Suhail A. Shah
Anantnag: On a pleasant day in August 1992 – August 7 to be precise – forty-one armed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants boarded a bus in Rampora village of Kulgam district, their destination the neighbouring Hawoora village.
No, they were not setting forth to carry out an attack. They were, in fact, in the best of their attire, wearing nice perfumes, their laughter filling the bus with an air of festivity.
Festivity it was, or they would not have risked a ride together at the peak of the ‘guerilla-war’ in the Kashmir Valley.
One among them was getting married, and the group was on its way to bring back his bride.
The groom was 21-year-old Muhammad Ibrahim Sheikh, son of a farmer named Ghulam Hassan. He was getting married to his paternal cousin, his aunt’s daughter, Shehnaza Bano.
Bano, a starry-eyed 18-year-old, awaited the procession, her heart aflutter at the prospect of spending her life with a person she knew so well to be the gentleman he was.
Despite her tender age, Bano did comprehend the perils of marrying a militant. She had her fingers crossed nevertheless.
Fate had it that the foreboding she, and everybody else, had about the marriage came true.
Two marriages, five kids, five funerals and years of melancholy later, a frail, ever-smiling Bano is fighting it out valiantly.
And, most importantly, she does not regret anything life has thrown at her.
Ibrahim Sheikh was the first male child of Hassan and Mubeena, born after their daughters Naseema and Rafeeqa.
Though the couple went on to have ten children together, the decision of giving up one to fight for Kashmir’s freedom “was as difficult as it would have been if Ibrahim was our only son” says his mother.
“We decided against all odds and despite all the love we had for our son to let him go in the way of Allah and fight for the freedom of Kashmir,” Mubeena, now 85 years old, says with a toothless smile, wrinkles crisscrossing her sun-beaten face.
Hassan, despite knowing what now lay ahead for his son, was keen to get him married.
Fingers crossed, he approached his younger sister Sara to ask for Bano’s hand for his beloved first son.
Not many would have married off their daughter to an active militant. But Sara thought otherwise.
“She held that Ibrahim was fighting for a noble cause, and if she, Ibrahim’s aunt, would not agree to give him her daughter, who else would?” Bano recounts with that effervescent smile, her eyes lit with a spark which would have been brighter at the time she now recalls.
And so the union.
The customary seventh day in Kashmiri marriages is called satraath and marks the time when the bride is to be taken for a few days to her mother’s home. It was also attended by armed militants at the Sheikh household.
The house, Bano says, was filled with gun-toting, bearded youth who made merry and teased her husband because his beloved was to be taken away from him for a while.
The festivities settled, and the realities of the life Bano had chosen started to dawn, not in haste, but one after another.
The next few years flew in a daze.
Every firing incident, every crackdown, every raid by government forces on their home left Bano deeply worried for her husband.
Ibrahim’s visits home were always short for the risk of being spotted by government forces always loomed large.
The couple made arrangements; they met at hideouts, promising each other to be loyal, to stand by one another till the very end.
The end, however, though neither knew it then, was very near.
Before it came, the couple had their share of joy. Bano became the mother of a healthy baby girl, and the couple, in all their love, named the baby Henna.
In May 1996, Bano was visiting her mother in Hawoora, nursing another pregnancy. A few weeks later, on May 16, Ibrahim was killed in an ambush by government forces.
He was gunned down outside Rampura village, minutes after visiting his parents.
“I had not seen him for eleven days,” says Bano, adding that she had felt restless at her mother’s home.
She had a hunch something bad might happen, and her worst fears did come true.
She does not recall what unfolded after the news reached her. She was in the ninth month of her pregnancy, and the shock of her husband’s death was too numbing to remember much detail.
Moreover, she had to be hospitalised the very next day when she delivered a baby boy, a child who would not have the privilege of ever meeting his father.
“Ibrahim was killed on Thursday, and on Friday, Salman was born,” Bano says.
Fate so had it, she laments, that Ibrahim missed him by a day.
“Ibrahim could not see Salman, and Salman became an orphan before he was born,” Bano recounts while she peels farm potatoes for the children’s dinner.
“Salman loves potatoes,” she smiles.
Ibrahim’s becoming a militant and his subsequent killing were not and could not have been events in isolation.
His family was left devastated. Ibrahim’s death put in process a chain of events that would scar them forever.
