Saturday, April 9, 2011

Death of a Cleric

IN a small lane inside Maisuma, hundreds of people walked over glass smithereens to the mosque’s back entrance. It was a Friday afternoon and almost as many people would walk the narrow alley to pray at Kashmir’s oldest Ahl e Hadith mosque every Friday. Today though, everyone stopped just at the entrance, jostling for a look at a skeleton of a bicycle and broken tinted glass scattered around. It wasn’t enough to tell what had happened here. At 12.15 in the noon, President of Jamiat e Ahl e Hadith and a well known Islamic scholar, Moulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah, was assassinated by an IED blast planted in a bag on the ripped apart bicycle. It was a low intensity bomb intended to kill Shah alone but with his death, the blast resounded across political landscapes quiet far from this Maisuma neighborhood.

Moulvi Showkat was a moderate man heading the Jamiat e Ahl Hadith, the Salafi order of Islam, in Kashmir for the seventh year in his third term as President. Showkat lead the prayers every Friday at the Maisuma Ahl e Hadith mosque and always used the back entrance and yesterday, leaving behind his mother, nephew and two security guards in the car, he walked a few paces towards the mosque but death was lurking just outside the small mosque door. “His one foot was in the mosque when the blast happened and I don’t remember clearly after that. He was lying there in blood,” says Yasmeena, who watched the blast from her window.

Showkat’s Khutba (sermon) for the week on Prophet’s humility remained unread in his pocket and a friend carried his broken glasses and cell phone around. He was rushed to the hospital immediately but the doctors declared him dead and then was immediately brought back to Maisuma, to his mosque, his office and the stronghold of his friend and ally Yasin Malik, the JKLF chief.

Showkat was killed few lanes away from Yasin’s home and Yasin later walked the lanes like a hurt man, too distraught to mourn the death of a friend. Every Eid, Yasin prayed behind Showkat in the TRC Ground and during the Lal Chowk rally last Eid, Yasin and Showkat stood next to each other trying to control the crowds. Now Yasin, surrounded by many people, looked a little lonely.

It did not take long for the news to reach the JAH district headquarters all across the valley and the lanes in Maisuma, already full with people, began swelling with more people entering to look at Showkat’s dead body, pay homage and join the slogans.

Tum kitne Showkat maro ge, har ghar se Showkat niklega (How many Showkats will you kill, every home give birth to a Showkat). “Hum kya chahtay- Azadi” (We want freedom). With the police and CRPF far away at the opening of the lane, waiting quietly of nothing to happen, the angry slogans this time seemed to be addressed for somewhere else.

Moulvi Showkat headed JAH with its more than 15 lakh members in the valley. It is the only religious organization whose members are spread all around- in mainstream parties like Congress and BJP, in J-K Police, in Judiciary, in Bureaucracy and almost everywhere and that makes it quiet powerful. JAH has 814 mosques in Kashmir (1200 in J-K) spread all over the districts which gives them a huge presence and an immense power to organize people and events. The Ahlihadith school of thought is highly puritanical in its religious approach and draws its influence from the Wahabi movement started inSaudi Arabia by a Muslim theologian, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. Kashmir’s Ahlihadith movement began in south Kashmir's Shopian district 150 years ago and its most prominent leader was Maulana Anwar Shopiyani, a poet and a religious preacher.

Moulvi Showkat belonged to a Ahl e HAdith family and his uncle, Maulana Noor u din, was a renowned Ahl Hadith preacher of the valley. Showkat had almost always been a member of the organization- as a student as a trader selling shawls in Kolkata, where he was known for his honesty. In 2004, he was elected as the JAH president for the first time. For his contributions, Showkat was elected president thrice, the last time in 2010.

Showkat was the first Jamiat Chief who did not remain confined to religion only and was political, talking about political issues and taking political stances. Before he took over as Jamiat Chief, the organization refrained from open politics, concentrating only on propogating the Salafi order. Showkat not only was openly seen as separatist but also supported secular politics and freedom for Kashmir and was against the religion based merger of Kashmir to Pakistan. Showkat was a close and key ally of pro independence leader Yasin Malik. He was arrested several times for his association with JKLF. In 2008 he was arrested and was lodged in jail after authorities booked him under PSA. Many people within JAH thought that he was not doing right by using his post for political ideology but he seemed not to care.

