Kulgam: In a small, typical rural house, Abdul Majeed Rather, a mason by profession, sits in one of the rooms – dingy, squeezed by its own weight. The visibly old, bony, bearded father of four smokes hookah, intermittently, while his relatives and neighbours sit around him. They are there to express solidarity for, what one of the visitors calls, a ‘long battle’ ahead.
Majeed’s younger son Muzaffar Ahmad Rather received a death sentence in a Bengal court earlier this month on January 21, shattering the family’s possibility of seeing their son, who had left as a 13-year-old in October 2002.
Muzaffar’s father and his brother Riyaz Ahmad are listening keenly at Khee, Jogipora village, in south Kashmir’s Kulgam to every suggestion from their relatives and locals who are pledging their support to the family in the room, provided by their neighbours – who also live in the same house – for Rather to host his visitors.
“He was just a kid, a teenager when he left. We fail to understand why he received such a sentence,” a family member says. “Even if he had crossed over and was carrying fake currency, as we are told, how can that invoke such a harsh punishment? And that after spending more than a decade in jail.”
Riyaz, a year elder to Muzaffar, said there is nothing unusual to remember of the time before his brother left home. “I saw him in school with his friends. Everything seemed normal. But one day I came back home, and he never did,” Riyaz said.
Muzaffar was a student of Class 8 at a local government school in the nearby Katroos village. His father said that he was even scared of going out of home for nature’s call in the evenings. “We always had to accompany him. But he was a bright student,” Majeed said.
The family has only one photograph of Muzaffar, with his mother. They claim they do not have any of his identity cards or school grade report. As a souvenir of their ‘lost child’, they show the picture and the missing person’s report that they filed in a local police station, nearly a month after Muzaffar had disappeared.
After their son did not come back home from school, the family tirelessly went from pillar to post, looking for the boy. For a month, they went to different villages, to their relatives, and tried to find him in the city, more than 60 km away. To no avail.
“We finally filed a missing report in the police station, thinking someone might have picked him up,” Majeed recalled.
Five years later, in 2007, a village head (numberdar) came to their house and delivered news of their son. Young Muzaffar was arrested while crossing the India-Bangladesh border. He had allegedly entered into militant ranks of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). He was caught along with two other men, Mohammad Younis and Abdullah, both from Pakistan.
Back home, when the family heard about their son, they decided to visit him. “We read the newspapers and decided to go,” Riyaz said. The biggest trouble of the family, which still persists, was that they were ‘poor and clueless’.
In the last decade, the family managed to visit their jailed son only a few times. “We are poor and cannot afford frequent travelling,” Riyaz said.
The neighbours and relatives said they are ‘pained’ to see Majeed working at this age. “But I have to. To survive,” Majeed pointed out.
After Muzaffar left, Riyaz worked hard to study while his father ran the household. Riyaz completed his Master’s in Physical Education and ended up as a private school teacher for a monthly salary of about Rs 3,200, with an education loan as liability.
As soon as they learned about Muzaffar’s whereabouts, the family went to their local MLA, who provided them with a letter directed to the jail authorities. The expenses were managed, Majeed said, and he and his wife and his father-in-law travelled to West Bengal.
“I could not recognise him at first. Someone had to point him out for me,” Majeed said.
Muzaffar waved at his family from a distance. “He was inside a cage. I glanced at him from inside a small space, through the nets,” Majeed said.
Last month, Muzaffar had called his family and asked them to visit Kolkata. “He was hopeful he may be released, so he told us to arrange for his return,” Riyaz said. They had even booked tickets for the travel.
The case hearings continued till January 21, when Judge Binoy Pathak sentenced the accused to the gallows, on charges of ‘waging war against the state’.
As soon as the news of the death sentence reached the village, locals ‘pledged their support’ and have since been collecting money for the legal defence of Muzaffar. Several youth in Khee village carry pamphlets of a local committee, duly attested by a village head, seeking funds for the defence of the convict. “We are doing our part and collecting funds so that the family can appeal in a higher court,” one of the youths told Reader.
So far, the state has executed two Kashmiris – Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru – for murder and waging war against Indian state in 1984 and 2013, respectively.
Even as Muzaffar’s family pleads for help and legal counsel, the death sentence to Muzaffar has invoked condemnation from both pro-India political parties and the pro-freedom leaders in Kashmir. The opposition National Conference (NC) has urged the state government to take ‘all necessary steps to ensure’ that the family can avail the best legal help. Also, both the factions of Hurriyat Conference have claimed that they will provide necessary help to the family. A family member told Reader that Hurriyat’s Mushtaq ul Islam has taken up the case and will provide required legal help to the family.
Meanwhile, keeping their fingers crossed, the family is scheduled to visit Muzaffar in the coming days. The train tickets are booked for February 2. After procuring the text of the judgment and other necessary documents, the family is planning to hire another lawyer to appeal in the High Court in Muzaffar’s defence.
– With Shafat Mir