Brief history of Azadari: From Karbala to Kashmir

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

It’s that time of year again when the campaigners of truth and justice, cutting across ethno-sectarian and ideological lines, rally to pay homage to the ‘master of the martyrs’, a 7th century revolutionary historical figure who redefined the ideas of resistance and resilience on the desert plains of Karbala (Iraq) 1400 years ago. The uprising and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), the beloved grandson of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), in 61 hijri (680 AD) arguably has no parallel in the annals of history. To invoke poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal (ra), “he watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, uprooted the despotism and awakened the slumbering Muslim nation”.

Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) uprising against Yazid ibn Muawiya was not a struggle for power or one-upmanship; it was a confrontation between truth and falsehood, just and unjust, blood and sword. In the battle of Karbala, blood triumphed over the sword. Hussain (as) and 71 companions fought against Yazid and his 30,000 strong army. Hussain (as) had made it clear that he will not pledge allegiance to a despot like Yazid. In Maqtal al-Hussain by Al-Khwarizmi Hanafi, it is mentioned that when Waleed ibn Uqbah, the governor of Medina, summoned Imam Hussain (as) to swear allegiance to Yazid, he refused. “A person like me cannot give the pledge of allegiance to a person like him,” Hussain (as) said.

Through these annual Muharram commemorations, the people of conscience reaffirm their pledge to the sacrosanct principles exemplified by Hussain (as) in Karbala. It strengthens their resolve to speak truth to power, like Hussain (as) did in Karbala and his sister Zainab bint Ali (sa) did in the aftermath of Karbala. Its message is timeless and resonates even today, with tremendous clarity, inspiring truth-seekers and the advocates of human rights across the world. In Ziyarat e Ashura, we beseech Allah to “provide us an opportunity to fight for justice…” That’s the legacy of Karbala.

The tradition of azadari, commemoration of the events related to Karbala, which is essentially a universal protest of oppressed against oppression, began soon after the tragedy of Karbala when the members of Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) household, including Sayyeda Zainab (sa), Sayyeda Umme Kulsoom (sa) and Imam Zainul Abideen (as), were released from Yazid’s prison in Damascus and sent back to Medina.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina.

What is the significance of azadari? In the words of Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), a great scholar of Islam, it is the means of keeping alive the movement started by Imam Hussain (as) in the desert plains of Karbala. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people for fourteen centuries, continues today in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the purpose of Hussain’s (as) uprising is essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

“Every revolution”, says Iranian sociologist Dr. Ali Shariati, “has two visages: blood and the message. Hussain (as) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations.” That is essentially the objective of Azadari and these annual Muharram commemorations.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina. Ummul Baneen (sa), the mother of Abbas ibn Ali (as), played a pivotal role in making the practice popular in Medina by writing some heart-rending marsiyas. Those marsiyas, according to historical accounts, jolted people out of slumber and laid bare the evil machinations of Umayyad rulers. These are the women of Karbala, who toppled a powerful empire with their spoken and written word.

When Yazid was informed by Marwan bin Hakam, his close aide, about these mourning gatherings in Medina, he feared public mutiny and ordered the re-arrest of Imam Zainul Abideen (as), the ailing son of Hussain (as) and the only surviving male member of the holy household. That forced the caravan to move back to Damascus. But, notwithstanding the hegemonic diktats of Yazid and his coterie, the insurrection caused by the martyrdom of Hussain (as) and his companions was kept alive through azadari in Medina, followed by other places.

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough. The ‘messenger of Karbala’, a model of defiance against injustice and oppression, shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire with her soul-stirring marsiyas and sermons. When she confronted Yazid in his Damascus palace, there was a stunned silence. “I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone but Him and do not complain to anyone but Him,” said the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as). “You may employ your deceit and shrewd tactics, but I swear by Allah that the shame and ignominy you have earned for yourself by the treatment meted out to us cannot be erased.” That is exactly what happened as the word spread and a mighty empire of Yazid was razed to ground.

In 352 hijri, the first Muharram procession was taken out in Baghdad by then Abbasid ruler Mu’tazz Daulah. Almost 11 years later, on the occasion of Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura), a historic procession was taken out from Baghdad to Karbala. In 423 hijri, first zuljanah procession was taken out in Kufa by the members of Banu Assad clan. Many similar processions were later taken out in Baghdad, Iran and India. In India, Muharram processions were first taken out in Awadh (present day Lucknow), almost 200 years ago, under the patronship of the Nawabs of Awadh. Mirza Abul Qasim, a legendary marsiya nigaar of Kashmir, had travelled all the way to Awadh on the invitation of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. 

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa) in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough

In Hyderabad, during the reign of Nizams, both Muslims and non-Muslims would participate in these processions. From quiet ceremonies inside crammed hallways to huge street processions, azadari over a period of time became synonymous with the cry of oppressed and revolt against the oppressor.

Imam Zainul Abideen (as), as an eyewitness of Karbala, played a key role in establishing the institution of azadari and conveying the message of the martyrs. His descendants kept the tradition alive. They would invite prominent poets to write and recite elegiac poetry in the honor of the martyrs of Karbala. Once Imam Zainul Abideen (as) went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Hasham bin Abdulmalik bin Marwan, the Khalifa (ruler) of that time, was also present there. Khalifa tried hard to touch Hajrul Aswad (black stone in the eastern corner of Kaabah) but was unable to make his way through the crowd. In the meantime, a young man walked in. When he approached Hajrul Aswad, the crowd immediately dispersed. The Khalifa, who was watching the spectacle, was taken aback. He knew the young man but when someone asked him, he feigned ignorance. Furuzduq came forward and recited a beautiful poem, eulogizing the Imam and his household. The poet was immediately arrested.

Imam Mohammad Baqir (as), during his time, gave further impetus to the practice of azadari. He was followed by Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), who invited the famous poet Jafar Affan to recite marsiyas. During this time, Umayyads and Abbasids were busy fighting for the crown, so Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) had ample time and freedom to enlighten people about the philosophy of Imam Hussain’s uprising in Karbala.

During the time of Imam Musa Kazim (as), some changes were introduced to marsiya nigaari. He asked the poets of that time to write in their respective languages as per their own linguistic and cultural traditions.