Showkat was seen by many as a ‘Sufi’ heading a Salafi group, unmindful of differences and working towards peace and unity. He was seen as a non sectarian religious leader mourning with Shias during Muharram and always making efforts to unite the Kashmiri Muslims.

When Yasin and Mirwaiz addressed the mourners, it was the first time that on the funeral of an assassinated separatist leader in Kashmir, India was not mentioned. Instead, both Mirwaiz Umar and Yasin Malik, talked about the killer’s right no more to call himself a Muslim and called the act an attack on unity and Kashmir’s freedom movement.

“We would not remain silent. Shah Sahab has always worked for the unity of sectarian and political unity. Since 1990 there have been conspiracies hatched against Kashmiris,” Mirwaiz told the gatherings. “There have been deliberate attempts to deprive our nation of intellectuals, doctors and professors. There is a conspiracy to render the movement leaderless,” Mirwaiz sid in his address to people.

Yasin pledged in front of the people that he will not be silent and unveil the killers. “His death has broken our back and Kashmiri people will not remain silent spectators to the killing.” “Anyone who kills a scholar on the doorsteps of a mosque, can he call himself a Muslim? This is cowardice. This is savagery. Is this type of an act allowed by Islam even if you are doing Jihad,” Malik said in his emotional speech on the funeral. The finger pointed the other way straight. Showkat was a controversial figure esp. after he denounced stone throwing and cited Quranic references to justify his stand. Other religious leaders accused him of quoting Quran out of context and, some even accused him of speaking for the Government. Shah was seen close to certain quarters in the government. There were internal factions in Jamiat and strong frictions too. But most of all, it was slogan of Azadi that was not liked by many people and not certainly by those who saw a strong religious organization not speaking for Pakistan as detrimental to their interests.

“Pakistan killed him. They got him killed. No one else did,” said a close friend of Showkat, who knew him for years and stood by him each time he was attacked. Twice, he had been lucky to surive- first in 2007 when his car was targeted with bullets near Barbar Shah and then in 2008 when a grenade was hurled at his house. This time, Moulvi Showkat fell to a meticulous planning that seems to have been well recced to have minimum damage but eliminate the target.

Showkat preached a middle ground and was not connected with Lashkar, whose every cadre is from Salafi order. And as Showkat preached Islam and advocated freedom for Kashmir, he, in a way, went away from religion based politics and in a way not subscribing to the two nation theory.

Showkat was known for his philanthropic work and vision. He established a diagnostic centre that worked on no profit- no loss basis and was working hard to get a Trans-World Muslim Universityapproved from the government. Under his leadership, the JAH had set up a University and several High schools and Higher Secondary schools. After Showkat’s death, Condemnations rushed from all around- from CM Omar Abdullah to LeT. Yasin, Mirwaiz, and Syed Ali Geelani all called for a strike.

The new President of JAH, Ghulam Rasool Malik, is said be a man who thinks on similar political lines as Moulvi Showkat and he takes over at an acutely tense time. Showkat’s assassination by an IED outside a mosque before Friday prayers might not have an immediate reaction in Kashmir but it will, in long term, mark a shift in the very dynamics of politics in Kashmir.

A Book Reading

Who does a novel belong to? To the writer, who labors over it in loneliness? Or, to the reader who comes to it with his own world? Can a novel belong to an nation that has stammered and lisped its agonies for decades and finds the novel’s murderous landscape as its very own? It seemed so at Kashmir’s first book launch and reading when Mirza Waheed read passages from his novel, The Collaborator. It was as if the novel belonged to everyone who had come there.

On a cold afternoon in Srinagar, Mirza’s measured voice floated in the silent hall packed with people as he recited the first chapter of his novel. For Mirza, it was an emotional day. “I had told my publisher that whatever you do for promotion of the book, I will do the novel’s maiden reading at home.” It was the reading at home and the lines between fiction and non-fiction blurred completely. Mirza might have conjured up the characters for his debut novel far away ‘in a Kashmiri corner of his London home’ but in Kashmir, his character’s were more than real. People greeted the passages with silence, tears and laughter. The listeners had lived what Mirza had written and almost everyone knew what he was talking about. They walked through the luminous liquid blue corridors conspired by the mountains in Waheed’s novel and stumbled over the elaborate litter of dead boys. Some of the people listening might have even known some of the dead.