“To allow Ibrahim to join the militants was a conscious decision. But what followed was beyond our control,” says Mubeena.
While Ibrahim was alive, the family says, his younger brothers, Abbas and Ashraf, were regularly harassed and tortured by government forces, Ashraf in particular.
Regular raids were conducted, and the brothers were constantly detained for ‘militant links’.
Ashraf, a farmer like his father, tried hard to give his devastated family a chance of survival after Ibrahim’s killing. But his plans were not to be. One day, several months after Ibrahim’s departure, Ashraf was picked up and sent to Kot Balwal Jail in Jammu.
While Ashraf served detention, his paternal cousin Shabir Ahmad Sheikh, inspired by Ibrahim, chose to join the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, in a way replacing Ibrahim.
Shabir – son of Hassan’s elder brother Jalal-ud-Din – lived in the same compound as Hassan’s family.
“He was not insulated from whatever happened in the extended family and finally decided to pick up arms,” Mubeena says.
Shabir’s tryst however was short–lived; he was killed in 1997, a few months after he picked up arms, and is survived by his wife and a daughter.
Ashraf and Bano
Ashraf never went to school. In the worldly sense, he was an illiterate man.
“He was a self-taught man,” says Bano.
There was not one religious text that Ashraf had not read. He was deeply religious and had an immense and extensive knowledge of Islam, adds Bano.
Ashraf was still in jail, and Bano had decided she would dedicate her life to bringing up her children.
She was working hard, doing odd jobs around her home and in the field to educate and feed her children, “of course with the constant support of my in-laws”.
Bano was too devastated by Ibrahim’s killing to have even a thought of a second marriage.
But Ashraf felt otherwise. While in Kot Balwal, he kept writing to his parents about his intention to marry Bano whenever he was released.
“I did not know about that. I came to know it later,” Bano blushes.
Ashraf was released from detention in 2000, and married Bano the same year, on June 10, with a promise that Henna and Salman would always be his priorities.
And, to Bano, Ashraf proved to be the husband every woman prays for.
Bano recalls that, for Ashraf, Henna and Salman indeed were and remained the priority. He would kiss them on their heads each day, telling Bano that they were the light of his eyes and the life of their home.
Ashraf also loved and respected Bano immensely.
In Kashmir, offering someone your back cushion while they sit is a mark of deep respect.
“And that is what he did every time I sat after my errands around the house,” says Bano.
Bano recalls that Ashraf respected her deeply for two reasons: one, she was elder to him and, second, he always said that the Prophet (PBUH) has taught Muslims to respect their wives.
“He treated me like our Prophet (PBUH) would have treated Khadijah, and I am proud of it,” Bano says.
Bano and Ashraf had three kids together – Zeeshan, now 14, Asra, 12, and 8-year-old Ifham.
Life looked sorted now for Bano, but it was not to be. Destiny had more heartache in store.
The Extended Family
Hassan had married off his sisters and daughters into well-to-do families, taking utmost care for them to face no hardships.
But his own family’s misfortunes caught up with the families of his sisters and daughters.
His younger daughter Rafeeqa was married into an orchardist’s family from Hawoora, the village Bano came from.
Rafeeqa’s in-laws too were not insulated from the Valley uprising. They had already seen the killing of their son, Mohammad Maqbool.
“Maqbool too had joined the militants and he was killed soon after. But that was long ago, we do not even remember when,” says Rafeeqa, now in her late 40s.
Rafeeqa’s jolly nature transcends the fact that she has not remained aloof from bloodshed and agony in either her mother’s home or her in-laws’.
Her youngest son, Asif-ul-Islam, picked up arms when militancy in the Valley was at its lowest ebb, in 2007.
“I could not stop him. He did not give me the time to stop him. He just left, leaving me distraught,” Rafeeqa says.
Asif was killed in Banihal area the same year he picked up arms, during a gunfight with forces.
A granary near Rafeeqa’s double-storied house has a sign saying: ‘Shaheed Asif-ul-Islam Chowk’.
Hassan’s sister Taja, who was married in Waghama area of Anantnag, has also lost a militant son, Abdul Hameed Thoker, somewhere around 2005.
Despite the militancy, subsequent killings and “harassment by government forces”, Bano and Ashraf were somehow trying to build their life together.
“But the torture, the humiliation and the detentions never stopped for Ashraf,” says Bano. “Every now and then, he was picked up and was tortured,”
Bano recalls how Ashraf’s nails were plucked out by government forces, and the upper wall of his mouth was smashed by a sharp object.