In Kashmir, the history of annual Muharram commemorations is remarkable. People have offered blood, sweat and tears to keep the tradition of azadari alive. According to many historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran. A staunch lover of Holy Prophet (as) and his progeny, he is believed to have brought many tabarrukaat (symbols of heritage) from Karbala. Before his time, Kashmiri nauhas and marsiyas were heavily laden with Sanskrit words. The popularity of Persian nauhas in Kashmir is largely attributed to him.

According to historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran

Barely 10 years after Shah e Hamdan (ra) passed away, Syed Mohammad Madni arrived in Kashmir and settled in Ahmedpora. His contribution was commendable, so was the role played by Syed Hussain Qommi, who came from Iran and settled in Zainageer Sopore. Then came the time of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra), during which the practice of azadari became widespread in Kashmir. He came to Kashmir twice. The first time as a government-appointed envoy from Iran and second time to provide spiritual guidance to people. This was during the reign of Shahmiri dynasty when Qazi Chak was the Prime Minister. Until that time, people used to do azadari inside bungalows owned by Shia aristocrats. He built Khanqah in Zadibal where he started to hold azadari majalis (ceremonies) during the month of Muharram.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri. It was the language of Sheikh ul Alam Nooruddin Noorani. During the Chak rule, Kashmiri marsiyas gained unprecedented prominence. However, during the Afghan rule, marsiya nigaars were forced to go underground. Mourning ceremonies were organized mostly at night time and marsiyas were composed and recited clandestinely. In 1180 hijri, Khwaja Hussain Mir broke a new ground in Kashmiri marsiya nigaari. He revived the art and divided a marsiya into five parts – hamud, dumbaal, gath, kreakh, nishast.

Hakim Mohammad Azeem of Habakadal later gave a new pattern to Kashmiri marsiyas, which includes barkhaast, godich gaah, dumbaali, kreakh, patim gaah, naram and nishast. After him came Mirza Abul Qasim toward the end of Sikh rule and before Dogra rule. He built an Imambarah and used to recite Kashmiri marsiyas there. After him came Munshi Mohammad Yusuf and Munshi Mustafa, both of whom collaborated to pen down many popular Kashmiri marsiyas.

Keeping the Karbala movement alive, though, has come at a cost. The lovers of Ahlulbayt (as) in Kashmir have been persecuted by rulers and their lackeys throughout history. They were attacked and looted almost 21 times and the shrine of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra) was set ablaze at least nine times. That partly explains why mourning ceremonies were held mostly inside packed halls, at night, till the time of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. During his time, a zuljanah procession was taken in day time from Namchibal to Zadibal Imambarah, led by Mirza Mohammad Ali, and another procession from Alamgiri Bazar to Khushalsar. At his request, it was decided to take out a joint procession from Abi Guzar to Zadibal, in which both Shias and Sunnis participated.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri

In 1989, the procession was banned and the ban remains in place. Government justifies the ban saying these processions pose ‘law and order problem’, although the processions are completely peaceful in nature. This year, like every year, mourners were brutally manhandled by police personnel after they took out a Muharram procession in Dalgate Srinagar. They termed the police action as blatant breach of their religious freedom.

The institution of azadari could not be obliterated by Yazid of that time and it cannot be obliterated by Yazids of today. The tyrant always seeks to hide his tyranny. The campaigners of truth and justice commemorate Karbala through azadari to keep the movement alive, so that people know who killed whom and why. When people know facts, they will hate the tyrant and his tyranny. That is precisely why sympathizers of these tyrants oppose the practice of azadari, to hide the oppression unleashed on the oppressed.

Author is a journalist who divides his time between Kashmir, Kabul and New Delhi. He tweets at @mehdizafar 
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Philosophy and essence of Muharram commemorations

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Syed Zafar Mehdi 

The annual Muharram commemorations help the campaigners of truth and justice reorganize their life around the principles exemplified by Imam Hussain (as) and his followers in Karbala

Muharram, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely a poignant chapter in history, orbiting around a grief-centric ritual. It is a profoundly illuminating philosophy that defines the relationship between truth and falsehood, between righteousness and impiousness, between dignity and ignominy. Imam Husain’s (as) uprising on the desert plains of Karbala 1400 years ago was not a struggle for paltry political gains or one-upmanship. It was the beginning of a movement for Islamic awakening and social reformation. The movement about the eternal struggle of right versus might, just versus unjust, truth versus falsehood. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people throughout history, continues even today – in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the essence of Imam’s uprising is therefore essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

Muharram and Karbala are in a way symbolic; their appeal cutting across the frontiers of time and space. As Imam Khomeini (ra) famously said, ‘Kullu yaumin Ashura, kullu arzin Karbala’ (every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala). Despots, crooks and scoundrels have existed in every age and every time. They have tried to disrupt social order, ban peaceful religious practices, create civil disturbance and target innocents on flimsy grounds. They exist even today, in various forms and manifestations, across the world. Karbala teaches us the importance of defiance and resistance against these forces.

In Maqtal al-Hussain by Al-Khwarizmi Hanafi, it is mentioned that when Waleed ibn Uqbah, the governor of Medina, summoned Imam Hussain (as) to pay allegiance to Yazid, he flatly refused. “We are the household of the Holy Prophet, the core of His message, the place where angels descend to, and the place of mercy. Allah brought victory through us and will conclude by us, while Yazid is a corrupt man who consumes alcohol, kills the innocent, and openly disobeys God. A person like me cannot give the pledge of allegiance to a person like him,” Hussain (as) said.  Despite all overt and covert pressure tactics; the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) refused to yield, thus obliging the command of his Creator, who says in Surah Munafiqun that “the might belongs only to Allah and to His Apostle and to the believers”.

As Imam Khomeini (ra) famously said, ‘Kullu yaumin Ashura, kullu arzin Karbala’ (every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala). Despots, crooks and scoundrels have existed in every age and every time

Hussain (as) did not seek confrontation or conflict. He was forced out of Madina and Mecca simply because he refused to recognize an alcoholic ruler as the ‘leader of the faithful’. He asked his noble companions like Burayr ibn Khudayr, Habib ibn Muzahir, Zuhair ibn Qain and Muslim ibn Awsaja to liberate people from their self-inflicted misery. He even addressed his opponents and reminded them of their religion and the position of their Prophet (pbuh). He then raised a call, an immortal call. “Is there anyone to come to our rescue? Is there any helper to help us?” It is a universal call that resonates even today. In Ziyarat e Imam Hussain (as), we say: “wish we were with you (O Hussain) so we would have won the greatest victory”. Kufans played deaf to Hussain’s (as) call, but will we also snub him? Are our hearts beating for Hussain (as)?

