take me to the toilet, even bring me a glass of water,” said Rubeena. “She has been my only support in life.” After marrying two of the elder daughters, Khadija was now running errands to find a suitable bride for Ahmad.
But before her dream would near, she lay dead in front of her son. “The last thing she saw was police personnel dragging me away,” Ahmad said. “Mumma never saw me coming back home.”
For their satisfaction, the family members told The Kashmir Walla, they took Khadija to a hospital in Srinagar. The doctors said she was brought dead. “It was a heart attack,” Ahmad said. “They [police personnel] barged inside our house like they had to carry out an encounter. Anyone would be worried in that situation. What if they had killed me? That tension killed her.”
On Thursday, senior police officers that The Kashmir Walla spoke with either denied to comment or refused any knowledge of the incident. But the family members and neighbours said that the Superintendent of Police, Hazratbal, and Station House Officer of Nigeen police station visited to calm down the protest.
“They were shocked. They say some [police] party has come without our knowledge,” an uncle of Ahmad, sitting by his side with other mourners in the house, said. “But they are lying. They know they murdered her. Now, they are shielding their people.”
An unidentified police official told a local news agency, Kashmir News Observer (KNO), that on the basis of an input, a joint cordon and search operation was launched at Khadija’s locality. “Search was conducted. The search parties left after completing the search. In the morning, it was learnt that one lady Khatija Putoo, resident of same locality died because of a heart attack. Police are looking into the matter,” the official said.
The apprehensions in the mourning run high as everyone wonders what could have been done by the government forces that’d have saved Khadija’s life: “They should have done a proper background check … this man is innocent.” “They should have waited till the morning.”
But Ahmad, who sits muted in a corner of a room next to a broken window, doesn’t indulge with others. Seldom he steps up to console his weeping father. The thought of Khadija doesn’t leave Ahmad’s side. “I miss her,” he said, fighting back tears. “I can’t help but remember how she loved me.”
With his mother’s death, Ahmad’s will died too, he said. The will to protest and ask for justice. “I lost everything that night. Why shall I ask for justice? My mother was everything for me,” Ahmad said. As if the armed personnel shot at him and left a mother-shaped-hole in his heart. “Shall I fight a case in the court? Against whom? Nothing can bring back my mother now.”
The next morning, Ahmad didn’t go to the police station but the family staged a protest, demanding justice for Khadija’s death. Rubeena faced the cameras, speaking valiantly for her lost mother. “This is the story of our home,” she kept repeating as she recounted the dreadful night. “This is our story.”