The beheading of Rahim Chhaan and two others


The history of ideas usually credits the discourse that it analyses with coherence. If it happens to notice an irregularity in the use of words, several incompatible propositions, a set of meanings that do not adjust to one another, concepts that cannot be systematized together, then it regards it as its duty to find, at a deeper level, a principle of cohesion that organizes the discourse and restores to it its hidden unity. This law of coherence is a heuristic rule, a procedural obligation, almost a moral constraint of research: not to multiply contradictions uselessly; not to be taken in by small differences; not to give too much weight to changes, disavowals, returns to the past, and polemics; not to suppose that men’s discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of their desires, the influences that they have been subjected to, or the conditions in which they live; but to admit that if they speak, and if they speak among themselves, it is rather to overcome these contradictions, and to find the point from which they will be able to be mastered.

— Michel Foucault; The Archaeology of Knowledge

It was finally at the Law Faculty of Aligarh Muslim University that I had to confront the notion of ‘beheading’ head-on. Criminal jurisprudence did not mince words on the subject. The diplomatic ‘decapitation’ was hardly ever employed in the textbooks. Almost always, it was the butchery ‘beheading’. We got to learn about Hammurabi’s code and perspectives on Draco, (who, like the Taliban, to use a recent example, has unfairly been designated such a figure of terror, there continue to be terribly worse doctrines in the world than theirs, often such doctrines being the first ones to characterise others as ‘Draconian’ and ‘Talibanised’) the hedonistic and experimental Medieval European and Chinese procedures, and “Islamic” beheading down to the guillotine of the French and what followed, i.e., the beheading of democracy and the democracy of beheading.

Deep inside, I had always known that my refusal to confront the notion earlier was naive and impractical. Beheading is imprinted on some of the earliest memories I possess and continued to be a persistent presence well into my teens when I left Kashmir to study at Aligarh. There were tens of cases of beheading in Kashmir I had heard of or knew about, including the well-covered Al-Faran case. That particular case was so well-covered that it was only in 2012 that Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark finally came out with the results of their investigation in the form of a book The Meadow which implicates a pro-India militia for the Al-Faran killings. At the time of the episode, however, and for as many years afterwards as the Indian State could milk it (Which might be forever, thanks to the mass reproduction of lies. Long live Baudrillard!), it had been “Islamist Kashmiri terrorists” who had carried out the beheading as part of their ongoing war against the “west”, particularly Amrika, which was Islam’s biggest enemy. India continues to employ Islamophobia in its unscrupulous war against Kashmir but now it is a double-bluff. So, while on the one hand you still have the figure of fundamentalist Kashmiri Muslim, the “rage boy” internationally, whose thoughts on ummat and khilafat and the world order are so minimal and impossible that you can show them to be violently anarchical, on the other hand you have supposedly religious Kashmiri Muslim police officers, bureaucrats and anti-azadi politicians, assumed salafis and sufis alike, telling people that it is anti-Islamic to wage a war against India and people who do so are “jahnami”, “porn addict”, “burger-fed” etc because they are against peace and Islam is peace, plus India does not stop Muslims from offering namaz, so there is absolutely no reason to demand azadi. Thus, a consensus develops in some closed groups that stone-pelting has no sanction in “Shariah”, it is vagabondry, while showering bullets, or threatening to do so, on people who don’t have guns is perfectly Islamic.

The chilling thing is that when Ostro was beheaded, a lot of people I knew actually thought he deserved it. By that time, the war in Kashmir had already been made so shadowy that its details, facts if you will, became indecipherable to the common folk and specifics of most events had simply become a question of how much trust you had in the actors. That was a masterstroke of the Indian State in the Al-Faran case. You had what people at that time believed to be militants doing the beheading. People had faith in the militants, at the very least much more than they had in the Indian State. So when some people said he deserved it, what they meant was, he must have deserved it.

Two horrible consequences of this state of affairs: One, this is how sickness permeates in a society, people being forced to support murders when they know next to nothing about the details of the crime and punishment. This was a big victory of India over Kashmir and the bottom of this amoral morass is where India draws out the third generation of collaborators from, who believe that Kashmir is a free-for-all where everybody has been killing everybody and so there is no more integrity in supporting the revolution than there is in collaborating with the Indian State (and making your own life materialistically comfortable while you are at it). Two, imagine a foreign journalist interviewing people in Kashmir after the beheading of Ostro who tell her that they supported the beheading. She reporting the same to her office in New Delhi or New York without the context of a war-zone we all know about. We, whose heads are in the line, do not have the luxury of forgiving such acts as stupidity of journalists, we have to think of them as deliberate acts of war.