The epic battle of Karbala, contrary to what you hear from some over-zealous ecclesiastics, was not decided in the battlefield. It was decided in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from Karbala and single-mindedly resist the forces that terrorize, intimidate, humiliate and kill. These forces have existed since the time of Prophet Adam, as noted by the celebrated Iranian scholar Dr. Ali Shariati. “Our history, starting from Habil and Ghabil, is the manifestation of the eternal conflict between the two poles of God and Satan, though in each period of time these two poles have disguised differently.” And the evil forces have always faced disgraceful defeat, as emphasized in the Holy Quran. “And Allah will by no means give the unbelievers a way against the believers.” (Surah Nisa)

In the month of Muharram, Muslims around the world collectively remember the martyrs of Karbala and reaffirm their pledge to carry forward the mission of Husain (as). Muharram commemorations were first held by Imam Husain’s sister Sayyeda Zainab (sa) and his son Imam Zainul Abideen (as). Zainab (SA) – who came to be known as Fasihah (skillfully fluent) and Balighah (intensely eloquent) – played a significant role in the aftermath of Karbala. Dr. Ali Shariati pays her a beautiful tribute. “She accomplished her mission thoroughly, perfectly and fairly. She expressed with words the truth that Hussein expressed with blood… It was Zainab (sa) who stood against and confronted the ruling oppressive power and overcame all resistance.” Even 1400 years on, these annual commemorations have not lost their significance or relevance, but have become more popular and powerful.

The epic battle of Karbala, contrary to what you hear from some over-zealous ecclesiastics, was not decided in the battlefield. It was decided in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from Karbala

Massive processions are taken out across the world in this month to send out a clear and strong message that injustice vanishes and truth shines bright. The soul-stirring elegies and hymns recited in Muharram gatherings remind us of the cruelty of Yazid and patience of Husain (as). They speak of the unyielding stand taken by Husain (as) and give a sense of hope and purpose to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. They describe the events that unfolded after Ashura and how Zainab (sa), the ‘savior of Karbala’, led the caravan comprising women and children from Iraq to Syria and bravely confronted Yazid in his Damascus court.

These commemorations help us reorganize our life around the principles exemplified by Husain (AS) and his followers in Karbala. That is precisely why these processions, which are completely peaceful in nature, remain banned in main Srinagar city where injustice and oppression is a standard operating procedure for rulers and their lackeys. This year, amidst the simmering unrest, government authorities imposed ban on Muharram processions even outside Srinagar, while facilitating Amarnath Yatra.

Every revolution, Dr. Ali Shariati says, has two visages: blood and the message. Husain (AS) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations. We, the campaigners of truth and justice, have been entrusted with the task that was first carried out by Zainab (sa) after the battle of Karbala.

The 20 million people who marched by foot from Najaf to Karbala on Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura) last year, beating the heat and ISIS threats, bore testimony to the fact that the mission of Zainab (sa) is alive. This year, on Arbaeen, the number of pilgrims is likely to swell even further. The exemplary sacrifices rendered by Husain and his companions will never be forgotten. As long as there is injustice, oppression and corruption in the world, Karbala will remain relevant.

Back home in Kashmir, death, as poet Agha Shahid Ali writes, has turned every day into some family’s Karbala. People continue to be killed, maimed, terrorized and humiliated but they refuse to be cowed down. That is how Hussainis deal with Yazidis and we know who prevails in the end.

(First published in Greater Kashmir)

Life and legacy of a revolutionary poet

 

 

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Some goodbyes are never said easily. I vividly remember that somber rainy morning, exactly two years ago, when raindrops gently mixed with teardrops.  My uncle, who taught us how to fight against odds, had lost the biggest battle of his life. His tragic and untimely death left us all shattered but gave us a new resolve to carry forward his unfinished mission.

Of course, life is a fleeting shadow and death is inevitable. We all have to depart someday. So, I will not mourn his death. I will celebrate his life, his legacy.

Prof. Syed Mohammad Raza, ‘Raza Uncle’ or ‘Raza Sir’ for many of us, was an acclaimed scholar and poet of Kashmiri and Urdu. His contribution to Kashmiri literature, especially Kashmiri poetry, will be remembered for a very long time. He taught Urdu at Kashmir University for many years.

Prof. Raza’s love for Kashmiri language, history and culture was unmistakably reflected in his works. In our ‘noon-chai discussions’, he would often lament over the slow and painful demise of Kashmiri language. He wanted Kashmiri youth, including myself, to emulate the likes of Mahjoor, Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode

He was perhaps the best-known expert on Ghalibyat in Kashmir. He was tremendously influenced by the works of Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Once, while in Delhi for a conference, he literally dragged me to Ghalib’s grave in Nizamuddin.  Then, we spent hours in the adjacent Ghalib Academy, searching for rare manuscripts.

Apart from being a prolific writer, Prof. Raza was also a voracious reader. There was hardly any space to sit in his small living room at his ancestral home in Budgam. The collection of books ranged from biographies of renowned scholars and poets, contemporary world history, Islamic history, Kashmir politics and poetry books.

He would so passionately talk about Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx, Locke, Avicenna, Confucius, Foucault, Iqbal, Ghalib, Maududi and Khomeini. There was never a dull moment with him around. His scholarly temperament was infectious and his intellectual pursuits were mighty. Literary people tend to be tad serious and somber but his sense of humor was razor sharp, which often had us in splits.

Prof. Raza was also perhaps the best-known marsiya nigaar (one who writes elegiac poems in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala) in Kashmir. He perfected the art of writing nauhas (elegies) in Kashmiri language. During the month of Muharram, he would appear on local television channels to recite nauhas and host special commemorative shows on Muharram. He was greatly influenced by the works of Mir Anees and Mirza Dabir, the two greatest exponents of marsiya nigari.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode. Despite the floods and heavy rain, thousands of people participated in his funeral, which included many eminent literary personalities of Kashmir valley. Rain and tears were virtually indistinguishable as people slowly marched towards the graveyard.

