By Gulzar Bhat
Whenever an alley dog barks in the dead of night or a vehicle pulls off a road near her house in south Kashmir’s Shopian town, Hajra abruptly wakes up from her deep sleep and peeps through the weather–hit window of her mud house to check if her son has returned. Next morning, she narrates it to her husband who gives an earful with furrows deepening on his brow and thunders, “He won’t return now. Why does this not dawn on you? He must have died if not killed…” After that, a strange quiet falls on them for a few minutes and the septuagenarian couple is lost in the maze of thoughts, as if they lose consciousness. It is only after their young widow daughter-in- law enters the room that they come round.
Following the outbreak of insurgency in Kashmir in early 1990s, scores of youth of the valley joined the militant ranks en masse. Thousands sneaked into POK to receive arms training. During the fall of 1991, When the mighty Chinar trees, as Hajra recounts, of turmoil infested valley started shedding their leaves, her elder son, Javid Ahmad Gandroo(20), who was pursuing graduation in a local college was preparing for his exams . Arrayed in new black trousers and blue shirt, however, one afternoon, he left for the college but went missing. The family searched for him in every nook and corner of thbe town but got no trace of him. They, initially, suspected of him crossing the border along with other local boys to join the insurgent ranks. But, after a few months, the family got it confirmed from the local militant commanders as well as the police-who had already registered a missing report– that, he had not joined any militant outfit.
“Our life turned upside down. We lost everything with him. Sometimes I still feel as if he is sitting on the window sill dangling his sturdy legs and taking swigs of Nun Chai (salt tea) mixed with Sattu (roasted maize flour) from his tea mug,”says Hajra.
Hajra, who takes antidepressants, to keep herself emotionally stable, suffered a paralytic stroke after her son went missing amid the rat-a-tat of machine guns and scenes of violence and gore, witnessed by people here on daily basis then.
India’s public broadcasters – Doordarshan and the Radio – were the only sources of information in early nineties. The regional language bulletins aired by these two channels would mostly be mere reportage of violence and killings taking place across the valley. These bulletins were watched and listened by most of the valleyites and people always get their worst words from them. Hajra would also keep a watch of such bulletins -particularly listening to radio as the family did not own a TV set — with a pounding heart fearing that what if the news — reader suddenly read the name of her son among the dead.
“Although I stopped listening to news on radio after some time, how could I stop waiting for him?”, she asks forlornly.
For more than a decade, Hajra kept her son’s clothes safe —washed, ironed and neatly folded in her old wooden cabinet, hoping that, someday, he would come and wear these. In the whole world, Javid’s belongings were the only things that Hajra held dear to her heart. But, in 2005, when a devastating earthquake rattled either side of Kashmir on Line of Control (LOC), devouring thousands of souls and rendering many homeless, Hajra after hearing the poignant tales of survivors, stealthily donated her prized possession to them.
Javid shared a unique and special relation with his younger brother Showkat Ahmad (15 then). They, according to their father, were more friends than brothers. Showkat could not sleep a wink for many days after the disappearance of his older brother and there was a conspicuous change in his behavior.
“He was usually shy and calm but after this incident he started throwing tantrums,” said his father Ghulam Mohmmmad Gandroo, a retired class IV government employee.
Showkat slipped into depression and time failed to assuage his pain even after year’s altogether. On the insistence of some close relatives, Showkat got hitched in 2000 but the past remained etched on his memory.
He started falling for drugs. First he took sleeping pills then opioids and other types of psychotropic drugs. Soon he became a die-hard drug addict that finally took his life in October 2014, leaving behind his young wife and three children.
His wife Fahmida ekes out a living by working as sweeper in the government Sub District Hospital, Shopian, on paltry emoluments of Rs 2000 per month.
“We are living a hand to mouth life. It is way difficult to manage things on such a scanty income,” said Fahmida.
According to prominent Kashmir based Human Rights activist, on the condition of anonymity, “In conflict zones people, who went missing mysteriously, are rarely alive. Most of them got killed and their bodies are either interred in unknown locations clandestinely or even disposed off.”
This stands corroborated by the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission, which in 2011 conceded that 2,156 unidentified bodies are lying in mass graves across three districts of north Kashmir.
In the meanwhile, Hajra finds some peace and solace in her grand children and craves the attention of government.
(An abridged version of this article has recently appeared in The Hindu Business Line)
The author is a Fellow at the National Foundation for India , New Delhi. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org