That is why at a certain point during the reading, most of the people had their heads down and many were wiping off their tears. The boys that had been lost in the forgetful nooks of memory came alive as ghosts in the room when Mirza described the dead bodies at LOC. All Kashmiris have seen dead bodies, some only parts. A retired engineer sitting in the back row stood up sobbing and urged Mirza to stop. “Please, please, we can’t take it anymore. We can all read it individually, but it is too poignant for collective reading,” he said in a sobbing voice. But Mirza, after apologizing to the old man, finished the passage and when he stopped, even the applause was shrouded in silence.

Mirza was introduced by fellow Kashmir author and journalist, Basharat Peer, who also moderated the Q & A session.Between the readings, Mirza said that as a child he had been delusional to think that he would one day write a novel and today his delusions had come true. But on a more serious note, Mirza suggested that it was the lack of a Kashmiri narrative between several contesting narratives that helped him write the novel. “People from outside used to come and tell us who we are. They used to analyze us and even tell us what we think. I have serious problems with that literature and couldn’t go beyond a few pages of Lawrence’s, “Valley of Kashmir” finding it outrageously racist,” Mirza said.

The mood in the room lifted with a passage in which the narrator describes a distinct crackdown in his village where the Governor, ‘the King of Curfew visits, himself’. “But an even bigger surprise had been kept for the last: the Minister of Sport, the man who had been replaced by the Governor as the ruler of Kashmir, walked at the back, his black Karakuli towering above everyone else. The burly politico walked like an awkward giant, his whopping cherubic cheeks shaking like meat hung from a butchers hook.” Mirza had yet to finish his sentence when the whole room burst into laughter, heads were thrown back and even a few arms went flailing up. For them, the Minister of Sport was more than a imaginary character and they loved Mirza’s fictitious description of the real.

Mirza, half smiling, went back to the beginning of his book to read out that the book was a work of fiction and all the characters were author’s imagination. “I have a son. And I don’t want to be seditioned (booked for sedition).”

For a moment, the room looked like Bakhtain’s Carnival- reputations tossed up and then down- and people laughing around a fire in cold room.

A High Valley

A high valley

In a small houseboat on the Jehlum river in Srinagar, wafts of smoke float across a dimly lit room and Noori’s face glows brighter than the pale bulb hanging above. Her son always answers the knock on the window and Noori always sits in the same corner; the TV mumbles in the background and she always commands the visitors to turn to hers to have a better look of them.

“What do you want?” she asks in an unaffected tone, flicking the ash off her cigarette. Noori knows what brings people to her small unadorned houseboat; the sharp questioning is just part of her business.

Maal (Stuff). Tamouk (Tobacco). Phoul (Piece). The answers vary with the customers but they both know what she sells. Almost everyone around knows it too. Noori sells Charas (Hash); and for many years now, she has been in this room surrounded by polythene bags selling brown little stones in small packets.

“I don’t know you,” Noori says to a customer, opening her eyes a little wider. “Who are you?”

“I buy from you. There is nothing to worry,” the customer replies with a reassuring smile.

“Worry! What is there to worry about? I have been doing this all my life and there is nothing to worry. You shouldn’t talk like that,” Noori says, un-amused, her tone still unaffected, and her manner disconcerting.

For 300, she says. Noori doesn’t like to bargain, it irks her and also, she knows that her customers are usually desperate. Like people don’t bargain over medicine, addicts don’t bargain over their drug. They need it, it is written all over their face; and Noori with her big green eyes and 55 years behind her reads well.

Noori buys cheap in bulk. She buys for less than Rs 50 what she sells for Rs 300. The transportation is negligible and she receives about 3 customers a day. Business is good all through the year; even when protests and curfews stop life in Kashmir, she doesn’t do too badly, like pharmacists.