I had flown from Kabul just a few days before his death. We had planned to visit many places and work together on many projects but it turned out to be our last meeting. I lost a friend, philosopher and guide. But, as Thomas Campbell said, to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. He lives on.

 (First published in The Witness magazine)

 

Leh-Ladakh: The rugged beauty

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The picturesque snow-clad peaks kissing the clear azure sky; the icy cold waters surging down the glacial heights into the brackish lakes; the rhythmic chant of the monks in beautiful, ancient monasteries; the rugged terrains, expansive meadows, rich wildlife, glorious cultural heritage. Their remains no sense of date and time in Ladakh. The Roof of the World as it is called; a journey through Ladakh’s rocky landscape is simply breathtaking.

Bordered by two of the world’s largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh’s dry barren landscape full of historic Buddhist monasteries makes it an incredible sight to behold. A silent, blissful place, its intimacy belies the rugged 6,500 mt peaks enveloping the former kingdom. Travelers can trek through the hilly terrain of Ladakh, enjoy a game of polo or watch an archery contest where local residents compete in a contest that has remained unchanged for years. White water rafting, wildlife tours and mountaineering are hit here.

Three regions

Ladakh comprises of three main regions, all distinct in their own way.  Perched at 3500 mts, Leh & Upper Indus Valley is the historical and cultural heartland of Ladakh, home to numerous Buddhist monasteries, quaint villages, fairs, festivals and bazaars. Other is the Zanskar Valley, a relatively isolated valley to the south of Indus Valley. Among Ladakh’s remotest regions, Zanskar is ringed by mountains and only accessible by high passes. The twin peaks of Nun-Kun, its monasteries and its extremely rugged, awe-aspiring landscape are its main attractions. Then comes Kargil & Suru Valley, falling just behind the famous Zoji La Pass. Kargil is a small town with cobbled streets surrounded by apricot grooves.

Lakes taking breath away

The major attraction is Pangong Tso Lake, located at an altitude of almost 4,500 meters, a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it through rough mountain route, traversing the third-highest pass in the world, the Changla pass. The Pangong is a delight to the eye. The golden colored range to the north, with its rolling spurs culminating in chiseled peaks, spreads before your eyes a panorama of spectacular dimensions. In winter, the lake freezes completely despite being salt water.

Then comes Tsomoriri Lake, a beautiful mountain bounded expanse of water, located at 14,000 ft in Rupsho Valley. The nomads are focus of attention here, who graze herd of goats and yaks on lakeside. Tsokar Lake, around 76 kms from Tsomoriri is also a breathtaking lake. A trip to these two lakes can be organized in two or three days by jeep or two to three weeks by trek.

The sights to behold

The village Alchi situated on the bank of Indus River is home to one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh known for its 11th century wall paintings, depicting both artistic and spiritual details of Buddhist and Hindu kings of that period in Kashmir. Down the Indus, on the route to Balistan, at an altitude of 2600 mts, lies a small community called the Drokpa, tracing their roots to Aryans. They are Buddhist but also worship nature gods and spirits. Numbering a few thousands, they have preserved their racial purity through centuries, but only two of the five Drokpa villages are open to tourists. The Nubra valley, referred as the orchard of Ladakh, because of being richer in vegetation, offers unparalleled trekking opportunities for adventure travelers.

Spectacular side trips

Among the most spectacular side trips from Leh is a journey along the Zanskar River. You’ll see hanging glaciers, green villages, Buddhist monasteries, and towering Himalayan peaks. The Nubra Valley, on Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road, is another unforgettable trip. The sights of Himalayan icicles, wild yaks, horses, and hairy double humped camels, you’ll be rewarded with water, mountains, and desert all in the one area.

Monastries, the cynosure of eyes 

Among the largest, oldest and most famous monasteries in region is Hemis Monastery, around 45 km from Leh. Here Hemis festival is celebrated every June. Shanti Stupa, located on the hilltop, boasts of state of the art work, which pulls in lot of tourists to the place. Stok Gonpa and Palace, 14 kms from Leh, is the residence of present day royal family. The three days trek from Stok to Spituk and the 8 days trek of Markha Valley starts here. The palace has an exquisite collection of royal dresses, and king’s crown that is open for visitors. Lamayuru monastery, remarkably built on a rock, on the Leh-Srinagar highway is a major attraction too. Besides these, Thiskey Gonpa, the most beautiful of all the monasteries in Ladakh is the place for witnessing amazing sunsets.

Adventure trails

Ladakh provides great opportunities for adventure sports such as river rafting, trekking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Adventure tourism has contributed in a big way to Ladakh’s economy. For trekkers, Ladakh offers numerous trails to choose from such as the ones from Likir to Temisgam, and Markha Valley from Spituk. The joy of walking through tough tracks, deep gorges and rivers can be a rewarding experience for all levels of enthusiasts. The trekking season is roughly between May and October.

Mountain biking is also a hit here. The most popular route for biking is the Manali-Leh. Biking tours generally involve a 12 to 13-day bike rides. After a few days of fairly easy biking along the Manali-Leh route, the difficult ride begins with the climb to Baralcha (4,880m) as the altitude increases. The toughest part of the ride is the climb to Lachung La (5,065m). Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar Mountains. For river rafting, the best stretch is between Spituk and Saspol on the Indus, as well as the Shayok River in the Nubra Valley, and Zanskar River in Zanskar. The Nubra Valley offers camel safaris as well.

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Getting to Leh:

Flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. Flights are also available to Leh from Srinagar and Jammu. Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the road from Srinagar to Leh is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes around 2 days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing.

When to Visit Leh:

The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn’t experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh.

Stay in Leh:

Hotels in Leh Ladakh include various budget hotels, luxury hotels, mid-price hotels and homestays. A family-run Oriental Guesthouse in the hamlet of Changspa, is an ideal place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. The new Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road is another popular choice with modern amenities. Double rooms start from 2000 rupees. The Grand Dragon Hotel is more upmarket and is Leh’s first 4-star hotel, with prices starting from 6000 rupees for a double.

(First published in Hindustan Times)

Muharram ban in Kashmir: Breach of religious freedom

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

We are in Muharram, the month of bereavement and remembrance. In 680 AD, around 1500 years ago, Husain (as)—the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)—was martyred along with his family and friends in the desert plains of Karbala in Iraq by the armies of tyrant ruler Yazeed. Every year, around this time, massive processions are taken out across the world to pay rich tributes to the 72 martyrs of Karbala.