Kosher language has intriguing phonetics on beheading. Khosh is happy. Khesh is a minor slash, khaash is a gaping wound which might bleed like a spring but which is never mortal; khash, again as the sound itself suggests, is a decisive cut, violent and deadly, the point after which the subject is valid only as a body, not a person and which inescapably leads to kal tsatun, beheading. Matters are not helped by how people stress on the voiceless retroflex sibilant at the end. It is brutal; so terrifying that mothers and aunts and sisters fire it at children as a last resort prohibiting them from fooling around and it works most of the time as the brats cower and stop that very instant.

I must have had my quota of khash karraiy or khash karnawhy, the direct and the vicarious threats of beheading because, as everybody keeps reminding me, and as I remember from later, I was a problem child. I do not remember any of these early threats save from received memory. My earliest memory of the word khash is of a winter’s morning in the first year of the armed struggle. It is a very faint, ethereal memory. I was five or six at that time. I had just woken up and was standing outside the kitchen door, I do not know why. My parents and grandmother were having a hushed conversation in the eat-in kitchen. It has always broken my heart, the way people here lower their voices to less than a whisper when talking about something terrible, even inside the privacy of their homes, even when nobody is listening. The whispers suddenly ended as grandmother wailed in her sweet, nasal voice, and this is the point where the memory is sharpest: Khodaya rahm, khash haw? Toabe takseer! Toabe takseer! At which point I must have knocked on the wire-gauze door because mother came running to let me in and pick me up.

Over the next few weeks, I must have picked up more detail from here and there. I remember Hanif aap, the robust grandmother living next door and the proud owner of a filthiest of tongues, mention See Are Pee as the culprits who, in her opinion, should have hot iron rods shoved up their asses till they remembered their mother’s milk. I remember asking father what See Are Pee was and he correcting me — it was CRPF – and explaining that they were wolves baying for Kosher blood. It was as neat as A for apple and B for ball. CRPF for Khash.

Past, as we all know deep inside, is an excuse we make to escape the eye-soring glare of what is ever-present. A few days ago, I was having an online conversation with a Kosher friend who studies in Delhi on whether the Indian insecurity forces in Kashmir ever use the cultured, “Gaadi se neech utar jayey” or “Tamaam Mohalle waaloun se guzaarish ki jaayte hai ki woh school-ground mein jamma ho jayein”. My friend expressed disbelief that the armed men ever prefixed their orders with a “please”; I know from experience that they do so every now and then, but that wasn’t the point my friend was making anyways. What he was really saying to me was that they never must do so. When CRPF enters your personal vocabulary as those who do khash, what possible meanings will their smiling on you and saying this please and that excuse me while the cold metal of guns continues to shine from their shoulder down hold?

Later, I remember grandmother telling me that Abdul Ghani, who was a schoolteacher and one of the three persons who had been done by khash by the CRPF in Dialgam, our neighbouring village, had his head twenty metres away from the body and people had to search for an hour before they found it. That image, the faces I knew in that village and particularly in that Mohalla because it was spread around the link-road that connects our village to the main road from Islambad town to Vearnag and Kokarnag, looking right and left, front and under their feet, searching for the head, has remained with me. Years later, when we had to retrieve a six-hit cricket ball from hedges and overgrown bushes on dying evenings, the image would return to me and I would see eyes and a smile, not of Abdul Ghani but of Rahim Chhaan.

When I mention Rahim Chhaan I remember a darkish, smallish fellow with sunken cheeks, bright eyes and the smile of a sunflower. I remember him working on the frames of the windows of the second floor of our home in the corner room next to the only finished room on the floor. This room was later allotted to me. I remember him smoking a jajeer and the stylish way in which he released the smoke from the corner of his mouth. I remember returning from school one day, seeing a heap of sawdust in the room and happily declaring that now our cattle (a cow, a heifer, a calf and an ox) would have a feast. Everybody laughed and then Rahim Chhaan pulled me into his lap (Do I remember his pine aroma or do I imagine it?) and said, “Son, this is sawdust, not bran.” The Kashmiri word for both sawdust and bran is kosh and after his beheading this was another addition to the alliterative private memory: kosh, khosh, khesh, khaash and khash.