Untouched by the police, who sit in Kothibagh police station less than a kilometer away, Noori earns Rs 22000 a month, sitting at one place. People around Noori say that police get a cut off that money too, the price for being forgotten.

Like Noori, hundreds of charas sellers earn a quiet living in Kashmir right now and as the demand increases with more boys getting hooked on Charas, newer villages turn to these cash crops. And with an overwhelming demand for phuki from Punjab, South Kashmir, which has been home to hash and poppy cultivation in the valley, sees more people joining the trade and small dealers becoming big players. Encouraged by big money, lax police force and a negligible conviction rate under NDPS Act, more villages join the a high business blooms quietly in the valley.

In south Kashmir where Anantnag is the hub, Awantipora Tehsil is now growing as a big weed and poppy field. According to police, six villages have more than half of their population engaged in weed and poppy farming and as it reaps more profits than any other cultivation, people in the other villages are joining and the industry is getting bigger.

Kawini is a small village in Awantipora with vast empty fields and hundreds of families waiting for spring. Come spring and hundreds of thousands of weed plants will grow wild in the big fields and on the banks of several brooks of Jehlum that run through the village. And, a better quality will be grown in the gardens of the professional weed farmers as well.

“In a month from now, we will be busy harvesting Charas. Boys, men, women, all are there and we earn good money out of it. And it sells on day to day basis,” says Iqbal Yousuf, 22, a first year arts student.

Charas plants grow wild in the valley and harvesting isn’t hard. “It is a slow job in which the leaves are touched with hands and then rub together to collect the sticky dark cream on a paper. It is Attar, the best Charas, the cream.”

Attar (Scent) is soft, sticky, like a chewing gum and, it fetched Iqbal a lot of money last year. “A day’s work can fetch Rs 500. I and my brother harvested earned several thousand rupees,” he says. The other kind of charas is Garda (Dust). The fine damp powder made is placed in corn husk and then wound by a damp cloth making it look like sticks. “They are then put in the fire to prepare the Charas. It is easy,” he says.

The main income for Iqbal’s family, though, comes from poppy cultivation. His father’s poppy plants last season made more than two lakh rupees. “We don’t have much land and we would never make that much money with any other crop,” says Iqbal.

The poppy plants are like tulips, with their red and white heads waving in the spring breeze on entire strechs of land in Awantipora, Pulwama, Anantnag and other districts in South Kashmir. The plant gives both opium and phukki. With the police and Excise department in the valley talking about destruction of the poppy fields, the farmers have started to get more careful. “We now grow it in between other crops and spread it around,” says Iqbal. And also, police is just doing an eyewash, this thing wouldn’t happen unless they would let it be,” he adds.

Poppy has been grown in Kashmir for hundreds of years and used in the Unani medicine and its seed khashkhash is used in local bakery. “Permission is granted to people for growing poppy to use it for personal khashkhash use and also medicinal use but that is a small piece of land unlike what is happening,” says SP Awantipora, Irshad Ahmad.

For Iqbals family and others, it is good business also because they just have to collect the poppy heads and, the dealers take it on from there. The shadows of ‘dealers’ lingers over all these villages and as the business becomes more institutionalized, the dealers become more powerful. It is they who give the advance to the farmers and beat the gried heads into phukki and also transporting it to Punjab. The farmers last year sold a kilo of phuki for Rs 250 and the dealers for more than Rs 600.

“It is transported mostly in trucks with false roofs and false ceilings. Sometimes it gets caught, mostly it doesn’t,” says Ibrahim Ahmad, who was arrested for loading a phukki truck that was later caught on specific information. Ahmad was paid Rs 15000 for his job. “They had first put a layer of bajri (pebbles) in the truck and on that they had put several quintals of phukki and on top of that apples. All this was one to get the weight of the truck right so that no one would have any suspicion,” says Ahmad. IN the last year, Awantipora police has seized about 40 quintals of phukki and four kilos of charas. It is just the tip of the iceberg, not even the tip.