Reciting soul-stirring elegies and hymns, participants wear black dresses and badges, beating their chests in a spirit of devotion. They carry replicas of Husain’s mausoleum in Karbala, and parade the streets. Big banners and hoardings are put up on every street, alley and pathway, mainly in areas where Muslims live. However, in some countries, its appeal cuts across the religious and ideological divide, because Husain’s uprising in Karbala was not a religious tussle, a political war or a petty struggle for power. It was a confrontation between right and might, between the forces of truth and falsehood. In many countries, the Muharram commemorations have been effectively used as a psychological weapon and mechanism to mobilize masses against evil, injustice and repression.

Essence of Muharram

Muharram, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely an event or episode in history, revolving around a grief-centric ritual. It is a philosophy, a concept, and a movement, that will always have contemporary significance, in every time and age. The threat of injustice and tyranny will always have contemporary significance. Muslims of the world commonly observe and commemorate Husain’s sacrifice each year, remembering his redemptive suffering for the greater good of humankind. Even 1500 years on, these annual commemorations have not lost their significance, but on the contrary have become even more powerful and potent. Mahmoud Ayoub writes in his book Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Ashura in Twelver Shi’ism, ‘in the ritualistic moment, serial time becomes the bridge connecting primordial time and its special history with the timeless eternity of the future. The eternal fulfillment of time becomes the goal of human time and history.”

These annual commemorations help the campaigners of justice and truth re-organise their life around the principles exemplified by Husain, in Karbala. It strengthens their ability and resolve to rise up against autocracy, despotism and treachery. Husain’s uprising and sacrifice promote the enjoining of good. It teaches that notwithstanding the exiguousness of power and numbers, if your stand is right, victory will always be yours. Urdu poet Mohammad Ali Jauhar aptly encapsulates it in these words:

Qatl e Husain asl mein marg Yazeed hai,
Islam zinda hota hai har Karbala ke baad

(The murder of Husain is actually the end of [his killer] Yazeed,
Islam is refreshed by the blood of the martyrs of Karbala)

Muharram Processions Across the World

In the next few days, till the tenth of Muharram, which this year falls on November 25, these processions would be carried out in all parts of the world. Biggest processions are taken out in Tehran, Karbala, London, Sydney, New York, Moscow, Toronto, Karachi, Dhaka, Lucknow etc. In U.S., the biggest procession starts from Park Avenue and culminates in front of the Pakistani Consulate. In Toronto, the procession leaves from Queen’s Park and ends at High Court entrance. In London, thousands of mourners assemble in Central London Marble Arch Hyde Park and take part in the procession. In Iran, millions participate in Muharram processions in all major cities like Tehran, Masshad and Isfahan. In Trinidad and Tobago, it is popular as ‘Hosay’ and not even Sunnis and Hindus participate in these processions, but also Afro-Trinidadians. In eastern Saudi Arabian city Qatif, Muharram means lot of activity and palpable buzz. In Nigeria, large processions are taken out in Katsina state in northern Nigeria. In Pakistan, major processions are taken out in Karachi. In India, major processions are carried out in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Kargil. “These processions are held across the world to send out a clear message that injustice and tyranny ultimately vanishes and truth and justice prevails,” says Syed Raza, a Kashmiri poet, whose soul-stirring nauhas (elegies) are recited in Muharram processions in Kashmir.
Nov 23, 201: A Kashmiri Shiite mourner runs after he set himself on fire during a Muharram procession in Srinagar. He was protesting a police ban on religious processions marking the Muslim month of Muharram

The Ban in Kashmir

In Kashmir, the story is different and grim, and remains unchanged for the last two decades. The government’s ban on Muharram processions (Muharram 8 and 10) in Srinagar city is in place since 1990, when the armed rebellion against India gained momentum. Despite the clampdown and curfew-like restrictions imposed by authorities, thousands of young devotees carry out processions and are subjected to brutal police action. They are thrashed, manhandled, cane charged, and some are even sent to custody. Some of the senior Shia leaders are put under house arrest to prevent them from leading these processions.

Religious processions were being taken out in Kashmir since 1527 when Sultan Muhammad Shah was the ruler. Shia Muslims (minority), with help and cooperation of Sunni Muslims (majority), used to take out two major processions, one from Namchbal to Imambara Zadibal and other one from Alamgiri Bazar to Khushalsar. In 1977, at the request of the then Chief Minister Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah, it was decided to take out a joint procession from Abi Guzar to Zadibal. “However,” says Hakeem Imtiyaz Husain, “in 1989, the then governor of J&K imposed a ban on the procession, as part of the sweeping measures to deal with the political unrest. Notwithstanding the repeated pleas by the people of Kashmir, the ban still stands.” Hakeem, retired jurist and writer, is presently working on a book that chronicles the history of Shias in Kashmir.

Legal battle

On Jan 17, 2008, J&K High Court had issued a notice to the state government seeking its objections on a petition filed by Ittihadul Muslimeen, a religio-political outfit representing Shia Muslims of state. But government failed to communicate the ban order to them. The petition sought to quash the ban, calling it a flagrant violation of international law and denial of religious rights. On December 5, 2009, High Court again issued notice to the state government directing it to file objections, but to no avail. “The government informed the court that processionists must seek prior permission from authorities, which we did, but the ban was still not lifted. After four years of legal battle, we finally realized that the whole exercise was futile, because they were never interested in listening to our pleas,” Masroor Abbas Ansari, President, Ittihadul Muslimeen, who had filed the petition, says.

People in Kashmir demand revocation of ban on the grounds that violence has abated and situation has improved considerably. “The ban on Muharram processions, as with the ban on the July 13th procession commemorating the Martyrs of 1931, is simply undemocratic and a denial of the basic rights of Kashmiri people,” says Mirza Waheed, author of critically acclaimed novel The Collaborator, which is set in Kashmir. Waheed says the ban on Muharram processions cannot be viewed in isolation. “You have to see it in the context of the larger structure of repression in Kashmir.”