“They accused him of being a militant sympathiser. I don’t deny the charge. In fact he was a Mujahid since he was 16, the only difference being he picked up arms much later,” says Bano.
Unable to bear the almost daily ‘humiliation and torture’, and the fact that militancy in Kulgam had been wiped out by then, Ashraf decided one day to pick up arms.
Bano by now had gained some rationality, she says.
She tried to reason with Ashraf, wanting him to see how they had a beautiful family and how he should not blow it all apart now that things were slowly coming on track.
Ashraf was adamant, and Bano somehow understood his conviction.
Ashraf picked up arms in 2009, at a time when Kulgam district had no other active militant.
“In fact, he did not pick up arms, he actually bought a gun for Rs. 1,20,000, some of which he arranged from his savings and some he borrowed,” recalls Bano.
As per Bano, Ashraf associated himself with the Lashkar-e-Toiba and vowed to revive militancy in Kashmir. He was in close touch with a limited number of militants operating mostly from North Kashmir.
But Ashraf could last only 40 days after picking up arms.
Late in the evening on Valentine’s Day, 2009, Bano went to meet Ashraf at a hiding place for only the second time since he took up arms.
The couple had a long conversation on life, their kids and what the future might have in store for them.
He asked Bano about the number of years they had been married and marvelled when she said it had been nine.
“It’s a long time, Bano,” Ashraf told her.
Bano feels Ashraf had sensed that his hour had come, for he asked her to take good care of the children.
The next morning, Ashraf was killed in a gunfight with government forces in Thokerpora village of Kulgam district, leaving Bano widowed again.
“Even on his death bed, his plucked-out nails had not healed,” says Bano.
Ironically, Bano was pregnant this time as well. Some three months after Ashraf’s killing, Ifham was born.
Ifham too, like his half brother Salman, was deprived of even a meeting with his father. He too was born an orphan.
Even Ashraf’s killing did not bring any respite for the Sheikh family.
“The torture and harassment continued. That is why I say we only chose to give Ibrahim. Others have been snatched from us,” says Mubeena.
After Ashraf’s killing, government forces came for Abbas, a tailor by profession.
Abbas is married to Rasheeda and has four children, three boys and a girl.
“We were trying to lead a normal life amid the mayhem our lives had turned into,” Rasheeda said. “But the government forces did not want us to.”
Abbas, as per the family, was constantly picked up for the same reasons as his brother.
The family alleges that one police officer after another kept visiting and harassing them, particularly Abbas, who ultimately gave up and turned to militancy.
One night in 2016, the forces came and tried to take him away. He managed to escape and has not returned since, recalls Rasheeda.
Abbas is an active Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant now and rarely visits home. Responsibility for the children and other family matters are now Rasheeda’s concern.
Rasheeda belongs to the same village, Rampura, but rarely visits her mother’s family.
“Abbas has left me some responsibilities, and I have to fulfil them,” she says.
Asked if she fears for her husband’s well-being, Rasheeda nods her head.
“But I want him to be victorious,” she says.
Another boy from the extended family, Hassan’s eldest daughter Naseema’s son Tawseef Sheikh, has also joined the militancy. Tawseef too is associated with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen as of now.
Abbas’s youngest brother Muhammad Ilyas Sheikh and his uncle Mohammad Ramzan are serving detention under various cases of waging war against the state.
While the men of the clan have time and again chosen to give up family life and fight the government forces, the women are keeping the families intact.
Mubeena, Rasheeda and Bano are working their hearts out to educate the family’s young ones.
The love the women have for each other and their families is evident from how they talk about one another.
Mubeena and Rasheeda are worried for Bano’s well-being.
“The poor soul has borne too much at a very young age. My heart aches at the sight of her,” says Mubeena.
Bano, who lives with her children in a house next to her in-laws, says her heart bleeds at the sight of her mother-in-law and Rasheeda.
“I have come to terms with my fate, but my heart is wrenched at the sight of my mother-in-law. She has lost two sons, and another is in the war zone. I cannot bear the sight of her sad face,” says Bano.
She cries as she talks about Rasheeda, who has been separated from her husband and stares at a fate very similar to Bano’s.
Bano has finished peeling the potatoes by now. She excuses herself to cook dinner for her children.