The biggest dealer in the area, the villagers say, is Feroz Ahmad Parray of Charoosa village and, here he is known as Feroz Don. Feroz has never been brought to the police station even though they know that he is the kingpin. In my four years here, there has been no FIR against him, nor has he been called here ever,” says a constable at the Awantipora police station. Feroz, in his late 40’s, has become wealthy over the years and his cousins have also joined the trade. “They have now opened a cricket bat factory as the face for their illegal money,” says Ahmad.

Police says that they can’t do much because everyone arrested under NDPS manages to get bail here. “The police is not doing enough to stop it and the judiciary is undoing whatever little the police is doing. The Excise department doesn’t do much at all,” says a police official from South Kashmir. “If we destroy 10 acres of poppy land, we leave 90 there. That is the way it is happening,” he says.

Officials from the Excise department say that police has a strong nexus with the drug dealers. “Often we are left to wait alone for many hours for the police to arrive on a raid,” says an Excise officer.

But between the blames and the silence, the dealers are becoming bigger everyday and the business is blossoming in an institutionalized manner. And far away, in Srinagar’s only drug de-addiction center, the queues are getting longer and longer for admission into the 10- bed detox center where teenage boys, middle aged men and old people try to get over their addiction. Doctors say that they begin with cannabis and reach multiple drugs. Like Asif Shafi, a 17 year old boy from Ganderbal, who was born two months before his police constable father was killed in an encounter and who smoked his first joint of weed and gobbled his first strip of sp at 12 on the same day when his mother remarried. There are many stories like Asif’s walking on streets in Kashmir and it is much easier and for the J-K police to blanket protestors and young boys in valley as addicts than close down Noori’s business or Feroz’s Don’s freedom.

A Killer on Loose

Last month when an Indian transport company owner was arrested in Fresno in California for beating his wife, a few old pages of loss and injustice ruffled in Kashmir. The accused, Avtar Singh, was charged with domestic violence in US after his wife testified against him but in Kashmir, several families had been waiting for many years for him to face trial in the murders of their sons, husbands and brothers. Singh was an officer of the Indian Army and is on the Interpol’s wanted list, accused of murder in Kashmir but like several times in the past, the Indian government did not make any serious attempt to extradite Singh.

With a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report indicting him of murder of a Kashmiri Human Rights Activist and a High court appearance order waiting against him in Srinagar, Singh managed to escape the bodies of justice by evading trial and fleeing to Canada and then US with, what people in Kashmir believe, the support of Army and MHA. Singh is also accused of exterminating all the evidences of Human Rights Activist’s murder.

Avtar Singh was a Major in Unit 35 of Rashtriya Rifles and posted in Srinagar in 1990’s where he was then known as ‘Bulbul’. Journalists who reported then knew him as a ‘tyrant’ and ‘a man drunk with power’. Singh was involved in counter-insurgency operations and posted in Rawalpora.

But in the spring of 1996, Singh, is believed to have tortured and murdered Jaleel Andrabi, a Human Rights activist. Andrabi, a lawyer, headed a group called Kashmir Jurists Group. In 1995, Andrabi had spoken at the UN Human rights Commission and was going to speak out again. It was 1996 and the word ‘Human rights’ was not liked much by Army, who either came down on irksome things themselves or asked the Ikhwanis, former militants who later switched sides and worked under the aegis of Indian Army. Together, they ruled Kashmir then and Andrabi, with his Human Rights talk, had made powerful enemies.

One evening in March, when Andrabi, 42, and his wife, Riffat, were returning home, their white Maruti car was intercepted by some Armymen and Ikhwanis. In February that year, Andrabi had been suspicious that his life was in danger and even took pictures of gunmen in civvies watching over his house. That evening on March 8, Andrabi was dragged out of the car and Riffat left behind who followed them in an auto only to see them speed away.

Riffat and Andrabi’s brother, Arshid, contacted the police who assured them that they would find him soon. A case of disappearance was registered six days later on March 14 under the directions of the high court and on March 18, a Special Investigation Team, heahed by an IPS officer, IK Misra, the then Srinagar Police chief, was formed under the order of the high court.

On March 27, Jalil Andrabi dead body was recovered from Jehlum river near Rajbagh. Andrabi’s body was in a burlap bag and his hands were tied behind him with a tent pitching rope and a stone had been tied to his body. He had been shot in the head and his eyes had been gouged out. There were visible marks of torture on his body and he been dead for a week at least.