“There is not much we can do other than protest against it. We fought a legal battle and got a green signal from court but government remains unfazed. Every year, in Muharram, our volunteers hold peaceful protests. I have raised the issue in meetings with Indian government authorities and even at OIC,” says Aga Syed Hasan, separatist leader and President of J&K Anjuman e Shariee Shiaan, a constituent of Hurriyat conference.

Muharram and Amarnath Yatra

“While the state provides all support for the annual Amarnath Yatra, which it should—and Kashmiris have always supported and welcomed the Yatra—it has consistently curbed the right to assemble of the local population,” says Waheed.

Khurram Parvez, Programme Coordinator, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, questions the secular credentials of a state that does not allow people the freedom to practice their religion and participate in religious activities: “On one hand, state patronises, organises, partially sponsors Yatra for Hindus of India and on the other hand, it curbs and criminalises the religious programmes of Muslims like Muharram processions, Milad processions etc. Yet the government has the audacity to call itself secular.”

Zafar Meraj, veteran journalist and chief editor of Kashmir Monitor calls it ‘blatant discrimination’: “Government claims the ban is owing to security reasons but what about similar processions taken out in various parts of Kashmir and some old-city localities? If it can provide security to annual Amarnath yatra that attracts lakhs of Hindu pilgrims every year, why not Muharram processions that have never been under any kind of threat?”

“The contrast cannot get any starker,” says Waheed. “The state wants to develop infrastructure to facilitate and possibly expand the Amarnath Yatra — at potentially disastrous cost to the environment — and at the same time, it has for nearly 20 years now, not allowed people to take out the historic processions of Muharram and July 13.”

Nov 23, 2012: Policemen stand watch behind barbed wires set up as road blockade in Srinagar.

Brutal police action

Each year, police imposes curfew-like restrictions on Muharram 8 and 10 (which fall on November 23 and 25 this year) in parts of Srinagar city, including Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of the summer capital. Iron barricades and spools of concertina wires are put up at almost every entry point to city centre. The cops do not even allow pedestrian movement in Lal chowk, and tough restrictions are enforced in Rajouri Kadal, Gojwara, Nowhatta and some adjoining areas in old city. Senior leaders are put under house arrest to prevent them from leading the processions.

However, despite the clampdown, thousands of mourners defy the police restrictions on Muharram 8 and 10 every year — as they indeed did today —and take out peaceful mourning processions in the main city. Each time, they are intercepted by massive contingents of fully-armed police and paramilitary personnel. The cops lob tear smoke shells, resort to baton charge and brutally manhandle the mourners who participate in these processions. “It is our right and duty to protest against the draconian ban in peaceful manner, but that does not mean it will become a law and order problem, so brute police action is unwarranted,” says Hasan, who yields considerable clout in Kashmir’s Shia community.

“It is not merely hypocritical but perverse, given that the state itself, appropriating July 13, 1931, a historic moment of resistance against the tyranny of Dogra rule, commemorates the day with official pomp while keeping the people of Kashmir under virtual siege each year,” says Waheed. “When the state bans Muharram, July 13th, Geelani’s public appearances, while making sure Amarnath Yatra gets bigger; it speaks in a language of conquest. And the message is not lost on the people of Kashmir. They see it as an imperial dictat.”

Mohammad Junaid, doctoral student in Anthropology at City University of New York says the government bans Muharram processions because of ‘old colonialist aspersions’ that such moments of solemn mourning would turn into occasions of political critique and subversion. “Remember that Muharram is observed in memory of those who spoke back to power and refused to submit. Muharram processions illuminate the utter incommensurability of power and truth, and this is precisely what those governments whose foundations are based on deception and manipulation absolutely fear,” says Junaid. His research focuses on issues of space, violence and militarisation in Kashmir.


Nov 23, 2012: Shia mourners try to protest after they were stopped to take out a Moharram procession at Batamalloo in Srinagar.

Anti-India sentiments?

The official version that these processions stoke anti-national sentiments and pose security threat finds few takers. “It is hogwash, far from reality. It only suggests that the tall claims of government about normalcy and peace are false,” says Aga Syed Hadi, Vice-Chairman, Aaytullah Yousuf Memorial Trust, which runs hundreds of schools across Kashmir imparting Islamic education. “You see, it must be examined in the context of the state’s repression of all sentiment that it sees as anti-national,” says Waheed.

Hasan finds the argument frivolous. “Muharram teaches us to be tolerant and steadfast in the face of adversities, and it also teaches us to rise against injustice. Government cannot deny us our right to organise religious activities on such hollow and baseless pretexts.”

It is a sinister attempt to keep Muslims divided in this part of world, feels Meraj. “The ban on main Muharram procession that used to be taken from Abi Guzar in uptown, and was joined by Shias and Sunnis in large numbers speaks volumes about the gross discrimination that has been going on in Kashmir for last over decades, and is an attempt to divide the community.”

‘Official’ version

Aga Syed Mehmood, former minister and senior leader of PDP, the main opposition party in the state, says government had to ban these processions in 1990 because of the gravity of the situation. “In 1989, when I was part of government, it had decided to put curbs on these processions but we resisted the decision. As the regime fell in 1990 and the governor took over to deal with the political turmoil, the ban was announced.” However, he hastens to add that the brutalities unleashed on the peaceful processions every year are uncalled for. “Chief Minister Omar Abdullah calls for the removal of AFSPA in Srinagar, then what is the problem with a procession that is completely of religious nature?” asks Mehmood.

Tanvir Sadiq, spokesman of the ruling National Conference says the restarting of the procession like the 8th is under the active consideration of the government. “Kashmir is limping back to normalcy, and I am confident and reasonably sure that soon the processions on 8 and 10 Muharram will resume,” says Sadiq. However, he refuses to admit that mourners are subjected to brutal police action and calls it a ‘precautionary measure’. “There is no brutal police action. The government has asked the police to ensure that religious processions or mourners are not harassed, but having said that, there are times when the police in order to maintain law and order may have to take some precautionary measures.”

Tailpiece:

The unyielding stand taken by Husain in Karbala carries an eloquent message that has gripped the hearts and minds of countless generations throughout history. It gives a sense of hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. Muharram and Karbala are symbolic, cutting across the barriers of space and time. Today Karbala is Gaza, Karbala is Kashmir, Karbala is Iraq, Karbala is Afghanistan.

