Son pursued justice for 25 years. But father’s killer is dead.

“I wanted [Papa Kisthwari] to suffer as I suffered. I wanted him to feel what I felt when I was looking for my father. Every time his bail plea was rejected by the court his helplessness would bring me pleasure.”

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Forty-five-year old Zahoor Ahmad Mir is fiddling with a folder of court documents and newspaper clippings, which he amassed in the last twenty-five years since his father disappeared. 

Sitting at his home in Brein Nishat area of the summer capital Srinagar, Mir knows who enforced the disappearance of his father before his killing. For the last thirteen years, he has been legally prosecuting “the killer” despite a slow justice system dragging his cause for punishing the guilty in his father’s murder.

Mir was only in his early twenties when his father, Ali Mohammad Mir, left home to buy medicines on 26 June 1996. His son still remembers that day when his father asked him for some money before he went out. Until evening Mir didn’t notice his father’s absence. 

In those years, not everyone had a landline phone connection in Kashmir, so Mir figured his father might be staying the night at a friend’s or a relative’s place, although he found it odd. The next morning, when his father still hadn’t returned, Mir went in his search and also sent his brother to check with relatives and friends who lived far off. Neighbors and relatives too joined the search. A search that would last decades.

His father, Ali Mohammad Mir, was missing. Mir, his relatives, and friends thought that he might have been abducted by the militants as it was a tumultuous time in Kashmir. For months, he went from pillar to post in search of him but didn’t reach any closer to his father’s abductor than the first day.

Three days after his father went missing, Mir filed a missing person report at the Nishat police station in Srinagar to locate him. Not only that, but Mir also went to several mystics and Sufis for help. While on this search, meeting different people from varying walks of life, one of those quests took him to Ghulam Hassan Lone, popularly known as Papa Kishtwari.

From Papa Kishtwari to finding truth

Kishtwari was a government-supported counter-insurgent or Ikhwani, operating from south Kashmir’s Pampore area. These gunmen claimed certain areas as their own territories and operated on behalf of the government. Local residents in these areas couldn’t move without being frisked or asked questions by these militiamen, standing guard on roads and streets. People would even need prior approval for a wedding or construction while locals had to bring the produce of their farm or cattle to the Ikhwan commander’s house.

When Mir approached Kishtwari asking if he knew the whereabouts of his father, Kishtwari initially denied having any knowledge. But he promised, “to help a son reunite with his father”. Mir says he was told to go on searches, which wouldn’t yield any results. Months passed but Mir found no trace of his father. 

After exhausting daily search missions, where Mir would be sent by Kishtwari, he got suspicious of him and begged Kishtwari to tell him the truth, if there was any to be told in the first place. 

It was after over six months, conceding the truth, Kishtwari acknowledged that Mir’s father had been abducted by none other than Kishtwari himself. 

“It was at this moment I felt the most relieved since my father’s disappearance,” he said. “At least now my father wasn’t missing. Even if he was a captive of a counterinsurgent commander, at least he was alive.”

To get his father released, Kisthwari demanded a sum of three lakh rupees from Mir. A distraught and financially broke son paid almost half of that in three installments. Mir was ready to do anything to get his father back as he slept with a dream of his father’s return every night. 

With this, a cycle emerged taking shape as Mir would go every week or fortnightly to meet Kishtwari in his territory, Pampore. But each time Kishtwari would make an excuse to delay his father’s release from captivity. It went on for three years until one day a bodyguard of Kishtwari told Mir the truth. 

He said he was told by the bodyguard that Kishtwari had killed his father on the same day, 26 June 1996, the day of the abduction. “He was never going to return home,” Mir quotes the bodyguard. “He had been mercilessly beaten up, put in a bag, and drowned in the river Jhelum.”

It was the last time in 1999, Mir met Kisthwari.

Digging his father’s grave

Kishtwari had killed 236 civilians, as per several human rights reports, and Mir didn’t want to be one of them. When the news of Ali Mohammad Mir’s killing by Kishtwari spread across, everyone distanced themselves from the incident. 

They felt there was nothing more left to do. Mir says his uncles, and even his own brother took a backseat in pursuing any form of legal action against Kishtwari. So, Mir took it upon himself to find his father’s last remains and punish the perpetrator. 

The police registered a First Information Report (FIR) against Kishtwari in 2007 — eleven years after Mir’s father had gone missing. By then the reign of counter-insurgents had come to an end and most were killed by the militants but Kishtwari was still enjoying government support and 24×7 heavy security cover. 

Subsequently, a month later he was arrested, but the charges brought by the police were of a different case. 

Unfortunately for Mir, fearing repercussions if witnesses came forward, the victims of Kishtwari’s murderous rule largely remained silent. Except for a few exceptions who testified in court, Kisthwari got indicted for murder but multiple other cases against him under Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) [now obsolete ] sections 346, 343, 120, 302, which included ‘conspiracy to hide evidence’ among others. 

Seeing Kishtwari behind the bars didn’t put Mir at peace. He says that he has had spiritual encounters with his father post his disappearance and they would increase in frequency every passing year. 

The absence of a body, even any shred of which he can call his father, irked him and he cried himself to sleep every night.

Meanwhile, in court, the legal proceedings against Kishtwari were going on since 2007. Mir had been demanding his father’s body to lay him for eternal rest and Kishtwari to be punished for the collective of crimes he committed. 

In 2011, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court then admitted a case on the recommendation of the then State Human Rights Commission — now defunct after the abrogation of Article 370 — after identification of 2,156 unknown unmarked graves in Kashmir. These graves also contained bodies of people fished out from the Jhelum river, as well as people killed in encounters who were never identified. 

Mir immediately volunteered to give his DNA for identification, hoping that his father may be buried in one of them. But nine years have passed and yet there has been no result on who is buried in those graves. 

On 26 June 2013, two years after the court had given its recommendation to identify the unmarked graves, Mir decided to dig an anticipatory grave for his father’s imminent arrival. He wanted to be ready with all the preparations for his father to come and rest. 

In one court hearing against Kishtwari and his gang, he even proposed a deal where he said he would dismiss the case against them if they told them where they had buried him. He was met with silence by Kishtwari. 

Over the years, in his fight for justice, Mir has been paying the ransom first, then the lawyers’ fees, trials and documentation fees, his travel, and the expenses to take care of his family, all of which eventually led to him selling off the inherited land.

Since then Mir has been living off the rent he makes from a shop in his locality but it isn’t enough for a family of five to live comfortably. He lives in a one-room annex behind his ancestral home.

Often restless, he seldom sees his father in his dreams since he dug the grave. Mir says now that his father doesn’t show up in his dreams, he is focused on making sure the people who were behind it never see the light of the day. 

His fanaticism over finding justice has become his obsession now. Since getting jailed in 2007, Kishtwari had tried to get bail five times but each time it got denied by the court in view of overwhelming evidence against him. 

“I wanted him to suffer as I suffered,” says Mir. “I wanted him to feel what I felt when I was looking for my father. Every time his bail plea was rejected by the court his helplessness would bring me pleasure.”

This month, after twenty-four years, Mir’s quest for justice came to a grinding halt. On 5 November 2020, Kishtwari breathed his last in Srinagar’s police hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest.

After decades of trauma and an endless search, Mir doesn’t feel he got justice in Kishtwari’s death.  “I believe in divine justice but I would have rather seen him rot in a jail cell,” says Mir. “Now his bones should burn in the grave.”

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