In addition to these two, Abdul Ghani’s brother-in-law, who had been visiting that night, was also beheaded. Many people who know of the incident are under the impression that five people were beheaded that night instead of three. How much does the number matter? What significance will it hold if we discover whether they were killed on a Sunday or a Friday? What difference does it make if Rahim Chhaan’s head had been lost and found instead of Abdul Ghani’s? What if it took only three minutes and seventeen seconds to find the head instead of my grandmother’s akh gante, one hour? Law, as we all know, requires evidence, precision, records. What does lawlessness demand?

I do not know all the facts about the incident, just that suspected militants had fired on a CRPF patrol which had probably lost or injured a couple of soldiers. The soldiers got down from their vehicles and dragged the victims from their homes because their lights were on, took them to the banks of the nearby stream and khash. In my younger days, I used to make a conscious effort to duck under more information thrown in my direction, attempt to escape from earshot from khash conversations, go blind when I should have been seeing. I have always known Abdul Ghani’s son, he is almost my age and is now married to my cousin. I used to get fidgety around him when there was any chance of knowing more, in the same manner in which I twitched through chapters containing beheadings in books of criminal law, as if I were personally responsible for the beheadings. The only person I ever sought advice from on the issue, my first girlfriend, told me in her cheerful Kosher tone, “We must all bear the shame of living in an unjust world.”

A second thought makes me even more restless. At any given moment, I can afford to forget Rahim Chhaan’s name, because I remember his face but how will those who did not know him know what he was by a name they read on a computer or a piece of paper. When the CRPF did him by khash on behalf of the Indian State, what they actually wanted to do was to make him to cease to exist. To make him a rumour; at best a good conversation. What alchemy of language can convey to a person who did not know him that the words Rahim Chhaan are more real than, say, Article 21 of the Indian Constitution: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. That the energy in his forearms when he ran his plane down a block of wood, creating beautiful flower shavings was enough to burn a thousand constitutions in which people do not have faith. Is this how States defeat people, by reducing their existence to the same level as those of its rules?

I now believe that knowing more is also a burden we must all bear. So I ask my mother again what she remembers of the incident. She tells me that Rahim Chhaan was a chirpy, alive fellow. He had carved the window-frames for three rooms and had promised to do the remaining two later. Mother says he solemnly promised, “Sister, I will make you a kitchen which will never cease to amaze.” She breaks down.

Rahim Chhaan and the two others were beheaded so that the Indian State could instil disciplining fear in the Kashmiris who were exposed to the event to make them desist from participating in the demands for self-determination. I understand this but I do not have access to records in New Delhi that can show it as a fact. But then I also do not have access to records in New Delhi that can show that Rahim Chhaan existed. Probably he doesn’t exist in New Delhi.

This past week, as I kept hearing from indirect sources how television anchors and army chiefs and navy admirals were pretending more than madness over the beheadings of soldiers at the LoC between the two parts of Kashmir, I was reminded that as kosh can mean both bran and sawdust so can you put the same label on any two disparate things, ideas, institutions, events, feelings and what not, that is not going to unify their nature. Asking people why they need azadi is not a question, it is an answer. Demanding decapitation of ten people in vengeance should not be easy. The sacred duty when you have the power to behead ten as revenge is to mourn and meditate. The sacred duty when you do not have the power to behead in retaliation is to fight until you gain that power.

So it came to pass that after Rahim Chhaan’s beheading, all the rooms except mine on the first floor of our home remained doorless and windowless for twenty years after which we finally shifted into this new house. We had the windows for three rooms and we could have hired another carpenter to do the rest and the doors. We were not rich but we could afford all that, as the construction of this new house affirms. I have never asked my father why he did not get the doors and windows fixed. If I ask him, I’m sure he will make an excuse; he did not have the money; there were no good carpenters around; a new carpenter would not work on the unfinished business of a dead man, excuses I could simply show as absolutely ridiculous even in the most respectful, obedient-son tone. I think I have not asked him because sometimes understanding is much better than knowing.

Arif is a lawyer and writer who lives in Islamabad, Kashmir.

Thumbnail photograph by Dilnaz Boga/

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