“Every revolution has two visages: blood and the message,” says Ali Shariati, the late Iranian sociologist and revolutionary. “Husain and his companions undertook the first mission, that of blood. The second mission is to bear the message to the whole world, to be the eloquent tongue of this flowing blood and these resting bodies among the walking dead.”

In Kashmir and elsewhere, as people pour out on streets every year in Muharram to remember the martyrs of Karbala, they do not intend to create a law and order problem. They are only carrying forward the second mission: bearing the message of blood to the world, lest it remains mute in the history and those who need this message are deprived of it.

(First published in Outlook magazine)

“We embraced you in your death”

 

Agha Shahid Ali

Dear Shahid!

Hope you are in fine fettle, wherever you are. It has been exactly 11 years now since we lost track of you, leaving a void and emptiness. Let me assure you, the void has not been filled yet, and the emptiness is still there. I never met you, but I can see you around me all the time. I don’t know if the night is cottage industry or the day is brisk emporium. But, you said the world is full of paper, write to me. So, I am writing, from far away, a city where you were born.

I was in school far away from my homeland when you took the long walk back to heaven far away from your homeland. You wanted to return to Kashmir to die in autumn, but changed your mind later, only to be buried in Northampton, not too far from the grave of your beloved poet Emily Dickinson. We, the people of Kashmir, still embraced you in your death, as we did in your life. Life and death are immaterial, because you will always live in our hearts and minds.

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Autumn in Kashmir
Autumn in Kashmir
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You left suddenly, shockingly, without posting us a farewell letter. But I know you had already announced your impending departure by dreaming, with soaring imagination and brutally beautiful imagery, at the ghat of the only world. The night of ghazals drew to an end. Quite rightly, love doesn’t let anyone survive, at least it did not let you. But, how did you muster courage to pen down the last verse on your own life? It is something only you the witness and martyr – could do.

We would have loved to hear more from you, but perhaps you were getting late for recitation sessions in heaven. You have not posted a letter from there yet. Your country had no post office then. It still has none. What happened to the solemn promise of meeting again in Srinagar by the gates of the villa of peace? Our beloved witness, you had to be there on that promised autumn afternoon, when soldiers return the keys and disappear. But, you left us, and left behind your lingering presence.

“Your country had no post office then. It still has none”

You struggled with your health and the pain was too excruciating and unbearable for you in your last days, but you fought valiantly, as you did all your life, with words and that characteristic smile. Your smile was unnerving and the sense of humour was classic. I still wonder how you always managed to break into peals of laughter in the middle of a serious conversation or a poetry recitation. I am sure you will agree, there was an inherent pain veiled in that grin, that mirth, that smile and that laughter. Sometimes a smile conveys more pain than tears, and tears express more joy than a smile. I envy the angels, for they must be having a gala time in your amazingly warm company.

“You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry”

You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry. You also loved to cook good and authentic food, as you did once for America’s celebrated poet James Merrill, who had tremendous influence on your poetry. Do you continue to cook for the angels now? I am told your undying passion for ghazal had partly to do with your beautiful relationship with Begum Akhtar. Do you still carry the cassette of ‘phir wohi farmaish’, or have you moved on to other singers? You loved Faiz, and in you, Faiz found a genius translator. You were closest to your mother, and her death literally devastated you. The long, painful journey from Amherst to Kashmir must have haunted you till death. But, as you consoled yourself, compared to your grief for her, what are those of Kashmir, and what are those of the universe. I want to ask, do you still move in your heart between sad countries? Do you continue to wake and feel the fell of dark, not day?

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“Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition?”

Kashmir, your beloved place of memory, has not moved an inch since you left. Nothing has changed on the ground. Death continues to turn every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala. Freedom’s terrible thirst is growing, as more boys are mowed down in cold blood. There are more grieving mothers now, and many more homes are set ablaze by midnight soldiers. I know you did not tell the father of 18 year-old Rizwan that he was no more, but how did you do that? It is so difficult to hide the news of cold-blooded murders of young boys from their fathers. There are many Rizwans now, resting in marked and unmarked graves across Kashmir, the half-inch Himalayas that shrunk in your mailbox.

Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition? Well, his killers have just got a clean chit. Did anyone tell you about 9 year-old Asif who was literally bludgeoned to death? Do you know how 11 year-old Irshad breathed his last after being hit by pallets? Did anyone tell you about the brutal murders of 13 year-old Wamiq, 16 year-old Inayat, and 16 year-old Zahid? Did you hear about 24 year-old Neelofar and 17 year-old Asiya, who was gang-raped and murdered and dumped in a nearby lake? The list is too long. It gives me shudders to go on naming them.

However, as Rizwan had asked you: I am sure you still put Kashmir in your dreams every night.

“It rains as I write this; mad heart, be brave.”

Yours,
Zafar
New Delhi

 

(First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)

And they vanished into thin air

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Parveena Ahangar’s small world came crashing down on the fateful night of August 18, 1990 when her 16-year old school-going son Javed Ahmed vanished under mysterious circumstances. The boy was picked up by Indian paramilitary forces during a midnight raid at his uncle’s house in India-controlled Kashmir. The grief-stricken mother spent sleepless nights waiting for her son to return. She never saw him or heard from him again.

This Himalayan valley of shimmering lakes and beautiful meadows has been the bone of contention between the estranged South Asian neighours India and Pakistan for more than six decades. The two nuclear powers have gone to war on two occasions to claim the disputed territory.

In 1989, a full-blown armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir. The anti-India sentiment assumed a whole new dimension. In order to quell the popular uprising, Indian armed forces would resort to unbridled use of force against the civilians. The sense of fear and susceptibility was overpowering. Young boys would leave home for a game of cricket and never return. Many of them would be abducted from their homes and dragged to various interrogation centers. The traumatized families would run from pillar to post to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Day of Disappeared:

Like every year, the International Day of Disappeared was observed across the world on August 30. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, people assembled in Pratap Park in the heart of Srinagar to show solidarity with the families of the missing. The relatives – mothers, sisters, daughters – sat quietly, holding the posters, pictures and placards, as cameras zoomed into their wrinkled faces and sunken eyes. One of them was 80-year-old Hajira, who had come all the way from North Kashmir’s Bandipora district to attend the protest. Her three sons were killed at the time when militancy was at its peak, and the fourth went missing. She has become weak but the resilience is infectious. The protest was also joined by JKLF Chairman Yaseen Malik and parents of the youth who were killed by Indian forces during the 2010 unrest.

