“They have imprisoned his dead body”: The empty graves of Kashmir

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Mehmuda Begum last month saw her brother Maqbool Bhat in a dream. 

When Begum woke up in the morning, the memory of the dream was vivid and it felt to her like a reunion.

Begum had last seen her brother in 1982 when three members of the family had gone to meet him in New Delhi’s Tihar jail.

“They made us wait for around one hour and then we were allowed to meet him,” said Begum, adding they had a walk through four gates before reaching the meeting room where they were separated by iron bars. 

“As soon as I saw him coming in, I lost control of myself. I cried a lot. He was bound in chains … all around his body, from his feet to his neck,” she said. “I hopelessly begged them to allow me to embrace him once. They did not allow.”

Begum said the sound of Bhat walking in the chains still echoes with her. 

Bhat was carrying a pen and a notebook which, he had told Begum, contained notes for a book that he had been writing during the jail years. “We still demand that notebook, it is our right,” she said. 

“He was not sad even for a moment. I could feel that he knew he was not going to be released while he was alive,” she said.

Maqbool Bhat 

Bhat, a resident of frontier Kupwara district’s Trehgam village, was the pioneer of Kashmir’s militancy and had picked up arms in the 1960s – nearly three decades before a full-blown insurgency entrenched itself across the Himalayan valley.

He was hanged on 11 February 1984 in New Delhi’s Tihar jail, where he also remains buried.

Five years after his hanging, Kashmir insurgency’s first general Ashfaq Majeed Wani had dug a grave in a corner of Srinagar Eidgah. The grave, marked for Bhat, was the first to be dug in the graveyard that became locally known as Shaheed Malguzar, or the Martyrs’ Graveyard.

It was Kashmir’s first empty grave.

“We have not received an answer from the government even till now. We kept demanding his dead body but they did not answer us even once,” Begum told The Kashmir Walla

On 9 February 1984 – two days prior to his hanging – the buzz had already gripped Trehgam that Bhat, 45, was going to gallows.

Bhat had written a letter to Ghulam Nabi, one of his four brothers, in which he had called him to jail. “As soon as he reached Srinagar, he was arrested,” said Begum. 

Manzoor Ahmad, another of Bhat’s brother, was also arrested from the Trehgam home. 

The arrests – made days ahead of the hanging – were making no sense for the family till the morning of 11 February when neighbours gathered at Bhat’s home. “Our brothers were not there and we were suddenly told that he has been hanged,” Begum said. 

“I don’t remember the details of the next one month. The world had ended for us,” she said. 

Begum recalls mourners gathering arriving in Trehgam and protests happening elsewhere. “People kept coming for a long time after that,” she said. 

For Begum, Bhat’s empty grave symbolises the hope that someday his body will be returned. “We do not even feel like he is not in that grave. It feels like he is there, resting,” she said. 

Bhat has another empty grave in Trehgam as “a sign of remembrance” for the family. Bhat’s two brothers – Ghulam Nabi and Manzoor Ahmad – were also killed in the following decades. “Their last wish was to be laid to rest next to their brother’s empty grave,” she added.

The Behisht 

The empty grave of Bhat is in the first row of the Behishte Shohdaaye Kashmir, the persian for paradise of martyrs of Kashmir. It houses around 1500 people, mainly militants but also civilians killed since the dawn of the region’s insurgency. 

Next to Bhat’s grave, another empty grave was dug in the winter of 2013 for Afzal Guru – a resident of north Kashmir’s Sopore town who was hanged in Tihar Jail where he was buried next to Bhat.

Guru was hanged for his involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack in which the court had found him involved in providing logistics to the five attackers and decided to hang him to “satisfy the nation’s collective conscience”.

The epitaph of Guru’s empty grave in Srinagar has a similar inscription which is written on Bhat’s epitaph that his “body is a debt on the Government of India”.

The graveyard at Eidgah was initially planned to host all the slain militants from across Kashmir region. However, later years saw similar graveyards emerging in other districts.

At the Eidgah graveyard, a narrow cobblestone pathway runs between rows of graves with unvarying white tombstones that carry the details of the dead – names of dead and places and dates of their death. 

The last person buried in the graveyard was Bashir Ahmed, a 65-year-old man from Srinagar killed in Sopore during a gunfight in July 2020. 

Mohammad Abdullah Khan, the graveyard’s caretaker for thirty years, died in 2017. “He was never afraid of anyone. He used to take a basket full of flower petals and throw it on the empty graves of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat,” said a local resident.

Another empty grave

In the southern Pulwama district, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani dug an empty grave last month for his 16-year-old son Ather. 

It is easy for him to visit the empty grave and cry, Wani said. “My soul is there in Sonamarg where they buried him. I don’t know how to live anymore,” he said.

Ather, a class eleventh student, was killed in a gunfight in Srinagar in December last year along with two other youth from south Kashmir. The police had maintained that the trio were militants while their families contested the claim and urged that they were civilians.

The bodies of the trio were taken by the police to Sonamarg, a meadow resort on the edge of Kashmir valley, where they were buried – a practice put in place by the police since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic.

Wani has protested the burial at the remote site in Sonamarg, 120 kilometers from his home, and demand the body of his son be returned to him. “I have to stand before Allah in the hereafter and he will ask me what I did for my son,” he said.

Since his killing, Ather’s grandparents have been asking Wani about his body. “What should I say to them? My parents loved and pampered him for sixteen years. They should have been given the right to touch his face for the last time,” he said. 

On Fridays and special occasions such as Eid, said Wani, people go to the graveyards to offer fateha – prayers for the dead. “Where am I supposed to go? Sonmarg is so far from my home,” he said. 

“When I saw his body in Sonamarg, it was beaten. His face had a shoe print over it. I cleaned it with my clothes,” he added. “They have imprisoned even his dead body.”

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