After the body was found, there were massive demonstrations in valley and the SIT worked faster. They recovered the pictures Andrabi had taken of the gunmen roaming around his home but could not locate any of them. They then looked for Sikandar Ganai, another counter insurgent, who Arshid said, was following his brother.

On April 5, Police recovered five dead bodies on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, 5 kms from Pampore town. Four of them were surrendered militants and one of the dead bodies was identified as that of Sikander Ganaie, a surrendered militant who operated with 35 RR located in Budgam. Ganaie was the one SIT was looking for and his murder took out a link from solving the case. It then came out that the other dead counterinsurgents too lived in the campus of 35 RR Budgam. People who saw the bodies then said that the hands of the dead people were tied with pieces of rope.

Ganaie’s wife told police that she suspected Major Avtar Singh and another Ikhwani, Mohammad Ashraf Khan, of killing her husband. After great effort, the SIT managed to find Ashraf Khan. According to the SIT report, during interrogation, Ashraf Khan revealed that Major Avtar Singh along with Sikandar brought a person wearing coat, pants and tie into the camp. “Six persons namely Sultan, Balbir Singh, Doctor Vaid, Mushtaq and Hyder were also present there. Heated exchange of words (arguments) took place between Avtar Singh and apprehended person which irritated Avtar Singh and others. He was beaten and confined in a room,” the SIT report said. Ashraf said that after that, Avtar Singh came out in the lawn and asked him if he knew the person confined in the room and when he replied in negative, Major Avtar Singh told him that he is a leading advocate namely Jaleel Indrabi who propagates against army and assists militants and that is why he has been apprehended. “Because a person who maligns army and helped militants will not be forgiven. We will eliminate him,” Ashraf recounted Avtar Singh’s words to police. “On the same day during evening hours he heard hue and cry from the same room where Jalil Indrabi was kept. Thereafter, he saw army personnel loading a gunny bag in an army truck and left the camp. He found Avtar Singh in a demoralize state who told him that he had committed a mistake by killing Jalil Indrabi,” the report says.

Colonel B.S. Pundir, CO of 103 Battalion under whom Avtar Singh was serving told the SIT that in 1996, Singh was posted as Coy Commander D-Coy at Rawalpora, Srinagar carrying out anti terrorist operations. When Major Avtar Singh was questioned regarding the abduction and killing of Jalil Indrabi, he said that he had nothing to do with it and accused police of not investigating the case judiciously.

Singh then left Kashmir first for Punjab, and then fled India in 2005. He was first traced to Canada and later migrated to US where he ran a trucking business in Selma, Fresno County in California.

In 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir government has sought extradition of the alleged killer Major but the process never reached anywhere.

Jaleel Andrabi’s wife and brother have been waiting for the last 15 years for Singh to stand trial and Sikandar Ganie’s wife had to be put in a sanatorium in Rohtak when she couldn’t understand where her husband was killed by people he was working with. Four other counter insurgents whose pictures were taken by Andrabi disappeared for ever. Police officials who dealt with the case believed that Singh had exterminated all the people who could expose his role in the Andrabi murder. Only Ashraf survived and he has been in hiding for many years now expecting death for giving the statement incriminating Singh.

Andrabi’s family and other human right activists believe that Indian Army and Ministry of Home Affairs helped Singh flee India with a fake passport and also never tried for his extradition.

Now, with Amnesty International’s new statement urging India not to block way for Singh’s trial, it remains to be seen whether Singh will face trial for his all he stands accused of. Singh can refuse trial by a civil court and opt instead for trail by military court as he is protested by the AFSPA. But, it seems like a case of impunity beyond the AFSPA impunity where the serving officer of Indian Army is does not even face trial.

Maybe, once Singh comes within the domain of law, several more cases like that of Abdul Majid Shah re-surface. Shah’s body was found in the Jehlum river with a stone tied to him. Shah’s family believes that Singh hanged him to death for having a relationship with the younger sister of Singh’s then lover, who also became his wife for a while before he married another woman against whom he is charged of domestic abuse in US.