“For unknown reasons, unmarked graves in the disputed territory of the world’s largest democracy have not been deemed scandalous enough”

This year, the protest had a creative element to it. Many young artists took active part in the daylong silent sit-in. Some of them wrapped themselves in banners with faces white washed, while some scribbled notes in black ink on their bare bodies. The trend of artistic resistance has become increasingly popular in Kashmir of late, with the young breed of artists, cartoonists, singers, and poets taking the center stage. “The resistance movement has become inclusive and youth are taking the lead now. These are the children of conflict who grew up in the turbulent period of the 90s and they pretty much know the art and science of resistance,” says journalist Hilal Mir.

Events to mark the Day of Disappeared were also held in JNU New Delhi, and TISS Mumbai, where Kashmiri students and activists spoke on the phenomenon of disappearances in Kashmir.

Getting together for a cause:

Ahangar’s is not an isolated case. Thousands of young men mysteriously disappeared during the turbulent 1990s. The law enforcement agencies did not move. With no help coming from anywhere, Ahangar decided to run the gauntlet. She got together some of the families whose members had disappeared under similar circumstances. In 1994, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was born. Without any formal education, she still managed to create a stir. “I knew there were thousands of poor hapless mothers like me, so I decided to get them on board and carry forward our struggle collectively,” says Ahangar. There is another organisation by same name working for the same cause, run by J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).

Young boys would leave home for a game of cricket and never return

Over the years, both the associations have become bigger with more than a thousand members who have similar tales of despair and despondency to narrate.

Nazima Jan (31) of North Kashmir district has been waiting for her missing three brothers for the last 15 years. She joins a protest in a public park in Srinagar – the summer capital of Kashmir – on the 10th and 28th of every month, against enforced disappearances.

On August 30, the families got together again and took a pledge to continue their search for the missing. However, their protests are largely ignored by mainstream Indian media. “No doubt India has a powerful and free media but many editors and other key players in the industry, if not all, have drawn a line in certain issues and areas including Kashmir. They call it ‘national interest’,” says Yusuf Jameel, senior journalist who covered Kashmir for BBC in 1990s.

“The phenomenon of enforced disappearances started in 1990, says Zahir ud Din, senior journalist and activist. “Initially it was not part of a bigger design to scare people. Brutal torture claimed hundreds of lives and their bodies were disposed of in rivers, lakes and elsewhere. Then the security agencies realized how it can be used as an effective tool to scare people. It became a policy,” says Zahir ud Din, who authored a book ‘Did they vanish into thin air?’ on Kashmir’s disappeared.

APDP has played an instrumental role in bringing the issue of enforced disappearances in Kashmir into limelight. Ahangar (49) is now a member of AFAD (Asian Federation of Involuntary Disappearances). She has travelled to many parts of the world like Philippines (2000), Indonesia (2004), and Europe (2008) to speak on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. In 2008, the United Nation’s Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture granted funds to APDP, which are spent on the medicines, clothes and other necessities of the families of victims.

Mass graves and missing people:

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance adopted by UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006 explicitly terms the systematic practice of enforced disappearances a ‘crime against humanity’.

Human rights activists in Kashmir claim that close to 8,000 people, including combatants and non-combatants, have been subjected to enforced disappearance in the region over the last 20 years. The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) in its report released in December 2009 revealed 2,700 unmarked graves containing more than 2,900 bodies in more than 50 villages in north Kashmir. Due to some operational constraints, the research was confined to select villages, so the observers believe the number could be much higher.

In August 2011, the 11-member police investigation team of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) verified 2,156 unidentified bodies in unidentified graves in Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts. It was a moment of vindication for the families of victims; however, no further investigation was done to get to the root of matter. “For unknown reasons, unmarked graves in the disputed territory of the world’s largest democracy have not been deemed scandalous enough,” says Mirza Waheed, author of The Collaborator, a critically acclaimed novel set in Kashmir. “Doesn’t such an astonishing discovery merit a serious inquiry and investigation by the Indian State?” he asks. “In the long run, state will not want to penalize itself on anything, least of all disappearances which it enforces as a matter of representational threat to people to safeguard its imagined sovereignty,” says Ather Zia, Kashmir-born and US-based anthropologist and writer.

Many believe the missing persons have been killed and dumped in these unmarked graves. “Many families are ready to volunteer their DNA samples to confirm if their kin is buried in these graves to gain closure, at the same time many see it as another deferral tactic by the government, since the tests are not happening any soon,” says Zia.

To be or not to be

Twenty-nine year old Nusrat (name changed) is a resident of southern Kashmir district. She is known in her locality as a ‘half-widow,’ a term used for women whose spouses are missing. “The simple fact that their men have disappeared and not been declared dead has left thousands of these women in a wretched state with no legal protection,” says Aliya Bashir, Kashmir-based journalist, who has done extensive research on the half-widows of Kashmir.

“Half-widows face the worst kind of economic, social and emotional insecurities. They live between hope and despair, hope of seeing their loved ones again, and despair of not finding a clue since last 25 years,” says Zia.

Perpetrators and inaction:

On December 6, 2012, the IPTK released a report, “Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir”. The meticulous research work of two years uses data from official state documents and witness testimonies. It examined 214 cases of human-rights abuses and the role of 500 alleged perpetrators. Among the 500 perpetrators were 235 army personnel, 123 paramilitary personnel, 111 Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel and 31 government-backed associates. The list of alleged perpetrators included two major generals, three brigadiers, nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels, 78 majors and 25 captains. “Cases presented in this report reveal that there is a policy to not genuinely investigate or prosecute the armed forces for human-rights violations,” said a press handout by the IPTK.

Taking serious cognizance of the report, Amnesty International called for an “impartial probe into the allegations of human-rights violations made in a report”. The Asian Federation Against Enforced Disappearances said the study “clearly points to a high level of command decision, given the involvement of top ranking officers of the Indian Army”. So far, no action has been taken on the report. “Many people in Kashmir,” says Waheed, “have resigned to the idea that justice is a far-fetched dream, and the perpetrators may never be booked.”

Notwithstanding the hopelessness and helplessness, Ahangar is not tired of waiting for her son. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

(First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)